We all face death, some of us more often than others.
Pastor Vernon Holmes ministers to a small Lutheran congregation in Carmichael. Its average age is 79. After a recent Sunday service, Holmes teaches about the last days of Jesus Christ.
"Do we really believe in the power of God to transform this world? Do we really believe in the resurrection?” he says while speaking to a small group of elderly parishioners.
Holmes says his religion promotes quality of life, but also challenges the status quo and injustice. His congregation is part of a state organization called California Church Impact. That group supports California’s physician assisted suicide bill.
“There are things in life that are worse than death,” he says.
Holmes helped to start a hospice program in San Joaquin County. He says the people he dealt with didn’t fear dying as much as losing independence, being a burden, or living in constant pain. Holmes says his faith is about supporting people to live free and productive lives.
“When that’s no longer possible, and they feel that their life has come to a point of closure, and they are in the process of dying, to have some say in that process, seems to be the more just approach," he says.
Holmes says most suffering is unnecessary, though some Christians may believe otherwise.
"More conservative theology that would say that your situation in life is the cross that God gave you to bear. It’s the same theology that says to a woman in an abusive marriage that marriage is sacred and you should yield yourself to your husband because that’s what scripture says," says Holmes.
Pastor Holmes believes death is an individual decision, for which the church or the state should not dictate terms. Parishioners like 76-year old Peggy Rheault, agree.
“I don’t think Jesus would want us to suffer. I think he would agree with us, to me it’s not suicide it’s help," says Rheault.
The fact that some Christians would support so-called “right-to-die” policy doesn’t come as a surprise to sociologist John Evans with University of California at San Diego.
“The first people before the Roe V. Wade decision, who were smuggling women to other cities for safe but illegal abortion were Christian clergymembers," says Evans.
Evans says there are regional differences in Christian views, and there are variations in bible interpretation. Some take the words literally, others believe scripture provides allegories. But Evans says, when it comes to the end of life, there is some agreement.
“Most of these traditions wouldn’t say you should keep trying to save someone’s life if they are going to die. The distinction is in actively bringing about your own death vs. allowing to die,” Evans explains.
He says only the most liberal of Christians, like California Church IMPACT, would say it’s also ok to end your own life. But one major Christian faith is not on board. Ned Dolejsi is from the California Catholic Conference.
“We are not autonomous," he says. "We are a social being, we are in a network of relationships and community, so we’re always concerned about the common good.”
Dolejsi says Catholics believe suffering is part of life and the challenge is to transform that suffering. He says if people are in pain when they’re dying, they’re probably getting bad medical care.
“That’s what we should be addressing in society. Not saying 'Oh' - because there is this pain, that we have to allow someone to separate themselves from the rest of us, and take their own life," says Dolejsi.
"We should be focused on making sure no one dies in pain, and no one dies alone,” he says.