The gospel teaches that every human is sacred. It’s a far from obvious claim. Consider what it means: orange-haired casino owners, former First Ladies, judo-loving foreigners called Vladimir, and aging comandantes – each of them sacred.
Muslim refugee children are sacred. So are the Islamist terrorists who (some fear) they may become. Police officers are sacred, as are young African Americans with names like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray. Unborn babies are sacred, always. And so too, with all their grave guilt, are abortionists. Progressive hipsters, prosperity-gospel televangelists, members of Congress, gender-transitioning former decathletes, Confederate-flag-waving white nationalists? Sacred.
This absurd claim is the joyful surprise at the heart of the gospel. Each person, just or unjust, is created in the image and likeness of God. Each is someone for whom Jesus died. As Christians our faith only makes sense if the proposition that humans are sacred is true.
Killing a human being is always wrong because it is God’s will for man to be a sacred creature. Lactantius, AD 311
And if it is true, we have much work to do. Despite the proliferation of human rights talk, our society is busy dismantling respect for human sacredness. Our political debates reflect this. Enthusiasm for torture and for carpet-bombing civilians on the right is mirrored by #ShoutYourAbortion and celebrations of euthanasia on the left. In June 2016, the US Supreme Court’s Whole Woman’s Health vs. Hellerstedt decision dashed hopes that this country’s abortion license might at least be narrowed. Meanwhile no major US politician seems interested in the three million children living in the extreme poverty documented in the book $2.00 a Day.
Recent months have made clear that any influence American Christians may once have wielded in public affairs has mostly evaporated. The causes for Christianity’s marginalization can be debated – sexual revolution fallout? neoliberalism and social fragmentation? backlash against Christians’ still-unrepented support for Bush-era wars? – but its reality is undeniable.
It’s encouraging, then, to turn for guidance to another time when Christianity was politically sidelined: the church of the first three centuries, when the faith was still illegal. As Ronald J. Sider reminds us, these early believers lived out their belief in the sacredness of humans in a strikingly countercultural way: they refused to kill, ever. They insisted: Christians do not go to war, they do not participate in the death penalty, they do not practice abortion or infanticide, they do not watch violent entertainment.
Christianity provides a unified answer for the whole of life. Francis Schaeffer
Yet the early church’s pro-life witness went beyond refusing to kill. As even their enemies admitted, Christians were known for their self-sacrificial willingness to care for the poor, the imprisoned, the sick, and the abandoned. Some are said to have sold themselves into slavery to help others.
What if Christians’ pro-life witness was just as robust today? What if we responded to the church’s marginalization by recapturing our recklessness for life? Imagine the stir if all Christians refused to kill for any reason – why not leave “just war” to secular folks? – and if the church became known for its self-sacrificing love. There are a host of forerunners to show us the way, from Francis of Assisi to Florence Nightingale to Mother Teresa.
We need consistency – what Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, in a famous 1983 lecture, called “a consistent ethic of life.” Bernardin, like Pope Francis today, appealed to opponents of abortion to prove their belief in the sacredness of life by also standing up for “the old and the young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant, and the unemployed worker.”
Critics were quick to charge that Bernardin’s definition of consistency was so broad that it risked downplaying the unique horrors of abortion. It might, they feared, lead to pro-abortion politicians coopting the pro-life label while cherry-picking just those issues they found convenient to support (for example, death penalty abolition, nuclear disarmament, or anti-poverty programs). This fear would prove well-grounded.
Yet the real problem isn’t too much consistency in defending life, but too little. After all, Bernardin’s words seem cautious and mild compared to the bracing message of Tertullian, Cyprian, the Didache, or the Sermon on the Mount. The early Christians were little interested in nudging public policy this way or that; they were building something both simpler and grander. As Francis Schaeffer remarked in regard to abortion, “We should have in mind not only this important issue as though it stood alone. … Christianity provides a unified answer for the whole of life.”
Through Christ’s incarnation, all of humanity regains the dignity of bearing the image of God. Whoever from now on attacks the least of people attacks Christ, who took on human form and who in himself has restored the image of God for all who bear a human countenance. Dietrich Bonhoeffer
What does this unified answer look like? As Erna Albertz’s story illustrates, it means seeking to live out all of Jesus’ teachings, especially those that have been dismissed as impossible and unrealistic. Eberhard Arnold puts it well:
Even the killing of unborn life, a Massacre of the Innocents that today is multiplied a thousandfold, remains unassailable apart from faith in the kingdom of God. The supposedly high culture of our day will continue to carry out this massacre as long as social disorder and injustice still exist. The murder of unborn children cannot be stopped as long as public and private life are allowed to remain as they are.
We can demand neither purity in marriage nor the end of infanticide unless we are willing to oppose private property and the lie of unjust social stratification with a realistic alternative: that is, we must prove that a different way of life is possible. Christian morality cannot be demanded outside the context of a way of life whose name is “the kingdom of God” and “the church of Jesus Christ.” (Innerland, 1936)
I hope the articles in this issue will rekindle your zeal and joy in building up such a way of life. The writers don’t all agree on the best ways and means, but each challenges us to consider: isn’t the unadulterated gospel of life an answer whose time has come?
Image from explorepahistory.com.