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Tony Jones on Cancer & Theology

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Stop Fighting Cancer

Since I married a photojournalist, I’ve been subscribing to the newspaper. Someone comes to my house every morning (driving a Mercedes-Benz SUV, if you can believe it) and throws a newspaper on our doorstep. And I sit in my favorite chair with a cup of coffee and read the paper, cover-to-cover. I think I’m becoming my parents.

And every day I read the obituaries. Yes, it’s official, I am becoming my parents.

You can’t read the obituaries without noticing that a lot of people die of cancer. What’s most noticeable is how many of the obituaries for persons under the age of 60 list the cause of death as cancer.

Almost invariably, the obit reads, “After a courageous battle with cancer…”

Now, I’m not the first person to say this, but I think it’s a bad way to think about it. First of all, the language of war and battle is overused in our culture. We’ve got wars on drugs, poverty, terrorism, and a litany of diseases, not to mention Afghanistan.

Secondly, any Christian — even “just war” Christians — should shy away from words of war and violence. Jesus came to bring peace, and we should be ambassadors of peace in the world. As noble a cause as it is, “fighting” and “battling” cancer is simply adding to the violent imagery in the world.

And thirdly, to “fight” and “battle” cancer implies that cancer can be beaten, when most of the time it cannot. Sometimes it can be slowed, sometimes it can be put into remission, and sometimes it can be cured/healed. And I think we’d all agree that our goal as a society should be to find a cure for cancer, not waging a war.

And “healing” and “battling” are mutually exclusive.

Our friend, Jake, will live with cancer the rest of his life, whether the rest of that life be short (God forbid) or long (God willing). His cancer, we pray, will go into remission — it may even disappear — but he’ll always be a cancer survivor. Just like someone who’s been through treatment is not cured of alcoholism, but is a recovering alcoholic.

The fact is, each of us will end up in the obituary. If life were a battle, it’d be a battle we’re each destined to lose, and there’s no sense in entering a battle that you know you’ll lose. As Jake learns to live with cancer and someone else learns to live as a recovering alcoholic, I learn to live with my own cancers (mine tend to be relational more than physical).

Each of us is in recovery. And it’s not a battle. It’s a journey toward healing.

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Tony JonesTony is the author of The Church Is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement and is theologian-in-residence at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis and an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and at Andover Newton Theological School. Tony is the author of many books on Christian ministry and spirituality, including The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier and The Sacred Way: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life, and, coming this week, A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin.

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  • I like the style and tone of your article.  But why do you think God allows people to suffer with cancer?  Or do you believe God is powerless to stop cancer?  Many thanks, Steven

  • EricG

    I hear you Tony, but I think the guy in my oncologist’s office who was wearing a “fight like hell” t-shirt today can use whatever metaphor he wants.  Usually it is just another way of saying don’t give up (which a number of people who I know with cancer have done when given long odds).  

    The most unfortunate thing about the use of the “fighting” terminology is that when it doesn’t go well, people say that the person “lost” their battle.  I number of my friends have passed away from this illness, but I would never say they “lost.”  They clearly “won” in the way they lived the final stage of their life.  

    • Rose

      I agree here.  Our 36 year-old son has a rare, incurable cancer.  He would say he is in the fight of his life hoping beyond hope for some of the “not yet” to come into the “now” to extend his life for as long as possible.  He has a 3 year-old son and a baby due any day.  Tony what do you make of Greg Boyd’s “God at War?”

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  • Five years ago, at the age of 46, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. I underwent surgery and 4 months of pretty rough chemo. Now, after four and half years, it’s back and I get to do it all over again. I say all this to show I that of which I speak. Personally, I’ve never thought of it as a battle or a fight; it’s just something I have to go through to get better, so I kind of like your statement “It’s a journey toward healing”. That said, this is a very personal thing and everyone who deals with it has to do whatever gets them through.

  • Debbie Cisneros

    Thank you Tony & Jake..I too prefer the words healing ,journey .I do not like to use negative words like war.”either “.you are so right.I also like the comparison recovery.. Your narrative indicates we are all always healing.and the positive message.

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