The Sanctity of Human Life Sunday (2015)

Each year in January in the USA, we Orthodox join all other Americans who believe in the sanctity of human life to reaffirm our commitment to proclaiming all human life as being a sacred gift from God and thus deserving our protection.   We hold this truth to be self evident, that all humans are created equal even from their mother’s wombs.  All are deserving of a chance for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  We consider this a fundamental American vision for humanity.

As we remember that even in the womb, a human being is formed and loved by God, we can think about some words from St. Isaac  the Syrian who contemplates the mystery of God’s love.  God knows even before  a human being is born that that person will sin in their life time.  Nevertheless God’s desire for that person’s existence and God’s love for that person is not diminished.  God loves us even in the womb, even though we have never yet done any good thing, and even though He knows we will eventually sin against Him.  God’s love is not a reaction toward us, but rather what He wills for each of us when He calls us into being.   St. Isaac says:

“I kneel before Your Majesty and prostrate myself on the ground before You, O God, for without my having requested You or even having existed, You brought me into existence; and before You fashioned me in the womb You knew that (I would live) a full (life of) tumult and backsliding, yet You did not refrain from creating me and granting me all the attributes with which You have honored (human) nature, even though You knew beforehand my evils.  You are aware of my requests even before they become known to me, and of my prayers even before they have been prayed before You: grant to me, O my God at this hour whatever You are aware that my wretched nature needs in its present peril.  You are aware of my soul’s affliction, and in Your hands lies its healing.”   (ISAAC OF NINEVEH, THE SECOND PART, p 11)

Metropolitan Tikhon of the Orthodox Church in America offers these words for this The Sanctity of Human Life Sunday (2015)

Dearly beloved,

Today has been designated by the Orthodox Church in America as “Sanctity of Life Sunday,” a day on which we re-affirm our faithfulness to the eternal value of human life and re-commit ourselves to the defense of the lives of the unborn, the infirm, the terminally ill and the condemned.

Our proclamation of life is offered in the context of a world in dismay at the terrorist attacks that recently shook Paris, the latest in a series of seemingly endless tragedies throughout the world that unnecessarily claim many innocent lives. Following this latest tragedy, Christians, Muslims, Jews and non-believers have engaged in discussion and debate about a range of issues, from human dignity to the responsibilities of political cartoonists, from freedom of expression to humanity’s capacity for tolerance. Unfortunately, much of this debate is framed in an atmosphere of ideological violence, whether this be a “war on infidels” or “war on terrorism.” In such divisive engagements, there are rarely any victors but only more victims.

As Orthodox Christians, who hold dear the revealed truth that the life of “all mankind” is sacred, we might reflect, along with St. Nikolai of Zhicha, on the paschal victory of Christ over death and corruption:

“Christ’s victory is the only victory in which all humanity can rejoice, from the first-created to the last. Every other victory on earth has divided, and still divides, men from one another. When an earthly king gains the victory over an another earthly king, one of them rejoices and the other laments. When a man is victorious over his neighbor, there is singing under one roof and weeping under the other. There is no joyful victory on earth that is not poisoned by malice: the ordinary, earthly victor rejoices both in his laughter and in the tears of his conquered enemy. He does not even notice how evil cuts through joy.”

Our world is so full of these joyless and dark victories that we might despair of being able to put forward the hope and light of the Gospel message. We would do well to heed the words of St. Nikolai and keep our hearts and minds focused on our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, in Whom alone can solace, hope and joy be found in any meaningful and lasting way.

Indeed, Christ did not say: “I offer one of many complimentary paths”; He said: I am the Way. Christ did no say: “I hold to the correct philosophical principles;” He said: I am the Truth. Christ did not say: “I subscribe to the only viable political agenda;” He said: I am the Life.

It is only possible to attain to this Way, this Truth and this Life through Christ and through the light that He bestows to those who strive to allow even a small beam of that light to enter their hearts and illumine their path. As St. Nikolai writes: “Christ’s victory alone is like a sun that sheds bright rays on all that are beneath it. Christ’s victory alone fills all the souls of men with invincible joy. It alone is without malice or evil.”

Let us therefore make every effort to offer this “victory of light and life” to those who are surrounded by darkness and death. Let us be bold in our adding our Orthodox voices in support of the value of every human person, born or unborn; let us offer consolation to the mothers who have undergone abortions and offer our prayers to them and to all who have been affected by this tragedy; let us affirm our Orthodox understanding of the human person as created in the image and likeness of God and yet in need of healing in Christ.

