Book Review: The Sacredness of Human Life by David Gushee
February 22, 2013 Leave a comment
David Gushee is an excellent ethicist. His work on the Holocaust and Evangelical ethics are standards in their respective fields, and his social activism on combatting torture and climate change and advocating for human rights places him in the esteemed tradition of Christian social ethics in the United States. His newest book continues this legacy of top-notch scholarship in Christian ethics and makes an important contribution to studies in theology and human rights.
The Sacredness of Human Life is an ambitious book. It traces the roots of modern human rights throughout the Christian scriptures and Christian theology. Importantly, Gushee emphasizes that these roots lie in the sacredness, rather than mere dignity, that humans possess. This sacredness, in an account compatible with Nicholas Wolterstorff’s account of besowed worth in his important Justice: Rights and Wrongs, flows primarily from God and not from anything inherent in human beings themselves. Thus, he again joins Wolterstorff in rejecting “capacities approaches” (claims that some human capacity, like reason or the ability to govern, are the image of God) to grounding human rights in the image of God. Gushee says,
…I reject their claim that there is something intrinsic or inherent about biological humanity that makes it valuable or constitutes it as the image of God. I claim that humanity’s sacred worth is an ascribed status willed by God and communicated through God’s actions, commands, and declarations, one of them being God’s revelation that all human beings are made in the image of God. We can’t go looking for something in humanity that in and of itself gains us value and worth – the sacredness of human life is God’s decision, to which we human beings must accede and by which we must orient our lives. (p. 46)
Thus, Gushee rejects the assumptions in arguments about abortion around the “personhood” of a fetus. He says “all distinctions between human beings and persons are purely speculative, lack groundng in biblical revelation, and have proven hugely dangerous,” and therefore rejects any “distinction between biological human life and personhood” (45). This is sure to be one of the most controversial portions of the text.
In general, this portion of the book is compelling and well-argued. I maintain that the attempt to ground human rights in the imago dei is an appropriate one, even though I also reject capacities approaches, and am seeking to do so by drawing on social triniarian theology in my dissertation. However, Gushee’s critiques and reticence are well-founded.
In tracing the history of Christian thought related to these themes Gushee is careful not to paint too rosy a picture of Christian history. He is clear that while profound resources for the grounding and pursuit of human rights go “all the way down” in the Christian tradition, there is also a history of the Christian violation of the rights of many humans – often those whose skin was of a darker hue. Therefore, he joins the chorus of those scholars after R. Scott Appleby who have highlighted “the ambivalence of the sacred” in human social life. Indeed, even in those instances where Christians have justified their violations of human rights through appeals to their scriptures and theological doctrines there have often been others who were leaders in challenging such violations.
From here Gushee marches through the history of western philosophy and engages thinkers as diverse as John Locke, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Adolf Hitler. In tracing this history Gushee highlights the important contributions of the Christian tradition to the development of modern rights, supports the thesis that much of modern rights discourse and practices are feeding on the cultural capital of the western Christian tradition, and insists that abandoning these resources is a dangerous proposition. However, he does not do this in any triumphant or Constantinian way. Rather, it is with a humility learned through serious engagement with the history of Christianity’s sins. However, it also recognizes the sins of modernity and insists that the Christian tradition still has much to teach us and contribute to social life.
Gushee then applies the belief that human life is sacred to a variety of challenges facing us today: abortion and end-of-life care, the death pealty, nuclear weaons, modern warfare, and global women’s rights, for example. And then he bravely addresses the challenge of whether a strong commitment to human sacredness is part of he problem in the climate and environmental crises we are facing around the world. In the end, Gushee insists that a commitment to the sacredness of human life can go hand-in-hand with deep commitments to environmental justice and care, but the ambiguity of such a position is present throughout the chapter on the topic.
In the end, the book covers far too much ground to be done justice in a review on a blog. However, it can be said that this is an excellent text which merits reading by all who care about Christian theology and ethics, human rights, and creating a just world. It is a first-rate piece of scholarship that is, for the most part, accessible to the informed lay reader. And it is useful in mobilizing action in support of human rights locally and globally. I believe it will join Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics as a standard in the field.