Thursday, March 24, 2005

Chesterton on Terri

Canadian reader Wanda Sherratt writes with a profound message that puts into words something that I believe many people feel about the Terri Schiavo case, myself included:

The discussion about comparisons between Terri Schiavo's week-long Golgotha and the crucifixion of Christ reminded me of Chesterton's The Everlasting Man and its chapter "The Strangest Story in the World." 

The comparisons you posted between the actual events of the last week of Jesus' life and the events of what will probably turn out be the last week of Terri's life are indeed striking.  But what has been haunting me all this week is the similarity in the "backdrop," so to speak--the state of the world that led to both events.  All this week, I've had a strange, dreamy feeling that I'm living through something very big that's happened before.  I don't have any illusions that the death of Terri is going to change the world like Christ's death on the cross.  But I feel as though something very deliberate is happening here, as if God were saying, "Now, watch carefully.  You've seen this before, and you know what it means." 

When I went back to read Chesterton, as I often do when I'm upset, I thought how very familiar the landscape of the 1st-century Roman Empire looked to me.  When he wrote about the world that put Jesus to death, he wrote this:  
All the great groups that stood about the cross represent in one way or another the great historical truth of the time; that the world could not save itself.  Man could do no more.  Rome and Jerusalem and Athens and everything else were going down like a sea turned into a slow cataract.  Externally indeed the ancient world was still at its strongest; it is always at that moment that the inmost weakness begins.  But in order to understand that weakness we must repeat what has been said more than once; that it was not the weakness of a thing originally weak.  It was emphatically the strength of the world that was turned to weakness and the wisdom of the world that was turned to folly.   

In this story of Good Friday it is the best things in the world that are at their worst.  That is what really shows us the world at its worst.  It was, for instance, the priests of a true monotheism and the soldiers of an international civilisation.  Rome, the legend, founded upon fallen Troy and triumphant over fallen Carthage, had stood for a heroism which was the nearest that any pagan ever came to chivalry.  Rome had defended the household gods and the human decencies against the ogres of Africa and the hermaphrodite monstrosities of Greece.  But in the lightning flash of this incident, we see great Rome, the imperial republic, going downward under her Lucretian doom.  Scepticism has eaten away even the confident sanity of the conquerors of the world.  He who is enthroned to say what is justice can only ask, 'What is truth?'  So in that drama which decided the whole fate of antiquity, one of the central figures is fixed in what seems the reverse of his true role.  Rome was almost another name for responsibility.  Yet he stands for ever as a sort of rocking statue of the irresponsible.  Man could do no more.  Even the practical had become the impracticable.  Standing between the pillars of his own judgment-seat, a Roman had washed his hands of the world.
The next section dealt with Christ's abandonment by the priests and representatives of religion, and that part I omit, because in Terri's case it's not true.  The Church has not abandoned her, but it is like the last few straggling supporters of Christ standing around the Cross—powerless to do anything but watch and grieve.  The final player in Chesterton's rendition of this story is the crowd:
But there was present in this ancient population an evil more peculiar to the ancient world.  We have noted it already as the neglect of the individual, even of the individual voting the condemnation and still more of the individual condemned.  It was the soul of the hive; a heathen thing.  The cry of this spirit also was heard in that hours, 'It is well that one man die for the people.'  Yet this spirit in antiquity of devotion to the city and to the state had also been in itself and in its time a noble spirit.  It had its poets and its martyrs; men still to be honoured for ever.  It was failing through its weakness in not seeing the separate soul of a man, the shrine of all mysticism; but it was only failing as everything else was failing.  The mob went along with the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the philosophers and the moralists.  It went along with the imperial magistrates and the sacred priests, the scribes and the soldiers, that the one universal human spirit might suffer a universal condemnation; that there might be one deep, unanimous chorus of approval and harmony when Man was rejected of men.
This is what I find most troubling about this whole matter: not that it is happening, but that it is happening HERE, to US.  If we were reading a story about Iranian mullahs or Pakistani villagers forcing a woman to starve to death, we'd shake our heads and deplore it, but we'd also secretly think that such abuses are bound to happen among such benighted people. But America today is like Rome was then - the best and highest accomplishment of human beings, and yet it's still not enough. It's failing the test, and in the same way that Rome failed.  If 'the confident sanity of the conquerors of the world' is not a fair description of America, I don't know what is, and yet this is where it has brought us.  We know what came after Rome; what can come after America, I don't know, but I do think that THIS America is not one that can resist the avalanche that's just started under its feet.

           —Wanda Sherratt