Brain Death and Dialogue: What Two News Stories Can Teach Us about Responding with Grace

by Amber Stamper

Have you ever obsessed over a news story? Become totally and personally invested? Glutted yourself on coverage? Set Google alerts? Consumed every report—mainstream, local, liberal, conservative, print, radio, TV, Web—you could access? Endlessly scanned comment threads, blogs, and social media commentary?

If—like me—you have, you might have expected to eventually gain quite a bit of expertise on the subject. Instead, what you likely found was that source overload can lead to a much different place: to the realization that even “facts,” kernels of “truth” that should be dependably consistent in a case, are frequently confused, sometimes entirely contradictory, certainly fodder for spin, and always dependent on who’s talking. When dealing with issues of theological relevance, this can be especially troubling. It can also make it particularly difficult to know how to weigh in with grace.

I found myself in this position recently as I was drawn into two medical cases: that of Jahi McMath—the teenager proclaimed brain-dead following a “routine” tonsillectomy—and that of Marlise Munoz—a pregnant woman also proclaimed brain-dead after suffering what was likely a pulmonary embolism. Both Jahi and Marlise remain on life support. However, in Jahi’s case, while doctors pushed to remove her from the ventilator, Jahi’s family insists she is still alive and have fought for continued nourishment and support. In Marlise’s case, Texas law requires life support be maintained for a pregnant parent, despite her family’s insistence that Marlise would want to be let go.

Amidst the ethical grey areas and our near-instantaneous desire to respond to these cases with impassioned opinion, here are some facts we might expect—in this age of great knowledge and information access—to have clearly laid out before us:

  1. What is brain death?
  2. Have Jahi and Marlise experienced brain death?

And yet, what we find is some sources—mainstream, major news agencies at that—stating Jahi’s condition is final and irreversible, akin to death of any kind; others suggesting that, through appropriate treatment, this condition may not be permanent. Some articles say Jahi is “improving”; others that she is in “bad shape.” In Marlise’s case, similar confusion occurs: some reports proclaim Munoz definitively brain-dead; others cite a hospital spokeswoman refusing to neither confirm nor deny the diagnosis. Even more disorienting is frequent comparisons between Munoz and Terry Schiavo, despite the fact that brain death and “persistent vegetative state” (Schiavo’s diagnosis) are distinctly different medical conditions.

But this is not an article about how we should question the news (which we should). Rather, it’s about how Christians might better respond when what the news reports is confusing to weed through—especially in cases where controversial, emotionally challenging issues with theological implications are at hand. One need only look briefly at the often thoughtless, flippant, or outright cruel online comment threads to see why purposeful Christian responses and a willingness to speak life and shine light into these circumstances is essential. Here are some thoughts for those who feel led to respond, whether in public or private forums:

  1. Don’t confuse access to information with wisdom: As we’ve seen, media sources often send mixed messages: “facts” are updated and changed; scientific, medical, and legal terminology is often left open to interpretation. With Google “answering” every question we pose with just a click, the Internet has made it dangerously simple to become “educated idiots.” So, as we respond to events like the cases of Jahi and Marlise, cases with important spiritual and theological significance, let’s keep God’s value of wisdom in mind: wisdom, which often does not come from googling more or absorbing more sources, but from bouncing what we know off the Holy Spirit’s guidance and God’s Word.
  2. Show grace: Each time we respond to the trials of others, we have the opportunity to speak life or death into a situation. Keep in mind the question: Who is my audience? Online, our audience is potentially broader than we can imagine and our words more durable than ever before. The McMath or Munoz families might be among this audience. People who expect Christians to respond with political platitudes or Bible thumping might be among this audience. How can we use our words to help others see Christ through us?
  3. See hope: One of the most fascinating things about following these two cases is seeing just how many people are compelled to respond (as ugly and troubling as some responses are). Many people are apparently grappling with the complex issues of life/death and right/wrong. Moments like this reveal how disconcerting philosophies of moral relativism or situational ethics are. People crave, seek, and desire to believe in capital-T Truth. This is a climate ideal for the presentation of the Gospel. Let’s see the opportunity that this openness for discourse allows.
  4. See the spiritual (not merely the political, material) resonance of these cases: Moments like these allow us to grapple with deep theological issues. What is the relationship between bodies and souls (one New York Times article is compellingly titled “A Brain Is Dead, a Heart Beats On”)? What responsibility do we owe the bodies of others? What does it mean to be our brother’s keeper? These are moments of lived theology, chances to complicate and deepen faith, considering how God’s Word plays out practically in difficult situations in the world.

The families of Jahi McMath and Marlise Munoz are undoubtedly undergoing some of the most trying circumstances they are likely ever to face. Circumstances like these are what Jesus came for. Circumstances like these are where Christians can stand out as exceptional lights or prove stereotypes we’d normally rather sweep under the rug. Let’s find ways to bring His message—a message of unchanging, eternal truth; a truth that won’t shift based on the next interview, the newest print run, or the latest breakthrough—to the fore. Our world needs it. People’s hearts need it.

Amber M. Stamper holds a Ph.D. in English (Rhetoric and Composition) and is an Assistant Professor of Language, Literature, and Communication at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. Her research and publications center on religious rhetoric and communication, especially issues of Christian evangelism and the digital church. 

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