Saturday, October 23, 2010

"By Their Creator"

During this election cycle President Obama cited the Declaration of Independence in a political speech and quoted it incorrectly. In speaking of his belief that all humans have certain “inalienable rights,” the president cited the Declaration as his authority for the assertion. That’s fine. But he quotes the Declaration as saying: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that each of us are (sic) endowed with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Remarks by the President at a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Dinner in Rockville, MD). But that’s not what the Declaration of Independence says. It says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” My first thought was to give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the president was merely trying to capture the essence of the Declaration and not necessarily quote it precisely. But then I checked the text of the White House press release. The phrasing was in the text of the president's speech. The omission is both telling and significant. Let me explain.

Christians believe that all life is sacred, and human life is specially so, precisely because human beings are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). Christians believe that God’s image, like an image on a coin, has been stamped on human life, and that fact gives humans their special worth and value. Our value is not “inherent” or sui generis; it is not an “entitlement.” It is bestowed by God and endowed by the Creator.

The practical implications of that belief were brought home to me in something Phillip Yancey tells. Yancey, who is a supporter of Amnesty International, points out the internal inconsistency of an organization like Amnesty International believing in something called “human rights” when they don’t believe in a Creator who has endowed humans with those self-same rights. It came to a head in a meeting of a local AI chapter where Yancey was in attendance. He says: “There I met good people, serious people: students and executives and professionals who gather together because they find it intolerable blithely to go on with life while other people are being tortured and killed.” He points out that they engaged in their activities in support of keeping people alive with all the passion and fervor of religious zealots. But at their meetings, no one prayed, no one intoned God’s name in support of their “mission” because no one believed in God. Though originally founded on Christian principles, today AI is officially non-theological. And so Yancey, who rarely demurs, weighed in and asked: “Why do you believe that it is wrong to kill human beings and right to fight to keep them alive?” He said the response he got from the group resembled the reaction a heretic would receive from true believers. The answer took the form of axiom: “Life is good; death is bad.” But when Yancey pointed out that not all life comes under that axiom, even for AI members (not all are vegetarians!), and that to people like Hitler, Stalin, Saddam, and all terrorists death can be a useful tool to accomplish political purposes, they looked horrified…and mystified. And then Yancey let the other shoe drop. He said: “Don’t get me wrong. I know why I believe that torture and murder are wrong and that it is good to keep people alive, I just don’t know why you do!” Yancey went on to say that he believed that keeping people alive is right and good because they were created in the image of God. In the words of the Declaration, “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” “But is it possible,” Yancey asks, “to honor the image of God in a human being if there is no God in Whose image the person has been created?” Or turn it a round, and as the nihilist, Ivan Karamazov, in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, puts it: “If there is not God, everything is permitted.”

When our son was small, I offered him two coins – a dime and a nickel. He chose the nickel. When I asked him why, he answered: “Because it’s bigger.” But when I told him that the dime was worth twice as much as the nickel, always of good mind, he inquired, “But why?” Good question. I was stumped. Why would the smaller of two coins be worth twice as much as the larger? And then it hit me. Because the Creator says so.

1 comment:

John King said...

But is it possible,” Yancey asks, “to honor the image of God in a human being if there is no God in Whose image the person has been created?”

That is a very good question. From my own faith perspective, I would answer "certainly not."

Another question that I like is, "Is it possible to honor the image of God in a human being even if one does not have a rational belief in God?"

If each of us is made in the image of God, maybe one can see and honor the face of God in the face of his fellow human being without giving the name "God" to what he recognizes.