The French philosopher, Voltaire, wrote: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
Atrocities are atrocious, because they violate what the Declaration of Independence describes as the human right to life. We usually think of atrocities as acts of commission. They are bad things that people do to other people. The genocide in Rwanda was a bad thing; it was an atrocity. But while happening, it was accompanied by an atrocious act of omission. Those who knew what was happening and could have prevented it—but they choose to not act to save others. This, too, was atrocious.
Jesus said, “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10, NIV).
The apostle Peter described Jesus as the “author of life” (Acts 3:15, NIV). Early Christians were clear that human life was sacred, because Jesus was the author of life. As theologically conservative Christians, our sanctity of life focus has been on beginning of life and end of life issues, but there is so much more.
The “Just War” doctrine of historic Christianity and Christian pacifist teaching sought to limit wars and eliminate atrocities on the basis of the Christian understanding that human life is sacred. Tertullian (c. AD 160 to c. AD 225), described as the father of Latin Christianity and Western theology, declared torture irreconcilable with Christianity, because human life is sacred. God commanded compassionate treatment of the alien and stranger, because human life is sacred. Life threatening hunger and poverty is a central Kingdom issue, because human life is sacred.
The Catholic Church has long recognized that our understanding of and commitment to the sanctity of life is a “seamless garment.” When we unravel it in one place, then we unravel the whole thing. We can’t choose parts of the garment and not the rest.
In other words, human life is sacred in such a way that it affects our treatment of it not just at the beginning and the end, but throughout. Not just when it conforms to our political party’s platform, but also when it doesn’t. This cuts to both the left and the right.
According to the most recent 2012 data available, one child under the age of 5 dies every 12 seconds due to preventable hunger related causes. Virtually, all of them live outside the U.S. To live our lives essentially undisturbed by this is (dare I say it?) atrocious … no matter what our other sanctity of life commitments are.
For evangelicals, it is non-commitment to a consistent life ethic that makes our collective voice so weak today. Many who do not share our faith can see that these several life issues are connected and marvel that we cannot. If we have been made to believe the absurd; that somehow these issues aren’t really connected, or that we really aren’t responsible for mustering the individual and collective will to do something when we can, then as Voltaire predicted, we can be made to commit atrocities. We can be made to do nothing.
Am I trying to induce guilt and shame? I promise you, I am not. After years of pastoral experience I am more convinced than ever that in the long run, guilt and shame produce nothing positive. In the end, they only paralyze. But just as Jesus called a paralyzed man to walk, the Gospel calls us out of our paralyzing guilt, shame or even our indifference to walk with the most vulnerable. For the paralyzed man, the most important step was the first one. He didn’t know how free he was until he took it. Will you walk with us?