Monday, 2 September 2013

Jesus on the pecking order: equality and human rights

"All people are born equal:" so runs the Gospel according to certain followers of Karl Marx (Groucho's less funny European cousin). To which we might reply with the question: "equal - in what?" We're obviously not born equal in body weight or eye colour, so in what, exactly, are we born equal? In wealth? In social class? In life expectancy? In intellect, in talents, in mental or physical health?

It doesn't take much thinking to work out that in fact, we are not born equal at all. There is simply no sense, in any of these terms, in which a baby born of a drug-addicted single mother with AIDS in the filthy hospital of a south African slum can be called 'equal' to most babies born in this country, for example. It's not just that they are born physically unequal, their prospects are utterly unequal, too, which is what Marx rightly protested: but to say that they are born equal is an idealistic fiction. It is more realistic, surely, to say with William Blake that:

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.

Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

Not in the frankly wicked Calvinist sense, I hasten to clarify, that God chooses before people are born whether they are destined for heaven or hell: that is a grotesque distortion of the Gospel, making God responsible for sin and so an agent of evil Himself, which He cannot be. But in the simple and real sense that children are born every day into the endless night of pretty much inescapable circumstances; children are born every day into slavery, the slavery of their genetic makeup, their physical and mental limitations, not to mention the slavery of poverty, malnuourishment, disease, the product of oppressive social constructs stacked against them. We cannot say in any worldly sense that everyone is born equal.

In any worldly sense. Marx was famously an atheist and his philosophy is famously materialistic: for him, the world is really all there is. And on those grounds, as I've said, I don't think there is any way we can say that everyone is equal. The worldly obsession with equality has no real foundation. In particular, the human rights mantra that somehow we are born with natural liberties earned simply by emerging from the womb is quite evidently untrue. It's a helpful legal fiction which we can maintain by mutual consent, and even as such it can do a lot of good. If we all signed up to it, it could save thousands of lives, not least in Syria at the moment. But it only stands up as long as everyone plays along, as long as we all engage in an act of collective makebelieve. And the bare fact of the matter is that not everyone does play along. Governments of entire nations – Syria, Egypt, Turkey, China, Iran to name but a few - refuse to play the game, so that only a minority actually enjoy the benefits of this ideal. The majority continue to live in the terrifying reality, the truth, that they have no rights to anything at all. And as long as the blessed minority that does share and apply the doctrine of human rights fails, as we do now, to articulate it in anything more than worldly terms, those powers which reject our ideology can quite legitimately protest: why should we agree with you? Why should we consent to a moral system made up by a committee of mid-twentieth century Europeans? Why should we accept that humans have fundamental rights just because you people say so, when the evidence in front of us says so clearly that this just is not so? You've got to admit, they've got a point: in worldly terms.

There's the problem. Wordly terms. The world isn't the way we fondly imagine it, and no amount of wishful thinking will make it so. If we want to insist that yes, really, humans are all equal, we've got to ground it in more than a collective fiction. We've got to ground it in truth, in reality.

The idea is grounded in a reality, albeit a reality that our political masters find embarrassing and would prefer to forget. You see, it's no coincidence that the prevalent ideas of human rights and equality, and even Marx's thinking, came out of Europe and not somewhere else. It's fashionable to suppose that such modern ideas emerged despite the influence of the Church rather than because of it, but history tells a different tale. It is because Europe is made up of Christian nations that we have these ideas which we take for granted as being universal. But the truth is, they're not universal. They're Christian, an embarrassing little fact that secularists like to ignore. But as soon as you cut these ideas off from their Christian foundation, from the reality of God, they're nothing but a house built on sand.

We can shout as loudly as we like that human equality is an inalienable, natural right, but it isn't. It is a Christian doctrine. The reason Jesus is so harsh on pecking orders, on social stratification, on picking and choosing your company is because humans truly are equal. Equal not in worldly terms, of wealth or health or prosperity, because that is clearly not true; no, rather, equal in the eyes of God. Equal because we are all made in the image of God, we all share in His divine glory, however tarnished the image in us may be, however deeply the light may be hid.

We are called, as Christians, to let God open the eyes of our souls with His Spirit so that we can see this, so that we can see things as they really and truly are, see the image of God, the face of Christ in all people, and so treat them as what they really are, which is Christ. Christ is the truth, God is the reality which underlies and binds all things, and makes a mockery of our petty social divisions. This is the Kingdom of God: the unity of all things in God's love, and it's not just makebelieve. Seeing this truth really does make it true. I really do think that if we truly saw the face of Christ in other people, we would find it far harder to drop bombs on them, to abort their lives in the womb, to leave them wallowing in poverty.

The human rights advocates are right, but for very, very wrong reasons. As far as I can make out, there is no credible atheist justification for the belief in human equality, a helpful fantasy though it may be – and, indeed, a fantasy with which we Christians may find it expedient to collude. But we are here today to see truth. To see and so to know Christ's body and blood in mere bread and wine. To see and so to know our unity with Him and one other, despite our difference from Him and one other. But it's not enough just to see the truth here. We must keep wearing these spectacles of faith once we are outside the church doors. We must train our inner vision to see Him in all things, and show Him due reverence wherever we find Him, but particularly in those whom we would never dream of inviting to dinner. 

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