Let us, together with St. Nikolai, proclaim the great victory of Christ:

A mysterious victory, you will say? It is; but it is at the same time revealed to the whole human race, the living and the dead.

A generous victory, you will say? It is, and more than generous. Is not a mother more than generous when she, not once or twice, saves her children from snakes but, in order to save them for all time, goes bravely into the snakes’ very nest and burns them out?

A healing victory, you will say? It is, healing and saving for ever and ever. This gentle victory saves men from every evil and makes them sinless and immortal. Immortality without sinlessness would mean only the extending of evil’s reign, and of that of malice and wickedness, but immortality with sinlessness gives birth to unconfined joy, and makes men the brethren of God’s resplendent angels.”

With love in the Lord,

+TIKHON
Archbishop of Washington
Metropolitan of All America and Canada

Martin Luther King Jr.: The Image of God in Us

Martin Luther King Jr. who our country honors today as a hero of liberty and equality, was also a Christian pastor and visionary.  As such it is possible to see in his writings Christian theology which resonates well with Orthodox thinking.  King, for example, wrote:

“The whole concept of the imago Dei, as it is expressed in Latin, the ‘image of God,’ is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected.  Not that they have substantial unity with God, but that every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God.  And this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity.  And we must never forget this as a nation: there are not gradations in the image of God…  We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man.”

Creation of Adam in God's Image

While Martin Luther King embraced the idea of each human being created in the image of God, his Protestant thinking caused him to downplay the full implication of the image in each of us.  Thus he allows each human to have “fellowship” with God but not “substantial unity.”   His concern is more with civil equality among humans than it is with the full theological implications of every human, regardless of skin color, being created in the image of God. 

For its part, Orthodoxy continues the tradition heralded in early Christianity that marveled at the full implication of each human being having the image of God imprinted on us when we are called into being by God.  St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. ca 384AD), a 4th century bishop and theologian wrote:

“‘The measure of what is accessible to you is in you, for thus your Maker from the start endowed your essential nature with such good.  God has imprinted upon your structure replicas of the good things in his own nature, as though stamping wax with the shape of a design.’

Nonna Verna Harrison explains what St. Gregory meant:

In ancient times, people signed documents by putting hot wax on the paper and pressing into the wax a seal carved with their unique design.  The wax then bore the seal’s imprint and showed that the document was theirs.  Gregory uses this example to illustrate the meaning of the divine image.  God is like the seal, and our human nature is like the wax that shows forth the same design as God, but on a smaller scale.

Notice that the wax receives the imprint by direct contact with the seal, and the copy receives its likeness to the model by direct contact with it.  So God is present within his image, making it to be an image of Godself.”    (Nonna Verna  Harrison, GOD’S MANY SPLENDORED IMAGE, pp 31-32)

Each human being is created in God’s image and likeness – this is considered to be a factual truth by Orthodoxy, not dependent on one’s personal beliefs.  Each human life from the time of conception bears this image and is thus considered sacred and worthy of honor.  The sanctity of human life is given by each human being touched directly by the Creator God who imprints His image on us.  This fact is not dependent on race, religion, gender, nationality, or for that matter on personal righteousness, sinfulness or sexual orientation.

Even before a human being takes his or her first breath, before his or her first thought or experience, that human has been touched by God who imprints His image on that person.

Today, as we honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, who defended every human being as bearing the image of God, we can consider the full implication of this theology, not only for race relationships, but for all human relationships, including the sanctity of humans conceived in the womb but who have not yet been born into this world.

Martin Luther King Jr upheld the United States Declaration of Independence in fighting for the dignity of every human being.   We see in his words a re-affirmation of the famous words penned by Thomas Jefferson:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

From an Orthodox point of view these words apply to every human called into being by God, including those conceived but yet to be born.  Life is gifted to each human being by God, not by the declaration of any government, nation or court.

The Content of our Character

One of the insights which I think we all can derive from the life and words of Martin Luther King, Jr., is his sense of our common humanity.  When I listen to those who speak of human rights, civil rights, peace and toleration, they advocate seeing ourselves and others and humans first and foremost.  Only after we embrace that position do we then identify ourselves as other things – male or female, Orthodox or Catholic or Jewish or Muslim, black or Caucasian, American or African, liberal or conservative.    When we understand our common human nature, then we can deal with our differences in constructive rather than only destructive ways.  This doesn’t mean we all will or must agree on all things, nor that we have to accept all ideas as equally true, good or valuable.   We can disagree, we can judge, we can see actions or ideas as right or wrong, good or bad, but we deal with them as common human problems or disagreements.   We don’t dehumanize others or act in inhuman ways ourselves toward others. It may mean that we learn to tolerate other values and behaviors in other peoples, but we as humanity must evaluate what is intolerable and unacceptable for any human to experience or to inflict on others.

