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When public debate ignores right and wrong

04 May 2021 By David Guretzki

Can Gospel truth be heard on euthanasia?

This spring I looked at how opinion columnists have been writing about Bill C-7, the new federal legislation that expands medical assistance in dying to those with physical and mental disabilities. What moral reasoning did columnists use to support or oppose the bill?

My discoveries both surprised and didn’t surprise me.

Out of 24 columns from last year in three national newspapers, not a single columnist referenced God, the Bible or any other religious or theological principle to make their case either for or against the bill. No surprise there.

It would be unrealistic to expect religious or biblical language in public debate in a post-Christian, secular nation. A great many Canadians have agreed for some time now that religious views are to be privately held and not publicly imposed. Whether we agree or not, that’s the way most Canadians think.

What did surprise me was that no one was actually making a moral argument, for or against, euthanasia at all.

I searched for public debate on the morality of euthanasia and discovered my research question was moot.

Instead columnists argued whether the new legislation was constitutional, if it upheld or denigrated human dignity, whether it supported or limited human choice and autonomy, or even if assisted death was a human right.

Not once did a columnist ask, "But is it right? Is it morally acceptable?"

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Of course, whether a bill is constitutional or violates autonomy, dignity or rights are all questions that have a moral edge. It’s not that the debate had no moral dimension. It’s more that the debaters took care to avoid traditional moral categories of right and wrong.

Why didn’t a single columnist ask, even politely as Canadians do, at least one more time, whether this thing called MAiD is right or wrong in the first place?

I lament we have come to this place in our society – where even in a life-and-death debate almost no one in the public square is mulling aloud the possible relevance of any universal moral norms. What does this mean for those of us who still believe in divine moral norms?

I think a deep rift has opened between concepts of law and gospel, especially among Protestants.

We tend to focus on the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension to God’s right hand. That’s the gospel side. But we tend to downplay the law side of the equation, the delineation of God’s holy moral expectations. Why?

Part of the confusion arises from forgetting that the gospel Jesus revealed was the announcement of the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ Good News, in other words, is that God is creator and ruler over heaven and earth. Seeking God’s reign has first priority over all else (Matthew 6:10, 33).

Like Jesus modelled, let’s start asking good questions. What do you believe? Do you think this is right?

This means the gospel of God’s Kingdom is not opposed to law, but actually contains within it the law of God – the divine norms and standards which are not just good for Christians, but for adherents of all faiths or no faith across our planet. The gospel of the Kingdom and its law is good for everyone.

The challenge the Church faces in a post-Christian and increasingly post-moral era is to discern how to announce the Good News into public spaces where Christian or religious language is largely discouraged.

Perhaps we need to borrow a couple of pages from Jesus’ playbook. First, let’s pray continuously, "Your Kingdom come, your will be done." And second, like Jesus modelled, let’s start asking good questions. What do you believe? Do you think this is right? What do you think is the greatest law that guides this decision? Why do you think that?

Whether we find ourselves on school boards, town councils, community associations or even in a political office, we need to find ways to speak into public debate, respectfully, on the terms and rules presupposed in the public square while also allowing the Spirit to guide our words (Luke 12:12). We need to subvert, question and redefine the rules of that game in ways that align with Jesus’ Kingdom of peace, righteousness, justice and of course, love.

Let’s not kid ourselves. This won’t be easy. Lobbing or whispering Christian language into the public arena is already against the unwritten rules of Canadian civility. It likely won’t work. But failing to ask deep questions about right and wrong is definitely not working. God, give us the courage to do just that.

David Guretzki of Ottawa is executive publisher of Faith Today and serves The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada as executive vice-president and resident theologian.

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