For most of human history, and across most human cultures, individuals were valued on the basis of things like their status at birth, their skills and capacities, and their usefulness to society. As a result, societies tended to honour the smart, talented, strong, or beautiful, and discard the weak and useless.
(a) How common do you feel this perspective is still today?
(b) Leaving aside any theology, how could we argue against this view, in favour of absolute human equality?
1. What are your initial impressions from these clips? Was there anything that surprised you? Was anything unclear?
2. The documentary connects our modern understanding of human rights to the ancient concept of “the image of God”. At the very beginning of the Bible—from the very first chapter—all human beings, men and women, are described as being in a special relationship to the Creator. They are his “image”, just as we might say today that our children are in our “image”. Read the texts below:
The point is reiterated a few chapters later, where it is also clear that the expression “image” or “likeness” refers to a kind of family relationship to the Creator:
If the Creator of the universe thinks of every human being as his “offspring”—regardless of their capacities or usefulness—what does that say about the intrinsic value of those around us?
3. The New Testament was written at a time when Christians had no power in the Roman Empire. They approached the problem of slavery not by trying to overthrow it—they had no way to do so—but by trying to work within the structures of the day, and with the people with whom they had influence (i.e. the infant Christian church). The apostles asked that masters treat their slaves with dignity and gentleness, knowing that they, too, were ruled by a heavenly Master, who did not play favourites.
How does this New Testament text counter the general attitudes to slaves in the 1st century?
Does this text actually provide theological support for slavery?
Further Thoughts: Christians were also taught to show honour to the Roman authorities and to pray for them. This does not mean the Bible supported that specific form of government (pagan hereditary despotism); it just means Christians were eager to find ways to work within the system. Something similar might be said about slavery; Christians did what they could with what they had. This might seem feeble to us but it flowed out of the “image of God” ideal, and resulted in a much better treatment of slaves than they otherwise might expect. It was also an early part of the “long fuse of argument and discovery” (in the words of Rowan Williams) that changed things like exposure and slavery in the ancient world.
1. You don’t have to believe in God to treat people with dignity, but are there dangers if society drifts from the Christian idea of the value of life?
Further Thoughts: The clip included the disturbing but clear insight of Nietzsche that a society cut adrift from the Christian view of humanity, a view which “preserves what is ripe for destruction”, risks descending into being ruled by the law of selection. The documentary was not optimistic about our ability to carry on with a robust view of human rights, unless it is anchored to the divine, as human rights then just rely on the (majority) opinions and desires of other humans. This might become especially dangerous when we think about how to treat people with significant impairments to their bodies and minds.
2. Jesus tells a famous story, often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, to illustrate the way God thinks about all human beings, even those who disobey him. According to Jesus, even those who do not live as God’s image-bearers are still regarded by God as his children—disobedient children, but children nonetheless—who are being called back into their proper position as members of God’s family.
Jesus tells this story with a theological point. What does it tell us about the nature of human beings, and about the character of God?
The Judeo-Christian view has maintained a belief about human beings that ascribes each person infinite worth, because each has been made in the image of God. This led early Christians to work against dehumanising practices like exposure of children and the ancient slave trade, at least in the limited ways that were open to them. While it is true that the Bible has been used or misused to sustain evil practices, it has also been a power that has fuelled others to overthrow those evil practices. The biblical concept of the image of God upholds a high view of the dignity of each human life. It also calls each one of us back into a family relationship with the Creator.
View an occasion when the Bible was a player for both good and ill.
View a story about one Christian person’s fight against the slave trade in Britain.
Discover how a high view of every person shaped the English and German languages.
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