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  • Peter Carnley


Updated: Aug 13, 2019





In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Today we are celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, even though this Feast actually falls on 6 August each year, next Tuesday. So today by anticipation our attention is focused on that somewhat strange story in which Jesus is said to have been on a mountain, when he was enveloped in a kind if misty light, signifying the presence of God, and out of the cloud in which his raiment was said to have shone in reflected light, a voice was heard to say: “This is my beloved Son, listen to him”

If readers of the Gospel have any doubt or question about the identity of the one who was said to have healing powers, and to have taught with a divine authority, then this story puts him in a clearer light. And its placing immediately before the looming passion narrative, is probably meant to re-assure us: even though Jesus is about to suffer and die at the hands of his enemies, this story declares that this is God’s own beloved son, whose voice is to be heeded. It is as if we are being assured that, despite everything that is about to happen to Jesus, all will ultimately be well.

Indeed, some have said that this particular story is itself really an Easter story. It is a story that in the process of the transmission of the traditions about Jesus, has got misplaced. The first Gospel, St Mark, was written around 65 AD, a full thirty years after Jesus’ death. The stories about him could easily have got jumbled up in this long period of oral transmission. That this is an Easter story is suggested by the Easter allusions at the end of the story, and by fact that, in Paul’s accounts of his Damascus Road experience (which he repeats three of times in the Book of Acts – in chapters 9, 22, and again in chapter 29), Paul reported an experience of a light and a voice. So the transfiguring light, reflected from the cloudy mist, that made Jesus’ raiment shine as if in heavenly glory, could signal the Easter dawn. In any event, we are being made aware of the significance of Jesus as the agent of the transfiguring light of God in the world. We are called to hear him.

* * * * * * *

Not all bright lights, however, are to be interpreted as tokens of the presence of the divine. It so happens that on the Feast of the Transfiguration, 6 August, we will also be remembering that rather more sinister mighty flash of light that signalled the destruction of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. That was certainly a super-powerful, transfiguring light, even if in a horrendously disfiguring kind of way. No divine voice was heard from out of the mushroom-shaped cloud that accompanied that light, at least not at the time. Some 16 hours after it Harry Truman counted the cost: “We may be grateful to Providence", he said, that the United States and its allies had "spent two billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history—and won". Japan counted the cost in another currency: two hundred and thirty thousand (mostly civilian} Japanese lives were lost.

in the more sober light of history, and now well knowing that the transfiguring flash of Hiroshima ended not with a bang but with a wimper, we hear the persistent voice of conscience in on-going ethical debates about whether it was really necessary. Germany had already surrendered and Japan was on its boot straps. Whether it really brought the war to a more speedy end and thus saved allied lives has to be weighed against the magnitude of numbers of Japansese lives lost. Certainly, I think we are all agreed that, with an ear to the voice of God today, we do not want to see anything like it again. And so we are a little jumpy when Donald Trump threatens with bravado to wipe out North Korea or Iran with a fury that has never been seen before on the face of the earth if they are not benignly complaint.[1] And while none of us wants to see the proliferation of nuclear weapons, there is just something uncomfortably inconsistent about the argument that America, Russia, India and Israel can have nuclear weapons and threaten to use them, while insisting that other nations cannot. I guess, as far as we are all concerned, the prospect of the transfiguration of the entire world by a mighty flash of nuclear light is something that is out of our control. We can only cross our fingers and hope for the best as we pray for human unity and peace, and that good sense will ultimately prevail.

* * * * * * *

The transfiguration of our world, not for good, but for ill, may happen, however, in more subtle and less obtrusive ways, not with a bang, but as something that may creep up on us, right under our noses, without our knowing it. Here in the Western Australian Parliament, also next Tuesday, 6 August, a Bill is due to be introduced which will trigger a public debate about whether to legalize euthanasia, or “voluntary assisted dying” as the proponents refer to it. This is often presented as the enlightened way to go in the treatment of people who are suffering from a terminal disease and who face the prospect of death within the coming 12 months and who judge that their lives are “no longer worth living.” Indeed, the Premier who appears to be doing a good job, has referred to this as a “progressive” piece of legislation.

Alas, others of us see it in a different light. If I am to put my cards on the table, I myself think that the medical option that is already currently available, the provision of universally available palliative care to ensure the alleviation of pain, and at the end, deep sedation to ensure an easy pain-free death, is the way to go. I am gratified that the majority of medical professionals, represented by the AMA, are firmly against voluntary assisted dying, which, properly speaking, should really be referred to as voluntary assisted suicide. Given that the primary intention is not the alleviation of pain in the natural process of dying, but actually to cause a death, it is a form of suicide. We would do well to be candid and avoid euphemisms, because there is a danger that the legalization of voluntary assisted dying even in specific restricted circumstances, will encourage the incidence of suicide in the community more generally, as indicated already by evidence coming from The Netherlands and the State of Oregon in USA. Thus, it will begin, ever so subtly, to transfigure our society almost without our knowing it, by weakening our hold both on the value of the sanctity of life and the medical importance of the will to live.

