Who has responsibility for your body? Whose bodies do you have responsibility for? I came across a news story with fascinating theological and political implications , happening right here in Vancouver.
The basic outline of the story: A Jehovah’s Witness couple has sextuplets. No surprise, the little fellows are a bit underweight, and in need of some medical attention. The Witnesses’ beliefs forbid them from taking blood transfusions. Doctors believe that this is just what the young ones need. Witnesses refuse. Social services takes custody of three of the babies in order to give transfusions against the parents’ will.
Now, we can all agree that it is a good thing for babies to live – no one in the situation wants the babies to die. The Witnesses believe that their faithfulness (in refusing the transfusions) outweighs the risk of (disobediently) intervening to save the lives of the children. If the god in whom they believe desires these children to live, he will grant them life apart from transfusions. But beyond that initial agreement, the situation quickly becomes very sticky.
Do we (as the collective gathered to govern the society in which we live) really want to presume the authority to intervene in issues of religious doctrine? Is that intervention possible to avoid? The government of British Colombia wouldn’t come within shouting distance of most “religious” issues. But where is the dividing line?
Granted, this situation could be cast in secular light as a question of life and death, and/or child abuse, but the Witnesses can’t help but see that secular intervention as an alternative (and hostile) religious position. Essentially the state is telling these parents, “your doctrine is false, your belief constitutes child abuse, and therefore, you have abdicated your responsibility as parents.” We, as the state, have decided (have we?) that we have a responsibility to terminate the parental responsibilities of those who act in ways which we consider abusive. The fact that this case involves religious belief adds a very interesting wrinkle. The message sent by the government today is that we have the responsibility to break family relationships and take responsibility for persons where religious beliefs prove destructive. Whether or not you agree with the particular religious beliefs in question, and I’d assume that almost all of us (myself included) do not, it is clear that the government is considering itself something of a religious authority in this matter (even as it couches it’s decision in patently secular terms).
How far are we willing to push this presumption of authority? How deep do civil liberties run? How tolerant are we of religious minorities? Are their other conceivable cases where the state would presume religious authority? Does the authority of the state trump the authority of a family?
Do we want the state that represents us to recognize the believer’s responsibility to obey the command of God above all else? I think so! Do we need to put boundaries on what can constitute the command of God? Yes… How does that function within a pluralistic society? It is patently impossible, try as we might, to separate government from religious questions. The separation of Church and State really only functions smoothly in a culture where there is an overwhelming majority (presuppositional) religious position. Where there is great diversity (atheism, various splinters of Christianity, consumer pragmatism, etc.), the stance of the government toward various areas of life (which inevitably overlap with “religious” questions) will be contentious and difficult – and the majority, or the loudest voices, will trump the dissenting point of view. I’m not necessarily advocating closer ties between government and religious bodies – I’m only pointing out the impossible contradiction that is the abstract ideal separating church and state.