The sacredness of human life

I am entering the final stage of a seven-year journey as I make last edits on a book exploring the historic Christian conviction that human life is sacred. The manuscript will be at Eerdmans by month’s end, probably not to see the light of day for another year.

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By David Gushee

Rhetorical use of “sacredness of life” language in the last 40 years of culture wars has been highly damaging. The term has become a cudgel in the fight over abortion, and sometimes stem cells, biotechnology, and end-of-life health care issues.

It is often deployed by politicians with little sensitivity to other issues. Because of its heavy use by conservative Christians, progressive Christians have tended to recoil whenever the term is used. This has ironically kept them from accessing the extraordinary power of this conviction for causes that merit it.

Any coherent use of the concept that “human life is sacred” must mean that each and every human being has elevated status or rank and must be treated in accord with their status. When Christians say that human life is sacred, most of the time what they are really saying is that each and every human being, without exception, has been designated by God as a creature of incalculable worth.

This divine designation has moral implications for us, demanding that we adopt a posture of respect and even reverence toward human beings, and that we act to protect human life from wanton destruction or desecration. It should also include a tenderhearted desire to see human beings flourish, not just survive.

When the U.S. Supreme Court declared that developing human life, on balance, does not merit legal protection until the third trimester of pregnancy, the basic arbitrariness of this life-or-death dividing line outraged many Christians. The fight over abortion became a fight to extend or protect the full human, moral and sacred status of fetal life during the entire nine months of pregnancy. The application of sacredness of life language to unborn life came to define the entire concept both for friends and foes of the movement.

But this is a historical anomaly. The broader concept was always defined by its universality. Each and every human being is sacred in God’s sight without exclusion or exception. If we can affirm this statement then the same exalted status, posture of reverence and careful extension of moral-legal protection must apply to every life, yes, at every stage.

In the book I argue that this is the trajectory that the Bible actually introduces, and that it laid the foundation for eventual Christian affirmation that human life is sacred -- a claim explicitly articulated in some of the writings of the Church Fathers.

My biblical explorations find building blocks for this belief across the Old Testament and New Testament. These include the creation narratives (including the imago dei concept), Old Testament laws and prophetic writings. It also includes New Testament narratives about Jesus and the early church as well as the theological significance of God becoming human in Jesus Christ and dying for sinners such as us.

The moral witness of the early church gives us stark evidence of what our forebears understood life’s sacredness to mean. Theirs was a comprehensive sacredness of life ethic that recoiled at the shedding of blood and opposed Christian participation in practices ranging from abortion to infanticide to murder to gladiator games to torture to war.

The early church also embraced a broad ethic of neighbor-love that took Christians into active service on behalf of society’s neediest and into the formation of astonishingly diverse and inclusive communities. But few Christians today embrace such a holistic ethic.

The book moves on to consider ways in which Christians both fulfilled and rejected their own sacredness ethic during the long days of Christendom. I also examine how modern philosophers first sought to maintain human dignity without (most of) its theological rooting, while some thinkers eventually rejected it all, root and branch -- with disastrous consequences.

I call on Christians to recover one of the best and most ancient Christian convictions, which is ultimately an aspect of divine revelation. As Creator, Sustainer, Lawgiver and Redeemer, God has demonstrated that human life is sacred in his sight. There’s plenty of motivation for every Christian work of charity and justice, on behalf of all kinds of vulnerable and dehumanized people nearby and around the world. 

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