Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

On the Value of Human Life

Posted in Reflections, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 13 February 2019

In my previous post, I brought up the complexity of our view of the value of human life. For example, the good people of the State of New York, who are celebrating their new “fundamental right” to kill their own child on the very day the child is to be born (or on any prior day), find it inhumane to execute violent criminals. To be precise, the death penalty was first suspended in New York due to a technicality. Steven LaValle, who one Sunday morning raped a jogger and then stabbed her more than 70 times with a screwdriver and was sentenced to death, took his case all the way to the New York Court of Appeals. The court invalidated his death sentence due to the unconstitutionality of some of the jury instructions. Since then, for what is now more than two decades, the good people of New York have not only continued to take good care of Mr. LaValle at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars each year, but they have also continued to elect lawmakers and politicians who are either against the death penalty or refuse to be for it. In other words, New Yorkers appear to believe two seemingly-contradictory things: that it is inhumane to kill people–even if those people are violent criminals who have caused unimaginable suffering to other people, and that it is perfectly acceptable to kill children if their mere existence might cause some emotional distress or inconvenience to the mother (and what child does not?!).

The so-called “pro-life” position is equally puzzling, however. As I mentioned previously, the baby whose life is sacred and for whose right to live the anti-abortion movement is fighting, may be shot dead for attempted burglary (for example, in Texas–one of the most anti-abortion States in the Union). Once again, two seemingly-contradictory positions can often be held by the same people at the same time. On the one hand, a human life is sacred and must be protected. The normative definition of ‘sacred’ is not that something is good or deserving by some human measure, but that it is set aside from the profane, it belongs to God. A baby should not be killed not because the baby is innocent–this is quite irrelevant!–but because his or her life is not ours to take–it belongs to God. The same, however, must be said of the 15-year-old burglar. Life is either sacred or it is not.

Of course, life has never been black and white, not even in biblical times. “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex 20:13) notwithstanding, God “smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt” (Ex 12:29), for example, and then commanded His people to “kill every male among the little ones” [of the Midianites] (Num 31:17). And then there is the beautiful yet equally unpalatable blessing on those who would kill Babylonian infants, apparently, for no evil that they, the infants, had committed: “Happy [μακάριος] shall be he , that taketh and dasheth thy little ones [νήπιά–‘infants’] against the stones.” (Ps 137:9) There are, of course, various exegeses of these and similar passages, including very spiritual ones that completely avoid dealing with the mechanics of killing infants with swords and clubs or smashing them against actual rocks. And it is not my goal here to engage in theodicy. It will suffice to point out here that modern sensibilities will see no fundamental difference between the innocence or the sacredness of life of the Midianite or Babylonian infants and those massacred by Herod in Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus. This duality with respect to the value of human life is found not only in the Scriptures but also in our individual worldviews and our public policy.

Abortion is, perhaps, the most horrific type of homicide, in which some of the most vulnerable human beings are killed by their own mothers, most usually out of the mother’s expectation of being inconvenienced by the birth of her child. I do not say this lightly. More than 80% of women who kill their unborn children are not married, and approximately two thirds are poor. The inconvenience of being a single mother in poverty in the United States is very real. Yet, compared to the baby being sentenced by his or her mother to death by drawing and quartering (disemboweling and dismembering), the mother’s possible future inconvenience is just that–possible and inconvenience. But the killing of unborn children is not the only way that our society places many of its values above that of a human life.

One of the least morally-questionable causes of death is medical errors. Doctors accidentally kill a quarter of a million people in the U.S. each year. It is the least questionable, because doctors do not mean to kill their patients and are instead attempting to either save them or cure some malady. Anyone who does anything at all will inevitably make some mistakes: writers misspell words, pilots make pilot errors, drivers get in car accidents, and physicians occasionally kill their patients. As a society, we tolerate the fact that every year an equivalent of the entire population of Madison, WI or Buffalo, NY is killed off by medical errors. (There are approximately 1 million physicians practicing in the U.S. So, the math works out to about one out of every 4 doctors accidentally killing a patient once a year.) We do not celebrate those deaths, but we recognize the value of modern medicine and tolerate the collateral damage.

We also recognize the value of modern automobiles, their speed, convenience, and utility. This is why we tolerate the deaths of between 30 and 45 thousand people each year in traffic accidents. This is the same number as the number of women who will die of breast cancer this year. If we banned privately-owned single-family vehicles and developed public transportation, we could potentially save thousands of lives each year, but this would be very inconvenient. We like our conveniences and are willing to sacrifice for them.

About a third of all traffic accident fatalities–more than 10,000 per year–involve a drunk driver. Alcohol is also involved in up to half of all homicides in the U.S. In general, it is estimated that close to 100 thousand people die of alcohol-related causes each year. Alcohol is a complex issue that involves culture, mental health, economy (the ubiquitous beer ads featuring young, happy, healthy people) and many other aspects of our society, and it is not at all clear that banning alcohol would help address any of those pieces. But when our society tried to do something and enacted the Prohibition, rates of alcoholic psychosis and deaths from liver cirrhosis decreased by two thirds each. If as a nation, we choose to consume alcohol, we know that there will be a certain amount of death, suffering, misery, crime, divorce, unintended pregnancy, etc. On a population scale, it is just a part of the package.

