Sharper than a two-edged sword

September 17, 2004

President Hinckley’s message for this month admonishes us all to raise our voices in opposition to evil. He notes that

[l]egal restraints against deviant moral behavior are eroding under legislative enactments and court opinions. This is done in the name of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of choice in so-called personal matters. But the bitter fruit of these so-called freedoms has been enslavement to debauching habits and behavior that leads only to destruction. A prophet, speaking long ago, aptly described the process when he said, “And thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell” (2 Nephi 28:21).

In this message, President Hinckley gives suggestions for opposing evil in our daily lives:

(1) “Reformation of the world begins with reformation of self. It is a fundamental article of our faith that ‘we believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, [and] virtuous’ (Articles of Faith 1:13).

(2) “A better tomorrow begins with the training of a better generation.” The home is to be the origin of our moral and aesthetic education. We should not let society hijack our efforts to reinforce moral values and a love of learning in our children. (I take it that means to regulate TV consumption and to spend quality time with our children, immersing them in knowledge of the world and its cultures, and in the principles of righteousness attendant to the restored Gospel.)

(3) “Let our voices be heard. I hope they will not be shrill voices, but I hope we shall speak with such conviction that those to whom we speak shall know of the strength of our feeling and the sincerity of our effort. Remarkable consequences often flow from a well-written letter and a postage stamp. Remarkable results come of quiet conversation with those who carry heavy responsibilities.”

(4) “Strength to do battle begins with enlisting the strength of God.”

This list is like a breath of fresh air in its simplicity. Particularly numbers 3 and 4, when combined, make an interesting duo.

In discussing point 4, President Hinckley refers to the Apostle Paul’s metaphor from Ephesians 6:13, among other places, of donning the full armour of God. Armour conjures up defensive images–protecting vital areas against attack. But in his point number 3, President Hinckley admonishes us to raise our voices in opposition to evil, in other words, to take the offense rather than to sit passively by. This is in no way contradictory to the armour metaphor, for part of “the whole armour of God” is the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. This reassures us in an age of moral ambivalence that it is still right to take the offensive in the cause of truth and righteousness.

When I think of the whole armour of God, I immediately think of the sword of the Spirit and its significance. When I was a zone leader on my mission, I would occasionally take the liberty to have my zone recite D&C 12 rather than D&C 4 in our meetings. It was more aggressive and seemed more fitting for missionaries whose sole purpose was to raise their voices in the world to declare the name of Jesus Christ and to oppose the deepening darkness. One of the most significant differences between the two sections is that Section 12 explicitly brings the sword metaphor into the equation, beginning with the acknowledgement that a marvelous work is about to come forth among the children of men, but then adding before discussing the field that is white already to harvest the following powerful statement:

Behold, I am God; give heed to my word, which is quick and powerful, sharper than a two-edged sword, to the dividing asunder of both joints and marrow; therefore give heed unto my word.

When we consider the sword metaphor as an offensive, rather than defensive, part of the the whole armour of God, combined with President Hinckley’s admonition that we raise our voices in opposition to evil, we should take heart to do so through declaring the word of God, which is sharper than a two-edged sword, to the dividing asunder of both joints and marrow. That is a powerful realization and one that we should not take lightly.

Death with “Dignity”- Physician Assisted Suicide

September 10, 2004

Although I have spoken about this elsewhere, I wanted to post some ideas about Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act here.

Via healthlawblog, anop/ed piece in the New York Times this summer discussed Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. After telling one of the horrific stories typical of those who support Oregon’s experiment (capable man incapacitated with crippling painful terminal disease, doesn’t want to go on living like that, able to “die with dignity” by taking a lethal dosage of medication prescribed by OR doctor under OR law…) and ranting about Attorney General Ashcroft’s attempts to get the law overturned, here is what Mr. Kristof concludes:

The Oregon law deserves to be upheld. It forces us to examine the question of what is special about human life. The answer, I think, is the autonomy and dignity inherent in our individuality — in making hard decisions for ourselves and determining our own destinies. Oregon honors that vision of what is sacred about life.

