Posts Tagged dignity

Ringing the Bell of Justice

Recently one of my daughters has become very enamored of a particular story in one of her books. She asks me to read it several times in a row, several times a day, ad nauseam, to the point where I just want to throw the book out the window. But I’m glad she asks me to read it so often, because on one of these endless repetitions I saw something in this little bedtime story that made me think of the times in which we live.

The story is called “The Bell of Justice,”[1] based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It tells the tale of a village in whose square “old King John” ordered a great bell erected. Any townsperson who was wronged in any way could ring the bell to ask that justice be done, and the judge would see to it.

But, the story goes on, after many years the people of the town stopped caring about the Bell of Justice. The bell went so unused that it pull-rope rotted away. The town’s judge, who remembered and valued the bell, told a citizen to tie a forest vine to the stub that remained of the bell’s rope so that, when need arose, the bell could still be rung, even though no one had touched it or thought about it for years.

Meanwhile, the town’s knight, who was now old and gray, had stopped caring for his favorite horse, who had accompanied the knight on his adventures but was now also old. The knight saw no need to feed or care for this horse, since he no longer used the animal on a regular basis. Only on holidays or when he had occasion to go into town did the knight see a reason to feed and care for his horse.

So the horse went in search of food elsewhere and ended up wandering into the center of the town. When the horse saw the vine hanging from the Bell of Justice, he made for it right away, and as he pulled on the vine trying to detach it from the bell’s rope, the bell began to ring.

The townspeople, unused to hearing the bell, ran to the square to see what was causing it to ring. The judge, of course, also came. All were treated to the sight of a thin, sickly horse munching on the vine that had become the bell’s pull-rope.

The judge, recognizing the horse, immediately ordered that the knight care for the animal’s old age, since the horse had served him so faithfully many years ago. After this, the townspeople always remembered the Bell of Justice.

Seems like a fun little bedtime story, one that has a “surprise factor” of a horse having no idea what he’s really doing by pulling on that vine, seeking justice for himself while being unaware of the real implications of his actions. But there’s more to it.

In 2008, 64 year-old Barbara Wagner, a woman living in Oregon (the state to which Brittany Maynard moved in order to be able to legally end her life due to a diagnosis of brain cancer) experienced a recurrence of cancer, and was told that certain medications would ease her pain and help her to live with a decent quality of life until death came to her on its own. But when she tried to fill the prescription for these palliative medications, she was told that her insurance company would not cover their cost.[2]

The company would, however, cover physician-assisted suicide.

Mrs. Wagner didn’t take that option. She died about a year later, in 2009.

A similar case arose in 2008 with an Oregonian and cancer victim named Randy Stroup. In his case, the Oregon state health plan did end up paying for his palliative care.[3]

While the increasing acceptance of physician-assisted suicide – I refuse to call it “euthanasia,” a word that means “good death” – may appear to be a sign of increasing tolerance, compassion, and worship of choice, it is a sign of the increasing devaluing of human life. It tells us that human life has value only as far as it is serviceable.

Overnight, we as a society have accepted blindly the concept that human beings possess a utilitarian dignity – a dignity that comes not from a person’s nature as a human being, but from their usefulness, their ability to produce. Barbara Wagner, an aging, dying, retired school-bus driver, had according to this view nothing more to contribute. She was no longer needed. Why shell out cash to prolong the life of a person who can no longer produce? Barbara Wagner’s life was accordingly reduced to its value in money and efficiency.

Barbara Wagner’s plain, wrinkled face and age-weighted body escaped the notice of most. More recently, Brittany Maynard, twenty-nine, married, and stunning, captured the attention and compassion of the world when she teamed with Compassion and Choices (formerly The Hemlock Society) to advocate for the legalization of physician-assisted suicide in every state. Maynard was diagnosed with a hideous, aggressive brain cancer that would have eventually subjected her to excruciating physical agony and robbed her of her personality, her sanity, and her very life. She determined to end her life before those symptoms began to arise, and to become the spokesperson for the social and legal normalization of physician-assisted suicide.

There is no question that Maynard’s position was a bleak one. I’m just sad that she thought suicide was her only option.

We have arrived at a point, as a society, where we cannot see any value in suffering. We have lost the ability to see that age, illness, and horrible circumstances can indeed possess purpose.

