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A Christian Harvard Law Professor Speaks Wisely About His Stage 4 Cancer

08 Dec

Dr. Bill Stuntz Godly Response to His Cancer Diagnosis

William Stuntz 1958 to 2011

My cancer has been promoted: I’m officially in stage 4. My doctors have found two can- cerous nodules—a euphemism for “small tumors”—one on each of my lungs. I started chemo this week. Next week, I’ll see a thoracic surgeon who will, sometime this summer, cut those tumors out. Needless to say, this isn’t good news—though, thanks to medical advances (especially, thanks to those evil drug companies that politicians regularly attack), it isn’t disastrous news either. We’ll see what the future brings.

I don’t have any previous experience with this sort of thing, but judging from what I hear and read, I’m supposed to be asking why all this is happening, and why it’s happening to me. Honestly, those questions are about the farthest thing from my mind.

Partly, that’s because they aren’t hard questions. Why does our world have gravity? Why does the sun rise in the East? There are technical answers, but the meta- physical answer is simple: that’s how reality works. So too here. Only in the richest parts of the rich world of the twenty-first century could anyone entertain the thought that we should expect long, pain-free lives. Suffering and premature death (an odd phrase: what does it mean to call death “premature”?) are constant presences in the lives of most of the peoples of the Earth, and were routine parts of life for generations of our predecessors in this country—as they still are today, for those with their eyes open. Stage 4 cancers happen to middle-aged men and women, seemingly out of the blue, because that’s how reality works.

As for why this is happening to me in particular, the implicit point of the question is an argument: I deserve better than this. There are two responses. First, I don’t—I have no greater moral claim to be free from unwanted pain and loss than anyone else. Plenty of people more virtuous than I am suffer worse than I have, and some who don’t seem virtuous at all skate through life with surprising ease. Welcome to the world.

Once again, it seems to me that this claim arises from the incredibly unusual experience of a small class of wealthy professionals in the wealthiest parts of the world today. We think we live in a world governed by merit and moral desert. It isn’t so. Luck, fortune, fate, providence—call it what you will, but whatever your preferred label, it has far more to do with the successes of the successful than what any of us deserves. Aristocracies of the past awarded wealth and position based on the accident of birth. Today’s meritoc- racies award wealth and position based on the accident of being in the right place at the right time. The difference is smaller than we tend to think. Once you under- stand that, it’s hard to maintain a sense of grievance in the face of even the ugliest medical news. I’ve won more than my share of life’s lotteries. It would seem churlish to rail at the unfairness of losing this one—if indeed I do lose it: which I may not.

The second response is sim- pler; it comes from the movie “Unforgiven.” Gene Hackman is dying, and says to Clint Eastwood: “I don’t deserve this. To die like this. I was building a house.” Eastwood responds: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

That gets it right, I think. It’s a messed-up world, upside-down as often as it’s rightside up. Bad things happen; future plans (that house Hackman was building) come to naught. Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.

Why, then, are we so prone to think otherwise? This is one of the biggest reasons I believe my faith is true: something deep within us expects, even demands moral order—in a world that shouts from the rooftops that no such order exists. Any good metaphysical theory must explain both of those phenomena: both the expectation and the lack of supporting evidence for the thing expected. The only persuasive way to get there, I think, is to begin with a world made good that was twisted, corrupted, bent. Buried deep in our hearts are hints of the way things ought to be; the ugliest reality can’t snuff them out. Still, that reality exists; it can’t be denied. Christianity sees that reality, recognizes it for what it is—but also sees the expectation, and recognizes where it comes from.

Bottom line: I don’t need anyone to tell me why I’m in the situation I’m in, and I certainly don’t think I merit an exemption from the rottenness to which the rest of the world is subject.

But I do need to know some things. Three, to be precise: first, that I’m not alone; second, that my disease has not made me ugly to those I love and to the God who made me; and third, that somehow, something good can come from this. My faith tells me that the God of the universe suf- fered everything I suffer and infinitely worse. Death and suffering don’t separate human beings from our Creator—on the contrary: those things unite us with our Creator. The barrier became the bridge: that is the great miracle of the Incarnation, the Cross, and the Resurrection. So I need never suffer alone. Job’s story confirms that, far from rejecting the ugli- ness of disease and pain, God embraces those who suffer and takes on their suffering. Beauty and ugliness are turned inside-out. Joseph’s story and the gospels alike show a God who delights to use the worst things to produce the best things. That doesn’t make life’s hells less than hellish. But it does make them bearable.

This isn’t just whistling in the dark—at least, I hope it isn’t. It all makes sense to me: it fits the world I see and feel, with all its shades of glory and misery. And it answers the questions my soul cries out. “Why” isn’t one of those questions.

Article adapted from: http://www.law.upenn.edu/blogs/dskeel/archives/2008/04/ more_cancerstuntz.html#more

[In Dr. Fritzt own words: “I’m a law professor—I teach criminal law and criminal procedure at Harvard—and also an evangelical Christian.That puts [me] in a pretty small, and maybe pretty weird, demo- graphic. I’m also a political junkie and a registered Republican, though I’ve cast as many Democratic votes as Republican ones. I’m interested in all those things—law and legal theory, crime and criminal justice, everything about American politics and political culture, the culture of evangelical Protestantism, and the intersections of various items on that list.] From: http://www.law.upenn.edu/ blogs/dskeel/archives/2008/02/ welcome.html]

 Harvard Law School: Obituary for Dr. Stuntz

William Stuntz, a renowned scholar of criminal justice at Harvard Law School,  an evangelical Christian and a teacher much beloved by students and colleagues, died March 15 after a long battle with cancer.

Stuntz, 52, joined the HLS faculty in 2000 and was named the Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law in 2006. His influential scholarship over the past three decades addressed the full spectrum of issues related to criminal justice and procedure, from the overcrowding of prisons and racial disparities in incarceration to the appropriate role of faith, emotion and mercy in the penal system. He authored three dozen law review articles and essays on criminal law, and published articles and op-eds in the New York Times, Christianity Today, First Things, The New Republic and The Weekly Standard.  This fall,  Harvard University Press will publish a book he authored on the collapse of the criminal justice system.

In a statement to the Harvard Law School community today, Dean Martha Minow observed: “Bill was extraordinary; his wisdom and compassion touched our lives in so many ways, large and small.  His gifts to society through his scholarship and teaching on criminal law and justice changed and improved academic inquiry and policies on the ground.  His scholarship and teaching of Christian legal theory and of confronting life’s burdens inspire people in our community and well beyond it.  He imbued his work and his life with a vision of mercy and compassion.  The Harvard Law School, the larger community of scholars, and the communities connected through Bill’s writings are better, wiser, kinder because of Bill.”

That kindness—and a personal style marked also by good humor and generosity—profoundly affected those who knew Stuntz or knew of him through his writing. As Minow wrote: “Among his many gifts to us was the grace with which he lived his life.  In knowing Bill, we couldn’t help but be reminded to live life as our better selves.  Bill once wrote, ‘We understand that the world is not what it should be, and that our own capacities to understand it are severely limited.’  He described and lived his life in recognition of the need for humility and also for judgment and work to repair what we find around us.  His devotion to family and friends remains legendary. Those of us lucky enough to have been able to consult with him for personal or professional advice will never forget his insights and generosity.”

Carol Steiker, the Howard J. and Katherine W. Aibel Professor of Law at HLS, and a criminal justice scholar who was a close colleague of Stuntz, said: “He was an extraordinary and unforgettable teacher, scholar, colleague and friend. He was someone we’ll all miss, more than we can really say.”

Celebrated for his unusual ability to appeal to a wide variety of legal scholars and others of all political and methodological perspectives, Stuntz was generous with his time and guidance. Colleagues and students were especially struck by his open-mindedness, as reflected in his willingness to listen to a variety of opinions and to change his own when he felt it appropriate. Many observed that his style served as a model for civil discourse.

