Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Shining Company and the Ethics of War

Please be aware that the following discussion contains graphic wounds and mature wrestling with issues of death. If you do not feel able to read it yet, I would encourage you not to do so.

The Question of Battlefield Euthanasia

Something that I never thought twice about, until a huge discussion resulted on Twitter, was the paragraph where one of the characters gave a mercy-killing to his dying comrade. At first read, I understood the darkness of the situation and considered it more merciful to let him die than live. But other people brought up different opinions, and the consensus in our discussion wasn't clear. In putting together this blog post, I've been wrestling a lot more with it. My hope today is not necessarily to provide hard and fast answers, but to give you a behind-the-scenes peek at a real Christian girl thinking through the different angles of an issue that's still being debated today.

For the context of the following discussion, I'm going to put in the entire paragraph from The Shining Company. It is quite graphic. Also, I have removed character names to avoid spoilers.

Close under the gate tower ----------- crouched over someone, something, that ran red like a broached wine jar. I went to see if there was help to be given, and saw that it was ------------. He was almost broken apart midway by a blow from another of the great Saxon war axes, part still and part writhing like a snake crushed under a cartwheel. It was horrible. As I reached them he cried out shrilly, "Oh, {deleted} finish it!" And ---------- slipped his dagger from his belt left-handed--his right arm was under his brother's head--and finished it as calmly and competently as he might have slit the throat of a kid for the cooking pot. ~The Shining Company, by Rosemary Sutcliff, pg. 214

Certainly an appalling and sobering situation to wrestle with, and not an ideal inclusion in any story. But it's there, nonetheless. The death wound is graphic. The means of the mercy killing is graphic (though for the record, that has been done in other wars as well) and it doesn't leave the reader with an easy answer. He is dying. His body is almost hacked in half. Is his comrade justified in killing him, or is he not? You might wonder if it's even worth thinking about, but actually it's an issue that still crops up in wars today. Part of being a Christian is having a reasonable defense for even the hard and unpleasant parts of life. This is one of them.

Right here, I would like to clarify that I am against euthanasia as a way to end terminal illness, suffering, and "less viable" lives. I do not believe in abortion for any reason at any stage. I think that goes against everything Scripture teaches about God being the author and taker of life. Euthanasia has been used in appalling ways by ungodly men to persecute people. The Lord will one day give full retribution for that. So for the purposes of this discussion, I'm referring only to mercy killing in a battlefield where a man has been almost hacked in two, in a primitive pagan culture, and one of his comrades grants his request to die.

The first question to ask, is if we see any like examples in Scripture we can judge from. At the present moment, I can only think of one. When Saul the King of Israel died, he and his armor-bearer fell on their own swords. Saul was "badly wounded". They put themselves to death in apprehension of the kind of death they would die at the hands of the Philistines. No commentary from Scripture either way, but taken in light of Saul's life and bad decisions, it seems like a final act of folly at the end of a long course of rebellion towards God.

Then we have the Amalakite who comes to David and makes up the lie that he gave the "mercy-killing" to Saul at the end of the battle. David promptly puts him to death. But when David expresses his reason for doing so, it's not necessarily because the man killed. It's because he dared to raise his hand "against the Lord's anointed." It seems to be because of who Saul was rather than what Saul supposedly asked of him.

A couple of conclusions before continuing. In the case of Saul, euthanasia because of fear of martyrdom or persecution is sin. The early martyrs would not have been justified in doing that facing the lions in the arena. Nor do all the heroines in Victorian lit who plan to kill themselves rather than enter an ungodly marriage have any biblical justification for taking their own life. Living with pain, sin, or even dying in an unpleasant way at the hands of others is all part of what Christians are sometimes called to bear. While we can escape it by lawful means if we are able to do so, mercy-killing is an unlawful means of doing that.

So we come back to the man in The Shining Company. Is he doing it out of fear? No. He's giving mercy to his brother, refusing to prolong his death. Does his brother have a single viable chance at life? No. I'm still not convinced it was right, though. Let's keep thinking.

