The Sacredness of Human Life --Review

THE SACREDNESS OF HUMAN LIFE: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision Is Key to the World's Future.  By David P. Gushee.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013.  Xvi +  461 pp.

                 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” (p. 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, Bartolom√© 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.

This leads us to the Twentieth Century, where we saw some of the most egregious desecrations of life occur.  The most explicit example being the Nazi program of Adolph Hitler, to which Gushee devotes an entire chapter.  Now, you might think he’s going to blame Hitler’s views on Nietzsche, but he doesn’t.  It’s true that Nietzsche sets the stage, but Hitler’s views are variegated.  They emerge in part from his own life experience, a sense of personal failure combined with a sense of worth derived from his military service in World War I.  To those who seek to distance Hitler from Christianity, Gushee notes that Hitler saw himself as an expression of God’s will.  He rarely spoke of Jesus, but he saw himself as part of the church.  Of course, he embraced a theology that de-Judaized the faith, and he changed it in ways that removed an ethic of sacredness of life.  Power became the important goal. He saw himself as a messiah, and his bastardized version of Christianity turned the message of Jesus on its head, placing violence at the center.  It was a message of purity of race and nation, and anyone, anything that tainted this purity must be annihilated.  Thus, Jews, Gypsies, the mentally ill, the disabled, and homosexuals were deemed subhuman and worthy of destruction. 

So if the Twentieth Century saw such brazen examples of desecration, how do we honor human life and the creation itself in the twenty-first century?  It is here that Gushee deals with a wide range of issues from abortion, which he opposes, but with a good dose of realism; bioethics, for which he has concerns; the death penalty, which he opposes on a biblical basis; human rights; nuclear weapons [he notes that “according to the Bible, we are the sole species to whom responsibility for the fate of the earth and its inhabitants has been entrusted.  There are between 5 million and 100 million species on the planet; 1.7 million have been identified and named.  There is just one species that is responsible not just for its own well-being but also for the wellbeing of all others” p. 378) And that species is us!]; and women’s rights. 

 One of the issues that Gushee wants us to consider is our relationship to the rest of creation.  He notes in the beginning that for some, the idea of human sacredness must come at the expense of other creatures.  He’s not of that opinion.  In fact, he believes that if we truly are concerned about humanity, if we’re truly desiring to fulfill the command to love our neighbor, then we will be concerned about the welfare of the earth, and all its inhabitants.  After all, we share DNA, and thus we’re kin.  For evangelicals who are wrestling with these issues, and thinking that they don’t matter to God, they should read this chapter.  It is a powerful defense of ecology, and the principle that God does care about all of creation.  And just to makes this clear, he makes his case on the basis of Scripture.

Gushee, as noted earlier, is an Evangelical and a Baptist.  He opposes abortion, but he also opposes the death penalty.  He may oppose abortion, but he is a strong advocate for women’s rights.  In fact, he makes it clear that Evangelicals who assume that the defense of women’s rights makes one pro-abortion is simply wrong-headed and damaging to the cause.  Whether you agree on all issues, and I'm ambivalent about abortion, and I’m more sanguine about the benefits that biotech offers us than is he, you will benefit from reading this book.  Indeed, it’s my opinion that this is a must read book, especially for preachers. It is a profound exploration of a biblically rooted ethic of life, one that insists that all human life is equally sacred in the eyes of God.  

I don’t do this often, but I will encourage you to click on the icon above and order your copy from Amazon.  Read it closely and ponder its message.  You won’t be disappointed.  In fact, I guarantee that your vision of life will be at minimum enhanced, and more likely revolutionized!


Allan R. Bevere said…

Thanks for the helpful review. I have not read this book, but will put it on my list. I love Gushee's work. I think his work along with Glenn Stassen in Kingdom Ethics is first-rate.

I am curious as to what makes you ambivalent about abortion. I ask this not to enter a debate with you. I am just interested in what drives your ambivalence.
Robert Cornwall said…

I have some personal reasons -- based on friends who have faced this issue in their own life. Gushee himself notes that simply banning it won't prevent abortions. So, I stick with the Clinton/Obama line -- safe, legal, and hopefully rare. The good news is that the number of abortions is in decline -- largely due to available contraception, which makes the debate about contraception all the more ironic.
Allan R. Bevere said…
Thanks, Bob.

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