- Is Our Fear Of Death Stopping Us From Really Being Able To Live? (1)
- How can we find hope in a fearful world? (2)
- How can we find equality in an unfair world? (3)
Lockdown affords us the opportunity to watch a lot of films. My wife and I recently watched Made in Dagenham. It tells the true story, set in 1960s England, of a group of machinists at the Ford Motor Plant in Dagenham and their fight for equal pay. Their struggle eventually led to the equal pay act of 1970.
It was poignant watching it with my wife. As a female airline pilot, many who have gone before her have had to overcome similar prejudice to get into the profession that she now enjoys.
Indeed, many great films tell the story of our fight for equality: Amazing Grace tells the story of William Wilberforce’s fight to abolish the transatlantic slave trade; Invictus portrays Nelson Mandela’s fight against apartheid; Selma focusses on Martin Luther King and the civil rights struggle in America. All these people paid a great cost to fight for equality: Wilberforce lost his health; Mandela lost his freedom; and King lost his life.
Yet while it is right that we celebrate such victories, we are all too aware of injustices and inequalities that persist today.
The transatlantic slave trade may be a thing of history but slavery still exists in different forms, and over 40 million people around the world are still caught within it. While laws exist to ensure that those of different races or genders are treated equally, more subtle forms of prejudice and injustice persist. While we might celebrate the greater opportunities and rights of disabled people, it is a tragic injustice that many people with disabilities will not even get the opportunity of life because they will have been aborted before birth.
Why is equality important?
While many today are involved in different ways in the fight for equality, do we ever stop to ask, ‘Why is equality so important?’ Why do we assume that we should be treated equally? Where do we get this idea of dignity and human rights from?
It may sound absurd to even ask such a question. Doesn’t everyone agree that equality is important? Yet a brief look around the world or back through history will quickly show that this just isn’t the case. So why do we think that we are right and others are wrong? Where did we get this idea of equality from?
Some might say that it just evolved along with us. Yet why would such an idea have evolved? It seems a big jump to get from the survival of the fittest to the equality of all people! It’s hard to explain from evolution alone why such an idea would have emerged.
In fact, it is very hard to get a basis for equality from a purely naturalistic worldview. Some atheists have recognised this. The psychologist Stephen Pinker spoke of the ‘stupidity of dignity’ in an article he wrote in the New Republic. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, a secular Israeli historian, wrote, ‘Homo sapiens has no natural rights, just as spiders, hyenas and chimpanzees have no natural rights.’
So where do we get the idea of equality and inherent human dignity from?
Interestingly, Harari is willing to admit that it is uniquely the result of Christianity (though as an atheist, he regards Christianity as a myth). The secular historian, Tom Holland, in his brilliant book Dominion, agrees that the idea is a direct consequence of the revolution that Christianity has brought about in the world. He documents how many of the great steps forward in the area of human rights have been pioneered by Christians. We have already mentioned well-known characters like Wilberforce and King who were motivated by their Christian faith to do what they did, but it is less known that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was also first drafted by a Christian – Charles Malik – a Lebanese theologian.
So, what was it about the Christian faith that gave rise to this idea?
Jesus treats all people with dignity
Firstly, there is the biblical foundation that human beings have value because we are created in the image of God. This gives us inherent value and dignity. Our value is not derived from what we can do but from who we are. We are human beings not human doings!
Secondly, there is the claim that God himself became a human being. The wonder of Christmas is that, in Jesus, God has eternally joined himself to the human race. By becoming one of us God has affirmed our inherent dignity. He took on our vulnerability and lived in our shoes.
I recently listened to a presentation by the Christian Professor of Neonatology, John Wyatt. Speaking of his work with premature babies at University College Hospital, he showed a remarkable photo of one such baby with his tiny, yet perfectly formed hand grasping hold of one of John’s fingers. John then asked the audience, ‘Which hand do you think represents the hand of God?’ Most of us would naturally assume that it would be the stronger, larger hand of the adult. But John continued by explaining that it could be the tiny hand of that premature baby, for the Christian assertion is that God himself became a baby. In becoming weak and vulnerable, Jesus gives dignity to all of us, no matter how weak and vulnerable we may be.
Reading through Jesus’ life we can see how he extended this dignity and respect to those who, in his culture, would have been often overlooked or excluded. We see this most clearly in his utterly countercultural treatment of women. In a society that treated women as second-class citizens, Jesus dignified them, was supported by them, included them in his group of followers and taught them. He never spoke down to them and never used them as negative illustrations in his teaching. Ultimately, he would commission them to be the first preachers of his resurrection!
Yet while Jesus treated all people with dignity, we have to admit that we have not always done so. As humans we can all too easily abuse and use others for our selfish purposes, using power to oppress and undermine. So we could well ask, given how we have lived and treated each other, do we still have value to God, or have we forfeited that privilege?
Jesus values us enough to die for us
There is a third basis for our value as human beings. The incredible truth of the Bible is that not only did God make us in his image and become one of us – that would be wonderful enough – but even more remarkably, we learn that God himself would die for us. Despite the way we have treated each other and treated him, God gives the most precious thing he had to buy us back. In giving himself for us, Jesus was making it possible for us to be forgiven and drawn back into a relationship with the God who made us.
We can find ultimate value and dignity in a relationship with the God of the universe, and this invitation is open to all. The Christian church should be the most equal community on earth. It is made up of those who know that we are equally lost and broken, yet equally loved and welcomed by the grace of God. Once we come to experience the dignity, love and welcome of God, he then commissions us to go and show that radical countercultural love to others. We become his agents of revolutionary love in the world.