Friday 18 July 2014

Assisted dying: choice for whom?

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” John Donne

The surprising u-turn by the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey contributed to an extensive debate on assisted dying in the media this week.  Today the House of Lords is debating Lord Falconer’s bill on this topic.  Should assisted dying be legalised, it would cause five relational fissures to weaken society:

1. The relationship between words and meaning: ‘assisted dying’ is what happens daily when thousands of relatives and people in caring professions help make the last weeks of a person’s life as comfortable as possible, not just physically but emotionally and relationally too.  This debate is not about assisted dying, but assisted suicide.
2. The relationship between doctors and their patients: assisted suicide that requires doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs would force them to break the Hippocratic Oath and turn their ethics – and relationship with patients – upside down.  If medics are given legal powers to take life not just save life, the ground rules of the doctor-patient relationship will be forever altered.
3. The relationship between old people and their relatives/carers: thousands of old people are abused every year as it is; this law would leave frail people vulnerable to the notion that they have become too much of a burden to others. To allow the option of ‘sparing’ their carers and family by requesting assisted suicide would place a huge moral dilemma on many of them.
4. The relationship between vulnerable people and wider society: even though this change of law is intended for just a small number of cases, it would normalise assisted suicide and make it socially acceptable. It would then be just a matter of time until assisted suicide is not just permitted but expected – and thus increase the sense of isolation and rejection felt by old people.
5. Lastly, the relationship between the financial industry and law makers: lurking in the shadows in this debate is the substantial economic benefit to the insurance and pension industries (both government and private) should it be possible to hasten the death of the sick and elderly.  Legalising assisted suicide would prise open the door to economic factors to influence future debates in parliament and the courts on euthanasia.
The arguments for assisted suicide are about increasing individual choice – but should this trump all else?  Any change in the law of the land must consider all who would be affected by it – everyone who is implicated relationally or caught up in the unintended consequences.

Read on…
George Carey’s views can be read here, and a considered response by Ian Paul here.  Alternatively, you might like to watch a summary of the Westminster Faith Debate on this very issue here

Walk the talk:
Dying well is much more than a pain-free death – it includes the relational elements of saying thank you, sorry, and I love you.  Have you thought through what dying well would constitute for you? 

The last word:
From the Bible, Genesis 25 verse 8: “Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.”

Sunday 20 April 2014

Easter Day visual interlude

The Raising of Lazarus, by Eduard von Gebhardt (1896) 

Von Gebhardt came from a Prussian family and grew up in what is now Estonia, where his father was a devout Lutheran.  His Protestant faith drew him to painting biblical scenes especially depicting miracles of healing, such as this one of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (from John’s gospel, chapter 11).

This miracle was a pivotal one in the gospel account, for it set in motion the chain of events which would lead to Jesus’ own arrest, trial and execution, which Christians remember at Easter.  Jesus was already wanted by the religious authorities in Jerusalem, and he had been steering clear of the region for some time.  But then his close friends Mary and Martha sent word for him to come and heal their brother Lazarus, who was very ill, just two miles from Jerusalem in Bethany. 

Jesus waited before coming but by then Lazarus was dead.  The sisters were grief-stricken and confused – they believed Jesus loved them, and that he could heal their brother, so why had he delayed?  But when he called Lazarus from the grave, Jesus was not only bringing an unspeakable joy to his friends, but also calling them to a deeper level of faith in him – that he would not only heal sickness, but also triumph over death.

Gebhardt longed to connect the truth of this story to his own life and times, so he set the scene in a contemporary graveyard, but with costumes from the 16th century – perhaps in recognition of Luther’s teaching about faith in Christ, which was so influential to the artist.

More than that, he was stretching out in faith by portraying his own terminally ill wife as Martha, kneeling just behind her sister Mary in the painting.  Jesus is explaining something to them, perhaps, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (John 11:40)

All this would gather into a climax a few weeks later, when it would be Jesus’ lifeless body in the tomb, and the sisters would be mourning for a second time…  But then there would be an unwavering gleam of hope, like the dawn on the horizon of Gebhardt’s painting, which would soon turn into the full wonder of the first Easter sunrise.

Easter Night

All night had shout of men, and cry
Of woeful women filled His way;
Until that noon of sombre sky
On Friday, clamour and display
Smote Him; no solitude had He,
No silence, since Gethsemane.
Public was Death… but Power, but Might,
But Life again, but Victory,
Were hushed within the dead of night,
The shutter'd dark, the secrecy.
And all alone, alone, alone,
He rose again behind the stone.

Alice Meynell (1847-1922)


Friday 11 April 2014

Learning from MH370

“Sometimes, when one person is missing, the whole world seems depopulated.”  Alphonse de Lamartine (French writer and poet, 1790-1869)

Since 239 passengers and crew took off for a routine flight to Beijing on the ill-fated MH370 five weeks ago, 26 nations have been involved in searching for the missing plane, and scores of sailors and airmen are scouring the southern Indian Ocean for the slightest clue.  Meanwhile, hundreds of angry, confused relatives are caught in the suspended grief associated with ‘ambiguous loss.’

