Mon, 26 Aug 2013 - 1:13 PM CST
The Sacredness of Human Life: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision Is Key to the World’s Future
David P. Gushee (Eerdmans, 478 pp., hardcover)
Many American churches observe the third Sunday of January as Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. Ronald Reagan established this observation by executive proclamation in 1984, calling on all Americans “to give thanks for the gift of life, and to reaffirm our commitment to the dignity of every human being and the sanctity of each human life.” For most churches, this Sunday provides opportunity to affirm the inestimable value of unborn life, to teach why Christianity opposes abortion, and to promote pro-life ministries that help pregnant moms to choose life.
In The Sacredness of Human Life, David P. Gushee argues that being for life entails far more than being against abortion. He offers a practical and a theological reason for speaking of a “sacredness of life” ethic rather than a “sanctity of life” one. Practically, in the public mind, “sanctity of life” terminology is too narrowly associated with opposition to abortion and, perhaps, certain biotechnological innovations (embryonic stem cells, cloning, etc.). Theologically, “sanctity” connotes “character qualities achieved by the person,” where “sacredness connotes “ascribed status, referring to something or someone having received special status through consecration by another.” The latter term more accurately captures the gist of the biblical narrative, whereby human beings have special status because God created them in His image and likeness, among other reasons. Thus, Gushee provides this definition of human life’s sacredness: “God has consecrated each and every human being — without exception and in all circumstances — as a unique, incalculably precious being of elevated status and dignity.” This “moral reality” entails the “moral task” of “adopting a posture of reverence” and “accepting responsibility for the sacred gift that is a human life.”
The bulk of Gushee’s book is a study of the biblical foundations and shifting historical fortunes of this sacredness-of-life ethic. Early Christianity showed its commitment to the sacredness of human life through opposition to war, abortion, infanticide, torture, and the Roman arena; as well as through affirmation of peace, piety, impartiality, and help for the poor. The conversion of Constantine to Christianity in A.D. 312 muddied the waters by harnessing Church to State. This resulted in a “Christendom divided against itself,” illustrated by the contrasting approaches of Francis of Assisi versus the Crusades, Bartolome de Las Casas versus La Conquista, and Baptist Richard Overton’s advocacy of religious freedom versus Christendom’s systematic persecution of Jews. Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant tried to retain the substance of Christian morals without its theological foundation. But as Friedrich Nietzsche argued, “When one gives up Christian belief one therefore deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality.” As the twentieth century unfolded, the cost of the loss of a Christian moral vision was measured in millions dead because Nazi (and Soviet) depredations.
The Sacredness of Human Life concludes with brief chapters devoted to ethical and environmental issues. My guess is that many evangelical readers will cheer Gushee’s pro-life commitment but question his antideath-penalty stance. I certainly hope they are challenged by his presentation on women’s rights, which are routinely violated worldwide through sex-trafficking, gender violence, and maternal mortality due to lack of basic healthcare.
Regardless of occasional disagreements with Gushee about specific issues, I highly recommend this gracefully written and thought-provoking book. May God use it to expand our moral vision, help us grasp the moral reality of the sacredness of human life, and empower us to fulfill the moral task of loving the unborn and the born, whether neighbor or enemy.
Reviewed by George Paul Wood, director, Ministerial Resourcing for the Assemblies of God and executive editor of Enrichment journal, Springfield, Missouri.