Several years ago, in Canada’s prairies, not far from where I was born and raised, a man named Robert Latimer killed his severely-handicapped daughter, Tracy. He put her into the family truck, hooked a tube to the exhaust-emission, sealed the windows and doors, and let her fall asleep. He wasn’t malicious in intent. He loved his daughter. In his mind, this was an act of mercy. He couldn’t bear to see her suffer any longer. Nobody doubted his sincerity. His daughter was almost totally disabled physically and mentally, lived in constant pain, and there was no favourable prognosis in terms of her ever getting better or of her pain ever lessening. So he, in as humane a way as possible, ended her life.
Her death became a huge national story, a drawn-out court-battle that lasted for years, ending up in the Supreme Court of Canada, and a country-wide moral and religious debate that has bitterly divided families and communities. The death of this young girl, Tracy Latimer, raises an issue we can’t agree on today: What’s the value of a human life that is severely disabled?
What’s the value of a life such as Tracy Latimer’s? Biblically, the answer is clear: When someone is deemed expendable, for whatever reason, at that moment she or he becomes the most important person, spiritually, in the community: The stone that is rejected by the builders is the cornerstone for the building. This means that the Tracy Latimers within our lives are a privileged place where the rest of us can experience God.
One of the central revelations of the cross is that there is a very privileged presence of God in the one who is excluded, in the one of whom society says: “better that she should die for the people.” Scripture is clear on this: Already in the Jewish scriptures, we see that the prophets emphasize the idea that God has special sympathy for “orphans, widows, and strangers.” At that time, these particular groups had the least status, the least power, and were deemed the most expendable. They could be left to die so that society could get on with its more urgent business. The prophets’ message was revolutionary: God has a special sympathy for those whom society deems least important and how we treat those persons is the litmus test of our faith, morals, and religiosity.
Jesus takes this a notch further: In his teaching, not only does God have special sympathy for those whom society deems least important and most expendable, but God’s very presence is identified with them: “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do to me!” Jesus identifies God’s presence with the outcasts, with the excluded ones, and he tells us that we have a privileged experience of God in our contact with them.
Nowhere is this stated more clearly than in Jesus’ death on the cross: The crucified one is the stone rejected by the builders, the one deemed expendable so that normal life will not be disrupted. But the crucified one is also God and there is a special intimacy with God that can be had only in standing, as did Mary and John, near the cross, in solidarity with the crucified one, the one who is being excluded.
Sometimes that’s hard to see and accept because, unlike Jesus, the excluded ones in our culture are not always innocent and loving. For example, the Oklahoma-bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was executed last summer. Our society, like the high priest of old, had pronounced its judgement: “Better that one man should die for the people!” But, unlike Jesus, Timothy McVeigh didn’t radiate innocence, love, moral integrity, repentance, nor most anything else that speaks of God’s presence. So how is he the cornerstone for our building?
By his exclusion, by his being deemed expendable, by being the one executed. At the precise moment when his executioners spread his arms and lashed them to a table and the lethal injection was brought in, Timothy McVeigh became the Christ-figure: a man helplessly stretched out, unanimity-minus-one, better off dead for the benefit of others, grist for those who need a scapegoat, the focus for moral reflection, the central figure in the community, and the one who, for that moment and in that situation, becomes a privileged presence of God because, as the cross makes plain, God is specially present in the excluded one.
Many of us are familiar with an incident recorded by Elie Wiesel. In one of the Nazi death camps, a prisoner had escaped and, in retaliation, the Nazis took a young boy, hanged him publicly, and forced everyone to watch this horrific spectacle. As the young boy dangled on a rope in front of them, one man cursed bitterly: “Where is God now?” Another man answered: “There, on that rope. That’s God!”
One of the revelations of the cross is precisely that, in the crucified one is the presence of God.