The technical challenges have been formidable: analysing complex data from satellites to try and narrow down the search zone; racing against time to detect signals from the black box before the battery runs out; and still to come, attempting to locate actual wreckage on the uncharted seabed 4,500m below the surface.

Yet behind these technical issues are relational ones.  No defence forum exists in South Asia, to coordinate international responses to such incidents.  Thus the search began slowly and has gone erratically at times because of the lack of trust between the major nations involved. China, India and USA have been reluctant to share their radar data or high resolution satellite imagery for fear of revealing their military technology – or perhaps lack of it.  

The Malaysian government’s handling of the crisis has also been fraught with relational problems.  Their inability to separate the security and PR issues from their responsibility towards the families of the missing people meant communication was sporadic and lacking in transparency.  This was aggravated when the authorities broke the news that the plane had certainly crashed to the relatives through a text message.

It’s essential to find the wreckage now and understand what went so tragically wrong on the final flight of MH370, and steps taken to reduce the risk of it happening again.  But equally vital is to bring closure to the hundreds of friends and loved ones who are hanging in limbo between a faint glimmer of hope and the gathering storm clouds of grief. 

In time, investment in new technologies will overcome the technical challenges and limitations brought to light through this tragedy; might the same level of resources and effort be invested in addressing some of the relational weaknesses too? 

Read on…
The R Option by Michael Schluter and David Lee looks at different themes and issues from a relational perspective; read the chapter about loss here.

Walk the talk
How well prepared are you for helping people cope with unexpected loss or tragedy?  Is this something you might take time to learn more about?

The last word 
From the Bible, Psalm 34 verse 18: “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

Friday 21 March 2014

The currency of welfare

“Jews know this in their bones. Our community could not exist for a day without its volunteers. They are the lifeblood of our organizations, whether they involve welfare, youth, education, care of the sick and elderly, or even protection against violence and abuse.” Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi

Chancellor George Osborne proposed some radical changes to UK pension arrangements in this week’s Budget, offering more individual choice to new retirees on how to manage their pension pot.  Although debate has continued since then over the impact this will have on the state’s finances, two things stand out. 

Firstly, the yawning gap of unfunded pension liabilities – £3.8 trillion (over 3 times the national debt) in the basic state pension alone. This is the difference between what the state has promised to pay to those retired or in work now, and the anticipated revenues to cover it.  Secondly, more older people vote than young ones (70% of over 65s, 39% of 18-24 year olds) so governments are loath to squeeze pensions; Mr Osborne knows very well that the pensioner vote can determine an election.

Aside from pensions, healthcare and other costs of caring for older people will also spiral with an ageing population, which means the welfare system in its present form is completely unsustainable.

The welfare state is less than 70 years old, so the concept that the government is ultimately responsible for welfare provision, through financial payments, is a relatively new one.  It is families and friends who in the past and even now provide the lion’s share of welfare; unpaid carers gave time worth £119 billion in 2011, larger than the whole NHS budget.   

Thus welfare is not just an economic issue, but a relational one too.  As state financial provision dwindles in the coming decades, it’s imperative to consider how to re-empower families and community organisations as society’s primary source of welfare, so the state only has to step in as provider of last resort.  This won’t happen overnight, but government could pave the way now through housing policy, devolving welfare decisions, and providing tax incentives for colocation of relatives. 

When faced with the prospect of dwindling financial pensions, let’s rediscover how relationships are the currency of welfare.

Read on...
Theos recently published a collection of papers on the future of welfare, which explores some of the moral issues involved.  The introduction is a good overview to the document, which can be downloaded here.  

Walk the talk
In what currency are you planning for your retirement?  Only financially, or relationally also?

The last word
From the Bible, Isaish 46, verse 4: “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you.”

Friday 21 February 2014

Floods of excuses

“But O the change! the winds grow high; Impending tempests charge the sky;
The lightning flies, the thunder roars; And big waves lash the frightened shores.”
Matthew Prior, English poet (1664-1721)

This has been the wettest winter for parts of Britain since records began in 1776.  A relentless series of storms has battered the British Isles, causing £600 million of damage and leaving thousands of homes flooded. 

In a country that is quick to point the finger in blame, various ‘villains’ have emerged: government spending cuts, failure to dredge rivers, the Environment Agency, dithering politicians.  And of course, all those responsible for climate change. 

While some of these ‘villains’ were making excuses, plenty of ordinary heroes got to work: neighbours and volunteers keeping watch on water levels, helping people evacuate, distributing sandbags, providing shelter and emergency supplies.  Some have travelled across the country to where help was needed most.

When a crisis overwhelms the normal structures and procedures for dealing with adverse conditions, it somehow gives ‘permission’ to people to volunteer their time and resources – often tirelessly and sacrificially – on a scale not seen under normal conditions. 

How might such a generous community spirit be unlocked more easily?  Does take a crisis to bring it out?  It seems it’s a function of social capital: the stronger the relationships are in a community, the more aware people are of others’ needs, and more willing to help each other out. 

