In AD 1 a Roman soldier wrote to his wife:
“Know that I am in Alexandria…. I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I’ve received payment, I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered the child before I come home, if it is a boy keep it, if a girl, discard it.”
This was the world into which Jesus was born. Human life was only valued for its utility…its usefulness. And sadly, in such a world, boys were generally considered more ‘useful’ than girls.
However, it wasn’t simply girl’s lives that were undervalued. In the classical world, the death of the weak and the disabled was often expected by convention or demanded by law. Seneca, who was the tutor of the Roman Emperor Nero wrote, ‘We drown even children who at birth are weakly and abnormal…’ And the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote ‘Let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.’
Infanticide was commonplace in the culture into which Christianity was born. Unwanted children were often exposed to die. We not only have written records like those I have quoted, we have numerous archaeological finds all over Europe and the Middle East that have confirmed this sad fact.
It was ‘Christianisation’ of the Roman Empire that ultimately ended this practice and ensured it was outlawed throughout the Western world. It was Christians who gathered the discarded babies and raised them as their own or created orphanages. It was Christians who challenged and changed the culture that found such practices acceptable. And why? Because of the great value God places on all human life.
In the very first chapter of the Bible we are told:
“So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.”
Show me a philosophy with a grander picture of humanity than this! What religious or philosophical system demonstrates our value as human beings in greater measure than this simple verse?
There is much debate in theological circles over the full meaning of humans being made in ‘God’s image.’ What is generally agreed, however, is that God has conferred special honour and value upon all men and women, from the smallest and weakest child to the most powerful adult.
At the very least, the ‘image of God’ suggests that we were designed to create, to work, to rest, to rule and to love just as God has done. We have been made with rationality and cognitive capacity, reflecting the mind and nature of God. This is a unique and distinguishing feature that separates us from the category of animals.
We were created equally and in plurality – man and woman reflecting the plural (and equal) nature of the Godhead. Human beings represent God on the earth in a Vice-Regal like capacity. Like God who rules and creates, we too have a derived authority to rule, create and exercise loving dominion on the earth, but within the limits God has set.
We are, before any other identity marker, human-beings; the apex of God’s creation and made in His glorious image. Even that most fundamental of our identity markers, our separate genders, is secondary to our identity as fellow human-beings.
In fact, no other identity can take precedence: Not race, not class, not sexual preference, not my job or position is society, nor my role as a parent or a child. Not even my religion takes precedence over our common humanity.
The Crusaders of the Middle Ages faltered at this point. They elevated a religious identity over our common image-bearing humanity revealed in the Scriptures, and sought to kill Muslims and Jews, who the Bible declared were equally image-bearers of God. Today’s jihadists, like ISIS, fall into the same theological error as the Crusaders of the past.
In today’s society many people seem to be elevating particular identity markers like nationality, race, gender, sexuality, politics, privilege and religion above our common humanity. We see it happening on the left and the right of politics. The consequence of such thinking creates a tribalism in our society that facilitates societal conflict rather than a necessary cohesion.
We must reject elevating these group identities above our common human identity. This is the great lesson we must all learn. All people must be valued for who they are (human-beings and image-bearers of the Almighty), above what they are (their various identities and abilities).
The consequence of this view should positively affect our discourse with each other, especially with those ‘outside our tribe.’ We are called to love, embrace and respect all people…even if we disagree with them.
This is why we must love people of all races, nationalities and family types. It is why we welcome people of all faith backgrounds and no faith background into our lives. A good neighbour, and certainly a good Christian, should seek the flourishing of all people, not simply those who ascribe to our shared philosophy. It is our only hope to hold on to a civil society.
Holding firm to this one lesson of our shared humanity can change the world…just as it did in the past.