In the movie Grand Canyon, Simeon (Danny Glover) is a lawyer who gets lost while driving. To add insult to injury, his car breaks down.
When trying to figure out what is wrong with his car, Simeon is surrounded by a gang of men. Before Simeon is harmed, a tow truck driver arrives and rescues him. As the driver is hooking up Simeon’s car to the truck, he offers a simple reflection:
Man, the world ain’t s’pposed to work like this. Maybe you don’t know that, but this ain’t the way it’s s’pposed to be. I’m s’pposed to be able to do my job without askin’ you if I can. And that dude is s’pposed to be able to wait with his car without you rippin’ him off. Everything’s s’pposed to be different than what it is here.
The driver’s brief comment in the movie points to a deeper theological truth we experience each day. The good world God created (Genesis 1:31) has been fundamentally transformed by the actions of humans.
Prior to the Fall in Genesis 3, humans communed in an unfettered manner with God. Adam and Eve lived in harmony with nature as they worked to cultivate the world’s flourishing.
After the Fall, the harmony Adam and Eve enjoyed had been rescinded as they were left with the consequences of their actions.
Today, humans’ lived experience can be understood by the tow truck driver’s profound theological exposition: this is not the way things are supposed to be.
And then came disease
Disease stems from two words dis and ease, meaning a lost sense of comfort and normalcy in a person’s lived experience. Disease is biologically understood as a disruption of the normal functions and capacities of the human body.
As Jean-Claude Larchet contends in The Theology of Illness, humans recognize their disease most profoundly, not when pain is experienced, but when humans are removed from their community. It is in this temporary seclusion that we come to reckon with our finitude, fragility, and isolation in the world.
God did not make humans to be alone in the world and face our frailties without others. We are supposed to be in community, pursuing flourishing with each other, helping one another when needed.
In short, the human condition ought to be a communal enterprise without disease or disruption. When we experience disease, it is, as the tow truck driver would say, “everything s’pposed to be different than what it is here.”
Despite the catastrophic effects of the Fall, God did not stop giving gifts to the world. One of these gifts God has given is medicine. Through medicine, the sick are healed and allowed to return to their pursuit of flourishing within their community.
Further, through preventative medicine, humans are offered medications that attempt to avert illness, staving off the potential separation that would come because of the illness. The issue for medicine is that, just like the fallen world around us, medicine is fraught with complexities.
Medicine is not the incarnation of God, nor does it possess incarnational characteristics, so flaws should be expected. However, expectations for the purpose of medicine do not eliminate the complications nor resolve the ethical complexities it presents.
The key questions become:
- In what ways should Christians participate in medicine?
- Further, how can the Christian move prudently despite its corruption?
The consideration is that Christians should participate in medicine in two ways.
First, Christians ought to participate in medicine for the purpose of caring for our bodies.
When God created Adam and Eve, the second task was to have dominion over the Earth (Genesis 1:28). This dominion is not permission to exploit or continually abuse, but to have dominion as intended by the creation account in Genesis 1 is caring for the Earth in such a way that cultivates its flourishing.
Implicit in God’s commands to care for creation is to care for our bodies.
Since our bodies are part of creation, it is of theological importance and reasonability that we care for them as well. To care for our bodies when sick necessarily implies we are proactive in the return of our bodies to the state of flourishing as it was before the illness. This creates a prudent framework that is accepting medical interventions such as surgery, noninvasive treatments, and other medical treatment.
Further, dominion over our bodies within the context of preventative medicine (exercise, vaccines, antibiotics, regular checkups, etc.) means that, responsibly, we can seek to avoid illness so that we are not removed from community and prohibited from pursuing flourishing.
Second, Christians should participate in medicine through their care for the marginalized and the oppressed.
In Matthew 25, Jesus commands his followers to offer medicine to the lowest in society because it is with them that we find Jesus. Additionally, as will be unpacked in a later article, the sick are often marginalized in American society due to medical injustice. From the early chapters in Genesis to the final chapters in Revelation, the work of justice is woven heavily throughout Scripture.
Thus, Christian participation in medicine as an activity of justice and restoration is a necessity because it is congruent with the nature and behaviors of God and God’s desires.
Should Christians take medicine?
By understanding Christians should participate in medicine, it is then reasonable to ask how Christians should participate in medicine.
As aforementioned, medicine is a complicated field filled with a plethora of ethical ambiguities. Medications such as Tylenol, Advil, and Aspirin, employed aborted fetal cell tissue at some point during their respective research and development processes. One of the best resources for human anatomy is a result of the work of Nazi doctors on Jews in concentration camps. Additionally, even foundational research concerning hepatitis and hepatitis care derives from the abuse of orphaned children at Willowbrook.
Does this mean that Christians should reject these advancements and refuse the treatments that come as a result because of their unethical origins?
In short, no.
A Christian can ethically take and apply medical research, development, and practice that was acquired or discovered through unethical means in so far we did not have any participation in unethical research, nor do we actively participate in systems today that promote unethical behavior.
For example, taking Tylenol is not a perpetuation of abortion because the line of aborted fetal tissue used in pharmaceutical development was harvested some forty years ago. The continual use of this fetal tissue is categorically different from aborting a baby and subsequently using its fetal tissue for scientific research.
In this example, the injustice (abortion of the baby) has occurred and cannot occur again for the purpose of acquiring the same sample of fetal tissue used in the development of the vaccines. As a result, Christians can receive medicine’s benefits without a stained conscience because their partaking of the shot did not contribute to the unjust death.
However, the absence of an unjust action does not alleviate the Christian’s continual requirement not only to be aware of medical development, but it further compels Christians to advocate for just systems of research, development, and use of medicine.
A Christian’s responsibility
In doing so, not only does an unjust system become eliminated, but we promote the system that allows for the flourishing of all involved. To do so might look like ensuring there is an equal distribution of resources across all socioeconomic groups. Or, working toward a more just system of medicine might mean advocating for the end of using aborted fetal tissue in scientific research and development.
The Christian commitment to a just practice of medicine requires cognition of the system, education on the alternatives, and action to bring about change.
The world around us is “s’pposed to be different than what it is here,” but that does not mean when humans are given a gift that we abdicate the use of the gift because of its fallen nature. Certainly, medicine poses serious ethical challenges, and sometimes it can feel as though none of the viable options are appropriate. Such should be encouragement and motivation for a new system of practice that ultimately cares for creation and ourselves, as well as the marginalized and the oppressed.
In doing so, we face the world of fallen medicine hoping and working toward a more ethical system because of what medicine can do as it brings God’s creation closer to an Edenic state.
This is Part 1 of a six-part series on “6 topics in biomedical ethics every Christian should be concerned about.”