Autonomy (one of the four basic principles of biomedical ethics proposed by Beauchamp & Childress) is important, and I also believe it is inherent in our individuality. But life (as well as the ethical obligations of non-maleficence and beneficence) is also important, and there are many religious and philosophical reasons for protecting it. I think most religious and philosophical traditions would allow a person to exercise autonomy in refusing medical treatment for terminal illnesses (and legal precedent in the United States supports this idea as well).

However, refusing medical treatment is a far cry from intentionally drinking a lethal dose of medicine to end it all (“with dignity”, mind you). When one drinks a lethal cocktail like the one prescribed to the patient in Kristof’s piece, one drinks with the intention of ending life. When one decides not to allow medical treatment for a terminal (or other disease), although the result may be the cessation of life, the intention is often to simply let nature take its course and live for another 2 years or die tomorrow.  Indeed, intentionally bringing about one’s own death by drinking a lethal concoction or otherwise is different enough from refusing medical treatment or demanding that medical treatment be stopped that in that instance our concern for protecting against the intentional ending of human life ought to outweigh the concern for personal autonomy. We let it happen in outlawing suicide– and as I mentioned I fail to see a reason (or value) to allow autonomy to outweigh protection of life in this situation as well.

If the reason for allowing a patient to hasten death by drinking a lethal cocktail of drugs is to palliate pain and not have to undergo futile treatment that would sap dignity, that concern is addressed by allowing a patient to forego medical treatment and take pain killers (though not in a lethal amount) to alleviate the suffering.

I think the Oregon law is a travesty and that it ought to be repealed. It allows what no other state has ever allowed under any circumstances- suicide. The intentional killing of oneself. It excuses physicians from what has typically been a crime- assisted suicide. Finally, it seems to me to be against a doctor’s ethical obligation of non-maleficence to engage in such a behavior.

The so-called “Oregon experiment” was not even worth trying in the first place. The law seems unjustifiable and contrary to normative values in the United States. It should be repealed.

God’s will and personal autonomy

September 10, 2004

Upcoming large decisions in my life have caused me to once again wonder at the distinctions between God’s will and personal autonomy. Many, relying on the Alma 34 admonitions to pray about, well, nearly everything, would say that perhaps we should not do anything without the first feeling the Lord’s sanction. This leads to a sort of “Saturday’s Warrior” view on life, according to which we may find ourselves eternally hampered if we make a “wrong” choice regarding, for example, whom we should marry.

Many decisions in life are indeed vitally important, such as where to live, whom to marry, which career to pursue. While I do, of course, believe that the Lord can “direct [us] for good” when we trust in Him with all our hearts, I do not believe that for most people there is only one career to pursue or one person to marry. This is because I believe that the Lord grants us a good deal of personal autonomy, and even helps us to accomplish the righteous desires of our hearts- even the CHANGING righteous desires of our hearts.

The Lord in the Doctrine and Covenants tells us that

26 [I]t is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.

27 Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;

28 For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.

D&C 58:26-28.

Taken in conjunction with Section 9:8-9, I take that to mean that I should make my own decisions, then present them to the Lord for approval. My experience seems to indicate that there are often a wide range of decisions that would be aceptable to the Lord, even regarding such questions as whom one should marry!

Shortly put, my belief is that since God wants us to be happy (see 2 Nephi 2:25), He allows us great latitude in following the desires of our own hearts, so long as they are righteous desires (which I suppose we find out by FIRST reaching a decision, THEN praying about it). Sounds good.

But then I read Elder Scott (GREAT talk, by the way, and WELL WORTH a read- especially if you too have a large decision looming), and worry that perhaps I take the Lord’s role in these things too lightly:

Have you noticed that when you have determined to accomplish a very important task, many other good ideas for other things to do seem to come to your mind? If they are allowed to interfere, they will distract you from the more important objective. I have found help by writing down those thoughts as they come, promising myself that as soon as I finish the important task, I will attend to them in priority. That practice helps me stay focused on those matters which are essential.

I believe there are times in your life when, because of your righteousness and your determination to do what is right, Satan will not be able to deflect you into serious transgression. He will switch then to the strategy of placing before you a banquet of good and worthwhile things to do, meant to distract you from those that are the most important and essential to accomplish in your life.

