Alfie Evans was a British citizen who died last Saturday, April 28, at just under two years of age, after an extended period of treatment for a neurological condition afflicting his brain. What do the events of his brief life tell us about the world we live in and how Christians should engage it?
Before we go further, I should admit that this blog post is afflicted by an interpretive issue that arises repeatedly in the letters of Paul (which I read a lot), the ambiguity of the pronoun “we.” To what group of which the speaker is a member does the pronoun refer? In Paul’s case, the possibilities include Jews, Jewish Christians, Christians without regard to ethnicity, apostles of Christ, and human beings, and in some passages it affects the meaning considerably which of those groups we take Paul to be referring to when he writes “we.”
In my case, the options include Christians in general, members specifically of Churches of Christ, seminary faculty, Austinites, Texans, Americans, Westerners, speakers of English, and procrastinators. (That last is the least flattering category to which I belong that I’ll mention.) The answer to the question to which of those groups the “We” in my title refers is (I think) some combination of Christians, members of Churches of Christ, Americans, and Westerners; perhaps that will become clearer as the post proceeds. (If it ever begins!)
So: Where are “we” when government officials (1) prevent a child’s parents from seeking a cure for the life-threatening condition that afflicts him by accepting assistance offered by others, at no cost to the government making the order; (2) deny the child food, water, and a respirator while the matter is considered in the courts; and (3) warn citizens that social media postings critical of these decisions “are being monitored and may be acted upon”? Might we suppose that we’re in Soviet Russia or Communist China, or some other country that suffers under an authoritarian regime with no culture of respect for vulnerable human life? As the links indicate, the answer to the question is in fact “present-day Britain.”
The case would be heartbreaking had no government been involved, and it is unlikely that any treatment would have saved the child from a mysterious neurological condition affecting his brain that left him in a “semi-vegetative state” for the preceding year. But to deny parents the attempt, to insist that the child remain in a hospital where no treatment would be administered, and to refuse the assistance offered by the Vatican and the Italian government seems peremptory; and to deny the child food, water, and oxygen while the court case proceeds was simply inhumane.
This was the treatment accorded a sick child and his parents in a nation whose sovereign, at last notice, is officially styled a “defender of the faith.” At least until the next monarch of the United Kingdom is crowned, that’s the Christian faith, the religion that found characteristic social expression in the hospital and made care of the vulnerable and cure of the sick a priority, a continuation of Jesus’ own ministry of healing. And if an American chauvinist reviewing the Evans case should think, “That couldn’t happen here,” a Google search for “Terri Schiavo” will summon some uncomfortably similar facts.
Social and convictional change is a mark of our era; some changes are beneficial, others not. A recent Pew poll found that, while 80% of Americans say they “believe in God,” only 56% profess belief in God “as described in the Bible,” versus 33% of respondents who believe in a “higher power/spiritual force” distinct from the biblical God and 10% who “do not believe in any higher power or spiritual force.” (Biblical faith polls even lower throughout Europe and in the UK.) One wonders whether a decline in biblical faith may not have some correlation with a diminishing solicitude for the vulnerable.
The psalmist’s warning “Put not your trust in princes” (Ps. 143:6 RSV) has application also to prime ministers, presidents, legislators, judges, and police forces. Churches in America, which G. K. Chesterton once described as “a nation with the soul of a church,” have gotten in the habit of relying on American institutions to prop up significant elements of a Christian ethos. Rod Dreher and Patrick Deneen, among others, warn us that the days are past when Christians could confidently outsource cultural and personal formation to American schools and city councils and courts and legislatures (leaving aside the question whether doing so was ever prudent).
Churches and Christian leaders and teachers must shoulder the difficult burden of forming consciences in conformity with the gospel, which requires speaking and acting to oppose injustice when we encounter it, as Christians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries organized to oppose slavery. More significant than the question “Where are we?” are the questions “Who are we, and whose are we, and what witness must we thus bear?”