Monday, May 31, 2010


Death Panels, Memorial Day and Nebuchadnezzar

“this is only the beginning of what they will do” (Gen. 11:6)

Governor Palin made a considerable stir when she coined the phrase “Death Panels” in the context of the current health care debate. However, consider the following hypothetical, but not at all implausible scenario: A man in his 60s has acute diabetes. Already, his circulation has deteriorated to such an extent that there have been amputations, and, if heroic measures continue to be taken, there will be more. The choice that faces him and his family has to do with the point at which they will cease to authorize heroic measures and ask instead for merely palliative care. In effect then, with the members being the man and his family, relying on God for wisdom in the matter, and taking into consideration both his financial circumstances and other very personal matters, what we have already is a sort of “death panel”.

So the stir that Governor Palin caused doesn’t really stem from the fact that men and women will be called to make life-and-death decisions, since that is already a fact of life, but just who those men and women will be, and what their relation will be to the life involved. Even as things are, we find it disturbing that some of them may be pencil-pushers in some insurance company or Medicare office. But, at least as things are, the man and his family have a real say in the matter. However, as things move toward a paradigm where medical care is controlled by central authority, that say will evaporate: “Experts”, who know better than we do, will make the decision for us. It is this “death panel” that causes the stir.

Memorial Day is a good time to pause and reflect on how things got to this point, a point where we cannot not only envision the possibility of government auditors and social workers telling us when it’s time for us to die, but we can envision it happening in the not-too-distant future and, worse yet, can envision ourselves doing little more than whine about it: The purpose of Memorial Day was originally to commemorate the approximately 390,000 who died fighting for the Union in the Civil War. In time, it’s purpose expanded to include the approximately 290,000 who died fighting for the Confederacy, and then, given more time, to include those who died in other wars. But the Civil War context is especially important since, in a very real sense, the sort of Constitution we had had, with its Jeffersonian-Jacksonian emphasis on the limitation of government power, was also among the casualties. As James McPherson points out in his “Battle Cry of Freedom”, the dominant theme in the pre-Civil War amendments is found in insistence on the things government “shall not” do. After the Civil war, the phrase “Congress shall have the power” becomes predominant.

The developments latent in this change did not bear fruit immediately, but, with the Progressive Era, things picked up, and they’ve continued to do so since, with only an occasional pause. The character of this process can be captured in the Progressive Era’s contrast between “Negative Liberty” and “Positive Liberty”: In that view, we need to outgrow childish individualism and learn to enjoy together the fruits that an enlightened elite will give us. That elite has yet to fully embody itself in one Nebuchadnezzar-like figure (see Daniel 2), but it seems to be collectively as sanctimonious and intolerant of dissent as Nebuchadnezzar was. (Read David Brooks in the Times!) We don’t know what the Lord’s timing is in all this. Perhaps, He will bring the current power structure down and we will again see “a new birth of freedom”, or, perhaps the “coming of the lawless one” (2 Th. 2:9) is just around the corner. Indeed, “It’s not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority.” (Acts 1:7) Rather, we are called to be “salt and light” (Mt. 5:13-16), to “put no confidence in princes”, but rather to affirm that “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God.” (Ps. 146:3, 5)

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