Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Attributing Providence to Evolution

Check out the NPR story Our Feet Are Fallible, But They Beat A Chimp's for another example of people casually attributing Providence to evolution (that is, seeing evolution as a source of goodness) and attributing intelligent design to evolution.

The story says, "evolution gave us the one-of-a-kind human foot we have" and "human feet remain one of evolution's finest designs."

I'm not opposed to attributing providence to Evolution, but it's good to be aware that this is a expression of religious belief, even if casually expressed, just as it is to say, casually, "Thank God I have good feet." Being aware of ourselves using such casual religious expressions will make us less surprised when people accuse us of promoting "secular humanism" as a religious view appropriate for schools and trying to force out the traditional religions which overtly attribute Providence to God.

Here's the whole text of the NPR blurb.

If you've ever had reason to curse your feet — say, after a day at the mall, an evening in high heels or a lengthy jog — you might keep in mind that they are a whole lot better at doing what we need them to do than a chimp's feet.

Our ancestors had something like a chimp's foot. It was flat and flexible, made for grasping tree limbs. But it didn't take them very far.

How evolution gave us the one-of-a-kind human foot we have — taut and more efficient for walking than any other primate's foot — is the subject of the next story in our “Human Edge” series on human evolution.

You'll find out that the tendons in your foot give you an arch that acts like a spring, returning energy to your body with every step you take. You'll learn to appreciate that big toe, warts and all, because it means you can run.

True, evolution hasn't taken us beyond athlete's foot or hangnails or bunions.

But human feet remain one of evolution's finest designs. Without them, we'd just be bootless.

For another example, see Evolution Again Credited with Creation.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Magistrate Court Mediation

For the last sixteen months or so, I have been acting as a mediator twice a month in local West Virginia magistrate-court “small-claims” cases, which the magistrates schedule for mediation in the hope the parties will settle and the cases will not have to be heard in court. These are the kind of disputes that, many years ago, would have been settled in local neighborhood or church or family or clan forums, where the disputants are not primarily focused on the enforcement of legal rights, but are seeking a genuine resolution of a dispute that is creating disharmony in the private sphere.

The fragmentation of families, social mobility, and the loss of idiosyncratic cultural forms, especially in the United States, have meant a loss of traditional dispute-resolution forums. People often are not able to turn, as many could years ago, to an extended family or clan, to the church, to their ward leader, to the cop on the beat, or to their neighborhood leaders to resolve disputes.

Added to the loss of these forums is the criminalization of some traditional “dispute resolution” methods. “Fighting it out” physically is considered to be against the law, even where honor and self-respect and wrongs done to innocent family members or friends traditionally called for it, and even when all parties involved agree to it.

So the courts have become the place to go to resolve disputes. (As The Peoples’ Court used to say, “Don’t take the law into your own hands. You take ’em to court!”). But the courts have become overloaded, not only by this assumption of dispute resolution responsibilities, but also by the government’s assumption over the last hundred years of the role of protector in areas where government never entered before. From Social Security to spanking your kids, the government has enacted laws that enter deeply into areas that formerly were considered to be the private business of individuals and families and small companies and other private institutions. All those laws have to be enforced, and they have to be enforced under much more stringent constitutional protections afforded to defendants than those in force a hundred years ago. This takes resources, and the money is not being appropriated to enable the courts to handle the load.

So the understaffed courts are desperately seeking to unload some of their case load, and one of the obvious kinds of cases to try to unload is the kind of case that would have been formerly settled in local neighborhood or church or family or clan forums before they ever got to the court system (and ideally before people even started fighting over them).

In these disputes the disputants are often not seeking enforcement of legal rights at all. Judges are driven crazy by people coming into court seemingly just to be able to tell their long complicated stories about how they were wronged (or even about how someone else was wronged), citing traditional notions of right and wrong which are often not enforceable by contemporary law. The complainants often want something it is not in the judge’s power to give in our contemporary courts, though in ancient times (still preserved in disputants’ minds through the Bible and other sources) a judge’s role might have been to do precisely what they expect of him now: that is, to discern the moral right and wrong in both the pleader’s and the other’s actions or in their attitudes, to order the parties to do penance and thereby heal the psychological rift between them, and, often, to give them what they didn’t even know they wanted.

