THIS PHRASE DOES NOT HELP
By JIM NICHOLS
One dictionary defines “platitude” as a “remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful.” Examples would include “Forgive and forget” or “It is what it is.” The list goes on and most of us do not even really hear these phrases because, although they once had a germ of helpfulness, they have lost it. Part of the reason for spouting such words is that they tend to end the conversation and preclude any further serious consideration of the topic at hand. In other words, “I do not really have any helpful insight here, so let us talk about something else.”
Particularly frustrating to me are platitudes that have a theological flavor. For many years, I instructed a university course in biomedical ethics. As the course began to develop early in the semester, we would encounter our first sets of ethical dilemmas. The cases under consideration had no clearly correct resolution; every option seemed negative, perhaps even leading to death. Invariably, some student would say he or she was deeply perplexed because “I do not want to play God.” My rejoinder was to state that was shirking our responsibilities as people of God; we are, in fact, supposed to play that exact role.
It does sound presumptuous to speak about ourselves “playing God,” but consider the first chapters of Genesis. Poetically buried in this wonderful creation story is some clear instruction to humans. Because there are special gifts that we have been given (for example being made in the image of God), we have some unique responsibilities. Foremost among those is the responsibility of caring for the rest of the creation. This is no small challenge. It does not take a biologist to sense that all these other creatures, plant, animal, and microbe, are under our guidance and care. We have been given the challenge of nurturing and protecting them. We may procure some of them for our own uses, but, ultimately, we are the tillers of the land and its inhabitants. God created and we are the caretakers; we are playing the role of God.
However, the biomedical ethics students were concerned about the life and death cases that they were encountering in their textbook. In these days of pandemic, the news floods us with items about scarcity of medical supplies and personnel. This draws us to a contrast of two basic ethical concerns, autonomy and justice.
If Americans believe in any basic right, it is autonomy. In general, we believe we should be able to do or say whatever we want to when we want to. (This is worth some further discussion in another setting.) The medical application of autonomy is that the general view we have of, for example, physicians, is that we are a team together; the physician makes treatment options available based on our individual goals of care. If we have a knee that is going bad, we will be given some corrective options to consider including medication, therapy, surgery, or some combination.
Justice asserts itself when the medical resources are limited. It is an oversimplification, but, clearly, every medical option is not always available to meet every medical need. The news is now explaining that there are either shortages or misdistributions of needed medical equipment. The result is that difficult decisions must be made with what is available. What does “just” distribution of limited medical needs mean? Furthermore, in the context of these comments, what is the job of the humans making these “just” decisions? Some, though not all these decisions, frankly, have life and death implications.
I contend that we are appropriately ceding to medical professionals the privilege of doing what they believe God would have them do. This is not a good time for second guessing. I trust that God will bless their skills and hearts (whether or not they know Him) to make correct and just decisions. If God is as full of grace as we believe He is, poor and misguided decisions, even medical ones, can still be blessed by Him.
This topic needs more development, but, for now, can we retire this “playing God” phrase? We humans have been given serious responsibilities in caring for one another as well as all the rest of creation. This is God’s work and, at least to some extent, He has included us in the implementation. Let us more forward with care and skill, trusting in forgiveness and grace.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain