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The Sanctity of Human Life
David P. Gushee
means obedience to God—which is, in fact, its precondition. Peace, justice, inclusive community, restored human unity, food for all, healing, and joy—all come as God’s gracious gift to people who “maintain justice and do what is right” (Isa 56:1). God promises that in the time of restoration, “I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God” (Eze 36:27-28; Zeph 3:11-13).
All is not sweetness and light in the prophetic vision of the coming
. Interspersed with many of the glorious promises identified here are words of woe and judgment upon those who stand in the way of the fulfillment of this vision (including believers).
We must take this warning seriously as we contemplate what it means to live out this vision in our own world today.
THE NEW TESTAMENT AND HUMAN DIGNITY
The Ministry of Jesus
. When Jesus came “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” (Mt 4:23) he adopted and adapted this centuries-old prophetic yearning and demand for
. He articulated in fresh and profound ways—a coming kingdom of God—the content of this renewed and transformed world. Recognizing that Jesus was doing this, some declared him to be a prophet of Israel (Mt 16:13-14), and indeed he stood in the long lineage of the prophets in his preaching ministry.
But Jesus did two things that were quite new. He declared that the coming eschatological
was dawning “today,” “now,” that the time had “come” (e.g., Lk. 4:21, Mk 1:15) and, more importantly, that he was the agent through whom it was dawning. He turned the eschatological future into an inaugurated present. And he embodied this kingdom of justice, peace, and healing, in which human beings at last treat others, and are treated, as God originally desired.
Jesus did not preach an explicit message of “human dignity” per se. But if the kingdom of God is understood as consisting of such realities as peace, justice, deliverance, healing, and restoration of/into community, then it is not hard to see that a consummated kingdom, or reign, of God is in fact a world in which the sanctity of every human life is realized. In God’s kingdom, every person’s life is spared; indeed, it flourishes under conditions of justice, health, and security. People are delivered from their spiritual and physical distress and brokenness. No one is excluded from community. All have enough to eat and drink. All are cared for. God’s amazingly high valuation of the sacred worth of every person is at last reflected in how people view, evaluate, and treat each other. When God’s reign is consummated, human dignity is ultimately realized.
An abundance of examples could be cited from the ministry of Jesus to demonstrate the numerous ways in which he taught and embodied the sanctity of human life in his kingdom message. Here are a few of the most germane patterns in his ministry as recorded in the gospels.
First, Jesus consistently opposed violence and taught a way of peace.
The bottom-line commitment of all who believe in the sacredness of human life is to the protection and preservation of life. Jesus rejected violence. He rejected it, for example, as a way to deal with personal affronts or Israel’s national subjugation and humiliation. He prayed over Jerusalem that it would know “what would bring you peace” (Lk 19:42). He rejected violence when it was proposed by James and John as a response to those who opposed his ministry.
He rejected it yet again when swords were flashed, and deployed, at the time of his arrest. He rejected it when he could have called on “more than twelve legions of angels” (Mt 26:53) as he headed to the cross.
And he taught his listeners how to find better ways. He taught “transforming initiatives” such as going the second mile with the Roman soldier’s pack, turning the other cheek as an unexpected response to being struck, and taking the first step to make peace.
He taught that forgiveness should be extended nearly indefinitely to those who wound us, and embodied such forgiveness when he prayed for his persecutors even at the cross.
When quoting the Hebrew Bible, he never repeated texts endorsing or describing vengeance or violence. He -described God the Father as showering love rather than violence on God’s enemies (Mt 5:43-48). Jesus’ was a God who seeks after those who walk away from him (Lk 15), rather than preparing vengeance for them. Some may counter: didn’t Jesus say, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34)? But we must not be confused by a misreading of this statement. In context, Jesus is pointing to the stark divisions that were already emerging over how to interpret and respond to his revolutionary message. Certainly even families divide sometimes over their responses to Jesus: “your enemies will be the members of your own household” (Mt 10:36). But the Jesus they divide over carried out a messianic ministry of peacemaking rather than sword-wielding.
Second, Jesus’ ministry was inclusive.
A key element both of the kingdom of God and of human dignity is its expansive inclusiveness, its hospitable universality. Jesus embodied that inclusiveness in the way he interacted with others.
In a religious culture in which women were devalued, the sick were often considered ritually unclean outcasts, and obvious “sinners” were treated as beyond the pale of God’s care, Jesus spoke with, ate with, touched, healed, rescued, and demonstrated compassion toward women, the sick, and “sinners.” He attended not only to their physical well-being but also their spiritual needs and wholeness within the community.
In a political context in which the occupying Romans were hated and Samaritans were despised, Jesus ministered to and spoke with Roman soldiers and Samaritans (even praising the faith of a Roman centurion and the “Good Samaritan”).
In a context in which social-economic divisions were acute, Jesus “preached good news to the poor” and welcomed the desperate in his band of followers. He called the rich to share with the poor and live in simplicity rather than greed and selfishness.
In sum: Jesus smashed the religious, cultural, economic, and political barriers of his context and demonstrated love, respect, and inclusion toward people of all descriptions, in doing so often shocking and scandalizing those around him. He treated all persons as persons of worth and dignity.
Third, Jesus’ taught about God’s love for all human beings.
In a variety of different ways, Jesus taught the very “good news” that God loves human beings with an immeasurable love. Jesus declared God’s love when he talked of God’s decision to save humanity and the world rather than leave us to our own destructive devices (Jn 3:16). He declared that God loves not just those who love him but those who hate him, showering rain and sun on both the evil and the good (Mt 5:43-48). He reminded his listeners that God is a forgiving God, and that therefore all who would be God’s children must also be forgiving.
Jesus said that God pays attention even to the life of a sparrow, and all the more attends to providing for our material needs—therefore freeing us to trust him and attend to the needs of others. And Jesus frequently offered stern reminders of God’s special care for those who especially need it—the children, the poor, the abandoned, the sick, the hungry. These reminders were often accompanied by teachings requiring all who would be his followers to imitate this preferential love or face judgment for failing to do so (Mt 25:31-46).
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