Jesus, Race, and the Foundation of Inherent Dignity for All
The protests have happened. The press has moved on.
The time for reflection and action remains.
The imperative behind the recognition of the worth of black lives isn’t beholden to the news agenda. The force behind the statement is to be found in the very nature of God.
Christians haven’t always remembered this though.
“Martin Luther King Jr. once said that, when it came to issues of justice, the church was often the taillight rather than the headlight in society.” 
This statement was not in denigration of the pivotal role the church could play in societal and cultural transformation. It was a recognition that, on a number of fronts, she was not fulfilling her potential. He was pointing to instances of reform that were initiated outside of the church, to which the church has grudgingly followed suit. And the particular injustice he was referring to is racism.
Christians, individually and corporately through the church, have been and continue to be complicit in racism.
In my context in the UK, Christians often (rightly) speak of the role of Wilberforce and friends in the abolition of slavery. However, beyond the fact that key black players in the fight against slavery aren’t lauded in the same way, little mention is made of the fact that compensation was paid to clergy after the abolition of slavery. This was in recognition of the financial losses abolition would entail.
Compensation to the slave owners, and not to the enslaved.
It is in this context that some voice their convictions that the church has nothing to offer when it comes to issues of injustice, having been complicit in times past, right up to the present day. For these people, hope for the future lies in the modern democratic state, who will chart the path to freedom for all.
It is for the state to create rights. To respect rights. To enforce rights. The church’s chequered history signals a bleak future, and so it is for the state to succeed where she has failed.
I’ve been on online forums where people have proposed that rather than depending on the antiquated teachings of scripture, we would be much better off founding the society we long for on the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
To this assertion, I have two responses:
- The strongest basis for a critique of the church's complicity in racism is found within her faith.
- The strongest basis for the value of human life is found within the same faith.
In showing why this is so, it is actually rather helpful to look at the text of the UDHR.
The first line of its preamble, the cornerstone to the cornerstone of modern international human rights law, reads thus:
“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world….”
The sequencing here is that dignity leads to rights, and rights lead to freedom, justice, and peace.
To know the strength of this statement, we have to look at what dignity means, and where dignity comes from.
Dignity speaks to that which gives a life its worth. That which makes a person valuable. 
There have been a whole range of different understandings of what makes people valuable, what makes them worthy of consideration and certain standards of treatment over the ages.
Lineage and pedigree.
It shouldn’t take long to see that there are core defects with each of these as a basis of dignity.
The function of ‘dignity’ in international human rights law today is to give due weight and force to the protection of human life. To situate the worth of humanity above and beyond cultural trends and political expedience.
And why is this so?
The modern conception of human rights did not arise out of a few lunch time meetings in trendy coffee shops on lovely Autumn days, but in the aftermath of severe and egregious attacks on humanity.
Human rights are not just a noble endeavour pursued by humans to ‘make things nice’, they are more deeply than this a recognition of the fact that, left to their own devices, humans will treat each other in despicable ways. Humans need to be rescued from other humans. People need to be saved from themselves. Oppression against people and groups is enacted on a systemic level, and as such it must be challenged on the same basis.
The core understanding of why every life matters and should be protected was radically influenced by Judeo-Christian thought. 
It is not for individuals and states to engage with human lives on their own terms, constructing reality in a way that gives undue prominence to the advantages inherent to their situation and demeaning the value of the other.
Rather, the first line of the UDHR points to an objective reality. An external referent to all human activity that must be engaged with it on its own terms.
It points to Genesis 1:27 (NLT):
“So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
The surrounding context of these words, the whole story of God making himself known and heaven touching earth in scripture, provides these accompanying insights:
- God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - exists in an eternal community of love (1 John 4:7-13),
- God creates all things out of the overflow of his love (Revelation 4:11),
- Of the things he makes, humans are unique. They bear his stamp of identity, and are deeply loved (Psalm 8:3-6),
- God designs for people to be in relationship with him (Romans 8: 15-16),
- God purposes for his people to know him intimately and represent him in how they engage in the world (Matthew 5:14).
And yet, in the same Scriptures, we find the cataclysm of Genesis 3.
The devastation human rebellion unleashed upon the earth in the fall persists to the present day. Racism exists as yet another iteration of human brokenness, but that it is one of a number of crimes against the goodness of God does not dull its sting to him or to fellow humanity.
The world that we currently inhabit is a long way away from Eden: from the freedom, justice and peace of God’s original intent.
It is this the church has neglected when she has been complicit in racism.
It is this the culture has neglected when it seeks the freedom, peace and justice of God’s reign while rejecting his rule.
This is why we need the critique that has sprung up from outside the church in this cultural moment, both individually and corporately. This isn’t to say that we base our subsequent actions on cultural cues that take little notice of the earth-shattering-and-remaking consequences of the resurrection of Jesus, but rather as a cue for the church to return to her first love. To honour her commission. To go into all the world, proclaiming the kingdom and honouring her king.
And the kind of king that the church has is one who gives his life for the other. The rebel. The enemy. Who takes the abuse and dishonouring of the poor, the vulnerable and the outcast to be a personal affront to him (Proverbs 14:31). Who doesn’t think twice about affirming the dignity of all those he has made, branded as they are by his image.
 Jemar Tisby, quoting King in his article with Religion and Politics, The American Church’s Complicity in Racism: A Conversation with Jemar Tisby
 Christopher McCrudden, ‘Human dignity and the Judicial Interpretation of Human Rights’, EJIL (2008), Vol 19 No 4, 655, at 671
 For a fascinating read on Christianity’s contribution to the west, check out Tom Holland’s Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, Little Brown (September 2019)
Thumbnail picture: John Cameron Jr on unsplash.com
Cover picture: Clay Banks on unsplash.com