So, the trick seems to be distinguishing those decisions which are permissible exercises of my personal autonomy in following the righteous desires of my heart from those which would “distract [me] from [those things] that are the most important and essential to accomplish in [my] life.”

How do we then balance God’s will against our personal autonomy? Elder Scott urges that

as you pray for guidance, the Holy Ghost will help you identify those matters that are vital and necessary to accomplish above others. That means that at times you may have to set aside things that would be worthwhile and enjoyable to pursue–for those that are most vitally important for that period of your life.

This is frightening, to an extent. In making a decision such as the one I am trying to make right now, are my own desires speaking to me or it the Holy Ghost? Or is this one of those situations where either decision would be acceptable, and it is thus within the realm of my own personal autonomy to decide, and the Lord will bless and validate either decision?

Bloggernacle insights welcomed. I don’t want to shortchange myself of something that would be the “most essential and important” to accomplish simply because my personal autonomy may conflict with God’s will…

Quintana, part II

September 9, 2004

Last month I began a Spanish discussion of the eclectic poetry of Manuel José Quintana, beginning with the elements of his poetry that drew from and influenced the Spanish Enlightenment of the earlier nineteenth century. Since then, I have changed my goals with this particular blog but have intended to continue foriegn-language blogging over at the MPP blog. So for anyone that was interested in discussing Quintana, I have posted part II of this discussion of Quintana’s eclectic poetry over there.

Tragedy in Weimar

September 4, 2004

Yesterday a fire destroyed between 25,000 and 30,000 priceless, irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind volumes in the Anna-Amalia Library in Weimar, Germany. The library stems from 1691 and moved into its current eighteenth-century renovated palace in 1766 while duchess Anna Amalia reigned as regent for her son, Karl August. Goethe was Privy Councillor (Geheimrat) of the principality of Weimar from the 1775 to his death in 1832. By 1832, thanks to Goethe’s stewardship and interest in the library, it already contained more than 130,000 volumes. The main house of the library, which houses 120,000 of the millions of volumes that the library currently holds, was severely damaged by the fire, which consumed whole collections of the library’s holdings. Other whole collections were soaked by water used to extinguish the fire.

A 1534 bible owned by Martin Luther was saved, however. That would have been another tragic loss. This is one of the most important libraries, if not the most important library, for German classical studies. I wrote my Oxford master’s thesis on Weimar Classicism, and so this news hits me particularly hard. Additionally, my wife and I have enjoyed spending time in Weimar over the years (we are wierd like that and consider visits to East German towns such as Weimar, Schwerin, and Greifswald to be fun-filled vacations). We wonder how this could have happened, how such a priceless, indeed uninsurable, could have caught fire. The news report says that 330 firemen and hundreds of civil volunteers couldn’t stop it from destroying the main house of the library. It is a real tragedy.

Bad Sign

September 3, 2004

I have fallen in the Ecosystem from a slithering reptile to a crawly amphibian.

On the bright side, I just got back home from vacation, so there might be a chance that I can blog more than I have been. Hopefully, my posts will be more interesting too, prompting commenters to engage me on my thoughts (that is one of my goals with this blog). I guess people just aren’t as animated by religious freedom in Europe or the plight of Muslims over there as I am.

The Bar Exam in Germany

September 1, 2004

With many American bar exam passage rates hovering between 75 and 85%, we can at least be glad that we can take the exam as many times as we need to in order to pass. True, career chances in the best law firms might be destroyed by repeated bar exam failure (although most firms allow you to retake the bar if you fail it the first time, it seems like failing it once could still threaten your chances at partnership).

I just read that in Germany, if you fail twice, you are prohibited by law from taking the bar exam a third time. That means that if you fail twice, you have no chance of becoming a lawyer, judge, or prosecutor–ever. This is harsh and even necessitates a social service to help such applicants cope with the idea that between four and seven years of university study in the field of law has been a waste. This is an important service considering that 31% of applicants who took the Staatsexamen for the first time this year in Bavaria failed.