Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Christian Utilitarianism, and Mourning

Everybody go read this thoughtful and poignant reflection on how the church has unfortunately absorbed our culture's utilitarian ethics. Daniel Salinas' daughter, Karis, was born with cerebral palsy, and he writes about his experience with the well-intentioned but totally inadequate response of Christian community:

"We thought that we would find compassion, understanding, empathy, help, rest, and a friendly hand in the Christian community, but instead we found the same utilitarian ethics as in the secular world. For most believers, including the majority of our family members, there were two options: Either God heals her, or God takes her away. They posed questions like: What sense does it make to live like that? Isn’t it better that God takes her away instead of letting her suffer here? Innocent questions, yes, but behind these questions we saw the same arguments that secular scholars have proposed....

Death is our enemy. But in our case, for most of the believers who came to comfort us, our daughter’s death was the best thing that could have happened to her and to us. For those people, she was better off dead. They were not that blunt, but the message was clear: She is better off now, no more suffering, no more pain.

That was too much for us to bear. Would anyone in their right mind say that to parents who are burying their seven-year-old “normal child”? Yes, Karis lived with much pain and suffering, but how much better to search for ways to alleviate the pain and not celebrate death. Does our God not care about life, all life? Are we not supposed to promote life? So then, why did our fellow Christians keep telling us that it was better for our daughter to die?"

We need desperately to rethink how and why we value people, and how we can support and love those with special challenges of all kinds. Go check out L'Arche for a great example of this.

And also very importantly, we need to learn how to grieve with people. There's a very simple answer we should remember when we're tempted to avoid those in mourning by claiming "we don't know what to say": don't say anything. Take a cue from Job's 3 friends. When they first show up to comfort him after the loss of his family, they sit in silence with him for a week. It's only when they open their mouths that they get into trouble. So if someone is mourning or grieving, and you want to offer them a platitude about God being in control, or how every cloud has a silver lining, or how really, it's better this way...just shut the hell up and be there.


steve and randel hambrick said...

when my dad died, i could not BELIEVE the stuff people said. it was shocking.
now when people go through death or difficult things, i know to just say "i'm sorry. that stinks/sucks." pretty much sums it up.

Travis Greene said...

I know exactly what you mean. The temptation is so strong to "help" somehow, to be able to point to something and say "Well, that makes it okay then, doesn't it?" If you've grieved yourself, you know better.

This gets into the infamous "problem of pain", which, as N.T. Wright points out, the Bible does not really attempt to solve. We are not told why pain exists, or where it comes from, really. We are merely told what God is doing about it. Or what he has already done about it, through the redemptive suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

But even that is too much to say to someone in mourning. Nobody wants a theological discourse on the nature of suffering when their spouse or child just died. So we should look to Jesus not as an example of what to talk about in a crisis ("See, Jesus suffered too! Doesn't that make you feel better? Huh? Aren't I being helpful?") but as an example of how to act. We respond to suffering by entering into it.

Well, this is more than what I wrote in the original post. I just believe all this bears much thinking about.

Dan Martin said...


First of all I'm glad you posted your blog site on your comment at Scot McKnight's blog--that way I could find you. I've enjoyed your out-of-the-box comments over there.

Second and more to the point, I just want to underline what you (and your friend) say here. My youngest son has Down syndrome, and thankfully MOST of the folks around us were just what you said they ought to be. There were a few, though, that couldn't get away from the "it's God's will" stuff, and the "it's going to work out for his glory" platitudes too. While I'm not so sure it's God's will, I can testify that it HAS worked out for his glory...everybody who knows Gabe (now 9) can testify to that. But unless you've already walked in that path, it is NOT helpful to the new, grieving parents to say so.

Your counsel that what people ought to do is just be there--lovingly, often silently, sometimes sharing in your tears, sometimes sharing a home-cooked meal--that stuff matters and it helps. Words usually screw it up.

At least that was my experience.

Oh, and one more thing. . .I love the "Christians can be assholes sometimes" post series. Too true!

Travis Greene said...

Thanks, Dan.

The hardest thing for us to realize is that even when something is not God's will, it works out for his glory. That, to me, is the only definition of God's sovereignty that makes any sense.

Dan Martin said...

The hardest thing for us to realize is that even when something is not God's will, it works out for his glory. That, to me, is the only definition of God's sovereignty that makes any sense.I'm certainly with you there, Travis. Hence this pair of posts on God's sovereignty that I wrote last year.

Rachel said...

I too agree. People do say such shockingly stupid stuff. Thank you for posting this.

Anonymous said...

What do you mean when you claim the church has absorbed the utilitarian ethics of the culture at large?

Even a cursory glance at the history of the institutional church will tell you that it has been governed by a utilitarian "ethic" for a very very very long time.

I would say that such was the case when the church was coopted by the Imperial Roman state, and thus became a very worldly power and control seeking institution.

Once upon a time, and not very long ago one could be executed for "heresy" and even "blasphemy" in many Christian states.

Look at the post Reformation catholic vs protestant "religious" wars that raged for decades (even centuries) throughout Europe.

Millions were slaughtered for very "utilitarian" reasons---fear and loathing, power, control of resources and populations etc etc.

How many people were executed while John Calvin ruled in Geneva?

Was not Henry the Eighth (the founder of the Church of England) essentially a serial killer, a mass murderer, and the "greatest" thief and vandal in English history---very utilitarian indeed.

Plus wasnt white Christian America founded on grand theft of the land and resources of the "Indians", genocide, and slavery. Slavery being itself grand theft and systematic murder on a grand scale too>

Travis Greene said...

That's all true, and Constantinianism is a big problem, but I think the problem of utilitarianism (as a philosophy of ethics) is a more recent development, tied into modernism and the rise of the nation-state.
It sounds like a good idea ("the greatest good for the greatest number of people"), but it can end up focusing only on one's usefulness to the greater community and marginalizing those who don't measure up. It also values only action, not intentions, which is inconsistent with Jesus' ethical teaching (for instance, that hating one's brother is morally equivalent to murdering him).

If you follow its logic too far, you might end up with Peter Singer, arguing that "killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living." I am trying to avoid a 'slippery slope' argument, but this is unfortunately the subtext of much "Christian" thinking, and we are called to a higher ethic of love.