There are two basic arguments in favour of the legalization of assisted suicide. The first is that individuals should be able to exercise autonomy over their own lives. Even if they require medical assistance, they should be able to choose the time and place of their own death. Granted that suicide is normally to be discouraged, in certain conditions, and with certain controls, individuals should be able to choose suicide. Whether appeal to individual autonomy can justify a right to assistance to achieve this end, however, is another matter. Who would think it right, for example, to assist a person to become a drug addict by helping them to inject illicit life-threatening drugs, simply on the basis that they wanted to exercise autonomy over their own lives? I doubt if anybody would. Something more than an appeal to individual autonomy is needed for the argument to hold water.

It seems that the real reason, has little to do with the exercise of autonomy. Rather, people want to be able to get assistance to end their own lives because they judge that their lives are, or are going to be, “no longer worth living.” This is based on the fear of protracted pain at the end, a fear that I suspect is greatly exaggerated by those who support this measure, given the huge recent advances in the development of pain killing drugs and the use of palliative sedation as a last resort. But the real problem with the “life is not worth living” argument is that once it is used to justify the ending of the life of a person suffering with a terminal disease (even up to 12 months before the possible onset of unbearable pain), then it can be extended to cover the mentally retarded, those suffering dementia who no longer know who they are, the depressed, and so on. Life may be judged to be “no longer worth living” in all sorts of circumstances.

It is sobering to me to note that next year will actually mark the centenary of the “life is not worth living” argument. It effectively had its beginning in 1920 when a poll of medical practitioners in Germany found that the large majority of them sincerely judged that “life was not worth living” in relation to what were termed at the time “imbecile children;” in other words, severely mentally retarded children. Those of you who have seen the film Never Look Away, that is currently in the cinemas, will know that within 20 years, that German medical judgment was being extended to adults suffering even relatively mild mental disease. Those who have not yet seen it need to be prepared for the first 30 minutes of very confronting footage of the fate of a young woman suffering with schizophrenia. Indeed, it was not long before the “life is not worthy living” argument was being extended to the unproductive, and the socially unwanted, and even, as the film Never Look Away makes frighteningly clear, any sick people occupying hospital beds that were needed for wounded German soldiers.

We have to beware of using the “life is not worth living” argument to bolster the slippery slope argument: it is unlikely that what happened in Nazi Germany between 1920 and 1940 might happen here. But the fact is that, the “life is not worth living” argument was wrong then and it remains wrong now. It is just a iittle uncomfortable to be appealing to it in Western Australia in 2019.

On the other hand, few seem to be concerned that the legalization of voluntary assisted suicide, will have on the transfiguration of the medical profession so that we see it in a changed and slightly sinister light. Up till now, for many centuries the medical profession has been bound by the Hippocratic oath to alleviate pain and the protect and save life. We all have a basic trust in the medical profession as a result. The question is, will the regular practice of assisting in suicides, subtly undermine this basic community trust? In the Netherlands where euthanasia has been legal for the last 17 years, there has been a committee of review called the Remmelink Committee, which polled Dutch doctors in 1990 and again in 1995, about whether they would judge a patient’s life “not to be worth living” and assist in their death, even without their consent. In both 1990 and 1995 a majority of Dutch doctors said they would. I have not been able to find results of polls since. It may be that the polling has been discontinued as too embarrassing. In any event, my point is: what does this do to the transfiguration of the medical profession and the trust we place in medical pratitioners, and their standing in the community? To make things worse, the proposed Western Australian legislation requires doctors, even if they do not wish to be involved in assisted suicide, to refer patients on to another doctor who will. As one doctor who is regularly involved in the care of terminally ill patients, has recently said to me, this means they will be made to this degree compulsorily complicit, whether they like it or not.

So we do not need a nuclear flash to effect the transfiguration of society. Subtle changes can creep up on us, quietly, and even with the consent of the unthinking majority, but not necessarily for the good. It is said that 80% of Western Australians are in favour of the legalization of assisted suicide, but I wonder how many will have thought through the issues and attendant dangers.

There is, however, some good news: Statistics from the few places where assisted suicide is already legalized – The Netherlands, Belgium, and the States of Oregon and Washington in USA – show that a large proportion of those who seek voluntary assisted suicide, do not in the end go through with it. It is said that the knowledge that they can if they want is enough, and I suspect that experience shows that palliative care and modern pain killers are found to be adequate in the majority of cases.

Then there is the good news of the Transfiguration: that it is always possible, with an ear to the still small voice of God, to live lives of love and neighbourly care, to protect the weak and the vulnerable, and those whose lives might be judged to be “not worth living,” and, even in amongst the potentially destructive confusion of the world and its moral debates, to see things in a different light.

[1] I note that in 1945 after Hiroshima Truman then warned Japan: "If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”

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