So in response to these storms, we need to spend more on more flood protection, yes, but we would also do well to build stronger community relationships.  It gives people more excuses for kindness.   

Read on
A recent article in Nature discusses how social contracts involving the state, civil society and individual actors need to evolve to cope with the likely increase in extreme weather events.  Read the paper comparing flooding in Ireland and England here.

Walk the talk
If you live in Britain, why not sign up on to offer some time or practical assistance to a flooded community near you? 

The last word
From the Bible, Acts chapter 20, verse 35: “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’

Friday 7 February 2014

Relational State of the Union

“This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in.”  Theodore Roosevelt

Last week’s State of the Union address by President Obama revealed his view of the condition of America economically, socially and politically.  Looking through a relational lens suggests that beneath the conventional analysis there are three areas of relationship vital to the long term health and sustainability of American society.

Politically, the relationships between elected politicians from different parties has become chronically dysfunctional to the point that President Obama told Congress that he would enact reforms wherever possible without involving them.  Only 58 bills were passed in 2013, the lowest on record, and public trust in US politicians is a lamentable 19%.  Relational capital in politics is built on the tough art of compromise for the common good. 

Economically, the gap between rich and poor is widening.  Recent increases in wealth have largely gone to owners of capital, rather than to people who do the real work in companies (unless the latter are paid in shares – one reason why top executives’ pay has been soaring while average wages are stagnant).  Relational capital will fall if the profits of hard work and effort are not shared out fairly. 

Domestically, the relationship between couples – whether married or cohabiting – is crucial to their own health and wellbeing as well as that of their children.  Children raised in two parent families (the proportion is steadily declining, currently 64% in the US) consistently achieve better life outcomes than children raised by one parent.  Relational capital in the family collapses when there is a breakdown in the couple relationship, leading to significant economic costs, besides the social and emotional price tag.

America was built on the ability of diverse people to live and work together in pursuit of a common vision and dream.  Their capacity now to overcome major problems such as spiralling national debt, unequal access to healthcare, and polarised politics may ultimately depend on their ability to rebuild their social and relational capital. 

Might it be the relational state of the union which matters the most?

Read on…
Another major long term problem which is essentially relational in nature is how to ensure adequate care for an ageing population; read an article in the Washington Post about the crisis of care facing American baby-boomers here.

Walk the talk
If someone were to assess the relational state of your town or community, where might its strengths and weaknesses lie?  Why not start a conversation with a couple of friends along these lines?

The last word
From the Bible, Proverbs 11 verse 11: “Through the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is destroyed.”

Friday 17 January 2014

12 Years of Slavery or an enduring condition?

By Robert Loe (Twitter @Robert_Loe)


“Where Slavery is, there Liberty cannot be: and where Liberty is, there Slavery cannot be” Charles Sumner


Yesterday, nominations for the 86th Academy Awards were announced in Los Angeles with Steve McQueen’s ‘12 Years a Slave’ named in nine categories. The film, and the original harrowing story penned by the central character Solomon Northup, has left critics transfixed.

The significance of this film is far greater than the Oscar ceremony. For some it has underlined the racial divisions that still exist in many societies. For others it is a distressing reminder of the past where true reconciliation and forgiveness have not, perhaps, been fully achieved; one American blogger wrote a piece, “Why I wouldn’t see 12 Years a Slave with a White Person”. Yet for others it has been a unifying experience; McQueen spoke of strangers holding hands in the darkness of early screenings, so moved were they by the subject matter.

So what is it about Northup’s story that has captured the public imagination in this way?  At one level, viewers are responding to the degrading and abhorrent practice of slavery. We are reminded of the struggles of abolitionists to rid the world of its practice spurred on by a belief in the need for justice in all relationships across society.

The public are repulsed by a practice they thought long extinct. Slavery, they assumed, was gone and freedom now the hallmark of civilized cultures. Yet, despite the achievements of reformers like Wilberforce, slavery remains a modern day injustice of global proportions, rife even in Western nations. Whilst official figures place the numbers in their thousands, the true numbers of adults (and shamefully children) sold and forced to work, beg, or worse in the UK are much higher.

Liberty might well be described as a freedom from slavery but paradoxically there remains the freedom to enslave oneself. Taking credit may be an exercise of freedom but it comes at a price, as debt is a form of financial servitude to another. Moreover, anyone who has experienced some form of addiction will testify to the enslaving power that diminishes freedom and destroys dignity.

In part, the interest in slavery may come from a deep-seated fear that we may not be as free as we perhaps thought.

Read on...

For a reflection on Christian conscience and political action as illustrated by the abolitionists, read here.

Walk the talk

Consider what you might do to raise awareness and take action against all forms of slavery – including any forms uncomfortably close to home.

The last word

From the Bible, Proverbs Chapter 22, verse 7: “The rich rule over the poor and the borrower is slave to the lender”

Robert Loe is Director of the Relational Schools Project, a new initiative from Relational Research. You can read more information about the project by visiting