Saturday, March 24, 2012

Choose Life! (Reflections on Deuteronomy 30:19)

Somehow the term “pro life” has been co-opted to mean a code word for anti-abortion. According to that view, this eight-celled embryo is entitled to all rights of personhood under the U.S. Constitution: 

Choosing life is much broader, however, than such a narrow construction of the word “life” might imply.  Consider, as just one example of “choosing life,” the words of Deuteronomy Chapter 30:

15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
What does this passage teach about what it means to choose life, in the fullest sense of the word?   I think it’s pretty broad!   Choosing life is not just to choose not to have an abortion.  It is also not about choosing to go to war or not to go to war.  It is much broader and more encompassing, taking into account the entire spectrum of decisions we make each and every day. 

 Look at just a few specifics from this chapter:
  • love the Lord your God,
  • listen to his voice,
  • walk in obedience,
  • keep his commands, decrees and laws,
  • do not worship other Gods.  
In other words, the decision to choose life is not just one decision on one narrow topic.   Choosing life is an expression of an entire understanding of everything we learn from scripture. 

Jesus stated it so simply, yet we can spend a lifetime learning how to do what he instructs (quoting Luke 10:27): 

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, love your neighbor as yourself.

That is what it means to choose life.  How we respond to this affects every aspect of our lives.  Our mental attitude of choosing life (or not choosing life) affects how we think about self, about other, and about what it means to walk rightly with God. 

In the end, does this way of thinking lead full circle and tell us nothing new, at all?  Is the only thing we can take away from these verses the notion that we should learn more and devote ourselves to loving God and to being better people generally? 

I propose that it would be fair to take this whole notion of “choosing life” in a more literal sense.  Taken literally, what does it mean to choose LIFE? Whether metaphorical or literal, choosing between life and death is a pretty stark contrast. Life, death. One or the other.  Literally, choosing life. 


“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”

As far as we know, ours is the only planet anywhere that has life. Verdant, green, growing, small, large, microscopic, behemoth, life!   Dare we to think that God only means human life?  Does the Bible say, "choose human life?"  And, if we use the term "life," in its broader sense, what actions do we take in order to "choose life?"  Does this mean we should respect life? take care of it?

Do we appreciate it at all?

In the last two days, my mind has been assaulted by two facts that seem, to me, to reveal that humans do not naturally choose life.  In one instance, I came across this photograph.  This is an endangered species of bat.  Why did these men kill it?  Was it just for the fun of hanging it up and putting a cigarette in its mouth?  Is this what it means to choose life? 
bat dead

In a second instance, I read the story of the tree that was colloquially named Prometheus.  In 1964, a Ph.D. candidate doing research on the Little Ice Age procured permission from the U.S. Forest Service to fell the tree, because he was frustrated by his inability to extract core samples from it using a boring tool.  He had broken off two long borers, and he was frustrated because he wanted to measure the rings.  So, he applied to cut down the tree so that he could measure its age and study its growth rings.  His application was approved, and he cut down the tree.  It turns out that he had cut down the world’s oldest known non-clonal living organism.  It was at least 4,862 years old.  Well, it was the world’s  oldest living thing until it was killed by that graduate student.   Here is a photo of the stump that is left of the tree that was once called Prometheus:

Oops.  So much for that choice.

And that’s the thing.  Once we kill life, it’s dead.  Once Prometheus was felled, no one could go back and undo the killing. To stop death, we have to be pro-active. Once the killing has been done, nothing can be done to go back and restore the life which has been lost.

These skulls are from the killing fields of Cambodia, not even the most recent massacre of our times.

(Photo by Brad Barnes, taken near Phnom Penh, Cambodia, courtesy Wikimedia commons)
Arrogant assertions to the contrary, we humans can’t actually create life.   An honest look at our place in the order of nature reveals that we ourselves are nothing but dust.  The literalists will be happy to learn that the word Adam, fundamentally, means made from red dust or red colored clay. 

And look at Ecclesiastes 3:19: “For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other.  They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity.”

Is it such a stretch, for us, to choose life?!  Is it so hard to apply the words of the Bible, to choose LIFE,  in a literal sense, as well as a figurative one? 

