Spotlight Interview: Joni Eareckson Tada on how to respond to “right to die”
We are re-posting this spotlight interview with Joni Eareckson Tada in response to news that physician-assisted suicide is being normalized through legalization across the country.
More resources are available on this topic:
Free downloadable resource “Speaking truth into the right to die conversation.”
Here is another conversation with Joni on Connecting Faith on the release of her book, When is it Right to Die.
Blog Post: The Ethics of Life and Death
One in six Americans are dealing with what we would call chronic health conditions. Ten million people a year experience at least an episode of serious mental illness. One in five people in the United States, so that’s 20 percent of the American population are living with some type of physical disability and so if you add all that together, you get something in the neighborhood of 82 million American’s who are suffering from a physical or mental disability or a chronic illness.
Then when you consider that there are people who then care for all those folks. You might be saying to yourself right now, “I am not in the 20 percent who are actively suffering with a physical or mental disability or I am not the person actively suffering from a chronic illness, but I’m a caregiver of a person who is. I am in the family of a person who is mentally, physically disabled or living with a chronic illness, so when we start adding all of those numbers together, you are talking about a huge percentage of the American population whose lives are affected every day by the reality of physical or mental disability or chronic illness. We often as Christians act as if that’s not reality, that’s not really what’s happening as if, because we’re Christians, no one is suffering and that’s just not true and there are some heroes of the faith among us who keep us, not only acutely aware of the reality that we have sisters and brothers in Christ who are living with physical or mental disabilities or with a chronic illness.
One of those heroes of the faith for me is Joni Eareckson Tada. She’s the founder of a ministry that’s called Joni and Friends. It’s the Joni and Friends International Disability Center. It’s a nonprofit ministry with an incredible global reach.
She is an international advocate for people with disabilities and I would say, that it was in cultural context, she is probably the recognizable Christian who is on the forefront of these discussions year end and year out. She suffered a diving accident in 1967 that left her a quadriplegic and she’s been in a wheel chair ever since. She provides Christ-centered programs to special needs families as well as training to churches and Joni and Friends serves thousands of special needs families through family retreats. They’ve actually delivered 100,000 wheel chairs and bibles to needy disabled people in developing nations.
Carmen: Joni, you are, as I have said to my listeners, you are probably the most recognizable face, voice, advocate among Christians on disability concerns. You are a hero of the faith for those of us who are interested in life issues from a holistic perspective and so in the 40 years that you have been engaged in this ministry, I’m interested to know what progress you have seen?
Joni: That’s an interesting question and really quickly let me answer it with a story. I served on the National Council on Disability when the Americans with Disabilities Act was authored, drafted, and then it was signed into law and I’ll never forget being on the South lawn at the White House watching President Bush sign the ADA into law and after the signing ceremony we went back to the Hyatt Regency for a reception and the director of our National Council on Disability wanted to propose a toast and, Carmen, this is what he said. It was amazing.
He said, “You know, this law is great in that it now removes discriminatory policies in hiring people with disabilities. That’s great, and this law is also wonderful in that it provides more access into public accommodations like restaurants, and this act is great in that one day buses all across America will have mechanical lifts” and then he said, “But this law is not gonna change the employers heart. This law is not going to change the heart of the waiters at the restaurant. This law is not gonna change the bus driver’s heart”, and then he looked at his glass and said, “Here’s to changed hearts.”
Carmen, by that point I was in tears because that is our job. You and I as Christians, our listeners today, we are the ones who have the message, the gospel message that changes people heart, not just toward people with disabilities, but to anyone with whom we might have some kind of difference and I have seen incredible progress in the church in the year since the ADA has been passed because the church is responding to a higher law than the ADA. Their responding to the law of God that says we are to reach out and honor the needy. We are to help the defenseless. We are to befriend the widow and the orphan, take care of the afflicted and slowly I am seeing churches now in America and overseas just doing an amazing work in showcasing the mercy of God towards special needs families.
I think the church is finally getting the hint that we’re not to be enamored with the big and the bright and the beautiful. No. God delights in showcasing His power through the weak, so that includes people with disabilities. When you have people with disabilities in your congregation. Oh my goodness. You’ve got God’s best audiovisual aid of His marvelous power through our limitations.
Carmen: Joni, let’s talk quickly about this particular Bible because I know it’s at the center of your attention right now in terms of the publishing world. It might sound strange to some people, but you’re actually what I might consider an authority on suffering. Can you talk to us about how you have seen God use your bodily weakness for His glory?
Joni: I think I share a message that everybody identifies with and they don’t have to be quadriplegics like me. They don’t have to live in a wheelchair. Oh my goodness, Carmen, I wake up in the morning and like so many people I think about the day ahead and I’m overwhelmed. I’m overwhelmed by the fact that I’m gonna have to have a girlfriend come into my bedroom and give me a bed bath, do my toileting routines, get me dressed, tie up my corset, sit me up in a wheelchair, fix my breakfast, brush my hair, brush my teeth. I’m overwhelmed and the day is hardly even begun and there are so many times, Carmen, when I say to the Lord, “Jesus, I cannot do quadriplegia today. I don’t have the strength. I don’t have the energy, but I can do all things through You as You strengthen me.”
You know, I think that’s a good way to wake up in the morning, needing Jesus desperately. It’s a biblical way to wake up. It’s the right way to wake up in the morning. Going to God out of desperate need. Even Jesus said, “Blessed are you when you come to me in empty handed spiritual poverty. For yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.” I think that people resonate with that. They can see that their suffering is not something to be ashamed of. Not something to be mitigated, but suffering can be the very thing that drives them down the road to Calvary to the cross where otherwise they might not be humanly inclined to go.
