More than a “Given:” A Review of The Sacredness of Human Life by David P. Gushee

April 25, 2013

At this time in the world, I can’t think of a more urgent and meaningful subject for readers than what is addressed in The Sacredness of Human Life, by Christian ethicist David Gushee.  Gushee’s exploration of life’s sacredness delves deeply into the core of Christianity’s treatment of human life as revealed in Scripture and in ancient Christian writings.  Gushee also probes the breadth of sacredness of life through history and the anti-Christian views that have invariably taken root and sprung up in every generation. 

The author writes, “This book offers forays into understanding what it has meant and what it means today to say that human life is sacred, a core belief of the Christian church and the greatest moral contribution of the Christian tradition to world civilization.” This is primarily a work in Christian ethics that the author promotes as a work “for both the general reader and the academic.” I found it to be quite academic and substantive, as the author himself describes it at times to involve “heavy philosophical sledding.” I think the sledding proves fruitful and instructive but certainly is dense as well.

Gushee’s research and writing leads to several conclusions that I think can be succinctly summarized by his statement, “If any human life is sacred, every human life is sacred.”  He argues for the affirmative.  He defines “sacredness of life” as the following: “each and every human being has been set apart for designation as a being of elevated status and dignity.  Each human being must therefore be viewed with reverence and treated with due respect and care, with special attention to preventing any desecration or violation of a human being.“ Through the book, Gushee constructs the support for the sacredness of every life and, in fact, all of creation.

Sacredness of life comes as a divine revelation and stands as an ancient Christian doctrine.  For Christians, it must not become a mere theological doctrine or political stance.  Gushee writes, “A full embrace of the sacredness of human life leads to a full-hearted commitment to foster human flourishing.”  He strives to encourage this commitment for all stages and situations of life.

The value of human life is not found in the attributes of humanity, according to Gushee.  He asserts that, “Humanity’s sacred worth is an ascribed status willed by God and communicated through God’s actions, commands, and declarations.”  This is mainly revealed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and God’s revelation in Scripture that all people are made in the image of God.  Jesus’ incarnation made sacred every stage of life from conception to death. This demands that God’s people participate in combating and, with God’s help, defeating all that wars against life until Christ comes again.

Gushee guides readers through several areas of major moral failures by Christians during the Crusades, New World exploration and anti-Semitism.  He dissects Enlightenment developments that compromised the Christian foundation of sacredness of life highlighting the Kantian approach.  He then opens readers’ eyes to the destructive philosophy of Nietzsche and practices of the Nazis. 

21st Century challenges to the sacredness of life are examined.  Gushee reminds readers that secularization occurs due to the increasing failure of the Church to be the Church. He writes that

“For fallen human beings viewing other humans as persons of sacred worth and inviolable dignity is not at all ‘natural.’”  Christians must follow Christ’s teachings in obedience and engage in “active, compassionate mercy on behalf of the poor, the weak, the powerless, the sick, the suffering, and any others who cannot fully protect their own interests, which is all of us some of the time and some of us all of the time.”

This is overall a profound and persuasive argument for accepting sacredness of life and taking action to protect and promote it.  I can’t imagine that Gushee has left any “loopholes” in his case.  To argue against the value of life that Gushee prescribes, one must align himself with Nietzsche and the Nazis.  Sadly, this is too often the case in our world community.  In light of this book, at least, it cannot be done subtlely or glossed over any longer.

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