The story of Jahi McMath is a sad one. After undergoing surgery on Dec. 9, the 13-year-old experienced complications that led to doctors declaring her brain dead on Dec. 12. Her family, however, has fought to keep her on ventilators and on Monday she was moved from the Oakland Children’s Hospital to an undisclosed care facility. My heart goes out to the family of this girl. Losing a child is always difficult, but the particularly public nature of this case only adds to that burden.
How should we think theologically about death and dying, even in such agonizing and unusual circumstances? For starters, listening to medical experts is a good thing. Good intentions and valuing life are not enough in themselves. As some experts note, keeping someone who is declared brain dead on a ventilator may do as much harm to the body as good.
Moreover, I wonder if sometimes Christians actually misunderstand the value that we should place on life. Christians have, since the time of the early church, rightly underscored the value of life, which is why most early Christians were strongly against abortion, capital punishment and killing in war. At the same time, Christians also recognize that life is not an absolute value to be maintained at any cost, a position most evident in martyrs who gladly laid down their lives.
Christians should be willing to let go, even when someone’s time to die seems incredibly out of order and painful.
In our culture, Christians must be careful that our emphasis on the value of life is tempered by a proper recognition of our creatureliness and mortality. The skyrocketing cost of health care might be blamed at least partially upon an American culture that lives in absolute fear of death. If this life is all there is, I will do anything to hang on. Ironically, then, a culture that sees no real meaning in life (other than whatever I subjectively make of it) ends up valuing life absolutely. But at the root of the value is fear.
Christians, on the other hand, value life without idolizing it, either for our own selves or for others. It was sinful Adam who wanted to be God and never die; the second Adam, Jesus, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped and willingly entered into death for our sakes. And in His death, Jesus breaks the power of death by freeing “those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” This empowers we who have been freed from fear to live a life oriented by love.
Christians should surely value life. But Christians should also be willing to let go, even when someone’s time to die seems incredibly out of order and painful, which is always the case with a child. We can let go precisely because we know that even though we grieve, death will be swallowed up in victory. Because God did not abandon Jesus to the grave, we live in faith that we will not be abandoned either. When we let go of Jahi, of our children, there is a sense in which everything changes. We might be tempted to let this change lead us back to fear. But there’s also a sense in which nothing changes: they still belong, body and soul, in life and death, to our faithful savior Jesus Christ. And that’s a promise we can hold on to even as we let go.