The Irreducible Nature of Human Equality

The Irreducible Nature of Human Equality

I recently took my daughter, Bea (pictured above), for her annual checkup at Vancouver General Hospital. Bea is four years old and has Down Syndrome. She is used to doctors prodding and poking her, so she did well. As we left, I shared the elevator with a woman whose baby has the same condition as Bea. We made an instant connection and chatted for about 20 minutes in the foyer of the hospital.


Toward the end of the conversation, she told me that at her previous visit she was scolded by an older couple for bringing this baby into the world, who told her, “She will be a burden on the economy.” My new friend and I traded several clever retorts that she could have made. It’s too bad the best responses always come to us after the fact. On that day, she didn’t have one. She just burst into tears and ran back to the nurses’ station. I am not sure if this woman was a Christian, but, as our conversation came to an end, I told her how precious her daughter was. I assured her that God had decided that she would be the very best parent for this little girl and then thanked her for being such a wonderful mother. 
 

Obviously, the couple who verbally assaulted this woman sounds awful; most people wouldn’t say that kind of thing out loud. And yet, most people who find themselves pregnant with a child with Down Syndrome end up choosing to abort. This decision is probably driven by fear or by a deep trepidation about suffering. I think the fear is understandable, but the actions that usually follow are not. During the “I am the 99%” protests of recent years a picture of a young boy holding a sign went viral. The sign said, “I may not be perfect, but I’m happy. I am God’s handiwork and bear his image. I am blessed. I am one of the 10% of children born with Down Syndrome who survived Roe v. Wade.” The sign refers to the statistic that around 90% of children diagnosed with Down Syndrome in utero are aborted.


It’s for this reason that the teaching of Psalm 8 is so important. In it, David is struck by the value God places on human beings – despite the fact we are just tiny fragments of the universe.

3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
4 what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?
5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
    and crowned him with glory and honor.
6 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under his feet,
7 all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.


To be described as holding a position a little lower than heavenly beings’ is surely the highest honour possible for a created being. David says we are crowned with honour and glory: concepts normally used to describe royalty. And our job? Dominion over ALL creation. That’s god-like responsibility. David is taking us back to Genesis 1 and reminding us that God made us in His image, as the pinnacle of His creation.


It’s on this basis that we value all human beings, regardless of their skin colour, age, the uniform they wear, or how productive they are in society. As God’s image-bearers, we are all equal in dignity and worth. The modern idea of human rights is built upon this exact idea. It was not created Ex Nihilo by the United Nations, the Enlightenment thinkers, or any particular government charter. Rather, it is firmly rooted in the Judeo-Christian worldview.

"As God’s image-bearers, we are all equal in dignity and worth."


So, if our society got its idea of human rights from the belief that all people are created in the image of God, what happens when we lose the God part of the equation? What happens to the world when human dignity is unhooked from its source in God?  What is our basis for ascribing value to people? Well, it depends on whom you ask. 


The average person would probably answer that they are valuable because they are attractive or powerful, or sexually active, or wealthy. In the upper reaches of Western academia, there are people who are paid to think about such things, and they have developed more sophisticated approaches to thinking about human value. The secular academic approach to the question ‘what gives humanity worth’ revolves around what they term ‘preferences’. If someone can make choices and express preferences, then they are moral agents worthy of protection.

"What happens to the world when human dignity is unhooked from its source in God?"


On the surface, this might sound quite reasonable. However, taken to its logical conclusion, it results in the ideology of Princeton professor, Peter Singer. One example of Singer’s ideology is his suggestion that a period of 28 days after birth should be allowed before an infant is recognized as having the same right to life as others. This suggestion is based on the claim that pigs, chickens, and fish exhibit more signs of consciousness and rationality than newborn infants and people with mental disabilities. 


That, of course, is not what Christians believe. Our belief in human rights is grounded in the idea of the Imago Dei. But that grounding has now been discarded by our society. When you rely on the presence of certain capacities or some other trumped up approach to delineate and define which humans have worth, the circle of who is valued will get smaller and smaller. And the smaller it gets, the fewer people will be protected. This is why the teaching of Psalm 8 is so important.


If it’s true that we bear God’s image, then we can’t glorify God while treating another person (God’s image bearer) with contempt. The reason we treat each other so poorly in our culture is that the relationship between human dignity and the Christian God has been severed. Abortion, racism, classism: these are all examples of treating the image of God with contempt. There are communities in the world that withhold education from women because they are women. Others marginalize the elderly or the disabled. All of this is treating God’s image with contempt: which is treating God with contempt. As Christians, we should actively be involved in opposing any attempt to devalue people.
 

