Christ calls us to walk in truth

  • February 21, 2008

We were sitting watching his daughter’s hockey tournament (her team was winning). My friend and I had both been thinking that day about Robert Latimer, whose request for parole was not granted. Mr. Latimer’s story asks uncomfortable questions.

He killed his severely disabled daughter. Does he deserve censure or compassion?

My companion explained he’d been feeling compassion for all Robert must have gone through during Tracy’s life and after her death; as a father, empathy for the anguish of seeing a child suffer and being unable to help. Then, with a start, my companion’s thoughts bumped up against the reality of the “solution” Mr. Latimer produced, and the places it could lead if its devaluation of human life and suffering became widespread.  And the cold realization that such devaluation already is widespread, at least in regard to some human lives and some human suffering.

The way we put the question says something about what we think the answer might be. Let’s try it another way.

Robert Latimer killed his daughter. Does he deserve censure or compassion?

The modifier “severely disabled” is generally included with the story. What difference does it make if we leave it out? It’s one thing to kill a daughter, evidently, another thing to kill a severely disabled daughter. It’s not so much our response to killing that’s in question now, but our response to disability and pain. 

In this “advanced” society, we’ve become careful with our language (one rarely hears words like “crippled” or “retarded” any more) but still our terrible fear of disability, pain and suffering flares out, sometimes to horrendous effect. As with Tracy Latimer. 

Why are we comfortable with this girl’s death? It’s ourselves we need to be concerned about here. First, because we’re putting up for grabs the life of those deemed to be suffering: which of us is omitted from that category? (Or possibly, whose suffering is deemed intolerable for others — I don’t know Mr. Latimer, and can’t say whether it was his daughter’s suffering or his own he could no longer bear.) Second, because of who we’re becoming, individually and collectively, as we take on the role of judge and try to end pain by running away from it.

These things are happening now, in plain sight of those who care to look, and will increase. It’s inevitable, if those who hold the treasure fail to share it. We in the church bear that treasure. We have the Gospels. We know what life is for, where it comes from and where it leads. We know all things pulse with the energy of the living God, that to see a human is to see God, for we’re made in His image. We know our suffering matters, that Christ takes it on for and with us, that it’s noble to seek to end suffering but it’s not ours to end life, our own or another’s. And that if we’re silent, we put God on the cross.

If we listen on Good Friday, we’ll hear Christ’s disciple, our leader Peter, drawn to the warmth of the fire where everybody is gathered. To be outside this circle is to be cold and alone. There he will be questioned as to whether he is with the Jesus who was arrested. In John’s Gospel, this scene happens simultaneously with Jesus’ questioning by authority. “I have spoken openly,” in public places, replies Christ, the Word of God. Even as Peter claims silence and secrecy by telling the guards, “I don’t know the man,” Jesus claims openness and truth. Even as Jesus tells the authority to ask His followers what He said, His closest follower denies ever having known Him, let alone speaking His word. Peter’s silence protects his life; Jesus’ open words lead Him to suffering and death. But Peter’s silence wreaks death in his heart, whereas Jesus’ speaking the Word calls down life so powerfully that even the grave cannot hold Him.

Peter’s silence isn’t the end of his story. Jesus drew love out of this fear. He called Peter to care for the sheep. So Peter becomes another Christ, the good shepherd — not because he was courageous, but because he let love come even into his own shame and failure, fear and betrayal. Truth and mercy meet.

What does compassion really demand of us? How are we to respond to such suffering as was laid upon Tracy Latimer and her parents? Not by denying truth, but perhaps by learning true compassion. 

If we fail to speak today, Christ will ask us again, more insistently, tomorrow. If we cannot today tear ourselves away from the circle where everybody seems to be saying “this life is worth more, this life is worth less; suffering is useless, and so are sufferers” — if we can’t tear ourselves away to walk in truth, alone if need be, Christ will call us out again tomorrow. 

Yet the call is urgent, and the answer must be given today.