Agape Love, The Beloved Community, and Our Collective Work in Bioethics

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture on May 7, 2019

Patrick Smith speaking at podium

Remarks by Patrick T. Smith, Ph.D., at the 2019 Paul Ramsey Award Dinner April 27, 2019

Thank you so much Gil for that very gracious introduction. I would also like to thank Jennifer Lahl and every member of the staff for their assistance in coordinating my travel here. I had a wonderful and intellectually stimulating time with the Paul Ramsey Fellows earlier in the day. I would like to extend a special thanks to the nominating committee who selected me for this very prestigious honor and recognition. I must admit that I feel a little like the mule whose owner entered him into the Kentucky Derby. After his entry was denied, one organizer of the event asked the old farmer why he would do such a thing. He had to have known that the mule couldn’t win. The farmer replied by saying, “Well, I figured as much. But I thought the mere association may do him some good.” It truly “does me good” to be associated with such a highly regarded figure in the world of bioethics and religion as Paul Ramsey, and to be associated with such distinguished past recipients of this award, many of whose work has informed my own, is truly a privilege for which I am extremely grateful. And thanks to all of you for being here and your support of the very important and necessary work of the The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.

Like so many others, I initially became acquainted with Paul Ramsey through his work in bioethics. As Gil has mentioned, I am a philosopher working in applied bioethics and a theologian who draws broadly from Christian tradition and who has been shaped by the African-American Christian experience. My African-American Baptist ecclesial tradition, deeply rooted in biblically informed democratic values, has always had to take seriously the work of public theology. It continually asks, among other important questions, “What does love look like in public?” And further, “what might these resources mean in the area of bioethics?” The work of Paul Ramsey has been influential for me on both of these fronts.

With respect to my work in bioethics, I began by serving as the director of the ethics department for a hospice care center. Early on, two of Ramsey’s books, The Patient as Person and Ethics at the Edges of Life, helped me develop a framework for thinking carefully about ethical issues in end-of-life care. These works, along with those of many others (including a number of past Paul Ramsey Award recipients, like Edmund Pellegrino, Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Gilbert Meilaender, Luke Gormally, Dan Sulmasy, Brent Waters, and John Kilner), helped me develop and provide ethical thought leadership to our organization’s collective practice.

These works helped me to understand and flesh out in clinical spaces and in encounters with medical technologies, “What might it mean to uphold the dignity of patients, their close loved ones, and the staff involved in their care?” Ramsey reminded us that life is a gift and a trust given to people by God. This has significant meaning for the kinds of decisions and dispositions we should have as we approach life’s end. His work, along with others, helped me to think more carefully about “What does it mean to value life at the end of life?” As I started wrestling with these issues, and as I was working with groups and communities who were either poor and socially disenfranchised, it became increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to talk about what it means to value life at the end of life for those who are on the margins without asking the question, “what does it mean to value life before the end of life?” What does it mean to value life before the end of life?

It is sobering when we think about the alarming statistics around the claim that a significant indicator of health outcomes is based on zip codes. It is sobering to recognize the deep health and health care disparities, and increased incidents of mortality that exist between communities divided along racial and socioeconomic lines. It is sobering when we remind ourselves that behind these stark, impersonal statistics are very real people in very real communities to whom those of us working in these areas have very real responsibilities. This is where Ramsey’s work on agape love has been influential in shaping my thought on these matters. His work, Basic Christian Ethics, emphasized the importance of “neighborly love.” Ramsey describes the meaning of this love as a “disinterested love of neighbor” for her or his own sake. It seeks to uncover or identify the neighbor in people we meet having deep regard and concern for them.

One of the major themes Ramsey develops on the basis of neighborly-love is the role of agape in the creation and preservation of community. Though they disagreed on a few other important matters, it is undeniable that the influence of Ramsey on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a significant theologian of my tradition, was most profound on this point. King’s understanding of love, his commitment to the idea of a Beloved Community, and his working towards this goal was deeply informed by Ramsey’s work along with other significant sources. Agape love means we have some responsibilities for each other. Even if, the extent of these responsibilities are not always clear. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” We live in a shared world house as indicated in the title of the last chapter of King’s book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?  In some ways, this is our question isn’t it? Where do we go from here? Those of us who have embraced the legacy of Ramsey, those of us who have challenged him and been challenged by him, where do we go from here? Taking seriously Ramsey’s claim that human life is both a gift and a trust, and his work on neighborly love, provides grounds for asking broader questions with respect to our work in bioethics. I hope the legacy of Ramsey might help us reimagine our collective work together.

It will be hard work, and sometimes it’ll be uncomfortable work. But it is our work nonetheless. As a very young kid I remember when a family friend, Mr. T. (not to be confused with the 1980’s “I pity the fool” Mr. T.) built a storage unit in our back yard during the scorching heat of an Alabama summer. He allowed me to help periodically by bringing nails and small pieces of wood. As the guy with whom he was working took a break by sitting under a large pecan tree, he told me to go get him before he got “shade poisoning.” I did as instructed. But I could not shake the deep grip of concern I had about this thing called “shade poisoning” – wondering if I had it, and if I did, how might I get rid of it since I too had spent a lot of time under that tree. I finally mustered up the courage to ask Mr. T. what was “shade poisoning”? He looked at me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Son, shade poisoning ain’t nothing but laziness. But don’t you worry about that, come on we have work to do.” Mr. T’s words still resonate with me after all of these years. Perhaps they can resonate with you. There is much work to be done in the world of bioethics. May it not be said of us that we suffer from “shade poisoning” in our collective work together towards a beloved community. Thank you for this very special honor. I am deeply grateful.

The Center for Bioethics and Culture is a non-profit 501(c)(3) public benefit educational organization. All gifts are tax-deductible.

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