Where do we draw the line? When do we cross over from saying that it’s okay for a person to end his life for physical terminal illness but not for depression? When does the creep begin from suicide for cancer to suicide for a bad marriage, or job loss, or any other emotional or mental anguish that makes life too hard to bear?

Why bother telling our young people to seek help for suicidal thoughts, tendencies, or attempts because their lives have value and meaning? Why bother telling people who suffer from anxiety and depression to seek counseling and medication? Why seek options for the homeless?

Indeed, why not terminate disabled children in the womb – or beyond?

Yes, Brittany Maynard had her entire life ahead of her – but the time would soon come when she would no longer be able to produce. Her usefulness to the society would be gone. I wonder if, deep down, that was the reason for the overwhelming acceptance of her choice: the tragic inevitability of her loss of usefulness. And so the outlook that defines human value as an ability to contribute to the GNP agrees that she should be able to end her life in order to allow the wheels of production to continue churning through the sewage of utility.

Like the horse in that simple bedtime story, the aged, the terminally ill, the disabled are being shunted away for their lack of utility. Like the knight, we have come to see no reason to care for anyone or anything that can no longer serve our needs or wants. Like the knight, who could not see the value of the horse as a creature simply because it was a creature, simply because it possessed the sacred breath of life, we have lost the ability to cherish life for its own sake. Like the knight, who remembered and appreciated the service his horse had rendered him in years past but has ceased to care for the animal because the animal can no longer provide that service, we honor the past contributions of human beings but define their dignity by those contributions, ceasing to assign that dignity when those contributions have come to an end – when a person becomes an inconvenience.

A major part of this tragedy is that those who suffer terminal illnesses themselves believe the lie that their lives’ value has ended when their suffering begins. They have come to accept that their usefulness has come to an end because of their suffering, and that the right choice is to end their lives. They have come to believe what our culture has begun to tell them – that they are mere things instruments, tools of utility.

Where is the judge in that bedtime story – the one who will make us see the value and dignity in that old, broken-down, sickly, precious life?


[1] In Jennifer Boudart et. al., Bedtime Stories: Lights & Music Treasury (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 2009), 34-47.

[2] See the following: Susan Harding et. al., “Health Plan Covers Assisted Suicide but Not New Cancer Treatment.” (7/31/2008, updated 10/30/2013), (accessed 11/30/2014); Susan Donaldson James et. al., “Death Drugs Cause Uproar in Oregon.” ABCNews (8/6/2008), (accessed 11/30/2014); Dr. Mark Mostert, “Barbara Wagner Faces Official Darkness in Oregon.” Disability Matters (7/8/2008), (accessed 11/30/2014); Kenneth R. Stevens, Jr., M.D., “Oregon Rationing Cancer Treatment but Offering Assisted Suicide to Cancer Patients: Paying to Die but not to Live.” Physicians for Compassionate Care (6/6/2008), (accessed 11/30/2014).

[3] See e.g. Dan Springer, “Oregon Offers Terminal Patients Doctor-Assisted Suicide Instead of Medical Care.” FOX News (7/28/2008), (accessed 11/30/2014).


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“Not My Boss’s Business!” (?…)

You had to know it was coming: a backlash against the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby that effectively protected the right of employers to live according to their conscience beyond the walls of their chosen place of worship. Recently, congressional Democrats have introduced a bill that would, if passed into law (and it probably will be, by the executive fiat of President Obama’s weighty pen), inaugurate a law separating business practices from personal convictions. Dubbed the “Not My Boss’s Business!” Act, the bill S-2575 was defeated in the Senate on July 16.

Essentially, the proposed bill aimed to create separate spaces for public life and free exercise of religion – the exact thing our nation’s Bill of Rights was intended to prevent.

But let’s take a look at the logic (or lack thereof) of the proposed “Not My Boss’s Business!” Act (henceforth NMBBA). In the first place, its very creation was a waste of time that could be better spent dealing with other major issues our nation is currently facing. (By the way, there’s a big problem at our southern border at this very moment. Maybe someone should go and check it out.) The highest court in the land has just ruled in favor of free exercise by determining that it is unconstitutional to force anyone – business owner or not – to act in a manner contrary to his or her deeply held moral convictions. The same court would strike down the NMBBA on this precedent the instant a suit was brought against it.

