There may be nothing more crucial to the shape of modern political and moral culture than our shared belief in the high moral worth of every human being. This conception of human dignity is under pressure today, largely because we have forgotten or cast aside the biblical principles through which it entered Western culture.
We have not always viewed the world this way. The ancient Greeks and Romans assigned worth according to status. Men were worth more than women. Free men were worth much more than slaves. Citizens were worth more than non-citizens. The healthy were worth more than sick. And the rulers were worth very much more than the ruled. Distinctions like these were common in Greco-Roman society, and nearly universal throughout human history. Only where a Christian understanding of humanity has held strong influence have inequalities of this sort been successfully and enduringly broken down. I know of no exceptions.
The Bible’s high conception of human worth begins at the beginning, in Genesis 1, where we read that God created humans in His image and for fellowship with Him. It reaches its culmination at the cross of Jesus Christ, where God matched His words concerning human worth with the ultimate act of sacrifice. Jesus himself had emphasized the value of the poor and needy, the virtue of humility, the value of all persons of every station. The apostles in their letters continued to speak of “no distinction” in places like Romans 3:21-23, Romans 10:11-13, Galatians 3:27-29, Ephesians 2:13-16, and others.
This high view of all persons changed the world in ways we can hardly conceive. It allowed a bishop, Ambrose, to hold accountable a Roman Emperor. It became the foundation of the Magna Carta, of the government of laws, and of America's crucial founding principle, “All men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” It remains the basis for human rights and for the democratic model of “one person, one vote.” It is the reason slavery is no longer considered morally acceptable. Recent myths to the contrary aside, it is the historic foundation for women's rights. It is the reason forced sterilizations for eugenic purposes no longer make sense to us, as they did to much of Western society for much of the early 20th century. It is why we prohibit euthanasia. It is the reason we invest in care for the poor and the sick.
The Western world sees these as ordinary, common-sense ways of viewing human persons. It seems that way to us only because our culture is more biblical than we realize. Consider health care. We have all seen the familiar Staff of Asclepius, the cross-shaped staff with a snake (or two) coiled around it, which serves as the universal symbol for human medicine. Asclepius was a Greek physician (or so the story goes) who upon his death became the god of medicine. You would think that a physician so highly esteemed would be known for his loving care for the desperately sick. Not so. Plato tells us in The Republic (III)—quite approvingly—that Asclepius and his sons would have nothing to do with unhealthy and intemperate subjects, whose lives were of no use either to themselves or others; the art of medicine was not designed for their good, and though they were as rich as Midas, the sons of Asclepius would have declined to attend them.
“Whose lives were of no use,” he said. The “unhealthy and intemperate” were apparently somewhat less than human. The Hindu religion, well known for its caste methods of considering some persons of lesser worth, takes it that illness is a matter of karmic disapproval.
I am not saying that Christians have consistently acted as if all other humans were persons of high worth and dignity, and I am not denying that at times in history some of these same moral discoveries have been made outside the Christian sphere. Rather I am saying that it is uniquely in Christian-influenced cultures where the universal worth of human beings been made central to society's beliefs and values.
But today the person is in danger of being abolished. You need not accept my thesis of Christianity's role in the rise of equal human dignity to see that the worth of the person has been diminishing year by year. A bioethics journal devoted much of its January 2007 issue to whether personhood is an illusion (a question strongly reminiscent of Buddhism, by the way). Animal-rights activists, and at least one prominent academic ethicist, Peter Singer of Harvard, are proclaiming animals' moral equivalence to humans. This is not so much an uplifting of animals’ status as a degrading of humans’.
Handicapped humans are being killed in great numbers, just on account of physical weakness: Some 80 to 90 percent of Down syndrome babies diagnosed in the womb are aborted. Atheistic materialist philosophy (the belief that nothing exists except matter and energy, and their interactions under inflexible natural law) denies the reality of the soul, consciousness, and human freedom and dignity. It affirms instead that we are but a snapshot in a long biological progression from bacteria to apes to humans to who knows what. This, too, degrades the human person.
Abortion is the grand battlefield of disputes over the equal worth of humans: When does the young child (or “clump of tissue” if that is your prejudice) become a morally significant person, a human being of moral worth? But it is not the only battleground. With human dignity coming under general pressure as it is, maybe the question should be, does anyone ever become a being of moral worth?Do human beings have dignity as persons—equal dignity, that is? If so, then on what basis? The old, biblical answer to that is being swept aside. The predictable result is that high and equal moral worth of humans will be swept aside with it. It is most obvious in the case of unborn babies. The effect appears also when people soberly suggest euthanasia.
There are some who claim to be terrified of Christian theocracy (“dominionism,” as it has lately been styled by some). This is a false and silly fear. What should really frighten us is the looming tyranny of a world in which the person—the human being of high moral worth, just by virtue of being human—is eliminated. Nazi Germany—where the de-humanizing of men and women reached the depths not just of exterminating millions, but of using their remains as parts for manufacture of products—was a preview of that world. Such a thing was morally possible (in a certain twisted sense of the term) for the Germans only because they had followed Darwin, Nietzsche, and their nation’s longer-term historic prejudices down a path toward believing in selective humanness. The “lesser” races were not fully human. The sick and infirm were Lebensunwertes Leben—life unworthy of life.
The Western world’s freedoms were built on a high conception of humanity. Democracy depends on a shared vision of human involvement in human decision-making and destiny. It will not withstand the death of the person. Our freedoms will die with it.
And this is one reason among many that the fight for life—the fight against abortion—is so crucial. To be “pro-choice” is to stand against the moral worth of the unborn human person, on grounds of convenience and practicality, and to exercise the strength of the powerful over the weak. “Pro-choicers” may find their own precious freedoms dwindling when someone more powerful exercises his strength over them—on grounds of convenience and practicality.
Our defense against that in modern democracies has been, “That's wrong, because no person deserves to hold that kind of power over other persons.” If we give up the last word in that defense—persons—we give up the whole defense. Our freedoms are put at severe risk by the abolition of the person.
Tom Gilson is a Campus Crusade for Christ/Cru writer and strategist currently on assignment to BreakPoint. He blogs at ThinkingChristian.net.
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