When thinking about euthanasia* recently I found myself also thinking about the samurai of ancient Japan. In particular, my thoughts turned to a book titled Hagakure (“hidden leaves”) written in 1716 by a samurai called Yamamoto Tsunetomo.
According to Yamamoto, the Way of the Samurai is essentially the way of death. It involves being prepared to lay down one’s life for one’s master, one’s comrades, one’s ideals, and one’s honour.
Hence Yamamoto states, “the Way of the Samurai is, morning after morning, the practice of death, considering whether it will be here or be there, imagining the most sightly way of dying, and putting one’s mind firmly in death. Although this may be a most difficult thing, if one will do it, it can be done.” (p.73) “When one’s own attitude on courage is fixed in his heart, and when his resolution is devoid of doubt, then when the time comes he will of necessity be able to choose the right move.” (p.46) “Thinking about things previously and then handling them lightly when the time comes is what this is all about.” (p.27) “It is important to have resolution beforehand.” (p.36)
What have Yamamoto’s precepts got to do with euthanasia? Just this: Yamamoto is profoundly right when he speaks about the need for resolve in advance of the event.
We need to settle our opposition to euthanasia now—now—before we ourselves are faced with dreadful circumstances. We need to resolve now that we are on the side of life, no matter what. We need to resolve now that we will not resort to euthanasia in order to end our own suffering or the suffering of those we love. We need to resolve now to accept that God is sovereign and he alone has the right to determine the time and manner of our death. We need to resolve now that God is good and he will not allow us to suffer beyond our endurance. We need to resolve now that we will not kill ourselves out of rebellion or pride or cowardice, but will rather accept, if God decrees, the humiliation of decrepitude and dependency. We need to resolve now that we will not kill others out of selfishness when they are decrepit and dependent on us. We need to resolve now that the only good death is the death through which the Good Shepherd comforts and accompanies us with his rod and his staff.
In the matter of euthanasia, if we fail to determine our position in the present, we may well fail to perform our duty in the future. For as Yamamoto states, “To face an event and solve it lightly is difficult if you are not resolved beforehand, and there will always be uncertainty in hitting your mark.” (p.27)
Of course, what is true for euthanasia is true for other moral issues as well—issues such as abortion, pre-marital sex, embryonic stem cell research, marriage with unbelievers, homosexuality, et cetera. Long before such issues touch us personally, we need to decide what is right and to determine where we stand. Long before we are faced with an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy, for example, we should determine that the killing of unborn babies is wrong, and determine never to do it. Long before a friend or a relative becomes involved in homosexuality, we should determine that same-gender sex is wrong and determine never to excuse it.
A key reason for moral failure in Christians is a mental failure “to have resolution beforehand”. With God’s grace, we can rectify this problem by following the advice of Yamamoto. His advice relates to the Way of the Samurai, which is the way of death. But there is no reason why it cannot be applied to the Way of the Christian, which is the way of life. Accordingly, let us form and fix our intentions in our hearts in advance, “then when the time comes [we] will … choose the right move.”
* Euthanasia often involves the administration of drugs for the express purpose of killing a patient, supposedly to end his/her suffering. This should not be confused with the administration of drugs for the purpose of relieving pain, even if an unintended side effect is the shortening of the patient’s life.
© Andrew Lansdown