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Biblical Hi-Jinks in a Crucial Court Opinion

Did Christ commit suicide? That’s obviously a bizarre (and heretical) interpretation of the crucifixion of Jesus. But the idea is not too crazy to be taken seriously by a federal court seeking to overturn Washington State’s law banning assisted suicide.

Did the Christian martyrs also commit suicide? After all, wrote the august Ninth Circuit Court majority in a recent opinion, “The early Christians saw death as an escape from the tribulations of a fallen existence and as the doorway to heaven.” So, you see, they did not just accept death rather than recant their faith; effectively, they commited suicide.

These are just examples of innovations that the Ninth Circuit, whose territory includes the state of Washington, has presented for the inspection of the Supreme Court.The purpose of the court’s historical and biblical revisionism is to support a novel claim that there is a “liberty” right to assisted suicide in the US Constitution and that it is grounded in Judeo-Christian tradition. Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing for the court majority, acknowledges that after St. Augustine, Christianity was hostile to suicide (or assisted suicide), but he argues that earlier Jewish and Christian religious opinion was more sympathetic.Unfortunately, this potentially embarrasing part of the court’s opinion apparently has not been reported heretofore. Supreme Court justices just now are studying the texts of the lower court as they prepare for the decision they are scheduled to render next summer.

Historian and legal scholar Edward Larson of the University of Georgia considers the Ninth Circuit brief “a sad judicial misuse of history.” But perhaps he is too grim. Isn’t that also laughter one hears from behind the doors of the nation’s highest court? Isn’t the notoriously error-prone Ninth Circuit’s adventure in historical make-believe a fitting symbol for a judiciary out of touch with both scholarship and common sense?

It’s not just early Christianity the court misrepresents, but also the Bible. Writes the majority opinion, “The stories of four suicides are noted in the Old Testament–Samson, Saul, Abimlech (sic), and Achitophel (sic)–and none is treated as an act worthy of censure. In the New Testament, the suicide of Judas Iscariot is not treated as a further sin, rather as an act of repentance.”

Actually, notes Larson, who also is a Discovery Institute fellow writing a book on assisted suicide and euthanasia, “Of the five Biblical suicides identified by the Ninth Circuit, all but Samson were by persons utterly alienated from God.” And Samson, who pulled down the pagan temple upon thousands of Philistines as well as himself, arguably did not commit a real suicide, his purpose being revenge and the higher goal of destroying Israel’s enemies.

Saul killed himself after losing God’s favor and failing in battle. Abimelech (the judges might start checking their spelling) disobeyed God and killed his 70 brothers. When a woman dropped a millstone on him, providing a mortal wound, Abimelech was humiliated and asked to be killed by a man. Ahithophel was a disloyal counselor to King David who hanged himself when his treason was revealed. None of these accounts is presented by the Bible in an admiring light and it should be remembered that suicide is utterly abhorent in Jewish law. In the New Testament, Judas’ suicide underscored his depravity.

There simply is no Biblical acceptance of suicide, let alone assisted suicide (which is the actual issue, the court might remember). To come up with its odd interpretation,the court majority relied on speculative writings by the nineteenth century French sociologist Emile Durkheim and a contemporary poet and literary critic, Alfred Alvarez. Historians were ignored, except for Thomas J. Marzen, who was misquoted egregiously (one of those cases where the crucial part of a sentence is conveniently omitted). An annoyed Marzen has written a friend-of-the-court brief for the Supreme Court attacking the Ninth Circuit ruling.

It is useful to note that Durkheim’s definition of suicide was so broad that it would include soldiers who willingly give their lives in battle. Only under a such a definition, defying comon sense, was it possible to identify Jesus’ failure to prevent his crucifixion as a suicide. Durkheim (and the judges who cite him) had to set aside Jesus’ own teachings and the explanation the Gospels give of his death.

Likewise, in its account of early Christianity, the court ignored one early Christian leader after another–such as Clement of Alexander, Tertian, Basil, Jerome, Justin Martyr, John Chrysostom, and Ambrose. The end of the acceptance of suicide in the Roman Empire, in truth, came precisely because Emperor Constantine adopted Christian teaching. For seventeen centuries thereafter, suicide (and assisted suicide) was not accepted as a normal practice in Western societies. It was only in the past decade that Holland–by court action–opened the door to physician assisted suicide.

So why would the Ninth Circuit eagerly commit such historical folly? The answer comes down to its need for a bit of legal legerdemain. In order to show that there is a Constitutional right to assisted suicide, the court majority tried to find it in the 14th Amendment’s protection of personal liberty. Normally, the effort would require even a liberal court to seek supporting evidence in American traditions. But there plainly isn’t any such evidence.

But never mind. Wrote the judges, serenely, “our inquiry is not so narrow. Nor is our conclusion so facile.” No, indeed.The judges winked broadly and offered up their alternative–an imaginary Judeo-Christian tradition.

Most people of faith, especially scholars, are likely to find the whole attempt sacrilegious, or laughable, or both.

One just hopes the US Supreme Court merely enjoys the joke, and doesn’t decide to affirm it.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.