What Price Equality?

What Price Equality? August 25, 2021

Equality is a funny and fuzzy word in the English language. One has to ask, equal in what way?  It’s easy enough to argue for equal pay for equal work (and we should do so), but that’s just a matter of fairness, or even justice. Or we might talk about equal opportunity to do various things (go to college, find a job etc.).  Sometimes when things like equal opportunity have gotten way out of balance, we have instituted policies like ‘affirmative action hiring’ to redress an imbalance. But again that is just a matter of fairness.

It doesn’t address fundamental anthropological questions like— are men and women equally capable, by nature, to do this or that?  And we could wax eloquent and ask philosophical questions like ‘in what way are men and women equal’?   Some of this discussion plays into the heated debates about gender and gender politics.  Gender however is something one cannot have mere opinions on.  Gender is scientifically determined by what X and Y chromosomes one has.  We can argue all we want until we are blue in the face about the current buzz phrase ‘gender identity’ but the chromosomes do not lie, and do not care.  And it is precisely because such basic facts about gender matter that men are incapable of getting pregnant, unlike women.

If equality was a matter of all human beings being equally capable of doing anything and everything, then men and women are not equal.  They are different in various ways, and their differences matter, and some of those differences are pre-determined by one’s biological make up.    And I would add as well that when a person thinks about themselves in a way that is at odds with, or even the opposite of what the chromosomes say, then one has a problem.  There is nothing ‘normal’ about a person being in denial about their gender as determined by their chromosomal make up.  So again— where in lies equality between human beings?

I would suggest at this point that the theologians have an answer, an answer which actually briefly shows up in America’s founding documents— namely that we are all created equal, with the word created clearly alluding to God the Creator.  But still we have to ask, in what way are we created equal?  We don’t all look alike, we don’t all have the same intelligence, we don’t all have the same athletic abilities and so on.

What the Bible says is that we are all equally created in God’s image.  But again— what does that mean?  Among other things, it means that we are set apart from the rest of the creatures and creation in a fundamental way. It is simply not true that ‘all life is one’.  Human life is in some important ways elevated above all other life forms by being created in God’s image— which in Hebrew is ‘tzelem’ {צלם}.   Now as 2 Kings 11.18 shows, this word means ‘idol’ whether a literal stone or woodcut image or in a more metaphorical sense (e.g. American idol).  What does it mean that humans were created as God’s idol on earth?  For one thing it means we are God’s representatives on earth, and are given tasks of creating and sustaining that one normally associates with God. We are to fill the earth and subdue it, says Genesis.  But there is more.

Any fair reading of the Pentateuch makes clear that human beings have a unique capacity for relationship with God, and with the relationship comes responsibility. The responsibility is so serious that an attack on another human being is something God takes personally.  Think of the story of Cain and Abel, or even the saying of Jesus ‘inasmuch as they have done it unto the least of these, they have done it unto me’ or even ‘Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?’ says the exalted heavenly Jesus.  Among other things this means that human beings created in God’s image are all of sacred worth, both the unborn and the born.  While we have found numerous ways in human history to devalue the worth of human individuals or even whole races of human beings (e.g. the Jews, especially during the reign of Hitler), God doesn’t believe in such mark downs.  And neither did Jesus who died for the salvation of all human beings, as 1 Tim. 2.6 says so very clearly.

What this discussion leads to is the conclusion is that if we do not think Biblically and theologically about all human beings created in God’s image (and with the potential to be redeemed and conformed to the image of Christ) it is all too easy to degrade, dismiss, devalue, and deform the sacred worth of other human beings, especially those not like ourselves.   And indeed, that is largely the story of human history since the beginning of the human race.  It says little or nothing specific to say ‘we are all equally human’, if we do not go on to define what genuine humanity amounts to, ought to look like, and how it should affect our behavior both in relationship to God and in our relationships with one another.   It is not enough to recognize we are merely human (as opposed to divine)  when in fact we are called to be humane and mirror the qualities of God, not merely be satisfied with being and recognizing our humanity, our limitations. The answer to ‘am I am brother’s (or sister’s) keeper?’ is yes. Absolutely yes.  And behind and undergirding that answer is ‘am I my God’s representative, witness, someone who is supposed to be in positive relationship with my maker?’   Just say yes, for that is the truth. In closing, I am reminded of one of my very favorite poems by John Donne, the great metaphysical poet which speaks directly to and against the spirit of this narcissistic and overly individualist age.

Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
John Donne
No man is an island entire of itself; 
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; 
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, 
as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; 
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. 
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. 

Browse Our Archives