Every human being – 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 do not. For most 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 life’s sacredness 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 70 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 U.S. 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 impacted 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.
To truly be prolife, to truly advocate for the sanctity of all life, an individual must stand against abortion, euthanasia, war, and capital punishment. To support or participate in any of these four issues forfeits any claims to a prolife advocacy. Hence most conservatives and liberals are not prolife, regardless to what they profess. Each group allows something other than God – either the government or personal freedom – to takes precedence over and against the sanctity of life.
For my part, I am trying to be prolife, that is, I am trying to stand against abortion, euthanasia, war, and capital punishment. I don’t say that I am prolife because I realize that I am speaking from a safe distance. I recognize that I am simply trying, hoping to rely on God’s strength, yet recognizing that if I fall short, there is grace. I stopped my prideful boast of truly being prolife when I was faced with a painful decision and discovered how easy it was for me not to live up to my religious ideals.
Ten years ago this coming March my mother entered her last week of earthly life. I flew to Miami to be by her bedside. She, a nonsmoker, was dying of lung cancer. By this time the cancer spread to other vital organs. The doctor informed us that she would not live for long. While she was still conscious, we had a wonderful opportunity to discuss eternity. She knew she would soon die and made her peace with her God. Soon after, the pain became so intense that she was drugged to make her as comfortable as possible. At this point she lost her dignity and her consciousness. For about a week, she laid there in pain. For a week I did not leave her side, waiting for a death that took its sweet time to arrive. The woman I knew and loved left, but machines kept her body alive. Even though I claimed to be prolife, given the opportunity, I would have pulled the plug myself. My action would have been motivated by my deep love for the woman who gave me life.
Present laws forbid me from taking such actions. But if Jesus said that if I think it in my heart I did it, then I am guilty of euthanasia. I am guilty of not truly being prolife, regardless of my confession to the contrary. Since her death, my greatest regret is that I stood by as she suffered that last week of life. The drugs were not enough as she occasionally emerged from the fog of death. Nothing good came from that last week. I ask myself why she had to suffer. I remain with very conflicted emotions and dogmatic beliefs that I confess I have yet to be resolved.
If my belief that euthanasia is wrong is true, why when it touched my heart, was I willing – and if I am honest – am still willing to pull the plug. Is my love for my mother so strong that I’m willing to go against my prolife stance, and be left with nothing except God’s grace and forgiveness? But how can I be forgiven if I can’t repent from how I feel, from what I experienced. Maybe I will not find resolution to my struggle until that final heavenly reunion when I find forgiveness from my mother for not loving enough to act.
Unless you have stood by the deathbed of a love one passing away in excruciating pain, you really cannot understand this spiritual conflict I am trying to share. Remaining true to Christian social positions is always easy when never tested with the messiness of life. It’s easy to be in favor of war if you or your kids don’t have to go fight; to be against abortion if you are not carrying an unwanted pregnancy, especially one caused by rape or incest; to favor capital punishment if you are a victim; or be against euthanasia if it is not your love one suffering. For such folks, grace is neither needed nor seldom extended. But for those of us still working out our salvation in fear and trembling, maybe we need to learn how to rely much more on God’s grace for the contradictions that marks our existence.
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 with no money and no options. Nor do I know what it is to be on the battlefield facing someone who wants to kill my family or me.
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.