An Easter reflection on life and death

NEW HOPE, KY., GOOD FRIDAY–There’s a place near here they call Heaven Hill. That’s where they make the whiskey. The impressive buildings where they age the stuff in oak barrels still have blackened walls from the fire here a few years back. The prominence of whiskey and the rolling hills aren’t the only things here that make my mind turn to Ireland.

Nelson County, like Marion and Larue around it, form what some Catholics call “the Kentucky Holy Land.” Holy Cross, the oldest parish west of the Appalachians, sits nearby, with a graveyard full of Mattinglys, Mudds, and Browns, but also no shortage of Donahues, Hagans, and Corbetts.

It’s the tombstone marked 1916, though, that turns my mind inevitably to Yeats and his poem about the Irish insurrection that year, which Dubliners evocatively call the “Easter Rising.”

Some Irishmen managed to take over Dublin’s General Post Office for a few hours, before British gunboats sailed up the River Liffey and shelled the GPO, eventually killing or capturing the rebels. It’s hard to understand what this violent suicide mission accomplished, unless you see things the way the Irish do. Martyrdom is revered there, as the Dublin streets named Pearse, Connolly, and McDonough demonstrate.

A classic ballad about that day tries to explain the virtue of the rising: “They bore the fight/ that freedom’s light/ might shine through the foggy dew.” Yeats certainly thought this skirmish accomplished something. His “Easter, 1916″ has the refrain, “all changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born.”

Remembering this on Good Friday, and thinking of Jesus’s promise to his mother while carrying his cross to Golgotha, “I make all things new,” I was finally able to begin trying to make sense of Terri Schiavo’s story.

Putting the politics and law aside for the moment, we can see the injustice clearly. Terri was not being “kept alive.” She was being fed. Now she is being starved. The media refer to the ethical questions about her situation as “end of life issues.” It wouldn’t be the “end of life” for Terri if she weren’t being starved.

She wasn’t on a respirator. She wasn’t being revived. Terri Schiavo was being “kept alive” in the hospice just as a newborn baby is “kept alive” by her mother’s milk. Allowing her to be starved, then, could only be based on one argument: her cognitive powers are so diminished, that her life isn’t worth living anymore.

That so many think it is fine to let her die shows that Pope John Paul II was painfully correct when he diagnosed our society as afflicted with a “culture of death.” The Pope himself upsets the priests whom the New York Times talks to by refusing to fade away.

But as Terri withers away with no food and water, those who would save her–“the religious right,” as the media put it–feel helpless. Courts will not give her a hearing. The same court system that has declared that states may not execute mentally retarded criminals, because their mental powers are too weak, has refused clemency for an innocent woman whose mental powers are weaker.

How are we to make sense of this all? In this Eastertide, this spring, the headlines seem to crying for attention to the questions of life and death.

Brian Nichols in Atlanta slayed four innocent people in a courtroom in order to see his newborn son. He took a woman hostage, and she used the words of scripture to soften his heart. He set her free and peacefully surrendered. He is nearly certain to face execution.

Scott Peterson, convicted of killing his wife and unborn child, in a manner that raised to the national the question of the status of the unborn, also faces the death penalty, although it is hard to see how he is a continuing threat.

A child prodigy in Nebraska, showing no signs of depression, killed himself. A troubled child in Minnesota killed his classmates.

Can we make any sense of this?

As long as we seek some sort of metaphysical justice on this Earth, we cannot make sense of it all. While we are obligated to pursue justice in order to preserve society, we find we cannot truly set things right in the world.

The Bible has many narratives. At Easter, Christians remember the storyline of sin of redemption. The sin starts with Adam and persists. God expels Adam and Eve from Eden, and sin persists. God drowns the Earth with the flood, and sin persists. God burns Sodom and Gomorrah to the ground, and sin persists. Then God makes a sacrifice of his only son, and redemption comes.

Punishment is required to save society, but only love and sacrifice can save the soul.

If Terri Schiavo starves to death, it will be a grave injustice. If we lose John Paul II soon, it will be a calamity. But as the Easter story tells us, loving life often means embracing our cross–and even death.

It is easy, when looking at the Schiavo story and our culture of death as a whole, for Christians and pro-lifers to go too far and see death as an absolute evil. Reflecting on Easter–in the year 1916 and more importantly in the year 33–we ought to see that while life is an absolute good, death is not an absolute evil.

On our way out here on I-70, my good friend and host Michael, born and bred in New Hope, quoted Jimmy Stewart to me: “lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.” Easter in New Hope has confirmed this suspicion for me, by reminding me that the greater causes, which our smaller battles serve, are never really lost.

Tim Carney is a Phillips Fellow and a free-lance journalist in Washington, D.C.

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