So I can’t help but think that the very effort to introduce this kind of legislation is nothing more than a massive temper tantrum pitched by sore losers who refuse to pack up their toys and go home.

Secondly, the concept lacks basic rational thought. (How naïve of me to expect rational thought from our nation’s leaders.) When a person’s employer facilitates the employee’s lifestyle – directly or indirectly – by providing, or consenting to provide, products and services that make it possible for the employee to engage in that lifestyle, it becomes the employer’s business.[1] The employee is demanding that the employer get involved in his or her business.

Essentially, the employee is saying this: “I want you, my boss, to make these products/services accessible because it’s none of your business.”


It’s as if a friend were to say to me: “I want you to lend me the big shovel you keep in your shed.”

I ask “Why? What are you going to use it for?”

“None of your business,” my friend replies.

Oh yes it is. It’s my shovel and my friend is asking to make use of my property. It most certainly is my business.

Then my hypothetical friend asks, “Well, can you at least direct me to a store where I can buy one?”

“Not unless you tell me what you want it for,” I respond.

Then my friend will haul me into court for denying his right to make of my property whatever use he chooses, and for refusing to provide him with alternative means when I have no idea what the end result will be.

A similar argument has been heard in recent years regarding locker inspection in public schools. Opponents of locker inspections, random or otherwise, argue that the school/state has no right to invade students’ property. But it’s not the students’ property at all – it’s the property of the school/state, which is providing the use of the lockers to the students on loan. The school/state therefore has the right to inspect its own property whenever it wants, to ensure that appropriate use is being made of that property.

Now, the counter-argument in favor of NMBBA might run something like this: “If we’re going to talk property rights, then my body is my own property and my employer has no right to interfere with anything I choose to do with it. My body and my life are not the property of my boss.”

Fair enough. Let’s talk about that.

Catholics and evangelical Christians believe that the human body was created by God – we did not create ourselves. Accordingly, men and women owe a return to their Creator for their lives. Essentially, Catholic doctrine holds that we must live in a manner consistent with the designer’s will, which can be discerned through our created nature. Anything that works in opposition to that created nature must not be embraced or encouraged.

A student in one of the high-school ethics courses I taught once asked why the church cares about gay marriage. “Seriously,” she said through her laughter, “why do they care?” She wanted to know why the Catholic Church in particular would take a public stand against something non-Catholics might do. Implicit in her question was a genuine confusion as to why the church wouldn’t just enforce certain behaviors among its own members. Why try to force atheists or Buddhists or pagans or whoever to play by your rules?

Great question. The answer has to do with concepts of human dignity and community. The church has always held that no action is truly private – every decision a person makes affects someone else, perhaps many others. The reason why my private behaviors don’t solely affect me is because I am not an island unto myself – I am a member of the human race living in community. If my private behaviors cause a mental, emotional, or spiritual cancer within myself, then because I am a member of a body, that cancer can’t help but spread. The church has long used the body metaphor, expressed so marvelously by the apostle Paul, to illustrate not only the church as body of Christ but humanity as body, with all members symbiotically connected to one another. If my hand is injured and I can’t use it for a while, it alters the behaviors of my whole body. If I have a headache, my feet can’t just decide to go off on their own and do whatever they please. They’re going to be flat on the sofa because the condition of my head demands it.

Whenever a single person makes a decision to use his or her body for self-oriented gratification, without concern for the ramifications of anyone else’s well-being, the whole body of the human race suffers. This is where our rampant, unbridled individualism is leading us – down a blissful garden path of destruction.

The body image applies to the whole human race because we are all made according to the same nature, the same design. Regardless of religious belief, or the lack thereof, the same rules apply across the board because of that shared nature and the laws of creation according to which the great Designer made us.

So according to church doctrine, it is my business when two men decide to marry each other, or when a woman decides to end the life in her womb, or when my employee wants me to ensure that she is provided with the means to contravene the natural law. It’s everyone’s business – even if not a single one of these people is Catholic or evangelical.

Not my boss’s business? Of course it is. It’s his or her business if you’re asking him or her to facilitate your lifestyle. It’s the business of the whole human race if you’re acting contrary to the natural law.

But then we arrive at Counter-argument #2: “Even if you are allowed to exercise your faith publicly, you are not allowed to discriminate against anyone.” As a Facebook friend of mine put it: “Your rights end where my freedom begins.”

