It’s the sound of splashing that still, six years later, haunts me. I was in Budapest as part of a trip to Europe and touring the infamous “House of Terror” Museum. The building had been a headquarters for the Nazi regime as they moved into Hungary. In this house, victims of Hitler’s reign of terror were tortured, abused, and killed.
The House of Terror serves as a museum to a not-so-distant time when civilized, ostensibly Christian societies systematically targeted an entire class of people for elimination. Here in Budapest, Jewish men, women, and children were lined up next to the Danube River and shot, their bodies making that eerie splash.
The sound of this splash plays over and over again in one of the main rooms at the museum, as if to remind the visitors of the individuality of the Holocaust. We can often get lost in the sheer numbers—6 million Jewish people—and forget that each one had hopes and dreams, potential and purpose, life, and breath. But each one met an unjust and evil death. They were considered disposable people by the Third Reich in pursuit of Aryan ideals.
There is a personal reason why this memorial is so fixed in my heart and mind. My Jewish grandfather was a first-generation American, his mother emigrating from Poland at the turn of the twentieth century. I wonder, often, what would have happened to her had she stayed.
We, of course, like to imagine that we’d never allow this kind of systemic injustice in our own time. We like to think that we are more civilized, more enlightened through science and progress. And yet, we need to ask ourselves the same questions we often ask backward at previous generations, when history has isolated the horrors for us.
Societies don’t collectively wake up one morning and decide to eliminate entire classes of people. This kind of evil begins subtly and happens slowly over time. Today we might ask ourselves: Where are the seemingly disposable people in our own polite societies? What language, rhetoric, and practices do we subconsciously support that dehumanize certain classes of people? These haunting questions and my Christian faith are what shape my pro-life convictions. I see the way, in our own time, how easily we yield to the temptation to not see the humanity of the most vulnerable among us.
Consider the way we talk about immigrants and refugees, labeling them “invaders” or “anchor babies” or the way we describe unborn children as “fetuses” or “tissue.” Consider how often we marginalize the elderly or disabled because they don’t possess the cognitive or physical ability that seems to contribute to society.
We even see dehumanization in the way our scorched-earth politics sees the other side not as opponents, but as adversaries. Or the way technology seems to be robbing us of our humanity in ways we do not fully appreciate.
All of these instances remind us that assaults on human dignity are bipartisan and, regardless of our political affiliations, require us to ask ourselves what it means to be human and what it means to consider the humanity of others. Regardless of where you find yourself when it comes to the contentious debates of our age, you can agree that we live in a time when all too many people don’t see those with whom we disagree as mere ideological opponents, but as avatars to be crushed.
This is why I’m captivated by the Bible’s rich vision for humanity.
In the opening pages of Genesis, the creation account describes the way God ordered human life. While the rest of the natural world was spoken into existence, the Bible says that God reached into the dust of the ground and sculpted the first humans with his hands. He breathed into humans the breath of life. He made humans “in his image.”
There is something about human life, body and soul, flesh and blood, which matters more than anything else God created. Humans are God’s masterpiece.
Because there is something of God in every human, it means that harm done to human life takes on special significance. Sin causes us to forget our responsibility to our Creator and to look inward. Our selfishness causes us to see our fellow image-bearers, not as full humans, but as obstacles to our own flourishing.
But a return to a robust vision of human dignity reverses that. This is why I’m pro-life. Not because I’m conservative or because of power or any kind of agenda. I’m pro-life because every stage of human existence is precious. The most innocent and vulnerable among us deserve protection and care. That faintly beating heart inside the womb has full personhood and is an image-bearer of God.
This moral vocabulary also shapes the way I see other vulnerable humans, from the poor to the immigrant to the elderly. It’s why racial injustice is such an affront to the Christian faith. For me, a white person, to listen and learn from my black and brown neighbors is to consider their full humanity before God.
I profoundly disagree with pro-choice advocates on the question of abortion, but even as I advocate for unborn life, I can find ways to work with them on areas where we can find common ground. We can work together, for instance, to solve the orphan care crisis, to fight human trafficking, and to speak out against the objectification and exploitation of women in a sexualized culture.
To see humans the way God sees them disrupts our politics and causes us to hold our tribal affiliations loosely and speak up for those whom society most casually discards.
When we look back at atrocities such as the Holocaust or the transatlantic slave trade, it’s easy for us to imagine that we’d be on the good side, that we’d be the ones fighting courageously for the oppressed. But the more difficult question is this: What are we doing today to fight assaults on human dignity? Where are we willing to lose power and social capital to come alongside the most vulnerable?