Extremely popular among his students for his compassion and accessibility, Stuntz was the 2004 recipient of the HLS Sacks-Freund Teaching Award, given by the graduating class to honor a professor for his or her contributions to teaching. In the upcoming week, the the Harvard Law & Policy Review will be publishing a series of student reflections on Professor Stuntz (Read the introduction to the collection at http://hlpronline.com/2011/03/professor-bill-stuntz-in-memoriam/).

From his perspective as a legal scholar and also an evangelical Protestant, Stuntz co-authored a blog that addressed law, politics, and other topics, “Less Than the Least,” with fellow evangelical David Skeel, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. As they noted in their blog, “We are both law professors and evangelical Protestants – a weird combination in our time. We hope it’s also an interesting combination.” Stuntz wrote honestly and lyrically, with humor and wisdom, about his struggles with chronic pain and his long battle with cancer, as well as the role of his religious faith in helping him deal with his illnesses.

Said Skeel: “Although Bill was an enormously influential scholar, and was widely viewed as the leading criminal procedure scholar of the past generation, he may have had an even broader impact writing and speaking about his struggles with cancer the past three years, and with debilitating back pain before that. His blog posts and other writings have been reprinted in numerous church bulletins and widely circulated elsewhere. I’ve never known anyone who lived out the Christian call to love one’s neighbor as oneself the way Bill did. He was an inspiration to everyone who came into contact with him.”

Many readers of the blog, including fellow cancer patients, wrote of being deeply touched by the honesty and compassion that imbued his writing.

A year ago, in March 2010, a large group of his many admirers, including legal scholars, colleagues, friends, and students—“a simply dazzling array of conference participants,” as Dean Martha Minow said in opening remarks—gathered at HLS for a two-day conference, “A Celebration of the Career of Bill Stuntz.” In tribute after tribute, they noted that Stuntz had exerted a tremendous influence on the fields of American criminal justice and criminal procedure while at the same time having a profound effect, professionally and personally, on so many who worked with or were taught by him.

Present at the conference, Stuntz described factors that had led to what he called the “disaster of criminal justice in our time,” in particular, the massive and “racially unfair” prison population in the U.S., but held out hope that the system might become fairer.

HLS Professor Jeannie Suk ’02, a former student of Stuntz, and a moderator of one of the panels at the conference, said after learning of Stuntz’s death: “He was a wonderful mentor to me since my time as a student at Harvard Law School. He was the one, when I was a student, who looked me right in the eye and told me not to worry about seeing things that might be unconventional or that might surprise or anger people, that it was a good thing if I had those instincts. He encouraged me to develop that and to be unafraid.”

She added, “The whole time I was an assistant professor, he was very ill, yet … he would stop by my office, he would read all my drafts [of articles] and have something to say about them, with great insight. I really think he was one of the main reasons, the primary reason, I became a professor, that I became a criminal law scholar.”

Born on July 3, 1958, Stuntz grew up in Annapolis, then attended the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia School of Law.  After two judicial clerkships, he was a professor at the University of Virginia for 14 years until he joined the Harvard Law faculty in 2000.

Stuntz was the loving husband of Ruth Stuntz of Belmont, and devoted father of Sarah Stuntz, Andrew Stuntz, and Samuel Cook-Stuntz, all of Cambridge. He also leaves his parents, John and Sandy Stuntz of Annapolis, Md., and siblings, Linda Adamson of Annapolis, Michael Stuntz of Silver Spring, Md., Richard Stuntz of Annapolis, and David Stuntz of Durham, NC, as well as many nieces and nephews, and a daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Cook-Stuntz.

A memorial service will be held at Park Street Church in Boston on Saturday, March 19 at 5:00 p.m. In lieu of flowers, guests should feel free to make donations to International Justice Mission (www.ijm.org) or the Cancer Center Priorities Fund at Massachusetts General Hospital (165 Cambridge Street, Suite 600, Boston, MA 02114-2792).

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