In the wake of yet two more mass shootings, in El Paso and Dayton, we are reminded again of the preciousness of human life. As people who are called to love, as John Wesley put it, “every soul which God hath made, every man on earth, as our own soul,” we share in the pain and grief of those who have lost loved ones and feel our own pain at innocent lives lost, even though most of us did not know them personally.
Much harder is Jesus’ command to love our enemies. What could it mean to love the persons who took the lives of so many? Maybe one thing it means is to mourn that human beings can be so motivated by grievances, fear or hate that they violate their own humanity by randomly killing men, women and children.
There are many directions we could take in reflecting on these horrific events. Certainly there are matters of public policy to debate in hopes of finding a way to stop the killings. Here I want to go down another path and consider why human life is precious.
That all humans are persons of worth and dignity has not been self-evident in human history. Again and again people have disparaged others of different races, ethnicities, classes, religions or political beliefs. This typically leads to those disparaged as being seen as inferior and/or a threat. Once a group has become both demeaned and turned into a threat taking action against them can seem justified. Most often this leads to discriminatory laws and personal conduct, but all too often it leads to mob violence, lynchings, assassinations, bombings, mass shootings and even genocide.
Perhaps the most prominent victim of this sort of violence in human history is Jesus of Nazareth.
What gives us our worth and dignity as human beings? It is not our skin color or ethnicity, nor is it our nationality. It is not our personal wealth or level of education, nor is it our political beliefs.
As Christians in the Wesleyan tradition, we can say our human worth and that of all persons is grounded in three things.
First, we are all created in God’s image. Even though humanity has fallen into sin, in the very act of creating us in the image of God we have been given by God worth and dignity. To be created in God’s image means above all that we were intended to mirror divine love —to love as God loves.
Second, Christ died for all persons. John and Charles Wesley could never say enough about the wondrous love of God demonstrated on the cross. “’Tis Love! ‘tis love! Thou diedst for me,” Charles exclaims, “pure, Universal Love thou art.” (UM Hymnal #386) That the Son would die for all of humanity out of love places an infinite worth on every human life.
This, in turn, grounded in God’s love for all humanity. “His love,” John Wesley says, “extends even to those who neither love nor fear him.” (Predestination Calmly Considered, XLIII). The grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is free in all, and free for all.” (Free Grace, 2) The worth and dignity of all human beings has its ultimate foundation in that we are loved by God.