This reaction seems completely natural to us, even inevitable. But history shows that it certainly isn’t the default human response to this situation.
In ancient Rome, parents who didn’t want their children – because they were disabled or deformed, because they were girls, because they were just one too many mouths to feed – would take them outside the city and leave them on a rubbish dump.
The practice of infanticide was not only not frowned on, but actually encouraged by law and philosophers. Aristotle and Cicero both recommended it. The Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote: “We drown children at birth who are weakly and abnormal.”
So what changed?
The first Christians were not abolitionists. A tiny and often persecuted minority, they had nothing like the political clout or social influence to confront the system of slavery head-on.
But from the beginning, they sought to alleviate the effects of that system. Christian slaves and masters were urged to love and respect one another in ways that would make it difficult in the long run to sustain the fiction that one human being could “own” another. As the church grew in numbers and confidence, they began buying up slaves in order to liberate them.
Slavery, then, all but died out in the Christianised world. Unfortunately, though, that’s not the end of the story.
As Europeans explored and then colonised the “new world” from the 15th century onwards, the development of plantations in the Caribbean and in America fed a new demand for slave labour – and the transatlantic slave trade, history’s largest forced migration and very possibly the greatest crime against humanity ever committed, was born.
The effects of this new, racialised form of slavery – even harsher and more degrading than that practised in the ancient world – have reverberated down to our own day. And it was leading churchmen, drawing on their favoured interpretations of the Bible, who propped up the system for so long.
Yet if some Christians looked to their Bible to justify the practice of owning slaves, others, like William Wilberforce, drew on those same scriptures to spearhead the decades-long campaign to abolish the slave trade.
But singing “in tune” with Jesus hasn’t only been a negative project, one of opposing systems that treat humans like they’re not made in the image of God.
When it’s taken seriously, it’s about full human flourishing – not just freedom for the body, but freedom for mind and heart and soul. And it’s those concerns that laid the foundations, historically, for positive goods like literacy, mass education, and democracy.
Today, if you’re a fan of universal human rights, then you’ve been influenced by this Judeo-Christian idea that every person is made in the image of God.
Of course, you don’t have to believe in God in order to treat people with dignity and respect. But both history and philosophy remind us that we can’t take the assumption that all people are valuable for granted.