Every human–regardless of their race, gender, economic class, nationality, religious faith or sexual orientation–is created in the image of God, what theologians call the imago Dei. My Native American friends are teaching me to include the animal and plant nations among life that also contain the imago Dei, a lesson I am still trying to learn and incorporate.
But for now, because we humans reflect God’s image, we have worth in the universe and are created for dignity. Likewise, we have both a right to life and a duty not to take another’s life.
Unfortunately, Christians who claim to believe in the sanctity of life really don’t. For many Christians, either their conservative views or liberal inclinations deny the very essence of the concept of the imago Dei.
Both camps may claim to believe in the sanctity of life, but that belief is only up to a point. This can be illustrated in four controversial and inseparable issues, specifically abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and war.
The conservative normally opposes abortion and euthanasia, while generally favoring war (when declared by their nation) and capital punishment. In their mind, the rights of the state trump the sanctity of life.
The liberal, who in most cases opposes both war and capital punishment claiming life’s sacredness, usually favors abortion and euthanasia. In the mind of the liberal, personal rights trump the sanctity of life.
Offending both the liberal and conservative, I propose that it should be the biblical message which trumps both personal rights and the rights of the states.
This was the case during the first century Christian church. In fact, it was the norm for the first four centuries. Early Christians believed all life was sacred. If attacked–as was the case around 90 C.E. when the Romans seized, sacked, pillaged and burned Jerusalem–Christians refused to fight.
Their conviction of eternity led them to be more concerned with the value of life than life’s temporariness. Radically following the example given to them by Jesus, they believed that it was better to be killed than to kill.
This of course changed when the Christian faith was fused and confused with the political establishment. When the emperor Constantine became a so-called Christian, and made Christianity the official faith of the empire, Christianity ceased being radical.
After all, you can’t exactly rule an empire full of radicals. You need peace, as in the Pax Romana, which must be maintained through an army willing to fight–that is kill. How can Christians, committed to the pacifism exemplified by Jesus, now support war?
Change the theology.
Hence Augustine of Hippo, shaken by Rome’s political vulnerability and eventual sack in 410 C.E. by the Goths, looked to the civil structure to provide peace and order. To defend peace and order, he developed a “just war theory.”
This concept outlined the conditions for when it would be morally acceptable for Christians to reject the example given by Jesus, and instead fight and kill so as to preserve the peace and order of the empire. In other words, the rights of the state trumped the sanctity of life.
During the rise of modernity, the philosophical venture of replacing God with reason known as the Age of Enlightenment, we are told of our inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (originally it was property but changed lest the landless, after the Revolutionary War, would start demanding land).
A social order was created, which emphasized the importance of preserving the personal rights needed to pursue happiness.
Unwanted pregnancies and prolonged illness negatively impact the ability to pursue happiness, hence centering the decision of terminating life upon the individual whose happiness would be hampered. Hence, for the liberal, personal rights trump the sanctity of life.
If we say we believe in the imago Dei—that all life is sacred because it reflects God’s image–then the mass murderer, the living fetus, the terrorist enemy and the aged and infirm all have worth before the eyes of God. All deserve dignity. All deserve life.
Why? Because all life has the potential of redemption. No life is irreclaimable.
This is why the gospel message of Christ is so difficult: turning the other check, love your enemies, giving your life for another, forgive trespassers, etc.
Recognizing that it is always easier to be brave from a safe distance, I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a pregnant teenager caused by incest or rape. Nor do I know what it is to be on the battlefield facing someone who wants to kill me or my family.
I can only hope that God’s grace would be sufficient to live out my convictions–that I honestly answer the question of whether anything, state or personal rights, trumps the gospel.
Miguel De La Torre, a Cuban American, is professor of theologies of liberation at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a former Baptist pastor in Kentucky. His column also appears in the Holland Sentinel.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.