From a medical perspective, I can understand why he would deem it a "mercy" to kill his comrade in this situation. I read Martin D. Gilbert's The First World War last year, and the effects of mass slaughter on the human mind are heartbreaking. In WWI, so many thousands of soldiers died in the trenches that medical personnel were ordered to leave the dying ones and attend only to those who had a viable chance at life. How do you reconcile with your conscience a man lying in the trenches, with half his brains literally lying in the mud, no way of attending to him, fully conscious of the pain, and dying?

Whichever side I take, I don't think it should be a trite decision given from the comfort and ignorance of my own life. It is something that should be prayed about, wrestled over, and given time to consider deeply. Whether or not I agree with the act of mercy-killing, I understand that in those situations, a soldier could be driven to the point where he considered euthanasia a reasonable way of dealing with a suffering comrade.

Over the last week of wrestling through and thinking about this article, I have come to two conclusions.

1. I can think of no biblically supported means by which a mature Christian would commit a mercy-killing in the field of battle. 

There are three types of justified killing in Scripture. One is an accidental, unpremeditated act that costs the life of someone near you. (i.e. a gun going off accidentally). Another is the people of God going to war at his command against surrounding nations. And a third is evildoers being executed by the governing authorities. But there is no positive example of mercy-killing in Scripture. God is the author of life, and he is the taker of it. Sometimes through the sadness and tragedy of war and persecution, fellow human beings die in brutal and unimaginable ways. But ultimately, the God who gives life should be the one who takes it in those circumstances. That's how I understand matters for now. However, I can still find much empathy for soldiers who have actually had to make this choice and chosen to do it, even if I think it was the wrong decision.

2. I don't have an issue with it being included in The Shining Company. 

This story is a portrait of warfare. Warfare is ugly. This story is also a depiction of battle in a pagan culture. It's pagan characters acting according to their pagan code of honor. It's an opportunity as a reader to solidify our resolve to "not do as the surrounding nations do". I would not give this book to a child without editing out that part. But I would give it to a thinking, reasoning adult who needs to be aware that these issues exist. It's an opportunity to think through the situation in a fictional setting and ground our beliefs in Scripture before we're faced with it in real life. (Think War Games, by Suzannah Rowntree.)

It's a small part of the story, easily edited out if you don't care to think about it, and only mentioned once. That being said, if it were a major theme, I probably would choose not to read it. What I do believe firmly, is that this should not be common in literature. I don't want to see "justified mercy killings" start cropping up in Christian fiction. This is sobering. It is grievous. It is not to be used as a matter of an interesting plot tactic or "tough situation" to put your characters in. It has taken much effort to think through, and I hope would never be chosen for an "exciting" or "sad" story event. It's too real and serious to be handled like that.

In Conclusion 
I don't mean this article to be a form of teaching, though I know that's an inevitable part of it. I am primarily using it as a form of thinking and discussion. It is a question without a firm answer. I might change my mind on either point as I grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. If I find a better answer, I'll post it on the blog. But as you consider picking up The Shining Company, it's a question I hope you'll consider deeply and seriously. This book has strong lessons of bravery, comradeship, the hard realities of war, and death.

A book that makes me think and drives me back to God in prayer is one I consider time well spent reading. That is what The Shining Company did for me.

What do you think? I'd love to hear different angles and ideas on this issue.


  1. Thanks for the thought-provoking post! I've thought about this a bit too and reached similar conclusions-the only other scriptural example of this type of thing I can think of is Ablimech's death in Judges 9, and that wasn't exactly a "mercy killing" because it was motivated by pride. I was thinking about how animals are often euthanized as an end to their suffering and while I think that is okay in certain situations, I don't think I can feel the same way about killing a human being. I can't really think of a circumstance where I'd think that was okay. Like you said, though, I definitely hope never to be faced with that decision! Definitely a very sobering topic.

    1. Yes. It's so hard to make that decision with an animal (I still remember having to do it with our kitty) and human beings are so different and more valuable even than animals. It's not an easy thing to think about either way, and like you said, I hope never to have to deal with something that serious.

