Euthanasia is the act or practice of killing someone who is very sick or injured in order to prevent further suffering. Some call it “mercy killing.”
Usually it involves a decision made by someone who has the power to deliver the action, but euthanasia can be carried out by omission as well as by commission.
This is in contrast to assisted suicide, which is about providing the means, such as drugs or tools, by which someone can take their own life.
Both have political, religious and economic implications.
Organizations that support these practices have catchy names that tend to lure one to listen to their pitch.
For instance, “Compassion and Choices” and “Death with Dignity” are groups that have redefined the biblical view of compassion.
Choosing death over living out a season of suffering is about “having what I want when I want it.”
It is about control of a materialistic view of existence. It does force persons to re-evaluate whether their reason for living is big enough to prepare them for dying.
When euthanasia is “operationalized,” someone has the means to carry out the death and also becomes the agent of the death. The agent can be active or passive in deeds.
In active euthanasia, the disease process or injury is not the cause of death. Mercy killing is active commission of euthanasia.
In passive euthanasia, the death is caused by withholding available, life-sustaining resources, with the cause of death being the disease process.
It is an omission of the means to keep someone alive – withholding nutrition, such as a feeding tube, for example.
This is an increasingly important conversation, as older persons are consuming a high volume of medical resources, which are allocated with creative language, pricing, coding and eligibility games.
The economics of euthanasia gets discussed discreetly in political and cultural circles. After all, there is a market for harvesting organs of euthanasia and assisted suicide.
But there are hidden forms of euthanasia taking place, as Pope Francis discussed last fall.
He warned against the abandonment and neglect of the elderly, calling it a “hidden euthanasia” rooted in today’s “poisonous” culture of disposal and an economic system of greed.
Passive euthanasia can be hidden in many ways. Physical starvation is easy to understand and address, but social and spiritual isolation or starvation is often overlooked and more complex to engage.
In the absence of a support network, meaningful family relationships or friends, elderly persons can suffer these often unseen or hidden forms of passive euthanasia.
Spiritual starvation can manifest itself in two ways.
First, when someone has no connection with a power greater than oneself, spiritual distress is felt.
Second, when one’s spiritual practices are interrupted by no longer being able to attend church due to declining health, alienation can be felt.
The decline in active church relationships contributes to spiritual starvation. Streaming TV preachers cannot replace live interactions with the church family.
This raises several questions: Are churches participating in hidden euthanasia? Is it euthanasia by omission when churches do not take a proactive role in ministries to older homebound or almost homebound members?
A monthly visit to deliver the church magazine does not get the job done.
Because current practices among churches may be contributing to hidden or passive euthanasia, where might we look for answers? Is anyone hearing the call to compassion? Will the call to compassion come through a smartphone, and can we get an app for compassion?
Because the established groups within congregations have been ineffective in recognizing and avoiding the actions of spiritual starvation of older persons, perhaps it is the Millennials who have the potential of being revived with a reality-bound perspective.
Millennials are looking for relationships and older persons need relationships. Is this the opportune moment for intergenerational ministries to blossom?
Returning to the biblical view of compassion, as expressed by Henri Nouwen, we are asked to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, confusion and anguish.
Learning to mourn with those who are lonely and to weep with those in tears requires a deep, abiding, authentic faith. Intergenerational ministry does not require a new social construct.
Even though age segregation may be present, intergenerational efforts have a rightful position in the identity and mission of the congregation. After all, the church is a provider of life-sustaining resources.
Sybil Smith is semi-retired from a career in nursing and education. She lives in Lyman, South Carolina.