Since I lived that every single day, every single morning when I wake up, I think that really is something that people identify with and they don’t even have to be in a wheelchair like me because they’ve got suffering and they have days when they feel overwhelmed. They experience morning where they have energy and perhaps I’m just bringing out into the open the fact that we need not be ashamed of our weaknesses, but like the Apostle Paul, let’s boast in them. Let’s delight in the infirmity. Let’s glory in the limitation. For then we know God’s power rests on us, right?
Carmen: Absolutely, and I guess I’m wondering if making a spectacle of it is part of the title.
Joni: Absolutely. I wrote the new devotional book called A Spectacle of Glory because … Let me just tell you about the title real fast. In Exodus chapter three, Moses sees this burning bush and it’s on fire but it does not burn up and so Moses goes over to this strange site. He wants to understand why this bush is not consumed and I believe that Christians who suffer, yet suffer graciously we cause the same curious response. We are to the world a strange site. We’re a spectacle of glory like flaming bushes unconsumed, causing to ask “Why is this person not burned up? Why are they trusting God. Wow. Her God must be pretty awesome to inspire that kind of loyalty.”
Through this devotional, I’m inviting the reader to put God’s glory on display every single day and I invite our listeners to pick up a copy of A Spectacle of Glory and journey with me through 2017 on how we can trust God down the difficult path. Hold on to His grace even when it’s hard.
Carmen: Friends, the name of the devotional that’s coming out is A Spectacle of Glory. Joni Eareckson Tada is the author. We’re also talking about the bible which is called “Beyond Suffering Bible. Joni, I’m wondering if we’ve got a friend or a family that is sort of on the road of suffering and we all recognize when people who we love are out of place along the journey where they may not even want to admit but kind of all know that that’s where they are. I’m wondering if the bible and the devotional together makes a good Christmas gift. Would that be a reasonable thing to put together?
Joni: Absolutely. It really would. For anyone who’s gotten a bad medical report recently, for anyone who has lost a loved one, for someone who suffered a recent injury or accident. This is a great bible. The beyond suffering bible is filled with insights about healing and God’s sovereignty, what do I do with depression, what about accidental addiction to pain medication, what about dealing with chronic pain, what about if I’m a caregiver and I feel absolutely exhausted. This particular edition of God’s word is filled with all kinds of helpful resources and connection points and profiles and devotionals from me. It’s a great bible to give anybody right now who’s really struggling, really wondering “Has God abandoned me? Has he forgotten me? What is he doing in my life?”
The Bible would be a great resource, a great gift for Christmas, as well as the new devotional book I’ve written called a Spectacle of Glory for 2017. I love journeying with the reader day by day by day learning new insights from God’s word. It’s the best.
Carmen: Amen. Friends, we are talking with Joni Eareckson Tada. You can follow her on Twitter at Joni and Friends. You can find lots of information and resources. This is a resource-rich website at Joniandfriends.org. Joni, one of the things that I’m hoping that we can spend a couple of minutes talking about, and you elude to the danger of it when you talk about your own story and the reality that none of us would humanly be inclined to go to the cross. Even in suffering, that might not be where we would be humanly inclined to go. There is definitely, in our culture, a curse God and die spirit. There’s a culture of death that seems to be breeding.
When we talk about the right to die legislation that passed in Colorado and is in front of us in a number of other states going forward, can you address that from a disability perspective?
Joni: Of course, I join disability advocates all across the United States. Most of them aren’t even Christians. They’re good friends of mine, but they don’t necessarily share the same faith journey as I do, but we are in hearty agreement that assisted suicide and now it’s legal in five states here in America. Assisted suicide is bad news. It’s bad news for the elderly. It’s bad news who are medical fragile. It’s bad news for those who are stroke survivors. It’s bad news for people with disabilities like me because the whole idea of a fear of disability and suffering being the basis for social policy is so bizarre. People’s fears should not be the basis for enacting a law.
Besides, it should be society’s role, not to help us die, but to help us live. Instead of redefining compassion as three grams of phenobarbital in the veins, let’s not abandon people who are terminal ill or suffering or in pain. No, let’s pour our resources into developing better pain management therapies. Let’s pour our resources into better palliative care or hospice care or counseling. Let’s bring people up out of social isolation. Let’s show them there are purposes. There are reasons for living.
I am concerned that eventually there will be a court-challenge by some despairing person who has multiple sclerosis, who wants the courts to recognize that their disability is a terminal illness. Once that court grants that person with MS, let’s say, that he has the right to ask for doctor-assisted death, then we have flung open wide the door to any person who is despairing, any person with a medical condition who is discouraged to wanting access to doctor-assisted death as well. That is not good for our society. That’s not good for America. We’ve seen how bad assisted suicide has played out in Holland and in Belgium where now even teenagers have the legal right to request assisted death if they find their medical condition too much to bare.
Let’s not cross that threshold. Let’s stop the gap. Let’s speak to the culture of life. Let’s have a cup of Starbucks with our friends and discuss these issues from a biblical worldview and not from a cultural death worldview.
Carmen: Amen. You and I are ringing the same bell, so thank you so much for who you are, for the way you live so passionately and so distinctively Christian in the midst of a culture that is not always on the side of the good news. Thank you for being a person who stands and identifies the bad news when that’s what’s being advocated and for a person who just stands there as a good news … I am saying that in the way that I’m saying it intentionally. Folks may or may not know that you are a person who lives in a wheelchair, but you guys, when you hear me say that she’s standing up, Joni Eareckson Tada is the person who, from a wheelchair, is taking the kind of stand that every Christian needs to take.
Thank you who you are and how you live and the way you equip each one of us and the church for what we are called to do and be in the culture. Folks, you can find her at Joniandfriends.org or on Twitter at Joni and friends. Joni, thank you so much for being with us today on The Reconnect.
Joni: Absolutely. Carmen, God bless you and your work as well.