Martin Luther King, Jr. on several occasions commented on his hope for a day that people would be judged by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin.  Two of these quotes are below: 

 

Martin Luther King, Jr.

I look forward confidently to the day when all who work for a living will be one with no thought to their separateness as Negroes, Jews, Italians or any other distinctions. This will be the day when we bring into full realization the American dream — a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few; a dream of a land where men will not argue that the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character; a dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone, but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity; the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of the human personality.    (Memphis, Tennessee, 3 April 1968) 

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. …  I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”   (Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC, 28 August 1968)

I think it significant to note that King did not tell us that we should never evaluate or judge, but rather than the criterion for our judgment must be significant and not superficial.  Character in his speech is very significant for it represents that which any human can aspire to and achieve in his or her life time and in his or her life style.   Character is something which is visible and measurable.  Character is something which actually belongs to an individual and over which they have control.  Each person is personally responsible for his or her character, has opportunity to exhibit character, and can therefore be rightly measured by it.

At one point King gave some definition to “character”:

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and conveniences, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

In as much as the election of Barack Obama represents a breaking through of that ceiling which limited some American solely based on the color of their skin (and yes, Obama with an African father and a Caucasian mother can be considered just as white as he is black), America might now be able to resume a discussion of character – of virtue, of good and evil, right and wrong, which had gotten lost as the country chose to see things purely in terms of racial differences.  It is time for us to bring forth character as a topic of discussion for all leaders, which means moving away from pure political correctness on such topics which is as superficial as judging people by the color of their skin.    It is time for us  re-open the discussion on character – What does it mean?  What do we value?   What role do right and wrong or good and evil play in the smorgasbord of ideas which multicultural America thought must all be tolerated as equally valid because it couldn’t move beyond superficial racial prejudice?   

We moved beyond the superficiality of skin color in the 2008 Presidential election and so now we can get back to discussing what Martin Luther King thought was of true and ultimate value: the content of our character.

And one issue which is part of the content of our character as Americans is how we treat the unborn child.  A human fetus is human, and it says a lot about our character if we are willing to allow the legal dismemberment and killing of our unborn children.   The Sanctity of Human Life is part of the discussion we need to have under the rubric of the content of our character.

Freedom of Conscience and Health Care Workers

In a society such as our which highly values personal freedoms, individual choice, and following the dictates of one’s conscience, there are going to be many conflicts between the rights of individuals or the right of society over individuals.  Such a conflict is on-going in the health care industry where health care professionals may at times be expected or required to offer services which they find morally reprehensible or even evil.   A 31 July 2008 Washington Post article, Worker’s Religious Freedom Vs. Patient Rights, address this issue and the efforts of the Bush administration to grant some protection to the individual rights of care givers especially as related to reproductive issues.  According to the article:

“The Department of Health and Human Services is reviewing a draft regulation that would deny federal funding to any hospital, clinic, health plan or other entity that does not accommodate employees who want to opt out of participating in care that runs counter to their personal convictions, including providing birth-control pills, IUDs and the Plan B emergency contraceptive.”

We already in our society recognize conscientious objection when it comes to serving in military combat roles.  The thinking of this proposal actually seems to be simply allowing such thinking for health care workers.  Health care agencies would only be required to assure that individual workers have an ability to opt out of being involved in processes or procedures which violate their own conscience.

“Richard S. Myers, a law professor at Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich., said: ‘Religious freedom is an important part of the history of this country. People who have a religious or moral belief should not be forced to participate in an act they find abhorrent.'”

Abortion rights people have objected for years to being forced to advocate sexual abstinence or to have to counsel women against abortions.  The issue is the same – they don’t want anyone to tread on their consciences and they don’t want to have to advocate things they disagree with.  The proposal by Health and Human Services is trying to ensure that the conscience of the individual is respected by private agencies and by the government.