The earliest Christians knew this, and the way they lived it out had a profound effect on society. In their time, death by exposure was the common (and legal) way of dealing with unwanted children. The early church, because of their belief in the inherent value of human life, scoured rubbish dumps looking for abandoned babies to care for. In a society with no welfare net, this belief led those Christians to care for widows and orphans when no one else would. This is also why the church was so attractive to women and the poor: it was the only place in society where they were treated as equals.


My daughter will likely face some sort of dehumanizing treatment in the future. But I am so grateful that she will also grow up in the church: a place that recognizes her as one who bears the image of God; a community that will remind her that she has been made just a bit lower than the heavenly beings and is crowned with honour and glory, so that with David in Psalm 8 she can say, ‘O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’

Grace and Generosity in 2 Corinthians | Part I: Grace

Grace and Generosity in 2 Corinthians | Part I: Grace

It is difficult to find a simple guide to the Bible’s teaching about money, stewardship, and the grace of generosity. There are conflicting voices within Christianity that tend to harness the gospel either to a prosperity legalism that puts us at the centre, or a strange silence as though dealing with money is somehow distasteful. Of course, Jim Packer has written incisively and insightfully on the topic in Weakness Is the Way (1)  Packer’s chapter is a reflection on 2 Corinthians 8–9, full of good sense, where he states that the apostle Paul is “bending over backwards to encourage and motivate the Corinthians toward generosity.” (2)

This is a four-part expositional reflection on 2 Corinthians 8–9, an extended footnote, hopefully complementing Packer’s Chapter. It originally appeared in CRUX, Spring 2016


Money is a profoundly spiritual reality. God does not want our money, nor does he need it. In fact, it is not ours anyway, since it belongs to God. When the Bible deals with money, it does not look at money from a monetary point of view; its central concern is not how we make it, how much we have, or even how we spend it, important though those issues are. Rather, it is a matter of worship. While money is not strictly good or evil, it is most certainly not neutral. It exercises a spiritual power, claiming our worship, promising happiness and blessing, justification, salvation, and redemption— all completely without God, or at least by displacing God from the centre.

"Money is a profoundly spiritual reality."


The central two chapters of the apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is perhaps the fullest treatment of money in the New Testament. The apostle is making a financial collection for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, a gift of monumental spiritual significance. Twelve months have passed since the wealthy Corinthian church agreed to make a contribution, but things are stalled. New teachers have entered the church at Corinth bringing an early form of the prosperity gospel. In response, the apostle does not manipulate the Corinthians with moving pictures of destitution and poverty, nor does he set them a target amount based on a financial formula. Instead of calculation or manipulation, the apostle points them to the freeness of God’s grace.


Grace
 

Grace is the heartbeat of 2 Corinthians 8–9. When we think about money, God’s grace is the first and last thing we must say, and Paul frames these chapters by beginning and ending with it. The first sentence (8:1) is best translated: “Brothers and sisters, we want you to know the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia.” It does not say “know about the grace of God,” but “know God’s grace” in their experience, changing them in concrete ways, specifically to do with money. It is only the experience of the grace of God that begins, sustains, and deepens genuine Christian generosity. And it is through generosity that we experience more grace.


From the start Paul’s aim is not to shake down the Corinthians to raise a certain amount of cash for the collection, but for them to draw on the joy of God, to know Christ and become like Christ, to know the grace of God. So the apostle presents two examples of how grace works. The greatest example is Jesus Christ himself, the embodiment of giving and grace. In 2 Corinthians 8:9 the apostle writes: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor so that you by his poverty might become rich” (3).


The original context for this favourite Christmas text is giving money. None could be richer than Jesus himself. Eternally secure in glory and in the Father’s love, all creation was made through him and for him. He dwelled in unimaginable wealth. Out of sheer grace, Jesus gave away more than we could imagine, entering his creation for us as a baby, willingly giving himself over to misrepresentation, rejection, suffering, and death. He did this for our sake so that we might become rich through his poverty. Grace is willingly giving up what is ours by right. Grace is grace because it is not bought but given freely. We receive from Christ what is vastly beyond our ability to pay, and he gives gladly and joyfully, even to death.