This (perhaps unconscious) expectation of disputing parties that a judge (as in mythic ancient times) will help them unravel what the problem is, to help them understand what they actually need, is perhaps most maddening to a contemporary judge, who may be forbidden to give relief that is not specifically asked for, or to give relief to a third party when it is asked for by someone else. And disputants who bring those disputes to court are themselves extremely unsatisfied with the courts’ high costs, bewildering arcane rituals, incomprehensible language, disregard for their value as human beings, and blindness to their true interests.

There are other types of cases being handled by alternatives to adjudication. Disputes between unions and management have long been handled through arbitration, disputes between merchants have been arbitrated by mercantile courts since before the United States was formed, and many other kinds of dispute-resolution alternatives exist. But these disputes that would have been formerly settled in local neighborhood or church or family or clan forums, where the disputants are not primarily focused on the enforcement of legal rights, but are seeking a genuine resolution of a dispute that is creating disharmony in the private sphere, are good candidates for mediation of the sort I have been doing.

As a mediator I am often able to help parties resolve their disputes, or at least understand each other better and treat each other with more respect as they move towards resolution. Often these are neighbors or family members in disputes with each other, or other parties in continuing relationships with each other, so that respect is important in itself. And usually the parties feel a mutual obligation to help heal the rift (even the plaintiffs often feel this obligation), but have not known how to go about it, and I can sometimes help them work out a way to do that.

Very often the agreement comes about through symbolic acts rather than through significant monetary relief. There can be a pastoral dimension to mediating as well as a hammering-out of legal monetary obligations.

Of course many cases don’t settle. More would settle if I had more skill.

And the power imbalances between parties can sometimes have even more unfair consequences in mediation than those same power imbalances would in court, where the magistrate has more control over the process and perhaps more knowledge of how to structure an enforceable agreement. So it’s not always a better alternative. But I’m glad the forum is there for the good it does.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Execution of an Innocent Man

In the 2006 case Kansas v. Marsh, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia affirmed that, in the modern American judicial system, there has not been “a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit.”

In the past year, a nominee for this tragic distinction has again been put forward. Strong evidence suggests that Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed by the state of Texas in February of 2004 at the age of 36, was wrongfully convicted of burning his three small children to death. The prosecution’s primary witness, state fire marshal Manuel Vasquez, who testified at trial that the deadly fire was arson, has been thoroughly discredited in his science and his methods by several experts in the field of arson forensics, including Craig Beyler, who was hired by a Texas state commission to investigate errors and misconduct in the handling of the forensic evidence in that and another case. Beyler concluded: “A finding of arson could not be sustained.” Beyler not only found the methods used by Vasquez to fail to conform to standard methods of fire investigation, but said that Vasquez seemed to be “wholly without any realistic understanding of fires.” He said the fire marshal’s approach seemed to lack “rational reasoning” and he likened it to the practices “of mystics or psychics.”

Nationally respected fire investigator Dr. Gerald Hurst had also reported his conclusion that there was no evidence of arson. Four days before Willingham’s execution in 2004, his attorney attached Hurst’s report to a petition seeking relief from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and from the governor. The courts and Texas governor Rick Perry did not act to halt the execution, which was carried out on February 17 of that year. Journalist David Grann, in “Trial by Fire,” in the September 7, 2009, New Yorker magazine, interviewed members of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which reviews applications for clemency. His interviews leave one with the sickening impression that Hurst’s report was not even looked at:

LaFayette Collins, a member of the board at the time, told me of the process, “You don’t vote guilt or innocence. You don’t retry the trial. You just make sure everything is in order and there are no glaring errors.” He noted that although the rules allowed for a hearing to consider important new evidence, “in my time there had never been one called.” When I asked him why Hurst’s report didn’t constitute evidence of “glaring errors,” he said, “We get all kinds of reports, but we don’t have the mechanisms to vet them.” [emphasis added]
Hurst, along with three other fire investigators—private consultants John Lentini and John DeHaan, and Louisiana fire chief Kendall Ryland—was asked by the Chicago Tribune later that year, after Willingham’s execution, to review additional documents, trial testimony and an hour-long videotape of the aftermath of the fire scene. The Tribune reported:

“There’s nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire,” said Hurst, a Cambridge University-educated chemist who has investigated scores of fires in his career. “It was just a fire.”