Do we have such difficulty choosing life because to do so means to put some other interest above our desires?  Would we rather not consider others, to put care for an OTHER over and above our own selfish interests, over and above our own gluttony?   And, do we have such a hard time having compassion at all, that we limit our compassion to our family, to our tribe, or to the tribe of humans, to the exclusion of all other forms of life? 
“Okay,” you might say, “I’ve never committed murder, so get off your soap box.”  But ahem, unfortunately, there is a slippery slope.  Murder is an obvious example of not choosing life, but there is a connection on a smaller level as well.  Every decision involves this stark contrast, to some degree or another. There is a direct link between my everyday actions and the decision choose life.  As if we were going up and down on a number line, toward the positive or the negative, there is virtually no “neutral” course in life.  Take, for example, my use of electricity.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, I like my light bulbs.  I like having electricity.  I like cooking using heat from some source.  Well, what if the coal used to create electricity for my cooking stove comes from a mountaintop removal strip mine?
This photograph taken by the EPA of the Peabody Coal Company strip mine is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In every case, when we make a decision to choose life, what does that mean?   (I wrote about the link between my light bulbs, mountaintop removal strip mining, and asthma rates in a Tennessee town in a blog post HERE.) 

What if the firewood this woman uses for cooking comes from virgin forest?  Does it mean that  I condemn this woman because she wants to cook her food?  Sometimes it comes down to hard choices. 

The photograph just above is actually a friend of mine who lives in China.  To her way of thinking, the energy that would be required to fuel an oven to bake a potato would be a huge extravagance. It takes so much less energy to flash up a little fire and quickly sizzle some food in a wok.  She views my use of an oven as wasteful. 
Oh, and then there’s another issue. Scapegoating, blaming, and finger pointing. Speaking of virgin forest and cooking, we all want to point fingers at people in other parts of the world. Here in the USA, we cry, "Let's save the rain forests in the Amazon!"

But on the subject of virgin forests, what about examining something closer to home, something as close as the source for our our own toilet paper?   According to the Guardian UK, more than 98% of toilet paper used by Americans comes from virgin forests.  Some environmental groups claim that American toilet paper habits (we use substantially more than other cultures) cause more environmental damage than our love of gas guzzling cars.  Id.   As we point our indes finger at some injustice somewhere else in the world, are we willing to pay heed to the three other fingers on our hand that still point backwards at ourselves? 
Just look at ourselves!  In the book Losing Our Cool, author Stan Cox documents that Americans use more electricity on air conditioning alone than is used by the entire continent of Africa!  Perhaps you, like me, are tempted to think that when we choose AC on a hot summer day, we are in fact choosing life.  But the choice is not always what it seems.  Like a rotten corpse with makeup applied, here is what we are in fact choosing":  
mountaintop removal mine
Someplace like this is likely to be the source for the coal that fires our local electric plant.  (This photograph of the former Kayford Mountain in West Virginia was taken in 2003 by Vivian Stockman.  The original photograph can be found HERE. )
In all of our choices, we are to choose life.  Somehow, it seems to me, that choosing a mountaintop removal mine is not a choice for life. 
Is knowing what we ought to do, so difficult?  Or, is the problem not so much that we can’t understand as much as that we don’t want to understand? 
Do we have difficulty linking our air conditioning with mountaintop removal mining simply because, even though we know the answer,  we don’t want to hear it?  We would perhaps prefer to choose gluttony, satisfaction of temporary selfish needs, instead of life?  On a different scale, perhaps this is similar to my choice to eat a dessert instead of engaging in half an hour of exercise.  Both are choices that in a small way are linked to the choice between life and death.  I know what I ought to do, to lengthen the span of my days (and shorten the span of my girth), but do I do it? 
Yes, I want to choose life.  But how?  That’s really the question, isn’t it?  What can we do, and how can we do it?  That’s my real prayer, I guess.  First, to have knowledge and wisdom to discern what is truth, what is life.  But second, to have the strength and fortitude to do that which I know I ought. 
God, please give me strength to choose Life!
daffodils by Ann Begler
This photo of daffodils was taken by Ann Begler, an attorney mediator who graciously gave permission for me to use it. 


From Job chapter 28

People assault the flinty rock with their hands and lay bare the roots of the mountains. They tunnel through the rock;  their eyes see all its treasures. They search the sources of the rivers and bring hidden things to light. But where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell? . . .
And he said to the human race, “The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.”

In conclusion:  Light or darkness.  Good or evil.  Gluttony or self discipline. 

How will each of us choose?   

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