There is so much to say about this, it’s tough to decide where to begin. Firstly, this attitude displays the current cultural definition of freedom: “I’m free to do whatever I want.” Catholic doctrine, however, argues that freedom includes behaving responsibly, both according to our created natures (obligation towards God) and according to the effect our actions will have on others (obligation towards the community of which each individual forms a part). Are we free to commit lawlessness, or are we free to live an authentically human life?

So many people are convinced that living an authentically human life means doing whatever they want. But if we are free to act, we are also free to refrain. St. Paul writes that we must willingly limit our freedom – and our rights – in order to serve the body.[2]

For example: I go out to dinner with a group of friends. I want to order a glass of wine with my dinner. One of my friends in the group is a recovering alcoholic.

Do I have the right to order and consume that glass of wine? Sure. Am I free to do so? Of course. But a choice lies before me: Do I say to myself “I’m free to do whatever I want,” or do I refrain from ordering the wine – essentially surrendering my right and freedom to do so – so that I will not cause distress (and temptation) to my friend?

Secondly, we should define “discrimination.” If I’m an employer who refuses to sign on to an insurance plan that covers contraception and abortifacient drugs, am I discriminating against my employee?

Two examples will illustrate the answer. Say for instance that I own a small business and you, as one of my employees, come to me and say that you need an operation for a brain tumor. Is it covered?

“Yes,” I respond.

“I also broke my leg. Is that covered too?”


“What about overnight observation for chest pain?”


“Spinal tap?”



“Sure is.”


“No way.”

Now, I’ve clearly not discriminated against you, as a person, in the past. I have provided insurance coverage for essential medical services. It was only when you arrived at a service/product with which my informed conscience genuinely takes issue that I refused. Therefore, it’s clearly the service/product against which I discriminate, not you.

And while we’re at it, we may as well have a serious discussion about whether it is “essential” for you to engage in a lifestyle that includes such products/services. Is it necessary for your continued health of mind and body that you engage in this lifestyle?

If you are a heavy smoker, would it be essential for me to provide all or a portion of your tobacco expenses? While initially this may look like an “apples/oranges” argument, it’s a valid comparison for people of certain faith convictions. A sexually promiscuous lifestyle is defined as equally dangerous – to both body and spirit – by many faith traditions.

Another example: Say for instance that “Bob,” a devout Catholic, is a florist and “Mike,” a gay man, comes into Bob’s shop to buy flowers for a graduation. Bob knows that Mike is gay.

“Sure,” says Bob.

The following week, Mike comes in to purchase a bouquet for a hospitalized friend or loved one. Again, Bob says “Sure.”

Mike then wishes to order a birthday arrangement. “Of course,” Bob says.

Mike then comes in to buy an arrangement for his wedding to his male partner, and at that point Bob refuses.

It would be difficult to argue that Bob is discriminating against Mike as a gay person. If that were the case, Bob would have refused to serve Mike when the latter first entered the shop. But that is not the case. Bob has done business with Mike the entire time, ceasing to do so only when Mike requested that Bob facilitate an event that Bob does not wish to support because said event is contrary to his conscience.

The scary thing about all of this is that this conversation is not even allowed in the public square without accusations that those who dissent from the prevailing cultural paradigm are “haters” and should accordingly be automatically dismissed, if not altogether silenced by punitive measures such as hate-speech legislation. When we begin to characterize opposing views as hate speech, debate and discourse come to an end before they even have a chance to begin.



[1] I’m not the only one who’s noticed this contradiction. See e.g. (accessed 7/17/14).

[2] E.g. Romans 14:1-15; Galatians 5:13; 1 Corinthians 12-13.


Further Reading:

“Get Involved: Not My Boss’s Business!” NARAL Pro-Choice America, 2014. (accessed 7/17/14).

“Dems Strike Back on Hobby Lobby Case with ‘Not My Boss’s Business’ Act.” ABC News, 7/9/2014, (accessed 7/17/14).

“‘More Respect for Religious Freedom’ Needed After Failed Senate Vote to Curtail It.” U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 7/16/2014. (accessed 7/17/14).

Paul Singer and Valerie Dekimpe, “Senate GOP blocks bill to overturn Hobby Lobby ruling.” USA Today, 7/16/14. (accessed 7/17/14).


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