Ryland, chief of the Effie Fire Department and a former fire instructor at Louisiana State University, said that, in his workshop, he tried to re-create the conditions the original fire investigators described. When he could not, he said, it “made me sick to think this guy was executed based on this investigation. ... They executed this guy and they’ve just got no idea—at least not scientifically—if he set the fire, or if the fire was even intentionally set.”
Fire expert John Lentini told the Tribune, “There was no evidence to support a conclusion that the fire was intentionally set. Just an unsupported opinion."

In a lethal irony, Earnest Willis, convicted on the same kind of invalid evidence, was freed October 6 from the same facility where Mr. Willingham had been executed February 17. Willis had been convicted of setting a fire that killed two women, and after 17 years on Death Row, had been granted a new trial on unrelated legal issues. Pecos County District Attorney Ori White had to decide whether to retry Willis. White asked Hurst and Kendall Ryland to review the fire evidence.

Hurst told David Grann, “It was like I was looking at the same case.” Hurst concluded there was no evidence of arson, and Ryland concurred. White then dropped the case against Willis. After seventeen years on death row, Willis was set free. White told the Tribune, "I don't turn killers loose. If Willis was guilty, I'd be retrying him right now.” White noted to Grann how close the system had come to murdering an innocent man. “He did not get executed, and I thank God for that,” he said.

In 2006, the Innocence Project commissioned Lentini and three other independent fire investigators—Daniel L. Churchward, David M. Smith, and Douglas J. Carpenter—to conduct an independent review of the arson evidence in the Willingham and Willis cases. The panel concluded that, counter to what the prosecution had alleged in convicting Todd Willingham, the fire that killed the Willingham children was not an incendiary fire. They concluded, in fact, that neither fire was arson. The panel also concluded that “each and every one” of the indicators of arson relied on by the state’s expert witness in both cases had been “scientifically proven to be invalid.” (See http://www.innocenceproject.org/docs/-ArsonReviewReport.pdf.)

The Texas Forensic Science Commission which commissioned Craig Beyler to investigate the Willingham forensic evidence also asked Beyler to look at the evidence in the Willis case. Beyler found that in both cases, “The investigators had poor understandings of fire science and failed to acknowledge or apply the contemporaneous understanding of the limitations of fire indicators. Their methodologies did not comport with the scientific method.” He found that in both cases “A finding of arson could not be sustained.”

However, as Beyler noted, “On October 6, 2004 Mr. Willis was released from prison and on February 17, 2004 Cameron Todd Willingham was executed by lethal injection.” (See http://www.docstoc.com/docs/¬document-preview.aspx?doc_id=10401390.)

In Kansas v. Marsh, Justice Scalia said:

Like other human institutions, courts and juries are not perfect. One cannot have a system of criminal punishment without accepting the possibility that someone will be punished mistakenly. That is a truism, not a revelation. But with regard to the punishment of death in the current American system, that possibility has been reduced to an insignificant minimum. This explains why those ideologically driven to ferret out and proclaim a mistaken modern execution have not a single verifiable case to point to….
Could Justice Scalia still affirm that, in the modern American judicial system, there has not been “a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit”? And if one could hang onto some thread of belief that Scalia’s assertion is still true, what would it prove? Would it prove “the system works”?

According to the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, seventeen people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing after serving time on death row. Does anyone believe that those seventeen were exonerated by “the system”? Or is it more likely that the system would have put them to death if not for the volunteer efforts of students and lawyers? And does anyone really believe that these seventeen are the only cases in which someone has been wrongfully sentenced to death?

Perhaps we must accept the possibility that someone will be punished mistakenly in any large-scale system of criminal justice. But Scalia’s assertion that “in the current American system, that possibility has been reduced to an insignificant minimum,” would be a callous attitude today in the face of the decidedly significant execution of an innocent man.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Blame and the Purpose of Judgment

Job's Evil Dreams: William Blake's 1805 illustration to the Book of Job reveals Job's God as Satan, the Accuser, inhuman with cloven hoof, accusing Job from the Book of the Law. The serpent entwining Job’s God is that same serpent who tempted us, in the garden, to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; to see evil in the world, in others, and in ourselves, and to ourselves become accusers.
I have been troubled by the seemingly unquestioned assumption, even here at the College of Law, that a proper purpose of the judicial system is to punish people for their sins. In a discussion of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, for instance (which we read as part of a “perspectives” course), a central focus of the discussion was whether the two convicted killers “deserved” to be executed for their crimes.

Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, dealing with post-war Germany, most saliently presents this assumption. The Reader depicts post-war trials of low-level Nazi prison guards, which became trials for moral crimes rather than for acts which were “criminal” under the German legal system as it existed when the acts were committed. Michael Berg, the fictional narrator of The Reader, as a young post-war law student, joins a seminar devoted to following a trial of female former prison guards, one of whom freely confesses her actions but is bewildered by accusations of criminality . The students and their professor wrestle with the problem of what we would call ex-post-facto laws which criminalize acts after their commission (a practice which in the United States, of course, is explicitly prohibited by the U.S. Constitution):

I do remember that we argued the prohibition of retroactive justice in the seminar. Was it sufficient that the ordinances under which the camp guards and enforcers were convicted were already on the statute books at the time they committed their crimes? Or was it a question of how the laws were actually interpreted and enforced at the time they committed their crimes, and that they were not applied to them? What is law? Is it what is on the books, or what is actually enacted and obeyed in a society? Or is law what must be enacted and obeyed, whether or not it is on the books, if things are to go right? (The Reader, pp. 90-91)

In any case, “It was evident to us,” Berg says, “that there had to be convictions.” If law is “what must be enacted and obeyed, whether or not it is on the books,” then there “had to be convictions” for moral crimes. But if a law not on the books must be obeyed, where does one go to discover the law?

The prophet Jeremiah (31:33-34) records a revelation from God that there will come a time when it will no longer be necessary for even the least of men to be instructed in the law, because, God says, "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.”

"This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time," declares the LORD.
"I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.

"No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,'
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest."

But has that time come? Can we decide that the least of men and women (like Hanna, the pitiful illiterate woman on whom judgment falls in The Reader) is obliged, under pain of imprisonment, to know what law must be obeyed, whether or not it is “on the books”? Is punishing people for their sins a legitimate function of the judicial system? I think it is not, and I think we damage the judicial system and our culture and ourselves when we use it that way.

There is no doubt that our judicial system retains vestiges of its ancient origins, in which moral judgment was a prominent feature. Despite the historic evolution of law which has moved away from this tendency, we still see it. For instance, jurors are required to pronounce, in our criminal trials, not just whether the facts alleged by the prosecution are proved beyond a reasonable doubt, but whether the accused, beyond a reasonable doubt, is “guilty.” In the concept of guilt is rooted moral judgment. As recently as 1994, Victor v. Nebraska, 511 U.S. 1, examining the constitutionality in two criminal cases of the jury instructions on reasonable doubt, found it necessary to object to a common instruction to jurors that, to convict, they must have “an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, of the guilt of the accused.” (511 U.S. 1 at 4.)

Sentencing is commonly based on what a defendant “deserves.” See, for example, Bible v. State, 162 S.W.3d 234, (Tex. Crim. App., 2005), in which the Texas appeals court refused to find error in a prosecutor’s statement to a jury that “you are on this jury because you believe that there are crimes that have been committed and defendants who exist that deserve the death penalty. Because you appreciate the fact that there is [sic] some people born you just can't do anything else with.”

So the endorsement of the use of the judicial system to pass moral judgment is not merely an outsider view; it is embedded in prevailing judicial practice. Nevertheless, I think it is a mistake.

Jesus said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” This is true not merely because Jesus said it. Rather, Jesus said it because it is true. When we authorize and legitimize blame, blame becomes a demonic force. People who nurse a grudge and nourish blame, by telling themselves they are entitled to engage in it, send forth into the world that demonic force, which can come back and harm them just as it harms others. It can harm them more easily because they have given blame authority. Since they have affirmed that it is right to blame, they cannot defend themselves when the blame turns on them. Or, as we say, when they begin to blame themselves, which they do as they learn that they cannot claim to be any less of a sinner than those others they condemn, as we all learn eventually. Endorsing the use of the judicial system for the purpose of moral condemnation gives a big impetus to this demonic force I describe.

The Purpose of Judgment

I am not suggesting that the judicial system abandon its responsibility to protect us from harm. I am suggesting that judgment be oriented to the future rather than to the past. We should not shut our eyes to spiritual depravity displayed by criminals. Disposition and sentencing should take it into account for the danger it bodes for the future. To the extent that criminals show no sign of rehabilitation, we must guard ourselves against them, perhaps to the extent of executing them.

Judgments of execution bring the most heightened focus to the use of the judicial system to pass moral judgment. I believe one reason many people are against the death penalty is that it is inextricably tied up for them with moral condemnation. They know intuitively they shouldn’t base execution on moral condemnation, and so they believe there should be no executions at all.

