The Sacredness of Human Life: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision Is Key to the World’s Future.
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Reviewed by Bob Cornwall.
(This review originally appeared on the reviewer’s blog, and is re-published here with permission.)
What does it mean to call human life sacred? Is it just a word or does it have implications? If you turn on the news, it would appear that life is anything but sacred. Every day people are assaulted, killed, raped, maimed, and degraded. Humans are enslaved and trafficked. They’re forced to work and live in horrid conditions. So, is human life really sacred?
If we were to take seriously the message delivered by David Gushee in his new book The Sacredness of Life, then things would be different. The message is pretty simple – because God has pronounced life to be sacred, then we should treat each other with a respect and a love that is fitting someone or something that is consecrated by God.
I read a lot of books, most of them good, many being excellent. Some books, however, have a profundity that transforms ones vision of things. In my estimation The Sacredness of Human Life is one of those books. Not only is it an excellent book, it’s a prophetic book. Even where I might not agree with the positions taken by the author, I’m pushed to consider carefully my own beliefs and understandings. This is a book on ethics that is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition, but most especially in the biblical biblical tradition. Being that David Gushee is Evangelical of a Baptist sort, I can say as one who has shared this Evangelical ethos, this is Evangelicalism at its very best.
With a title like this, one might presume that the book deals with abortion. That assumption would be correct, but Gushee deals with much more than abortion. He is pro-life, but his pro-life vision isn’t focused on just one issue. To use Catholic terms, he embraces a seamless garment vision that takes into consideration all manner of life-related issues, from capital punishment to women’s rights. He definitely holds human life to be sacred, believing that human life, indeed all life, has a God-given dignity that needs to be recognized.
The author distinguishes the concept of sacredness from words that are often taken as synonyms: sanctity and dignity. They’re related, but whereas sanctity and dignity can be understood without reference to God, the same isn’t true of sacredness. Why use the word sacred? It’s because, Gushee believes, our ability to honor and respect life in its fullness requires a voice from beyond our own selves.
What then does it mean to call human life sacred? Gushee writes:
To speak in religious terms of the sacredness of each and every human life, then, is basically to claim that all human beings are something like cathedrals that have been consecrated by God and must not be violated. God has sacre–ed, has consecrated, the human being, each human being, who is now sacred, and must be treated accordingly. (p. 25).
Since human life has been declared sacred then one must “protect human life from wanton destruction, desecration, or the violation of human rights. A full embrace of sacredness of human life leads to a full-hearted commitment to foster human flourishing” (33).
Gushee takes his definition of sacredness and essentially tests it out be taking the reader on a trip that begins in the Old Testament and continues on through the New Testament and on through Early Christianity. He explores ideas of creation and incarnation. He looks to the way in which early Christians looked at life and addressed issues of justice and peace. He notes that a moral vision developed over time and was passed on through history. This tradition that honored life, met a challenge in the fourth century CE, when Christendom emerged with the embrace of Christianity by Constantine. Things changed when this small minority religious community gained political power. Constantine saw Christianity as a force that could unify his empire, but that meant unifying Christianity. That would involve coercion, and what Constantine set in motion, Theodosius made explicit. With Theodosius Christianity became the state religion, and “orthodoxy” was to be enforced. Thus, a religion that grew under duress turned the same powers of the state against those who didn’t agree with the official dogma. In doing this the ethic of sacredness was diminished. There would be advances in the way Roman society understood the sacredness of life – gladiatorial contests, crucifixion, and infanticide were done away with, but it also blessed state repression of those it deemed heretical or schismatic.
As the story moves forward, we see that the Christian faith is divided on issues of life. He offers three case studies – Francis’ outreach to Muslims during the Crusades, Bartolomé De Las Casas’s defense of Native Americans, and John Overton’s defense of Jews – of efforts to advance the ethic of sacredness of life. Then he moves on to the Enlightenment, where Natural Rights, Rule of Law, and Human Dignity begin to displace earlier religious arguments for life’s dignity and sacredness. For the most part these efforts are rooted in earlier religious understandings, but attempts are made to sever the chord as much as possible.
Then we come to Nietzsche, who rejects this morality that had been passed down, and does so in an interesting fashion. He insists that if the Christian goes, so does its morality, with its sacredness of life ethic. Gushee goes into some depth of discussion of Nietzsche, and since Nietzsche is gaining a certain popularity in postmodern circles, this discussion is especially pertinent. Gushee seeks to be fair, and lets the famed philosopher speak for himself. He doesn’t blame him for practices that were beyond his control, but he looks to him as an example of the direction that the conversation was moving. In this vision, ideas of justice and equality are jetissoned. Pity is useless and even damaging. Indeed, cruelty isn’t necessarily evil, it is instead an expression of the primal desire for pleasure and self-preservation. With regard to the sacredness of life, Gushee notes that Nietzsche believed that the “only possible thing about humanity that gives worth to the species as a whole is the greatness of a few, and even that is overwhelmed by the mediocrity and pointlessness of the many” (p. 300). Thus, human life has no particular value. The earlier Enlightenment project of Locke and Kant is discarded, along with its Christian roots.