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Everybody matters, or nobody matters

“Everybody matters, or nobody matters.” This is the motto of Michael Connelly’s complex and troubled character, Harry Bosch. Bosch, a homicide detective whose methods sometimes breach the edges of the envelope, feels driven to investigate the murder of a prostitute or drug addict with equal diligence and thirst for justice as he would the murder of a person of higher social status. Coming from an inauspicious background himself, he knows that as soon as law enforcers determine one victim is less important than another, all semblance of justice is lost. Bosch has no starry-eyed view of humanity, but is a blunt realist. Bosch is not a Christian, and in fact has little time for the hypocrisy he sees in proponents of that faith, but his estimate of the equality of human worth, counter-cultural as that is, is insightful.

In the world today, it is obvious that some lives "matter" more than others, to the powers that be and to people generally. It’s human nature to be more heavily invested in our own concerns over those of others. Things that affect me and my family and friends seem so much more important in terms of my day to day priorities, than the problems of Syrian refugees, South American asylum seekers, victims of brutal dictatorships or even the homeless in my own city. Hypocrisy abounds. One person might lament the passing of a bill making abortion more accessible, and yet at the same time be anything but “pro-life” in their attitude to refugees, or the health care and education of marginalised people. Another might campaign vigorously for the rights of women, disadvantaged people groups or LBGTQ, yet spew forth violence and hatred against those who don’t share their enlightened views. These may be extreme examples, but as Jesus taught, words and actions spring from the heart. Which of us can truly claim to be non-partisan?

Where does this divisiveness, this innate promotion of inequality spring from? Doubtless we are each heavily influenced by the attitudes and examples of our parents, our friends and peers, the particular news networks we read or watch, the Facebook posts that so cleverly align with our interests and exclude opinions we do not “Like.” But the roots run deeper than that. The idea that some people matter more than others predates modern society and the 24 hour news cycle with its talking heads. It comes down to how we see the nature of humanity. Recently I couldn’t help commenting on a random Facebook post that presented humans as mere intelligent animals. I offered an alternate view, a counter-cultural one, that humans are actually creatures made in the image of God. Unsurprisingly, the comment drew a sceptical reaction, specifically that that was an inappropriately “superior” position to take. I replied,

“On the contrary, If humans are just another animal, then a person's sole worth lies in survival of what constitutes "the fittest" in society, and passing on their DNA before turning to fertilizer. Then nobody matters beyond that, and who cares. But if we are created by God in his image, then our worth is not determined by our money, celebrity status, birthplace, education etc. Everybody matters.”

Social Darwinism, which gives rise to all manner of racial superiority ideas, amongst others, presents humans as mere animals, with the right and duty of the “fittest” to survive, and the weakest to pass into evolutionary oblivion. If that is the case, then whatever society classes as the “fittest” becomes superior, with greater rights to survival and to passing on DNA. In Nazi Germany, the People That Mattered were the Aryan race. Jews, gypsies, mentally handicapped and even the elderly were considered of much less import, and in the extreme view worthy of destruction in the interests of “perfecting” humanity. Now, before the reader rolls their eyes and says, “enough with the constant comparisons to Hitler,” consider that, in the day before I write this, someone who hates Jews performed a fatal terrorist attack on a synagogue in the US. At the same time, the FBI is in the process of rounding up an arresting leaders of a far right hate group that, amongst other acts, planned and instigated violent attacks in Charlottesville.

Some far-left groups, in their turn, precipitate or exacerbate violent protests in the name of the disenfranchised groups they claim to represent. Meanwhile, asylum seekers are demonised as lawless invaders and terrorists, appealing to the innate fear of the Other. True justice and fairness should apply "rights," morality and the law even-handedly, but impartiality is a rare commodity and extremes beget extremes. We are all too willing to try to justify our own “side” by deriding and accusing the other, which is no justification at all. That one set of "lives" should "matter" for some inexplicable reason now implies that another set of "lives" does not.

What does the counter-cultural Gospel say about human equality and about who matters? Firstly, the Bible does not present humans as evolved animals (despite decrying the actions of some as worse than beasts). In Genesis, we read that humans, both male and female, were created in the image of God. That’s something special that is not said of the rest of God’s creation. Theologians will discuss in depth precisely what “the image of God” means, but the Bible tells us it relates to our capacity for relationship with our Creator in a way that animals cannot, and our commensurate responsibility to act in the way we were intended to act. This includes being in sound relationship with each other and to be good stewards over the rest of creation. That we have failed to live up to this image is evident, not only from the subsequent no-holds-barred descriptions of human history in the Bible, but as we look around at our societies today. God has done something about that failure, by entering into humanity in the person of his Son Jesus, to be the perfect image of God and restore our relationship with himself.