"Out of sheer grace, Jesus gave away more than we could imagine..."


Craig Gay points out that money converts all things into objects, emptying them of meaning and purpose (4). So money approaches a beautiful painting and calculates its worth in dollar values, draining its history, beauty, and provenance into a financial calculation. Everything money touches becomes “objectified”: houses, holidays, and happiness are transformed by a strange alchemy into dollar values. We even speak of a person’s “net worth.”


Grace works in the opposite direction. While not naïve about money, grace is the power of giving away. It fills the things it touches with the meaning of “giftedness.” Life itself, and all the things of life, are seen as gifts, not grey calculations. Life is a gift to be fulfilled and increased by being given away. This floods our actions with surplus meaning, kindness, and freedom. And it opens us to the pain of love. Jacques Ellul writes that God does not obey the law of money—but the law of giving. Speaking of the kingdom of God he states:

In the new world we are entering, nothing is for sale; everything is given away. The mark of the world of money is the exact opposite of the mark of God’s world where everything is free, where giving is the normal way to act . . . dictated by grace . . . the love created by money and selling is the exact opposite of the love created by grace and giving (5).

God only submitted himself to selling once, when he agreed to pay the price of our redemption. Jesus became the object of a money relationship and was sold for thirty pieces of silver—“the Son of God was turned into merchandise” for us (6). Christians give because Jesus gave.


Grace is central. Our finances and resources are not just the gifts of grace to us but the means of God’s grace through us to others as well. It is God’s grace we experience in giving. From here the apostle becomes dangerously practical by showing what the grace of God looks like financially in the lives of ordinary Christians under very difficult circumstances.


Next time we will turn to the second and lesser example of grace: the churches in Macedonia (7).

Read Part 2


(1) J. I. Packer, Weakness Is the Way (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 55–88.
(2) Ibid., 64.
(3) Scripture quotations are taken from the ESV, unless otherwise noted.
(4) Craig M. Gay, Cash Values: Money and the Erosion of Meaning in Today’s Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 48–72.
(5) Jacques Ellul, Money and Power, trans. LaVonne Neff (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1984), 88.
(6) Ibid., 79.
(7) North of Greece, “the Macedonians” included the churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea.

 

 

St. John's Blog: An Introduction

St. John's Blog: An Introduction

You may be thinking to yourself: Another blog? As of 2016, more than 18 million people are writing blogs online. So why is St. John’s adding their voice to the cacophony? The purpose of this blog is to provide us, the St. John’s community, with a place for useful, thoughtful, and Biblical perspectives that allow us to see how the gospel impacts more areas of our lives.
 

In service of that goal, this will be a space for theological reflection, cultural engagement on important issues, and practical application. The purpose of this blog is not to remove discussions from everyday life and relegate them to the internet. Rather, it provides us with opportunities to spark conversations in the day-to-day life of our community and offer helpful perspectives on conversations that are already happening.
 

Many blogs offer self-help ideas, facts and figures, and all the advice you could ever want; but our desire is that this blog will help our community pursue wisdom. J. I. Packer defines wisdom as “the power to see and the inclination to choose the best and highest goal, together with the surest means of attaining it.” As we discuss our faith, share glimpses of who we are as a community, and engage with issues facing Vancouver and our culture at large, we hope that this blog will offer tools and inspiration for St. John’s to continue to grow in wisdom, to grow ever deeper in our capacity to reflect the love of Christ, and to care ever more for our neighbour. The St. John’s blog is just one small element of that process, but we believe it has a helpful role to play.
 

Here are a couple of practical reasons why you might be interested in reading these articles on a regular basis. First, since sermons have a specific purpose, there is not always room on Sundays to say things that fall outside of that purpose but are nonetheless important to the church. As a result, considerable wisdom from our clergy and other members of the community has no platform from which to be shared. This is one opportunity to communicate those musings. Second, with such a large community spread across four Sunday services, it becomes difficult to find spaces to connect more broadly as a church. This is a setting that can overcome the physical limits that often separate us and can bring us into a common conversation.


How can you get involved? Read and discuss articles with your friends, family, and small groups. Also, blogs are designed to be shared, so feel free to post, email, tweet, and link to articles that interest you to broaden the conversation. Finally, we want this blog to be an expression of our community. So if you have a story to share or would like to get involved, let us know at staff@sjvan.org. Happy reading!