  2. Tough topic. You handled it well. I would agree that mercy-killing isn't ever condoned biblically, but your post showed me why it was definitely understandable in some cases. Thank you for writing about it. I knew what I believed, but I hadn't really had to think about it before (in regards to writing/books). Well done. :)

    1. Thank-you so much. I was glad to think through it too. It gave me the opportunity to give a "reasonable defense" rather than a quick answer I might have given before. :)

  3. What an amazing, thought provoking post :) Hmm... I have to think more about this! I definitely think tough questions like this should feature MORE in Christian fiction, not less!

    1. I agree! We need some deeper, tougher stories that give believers some good answers on how to handle these topics!

  4. Schuyler, you approached this heavy topic so well. I appreciate how you always handle tough subjects with maturity and humility. Saul's death is an attempt to escape further pain and humiliation but it also reveals a kind of cowardice in Saul. He is facing the judgment of God in his death and instead of submitting himself to the consequences of his actions, he does his best to escape them by ending his life.

    It's interesting that you brought up this question this week because my sister and I finished watching the first season of DC Comics "The Flash" and a similar situation is proposed. I'll try not to give away any spoilers, but he evil villain is someone from the future and somewhere along the way one of the good guys realizes he is this villain's great-great-great-grandfather or something like that. In an attempt to save his friend, this good guy ends up committing suicide at the end and wiping this villain out of existence in so doing.

    His intentions are honorable, he wants to protect his friend, but his means are not lawful. Under duress it was the simplest and perhaps most logical solution, but the trouble is what is right is not necessarily the most convenient or even logical solution to any given problem. But it is not always simple.

    Corrie ten Boom's book "The Hiding Place" is a good example of how complicated and dangerous obeying God really can become. Ultimately, we should pray that God never puts us in a position where we have to contemplate lying or killing in order to do what is right. And if we ever are in these situations, pray the Holy Spirit gives us guidance and clarity in our conscience.

    Dani xoxo
    a vapor in the wind

    1. Thank-you, Dani! I appreciate your added perspective on this topic. The example you used from The Flash is very interested. I think that's the danger authors and readers can fall into--developing a situation where the "good" choice is just as bad as the "bad" one, and not mentioning an even BETTER choice that can be made. It's a way to warp morality, for sure.

      I love the Hiding Place. It's encouraged me a lot in practical examples of honoring God while having to make unthinkable choices. ;)

  5. Schuyler, I have mixed feelings about this post! :D On the one hand, it's good to know our Twitter conversation got you thinking more vigorously about this. On the other hand, I don't think this is something anyone needs to wrestle with, struggle through, or think about: mercy-killing is against the sixth commandment. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says this commandment requires us to use every lawful effort "to save our own life, and the life of others" (thus allowing a fourth category of Biblically-justified homicide: self-defence). Euthanasia of any kind? Still doesn't cut it. And if you allow it for the battlefield you will allow it for the hospital. People suffer more, for longer, in hospital (bowel cancer?) than I imagine they ever would on a battle field.

    I did a spot of research into Sutcliff after our conversation, by the way, and one of the things I found is that she was not above using her books to push ethically problematic issues like the legalisation of sodomy. Given that, I would be reluctant to say that she has no agenda in this scene. Apart from anything else, it would be interesting to actually research whether a wound like that would even require a mercy kill to prevent long suffering - or whether, realistically, a wound like that would snuff you out pretty quickly.

    1. Yeah, the wound may not have required a mercy kill. Lots of fictional authors don't know stuff like that very well. :) But real soldiers struggle with this issue today, so I thought it was worth pursuing.

      You know, I don't think there's such a thing as an "unnecessary question" especially when it means having a logical and reasonable defense for your belief on something. Since it's a real issue, and real people are involved, it's worth asking "does God mean it this way?" and pursuing the line of questioning until we find that "yes, he does."

      Ultimately it came down to consistency, as you say. Without any indication that mercy-killing in battle was justified, I couldn't say the battlefield was right while the hospital was wrong.

      I appreciate your vigorous debate on this issue! And I would love the links you found in researching Sutcliff, I've always wanted to learn more about her.