Freedom Comes from God

“The God Who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.”  (Thomas Jefferson)

Steven Waldman in his excellent history about America’s founding fathers and the the rise of religious freedom, FOUNDING FAITH: PROVIDENCE, POLITICS, AND THE BIRTH OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN AMERICA, correctly identifies the American revolution as a different kind of religious war.   For as he shows the colonies were at war with England over religious ideas, and to some extent it was the fervor of the dissenting, disenfranchised and disestablished evangelical religions in America which fueled the colonists’ willingness to fight.  They were embracing the emerging idea of freedom of religion and conscience. 

“This idea – that freedom comes from God– was the foundation for a new American conception of rights.  If rights resulted from a social compact- a practical way of allowing for mutual survival- then they certainly could be altered by the majority when it seemed practical or convenient.  If they came from God, however, they were immutable and inviolate, whether you were in the majority or not. This had particularly important implications for those wrestling with how to define and protect religious liberty.  Toleration assumed that the state was generously choosing to do the tolerating.  As Thomas Paine put it later, ‘Toleration is not the opposite of intolerance but the counterfeit of it.  Both are despotisms: the one assumes to itself the right of withholding liberty of conscience, the other of granting it.’  A God-given right is something quite different.”  (pp 92-93)

This certainly was part of the revolutionary thinking of the founding fathers of the United States.   They were no longer asking any government to grant legal permission for one religion or another to exist with the blessings of the state.  They were carrying out a revolution in thinking, a total paradigm shift – in which religions are free to exist and the practice of individual conscience is a guaranteed  human right granted to each human not by any government, state, or will of the people, but by God Himself.   Not only were such rights not properly in the competency of a state to grant, all states could do or ever did was to oppose the rights of individuals to live according to the dictates of their consciences.   The American revolutionary thinkers were demanding strict limits be put on national government, and that the state has to learn its limits not exercise some pseudo-power to limit the rights and consciences of individuals.

The notion of human rights, as something having a divine origin which supersedes any government authority is part of the American Revolution which we celebrate on Independence Day.   It also in terms of freedom of religion empowers the individual to choose and practice religion according to the dictates of his or her own conscience.   For established religion, this means having to work harder in an American freedom of religion setting.  For now people don’t have to belong to any religion, but are free to choose or reject any or all religious traditions.  And it is the individual, in accordance with the values of the Enlightenment, who ultimately gets to decide what religion (if any) they will practice, and in effect it is the individual alone who can determine which religion is true.   The founding fathers expressed some confidence that the right of individual to choose his religion in fact would make religion stronger in America than in those countries where the state prevented freedom of conscience.    On the basis of their idea, all members of a religion would consciously choose to be a participating member and the energy for the religion would come from the heart and soul of each believer – truly religions based on faith, not membership based on coercion.   It is not hard to imagine why some fundamentalist Islamists would really hate these ideas enshrined in the American Constitution as the Islamists demand submission to Islam, not freedom of conscience for all.

Some religions, including my own Orthodox Church have at times struggled with all of this freedom and with the empowered individualism which it generates.  Positively it has allowed countless individuals to embrace Orthodoxy and to convert to the Orthodox Faith as they exercise their own freedom of conscience and religion.  But Orthodoxy has not been so comfortable with the sense that people are equally free to leave the Faith as they exercise their right of conscience.  There is still a tendency to see members as possessions to be kept – our children, our teens, our college students.  And Orthodoxy has not yet fully embraced the notion that in America we are in a marketplace of ideas and religions, and we have to compete for the attention and faithfulness of our members.    Certainly many Protestant groups have had a couple of hundred years of experience in refining arguments in clashes with other denominations and in living in places where there was no government support for their church.   The Orthodox are just recently on this scene of religious freedom, state indifference to religion, and the separation of church and state.  The Orthodox do not like to see what they have to offer as a “product” which people might choose among many religious products.  Yet when one reads about St. Paul in Athens, we realize that what we have here today is much more like what existed in the early days of Christianity.  We are but one religious tradition among many, no matter how much we believe we represent true Christianity.  And we encounter in America the same attitude St. Paul found in Berea:

“Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 1711).

Orthodox priests and bishops need to learn the lesson of St. Paul – people are going to search the scriptures to see if what we say is true.  They will do this because they are already familiar with the Scriptures as were the Bereans of Paul’s day.  Not only will they search the scriptures, they are going to examine our lives to see if we live according to our teachings, and they are going to demand a total transparency in the leadership of our church and in our financial records in order for them to trust our witness.

See also my blogs James Madison and the Free Exercise of Religion and Freedom of Religion or a Religionless Campaign