Thursday, July 27, 2023

Moral Holiness and Honoring the Aged

Within the sacred narratives of scripture, the commitment to respect and honor the old is a consistent emphasis. There's the familiar injunction which appears in both of the iterations of the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 20:12, we hear:

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

In Deuteronomy 5:16, that's put slightly differently:

Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Those both say more or less the same thing, although the later Deuteronomic phrasing seems to acknowledge that sometimes "days may be long" doesn't mean "that it may go well." Whichever way, the commandment is essentially identical.  Giving honor to the elderly is woven up with blessings of both age and a good life in one's place.

Elsewhere in Torah, that baseline commandment is reinforced.  "You shall rise before the aged and defer to the old, and you shall fear your God; I am the Lord," intones the Creator of the Universe in Leviticus 19:32.

It's a baseline expectation of the Biblical covenant, which was also the standard expectation in most cultures of the Ancient Near East.  The concern with care for the aged is far from being an exclusively Semitic value.  It was the norm in almost every human society, a moral expectation of all premodern civilizations.

In author and doctor Atul Gawande's BEING MORTAL, for instance, Gawande describes the network of community support that sustained his century-old grandfather Sitaram in a small Indian village:

Elders were cared for in multigenerational systems, often with three generations living under one roof.  Even when the nuclear family replaced the extended family (as it did in Northern Europe several centuries ago), the elderly were not left to cope with the infirmities of age on their own...There was no need to save up for a spot in a nursing home or arrange for meals-on-wheels.  It was understood that parents would just keep living in their home, assisted by one or more of the children that they had raised. (BEING MORTAL, p. 17)

This ain't even close to being the norm in contemporary Western society.  As our family structures have been atomized by an endless fossil-fuel empowered diaspora, that cross-generational commitment has frayed.  It makes living well in the last chapter of life more challenging, even given the putative abundance of wealthy nations.

During conversations about the challenges of aging in a recent class I led at my congregation, one of the participants shared her desire not to grow old in America.  A is Ghanaian, and her observations of how the old are treated in Ghana and how the old are treated in the United States have led her to a very pointed conclusion.  Ideally, she said, she'd grow old in a Scandinavian nation.  After that, even given the limitations of the Ghanaian health system, she'd rather spend her last years in Ghana than in the United States.  "I mean, if you get very sick, the hospitals are not as good," she said.  "And you might die before you get to care.  But at least your life up until that point will be better.  So much better."  She's observed how her grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles have all been included into the large extended households that are still the norm in her culture, and how much richer that has made their quality of life.

What was a moral norm has now faded, as has the idea of moral norms itself.  We postmoderns shy away from anything that resembles duty, any implication that our purpose extends beyond self-gratification and indulgence.  It's an ethos that masquerades as freedom, but is not.  It rises instead from consumer culture and the socially-mediated attention-deficit popcorn-brain that clouds our engagement with both past and future and keeps us imprisoned in our anxious, impulsive, profitable now.

From that solipsistic moral framework, we'd rather not be inconvenienced by the old, or by the unpleasant thought that we, too, will one day stand in their place.  

Because if we are not caring for the old, then we will not be cared for.  It will not, as the Deuteronomic scribes remind us, go well for us.  That's the nature of covenant, after all.