23 January 2007

Speaking Ethically No. 9

By Rod Benson

March 2007

Christians often invoke the parable of the “Good Samaritan” to illustrate the need for compassion and altruism in response to human need. It is one of the most ethically significant stories Jesus used to teach right attitudes and right action.

But as Alan Verhey well points out in his fascinating book, Reading the Bible in the Strange World of Medicine, the high cost of health care and the scarcity of medical resources may limit the extent to which the Good Samaritan ethic applies today.

What if the oil and wine, and the stay at the inn, leave the patient barely alive and in permanent care? Should the Samaritan continue to pay for this care? What if there are ten, or a hundred, patients? Which ones should he rescue? What if all the beds in all the inns are in use? What happens when funds dry up?

Peter Singer raises similar issues in the care of extremely premature babies, citing a report in the November 2006 issue of the Medical Journal of Australia.

He observes that no babies under 26 weeks gestation in NSW and ACT between 1998 and 2006 survived without admission to a neonatal intensive care unit. Between 23 and 25 weeks, 65 per cent survived, but up to two-thirds had severe functional disability. Of those born at 25 weeks, only 13 per cent had severe functional disability.

To draw a line, say at 24 weeks, and say that no child born prior to that cut-off should be treated would avoid much soul-searching and save the community the expense of medical treatment likely to prove futile, as well as the need to support severely disabled children who survive. But it represents institutional interference, and removes parental freedom.

Instead, a workshop of health professionals has defined a “grey zone,” between 23 and 26 weeks, within which the decision to administer treatment is left with the parents.

This recognises the need for parents to participate in life-and-death decisions about infants at the margins of viability, and acknowledges that reasonable limits to medical treatment are desirable.

In a less-than-perfect world, some situations may call for “Fair Samaritans.”

Rev Rod Benson is Director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at Morling College, Sydney.
Speaking Ethically No. 8

By Rod Benson

December 2006

For many Australians, Christmas is that peak commercial period between Halloween and Valentine’s Day. It’s a time to give free rein to festivity and frivolity and greed.

We yearn for fake snow, pine and deer in our homes and shopping centres – while singing platitudes about jingle bells and Jesus. No wonder it’s “the silly season.” But life was utterly different for those who shaped the original Christmas story.

In Exiles, alluding to Richard Adams’ classic tale Watership Down, Michael Frost reminds us that

Christian experience is not primarily formed by our liturgy, doctrine, or ecclesiology … [but] by the dangerous stories of our great hero … radical stories of Jesus, the prince with a thousand enemies.

The most dangerous story of all is the story of Christmas. At his birth, Jesus was as vulnerable, dependent and small as you and I were at birth. Socially he was marginalised by his birth to a poor tradesman and his teenage fiancĂ©. Culturally the family was excluded by their Nazarene roots and their looks – no room at the inn for such as these.

Later they were politically exiled out of fear of Herod’s sword. And for three decades they were
virtually forgotten, until Jesus stood to speak in the synagogue at Nazareth, and swiftly assumed the mantle of the exile. But that’s another story.

The experience of marginalisation, exclusion and exile, reflected in the faces of the young Mary and Joseph, and in the cries of the infant Jesus, is worth some reflection.

To what extent, and to what purpose, do we shield ourselves from the experience of exile? What do we lose by convincing ourselves of respectability, surrounding ourselves with things, and amusing ourselves to death?

To what extent do we, followers of this extraordinary exile, allow the soft clay of our lives to be touched and shaped by the values and practices that shaped him? Food for thought this silly season.

Rev Rod Benson is Director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at Morling College, Sydney.
Speaking Ethically No. 7

By Rod Benson

November 2006

In July and August scenes of destruction, despair and death filled our TV screens as conflict between Israel and Lebanon escalated into war. Hundreds died, most in Lebanon and almost all civilians. Israel also inflicted massive infrastructure damage to southern Lebanon, while Hezbollah terrorized northern Israelis with multiple daily missile strikes.

Israel claimed its legitimate right to self-defence, and Hezbollah retaliated in the name of religion. Meanwhile the U.S. government linked the conflict to the so-called “war on terror,” and implicitly implicated Syria or Iran. In my opinion, Hezbollah terrorism must cease, but so must the disproportionate Israeli aggression in this and similar conflicts.

Aside from the tragedy of preventable suffering and death, and ethical questions about war, another issue concerns thoughtful Christians. Some well-meaning Christians identify military conflicts in the Middle East with the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and the return of Christ – which in turn is exploited by foreign policy-makers and political Zionism.

Such fears and hopes are fed by fundamentalist websites, dispensationalist authors such as Tim LaHaye, and other neo-conservatives on the extremist fringe of the American Christian Right. RaptureReady.com, for example, posts an index estimating the imminence of the “rapture” on the basis of selected world events.

But the recent war in Lebanon, or Jews fighting Arabs anywhere, or even modern Israel’s political existence, has little to do with biblical prophecy. Christians should resist putting a theological or eschatological overlay on Middle East politics and wars. In particular, evangelism based on this theme is misguided and inevitably discredits both messenger and message.

Our emphasis should be on “leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming Day of God” (2 Peter 3:11-12). We can pray for peace, lobby our politicians to exert appropriate diplomatic pressure on the players, and send aid where it is most needed.

Baptist World Aid Australia is continuing to assist refugees and displaced persons in Lebanon, and preparing to meet immediate and longterm needs, and they desperately need our help. I urge you to do something to promote justice and peace today.

Rev Rod Benson is Director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at Morling College, Sydney.

Recommended websites:

Baptist World Aid Australia (click “Middle East crisis”):

George Marsden, “The sword of the Lord”:

Andrew Cameron & Tracy Nodder, “Justice and hate”:

The Rapture Index: