Friday, March 9, 2012

Suffering & Death

I like The Walking Dead. I must admit I haven't read a frame of the graphic novel, to my shame. Nevertheless, the television version is absolutely wonderful. I completely disagree with all those who would suggest this season has serious flaws. While it hasn't been as good in general as the first season, I won't condemn the show outright simply for its lack of action or whatever else. For example, I think the second season has dealt with major underlying philosophical themes and moral issues a bit too transparently, but it's still dealing with them, which is more than can be said for most of what's on television.

In last week's episode, the group were saddled with a problem. Rick had previously rescued nobly an enemy outsider who was certain to die due to a serious injury. After he was patched up, the plan was to drive him, blindfolded, 18 miles out and leave him somewhere where he would have a fighting chance at survival in a world overrun with hungry, revivified corpses. Upon arrival, though, it was discovered that the prisoner was from the area and knew exactly where the group has been camped out. Worse than that, after interrogating him when they return, it comes out that he had aligned with a very large and powerful group with little to no problem with murder, rape, and the like. How does one solve this problem?

It's clear that the prisoner is a threat. He cannot be allowed to leave for fear he will turn them over to the other group. On the other hand, he can't stay. As much as he might promise to play by the rules, he can't ever be trusted. Ever. And it's not as if the group can spare the manpower it would take to keep him supervised 24 hours a day. Even then it's still too risky. He also can't be driven further out on account of the grave peril that would present to those doing the driving. Rick resolves with the unlikely support of Shane that the only solution is to execute him.

Dale, the oldest and (usually) wisest member of the group, protests immediately, arguing that a young man's life can't simply be thrown away without a second thought. The rest of the episode Dale travels all around the farm attempting to win over the rest of the group to no avail. At sunset the entire group convenes to discuss the final decision. Though Dale argues vehemently for the prisoner's life, the rest of the group are convinced that the only viable solution to the threat is the one already decided upon. Sarcastically, Dale asks if they'll all be watching the execution too, or if they'll all go hide themselves away and try to pretend nothing ever happened. Glen rightly points out that this is the first time that Dale has ever been wrong.

This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the teaching of the Church is about the death penalty, quoting the encyclical letter Evangelium vitae of Blessed Pope John Paul II:
Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent," (Catechism 2267).
Unfortunately for the prisoner in this situation, it is absolutely necessary. There is no viable alternative. The threat must be dealt with in order for the group's continued safety to be guaranteed, and there is simply no other way to do this other than to execute the man who personifies that threat. Just like in war, if the only way that the society can be truly protected from another who means to do them harm is by his death, it must be done. But only as a last resort. This is not Divine Revelation, this is human reason.

On the other hand, Dale's sarcastic comment about the group watching was, I think, apt. While as far as I am aware there is no authoritative teaching on this issue, such an execution is the public act of the community. It is only fitting that they should witness it. It is on their behalf, and for their benefit after all. This is not morbid; it is just. As Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell put it: "The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword." Shouldn't those on behalf of whom that man acts at least witness the death of the guilty party?

Essentially, this episode of The Walking Dead is just a rehashed court drama trying a case on the death penalty. While the majority of the characters in the show come down on the right side of the issue, it's clear the message the producers are trying to send: "Dale is the valiant lone wolf upholding justice against the others who have resorted to primitive savagery to solve their problems."

At the end of this same episode a character gets attacked and mortally wounded by a walker. In agonizing pain, with the rest of the group gathered around, they come to the hasty decision that he should be put out of his misery—euthanized, in other words. This certainly seems merciful. Why should a man be forced to go through unnecessary pain if it can be avoided? What possible reason could there be for allowing an innocent man to suffer? Aren't pain and death the most terrible things a human being can ever have to go through? If we can make it any easier, by all means, let's do it.

One major question has pervaded the entire second season of The Walking Dead: Is it the characters' job simply to survive at any cost? Or are there universal and everlasting principles of justice and morality which must be upheld even when the world has gone to hell? These two notions are championed by Rick and Shane respectively. In the first season Rick led an incredibly risky rescue mission to retrieve a man who had tried to kill him and seize power only hours before. What's more, he did this right after having been reunited with his wife and son against all hope. Early in the second season, Shane shot a man in the leg and left him to be eaten alive so he could get away. This was done in order that he could bring necessary medicine to Rick's dying son, but you know what they say about good intentions. These two characters have been butting heads over this issue constantly, and an outright fight is getting closer and closer to erupting.

If Rick is right, the group should do their best to uphold things like honor in spite of a world which will kill them no matter if they do or not. Worse than that, attempting to do so will put the group at substantially more risk than if they were follow Shane's advice and throw all morality to the wind and do whatever they had to to survive.

Here's the thing, though, if Shane is right, and there is no real morality or justice, and these are only ideas contrived by society for practical purposes, where does it end? The logical conclusion of such a position is that there are no principles except the survival of the fittest. What's to stop Shane from murdering Rick and taking his wife for his own (which he would very much like to do, by the way)? You get the idea. Without objective and universal principles, there can be no society, no community, no family.

"Why don't you take a look at your khal? Then you will
see exactly what life is worth when all the rest has gone."
Now, someone might say, so what? I don't need some kind of fuzzy "companionship" to survive. I just need my wits and a weapon or two. But here's where we get to the real heart of the issue. Practically speaking, Shane is right. One would probably survive significantly longer if he threw morality out the window and did whatever he needed to keep on living one more day. But would that extra day be worth living with the knowledge of what it took to obtain it? Without others in one's life to give it meaning and purpose? Without children to live on into the future on behalf of oneself and a wife with whom to make and raise them? The final episode of the first season of A Game of Thrones has an answer.

Suffering, and that most final and powerful of all pains, death are awful, awful things. They should certainly be avoided if at all possible. But it's not possible to avoid it all, is it? Certainly not death. The zombie apocalypse of The Walking Dead is really not substantially different from our own world. Pain and death are still inevitable realities of life, even if they are somewhat less prevalent and harsh this century. What then? Do we put an early end to someone's life simply so they can avoid some pain? Here again, where does it end? The logical conclusion of this principle is the right of anyone, anywhere to end their life whenever they choose because it has gotten too uncomfortable. Even aside from the question of justice or morality, is this good for a society? How long do you think it could survive with such a policy?

Don't get me wrong, the world is a rough place, full of all manner of nasty and uncomfortable things. But isn't the point to find the good in life in spite of all the bad? In a recent interview with The New York Times, Stephen Colbert was asked to comment on the tragic death of his father and two brothers and how that painful experience affected him. Here's what he had to say:
“I’m not bitter about what happened to me as a child, and my mother was instrumental in keeping me from being so. She taught me to be grateful for my life regardless of what that entailed, and that’s directly related to the image of Christ on the cross and the example of sacrifice that he gave us. What she taught me is that the deliverance God offers you from pain is not no pain—it’s that the pain is actually a gift. What’s the option? God doesn’t really give you another choice.”
A Catholic would say that pain is a gift because it makes us like Christ, because it unites us to his suffering on the Cross. It does this because, like Christ's suffering and death, pain can be redemptive if undergone sacrificially. Like Christ, I can convert my personal suffering into something redemptive for both others and myself. How? Like he did, I can suffer for them, and paradoxically, do myself good in the process. This does not mean one should go around seeking pain. It does mean that unavoidable pain which comes our way is an opportunity. An opportunity to give ourselves away. And receive more of ourselves that we started with in return.

Like suicide, euthanasia is evil in part because it robs people of this opportunity. More importantly, though, it is evil simply because it is wrong to end a person's life unnaturally, unless the greater good demands they be brought to justice for a heinous crime they have committed because no other solution can be found. The only reason it seems merciful to euthanize someone in the first place is because, as a culture, we have forgotten how to deal with suffering—by looking to the suffering God underwent on our behalf.


  1. Interesting comments on The Walking Dead. In January I watched a half-dozen or so episodes from the first season with my 'adult' kids. At first I said I ain't watchin' no zombie mess; but the show was a good bit better than it needed to be.

    I'll have to keep my eye out for season two on Roku.

  2. It's a good show, for sure. Definitely one of the few worth really watching.


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