I want to describe a scenario which helps me feel clearer on this question: Imagine a small nomadic tribal group, basically an extended family, which relies for its very survival on all its members being sane enough to not jeopardize dangerous necessary tasks like taking herds of animals across fast-moving, swollen spring rivers. A member of the group who couldn’t or wouldn’t stop acting in an anti-social, reckless way could endanger the survival of the whole extended family. I imagine that the family might have to kill such a person to survive, even though they might not want to, even though they continued to love him, and even though they might not condemn him morally. This illustrates for me how “sentencing” and even execution can function without moral condemnation. I think this is how judgment should function.

Jesus’s admonition – “Judge not lest ye be judged” – and the truth it expresses, which I urge should guide the way we look at this question, echoes the Biblical story (Genesis, Chapters 2 and 3) of our expulsion from the garden of Eden as a result of “eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”:

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying: 'Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.'

And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.

Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman: 'Yea, hath God said: Ye shall not eat of any tree of the garden?'

And the woman said unto the serpent: 'Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said: Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.'

And the serpent said unto the woman: 'Ye shall not surely die; for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.'

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves girdles. And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day; and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden.

And the LORD God called unto the man, and said unto him: 'Where art thou?'

And he said: 'I heard Thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.'

And He said: 'Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?'

When we “eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” when we see evil in the world, when we pronounce moral judgment, when we authorize the Accuser (Hebrew הַשָׂטָן - Satan) within ourselves, we become afraid, because we intuitively understand that the Accuser we have unleashed is not subject to our control, but is truly a demonic force, and we sense that we too are naked to accusation.

Eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, i.e., passing moral judgment, is a compelling idea for us because we think that to pass moral judgment is to be like God. The image of the judge issuing moral condemnation doesn’t seem wrong to us because we are still seduced by the serpent. (“Ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.”)

William Blake suggests, in his illustration to the Book of Job above, that the God many of us believe in, who rewards and punishes - the judge-god who approves or condemns - is actually the Accuser, Satan. In the Book of Job, Satan convinces God to let him test Job - to see if Job will continue to praise God when Job believes God is punishing him, as he had praised God when he believed God was rewarding him for his virtue. In punishing Job, Satan is able to make Job feel accused of sin, because Job, like many of us, believes the physical conditions of his life are rewards for virtue or punishments for sin. Blake reveals the God that appears to Job, the judge-God in which many of us believe, accusing us from the Book of the Law, to be in fact Satan, the Accuser, the inhuman demonic force that humankind unleashes by eating of the tree of the knowledge of god and evil, by legitimizing blame.

If we believe in a God who issues moral condemnation, it is difficult to wean ourselves from a belief that our judicial system, too, should do so. But we must extricate ourselves from this belief. We have to look deep into ourselves, confess that we are become the Accuser, and repent.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Free Roxana Saberi

Update: Journalist Roxana Saberi spent four months in jail after being arrested in Iran. See
Roxana Saberi's 100 Days In An Iranian Prison for an NPR interview with her on her memoir, Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran and on the other prisoners she met while she was there.
____________________________________________________________________

Roxana Saberi, age 31, is an American journalist of Iranian and Japanese descent who was arrested in February 2009, and is being held in Iran on charges of espionage, which her lawyer and the U.S. Dept. of State call baseless.

Saberi is a freelance journalist who moved to Iran six years ago, and reports for NPR, the BBC, and other news organizations.

She grew up in Fargo, N.D., the daughter of Reza Saberi, who was born in Iran, and Akiko Saberi, who is from Japan. She was chosen Miss North Dakota in 1997 and was among the top ten finalists in Miss America 1998. She graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., with degrees in communication and French.

She holds her first Master’s Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University and her second Master’s Degree in International Relations from Cambridge University.


She is currently working on yet another Masters degreee in Iranian studies and international relations.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that in 2008, Iran was the sixth-leading jailer of journalists.

(From Free Roxana Saberi)

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Medicine: Survival vs. Quality of Life

Getting Tough: Immigrants Deported by U.S. Hospitals, by Deborah Sontag, in today's New York Times, says, "Many hospitals are taking it upon themselves to repatriate seriously injured or ill immigrants because nursing homes won’t accept them without insurance."

The poor immigrants are sometimes grateful, willing to face reduced life expectancy in exchange for the gift of being able to go home.

Luis Jiménez, an illegal Guatamalan immigrant, suffered serious brain injury when he was hit by a drunken driver in a Florida car accident. Sontag says:

A community hospital saved his life, twice, and, after failing to find a rehabilitation center willing to accept an uninsured patient, kept him as a ward for years at a cost of $1.5 million.

What happened next set the stage for a continuing legal battle with nationwide repercussions: Mr. Jiménez was deported — not by the federal government but by the hospital, Martin Memorial. After winning a state court order that would later be declared invalid, Martin Memorial leased an air ambulance for $30,000 and “forcibly returned him to his home country,” as one hospital administrator described it.

Since being hoisted in his wheelchair up a steep slope to his remote home, Mr. Jiménez, who sustained a severe traumatic brain injury, has received no medical care or medication — just Alka-Seltzer and prayer, his 72-year-old mother said. Over the last year, his condition has deteriorated with routine violent seizures, each characterized by a fall, protracted convulsions, a loud gurgling, the vomiting of blood and, finally, a collapse into unconsciousness.

Many people will instinctively want to find the bad guys in this situation - the hospitals, the various governments, the illegal immigrants, their lawyers - but casting villains just short-circuits the genuine work of understanding the problem. I think when you see a story like this about people that you know are, on the whole, trying to act constructively, it can help you realize that pointing fingers isn't a good thing to do generally (as Jesus taught.)

Through legal action on Mr. Jiménez 's behalf, Sontag says, a lawyer, a paralegal, a priest and a bioethicist traveled to the Cuchumatán Mountains of Guatamala to assess his options. But the team "reached a conclusion that surprised them: There was no real compelling reason to think of bringing him back to Florida.”

“The first striking thing was his disposition: He was very, very happy,” said the Rev. Frank O’Loughlin, who pastored migrant workers in South Florida for decades. “Then, the second thing, he was well cared for.”

Sontag quotes team member Marnie R. Poncy, who is a both a nurse and a lawyer: "His quality of life is better than it would be in an American nursing home.... But I hazarded a guess that his longevity of existence was probably severely curtailed."

I gather this is the classic trade-off. Western medicine and the law around it seem to aim at extending life expectancy, even at the expense of quality of life, until someone is considered ready for hospice care.

I think a very large number of ordinary people would like to give more weight to quality of life, even when they know the consequences for shortened life expectancy, but their individual wishes currently have no avenue to reach a critical mass legally compelling enough to change the obligations that health care institutions, and the courts, feel bound by.

The ordinary peoples' lack of a voice in this is not because lawyers or anybody else are being evil, it's just the way our institutions have historically evolved. I think peoples' wishes in this respect, to have medicine focus more on quality of life, will be better heard as they support organizations and publications and laws that advance a spiritual, rather than a material, point of view.

Churches and other religious organizations probably have to be in the forefront of any successful movement in this direction, because the churches have a better chance of not being branded as "Kevorkian."

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Your Faith Has Made You Whole

I was asked the other day whether I am Christian, and I said I'm Christian but I'm not a Christian.

While Jesus was surely one of the best things to ever happen to the world, Christianity might be seen as one of the worst. One of the most harmful beliefs promulgated under the name of Christianity is that we must see Jesus as the source of salvation. I don't think Jesus taught this.

The story is told in three of the gospels of the woman who said to herself that if she could only but touch the hem of his garment, she could be healed. As it is told in Mark: 5, 24-34:
[24] And Jesus went with him; and much people followed him, and thronged him.[25] And a certain woman, which had an issue of blood twelve years,[26] And had suffered many things of many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse,[27] When she had heard of Jesus, came in the press behind, and touched his garment.[28] For she said, If I may touch but his clothes, I shall be whole.[29] And straightway the fountain of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of that plague.[30] And Jesus, immediately knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him, turned him about in the press, and said, Who touched my clothes?[31] And his disciples said unto him, Thou seest the multitude thronging thee, and sayest thou, Who touched me?[32] And he looked round about to see her that had done this thing.[33] But the woman fearing and trembling, knowing what was done in her, came and fell down before him, and told him all the truth.[34] And he said unto her, Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace, and be whole of thy plague.
In this and other situations, Jesus told people, "Your faith has made you whole." Many people, I gather, people take this to mean that it is faith in Jesus that made them whole. But I believe Jesus was telling the woman that, even though she thought, "If I may touch but his clothes, I shall be whole," that in fact it was her own faith that had made her whole.