But here’s the import of that idea in terms of who matters. If we are all (male, female, young, old, black, brown, white or any other race, creed or people group) made in God’s image, then everybody matters. We are all equally made and loved by our Creator. We are all equally responsible to him and to each other. The Bible emphasises this equality in two aspects which underline how no person or group is intrinsically superior to any other person or group. Firstly, we all sin, we have all rebelled against God and tarnished his image. Paul, a Jewish Christian, writing to the Roman Christians in the first century, addressed the perceived differences in intrinsic worth between Jews and non-Jews in that place and time:

“What then, are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Gentiles (i.e. all races/creeds) that they are all under sin. As it is written, ‘There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one’ ...For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:1–23)

Every human being sins and deserves God’s chastisement and punishment. That’s it. Sin is the terrible, consistent leveller. No one has the right to say they or their “group” are any better than anyone else. Compared with the holiness and goodness of God, we are all bottom dwellers according to the most fundamental measure of humanity, irrespective of our degree of “civilisation,” education, wealth, popularity or influence or our cultural or racial origins. But that is not the end of the story. If it were, we might as well adopt a “survival of the fittest” perspective and give in to our basest instincts to win at all costs. But God hasn’t left his tarnished image in the dirt. He sent Jesus Christ, his Son, by whom he created us, “the brightness of his glory” and the “express image of his person” to purge our sins and bring us back into relationship with him (Hebrews 1:1–4). In Christ, God shows not only his just condemnation of sin (which Jesus took upon himself and destroyed) but his unfailing love and mercy toward sinners. We are all equal in our undeservedness of, and our need for, God's grace. By accepting the gift of forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ, we become children of God, in an even greater sense than we are by virtue of creation. There is no more condemnation for those who belong to Christ, in whom there is no difference in worth between male and female, Jew or Gentile, one race or the other, rich or poor, left-wing or right-wing; we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26–28). Grace is the second great equaliser. To its shame, the Christian church has often, and still does, fail to recognise this. There must be no political, racial, social or economic partisanship amongst those who align themselves with Jesus Christ. May God reprove and forgive individuals and institutions who speak or act to the contrary.

Yet, there are two senses in which there is a significant difference between two groups of people, with eternal consequences. The first is the difference between those who accept Christ and those who reject him. The former have become God’s adopted children, freed from condemnation and loved and blessed in relationship with the Creator. They are not intrinsically "better" people; it is God who gives them worth. Those who reject Christ are not intrinsically “worse” people, but they have refused reconciliation; they have stayed behind the greatest Wall of all, the wall of sin that separates people from God. They have refused God’s gracious, free offer of reconciliation. They have chosen to remain equal in sin, rather than equal in grace. It’s essential to recognise that Christians do not deserve God’s favour any more than anyone else. The Bible makes it clear that salvation is God’s gracious initiative, never something we can earn. So there is no basis for “self” righteousness. None at all. Those who accept Christ have just recognised the promise and accepted it, and earnestly pray that others would do so too, because “there but for the grace of God, go I.”

The other sense in which there is a difference in scripture between people groups, is that God has given clear directives that the weakest, most vulnerable people in society should receive special care and attention. The rich have an obligation to the poor, the powerful to the weak. In fact, the basis on which Christ will judge the nations of the earth is how they have treated the poor, refugees, homeless, chronically ill and refugees (Matthew 25:31–46). “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more” (Luke 12:48). So if anyone considers themselves somehow worth more than anyone else, because of their race, creed, political connections, wealth, education, gender, celebrity status, power or any other worldly measure — beware! You are proportionately responsible to benefit, aid, build up and attribute worth to those not so “endowed.” Because God loves us, we are to love our neighbour (irrespective of our differences) as ourself. That leaves no room for inequality.

Everybody matters, or nobody matters. Outside of the framework of the counter-cultural Gospel, nobody matters, not really; the competing claims cancel each other out, because they have no foundation. It comes down to who shouts the loudest, who has most power. But those who pretend that some people matter more than others will, ironically, end up in the grave together, in the common lot of mankind, and then must justify their behaviour to their Maker who created all people in his image. That will be the ultimate outworking of God’s justice. We are all equal in our sinfulness, and in Christ we are all loved as God’s children, not on the basis of our own merit, but because of what Christ, the restorer of God’s image in humanity, has done for us.

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