Another “package with baggage” is gun ownership. As a society, if we choose to own guns, there will be gun violence, accidents, suicides, toddlers accidentally shooting their parents and siblings, hunters shooting their hunting buddies, and mentally unstable teens shooting their classmates. We can (and must!) attempt to address whatever issues we can in order to minimize the death toll, but there will always be some toll to pay. We are far ahead of the rest of the developed world in the rate of homicides, most of which in the U.S. are committed with a handgun, and we lead the world in suicides by a firearm (although not in the rate of suicides in general). Of course, the availability of firearms is only one factor among many in this statistic. The suicide rate in Somalia, for example, is less than a third of that in the U.S. Coincidentally, alcohol consumption in Somalia is almost zero–only 0.5L per capita with nearly 92% of the population abstaining–compared with almost twenty times the amount per capita in the U.S. and only 12% of the population practicing life-long abstinence. (Alcohol is involved in at least a quarter of all suicides in the U.S.).

These are just some of the values that we hold dear without having a real intent to kill anyone. It would be nice if our physicians never made any mistakes, if we could always “drink responsibly,” and if the only gun-related deaths were from a “good guy with a gun stopping a bad guy with a gun.” The reality of our human condition, however, is very different, and with sadness, but we tolerate the collateral damage caused by our chosen lifestyle. The same cannot be said about some of our other choices. One does not simply drop a bomb expecting that no one will get hurt.

The U.S. has been involved in armed conflict for at least 226 out of the 243 years it has been in existence. This is surprising, since the U.S. has never been directly attacked by any foreign country. (During the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was not yet a state of the United States.) The most-bombed country in the history on mankind, Laos, holds this record thanks to American bombs. The member of the “axis of evil,” North Korea, led by the “Little Rocket Man,” has never actually attacked the U.S. or dropped its nuclear bombs on anyone at all. Ever. The U.S., on the other hand, is not only the only country in the world that has dropped nuclear bombs on two large cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians–children, women, including pregnant women, the elderly– but has also directly attacked Korea. Our vilification of Iran is equally puzzling when put in a historical context. The CIA’s Operation Ajax was a violent overthrow of a foreign government perpetrated by the U.S. against Iran. Iran, on the other hand, has never attempted to overthrow the U.S. government–not even in retaliation for the coup. The Nobel Peace Prize winner, President Obama, bombed no fewer than 7 different countries during his 8 years in office, dropping on average one U.S. bomb every 7-10 minutes of every single day. Obama’s predecessor in office “shocked and awed” the sovereign nation of Iraq to the tune of several hundred thousand Iraqi casualties, an absolute and overwhelming majority of them civilians, and four-and-a-half thousand killed and more than thirty thousand injured Americans. The Korean War saw more than 40,000 Americans killed and more than 100,000 wounded. The Vietnam War saw more than 50,000 Americans killed, more than 150,000 wounded. Our tolerance for sacrificing young American lives is quite high, and we keep doing so. Since the end of the Vietnam War, America has invaded Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq, among many other countries, tried to invade Cuba, bombed Serbia, Libya, Syria, and many others, and continues to be involved in military conflicts around the world.

Yet, all of these numbers–even all of them put together–pale in comparison to the number of Native Americans killed by White settlers. A recent estimate suggests that as many as 50 million Native Americans were either slaughtered or died of various Old World diseases in the 16th century alone, which, apparently, caused a Little Ice Age in 1610 because of all of the abandoned farmland.  In comparison, the non-Native population of the U.S. did not reach the 50-million mark until the 1880 census. The killings of Native Americans did not end in the 16th century, however. Dozens of massacres of Native Americans occurred throughout the history of the United States, some as late as the 20th century, many perpetrated by the U.S. military. In some of those massacres, such as the Marias Massacre of 1870, the military killed mainly women and children, not Indian warriors. Even though this was the time of the American Indian Wars, the killings of Indian women and children were done purposefully and from close range, not accidentally by dropping massive bombs from planes.

One does not simply go to war without expecting losses. By invading a foreign country, we place our goals above the lives of the people who will be killed. We take a rational position that the “bright future” (or “freedom and democracy”) in Iraq/Korea/Vietnam/Afghanistan/Libya/Syria/etc. is worth killing a few hundred thousand Iraqis/Laotians/etc. We place the value of their lives below that of our “goals in the region.” We also estimate that we can tolerate a few thousand or tens of thousands of Americans killed in the pursuit of our goals. The idea of sacrificing one’s life for some cause is not strange or unusual. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) Christ sacrificed Himself for the salvation of the world. To be sure, securing Venezuelan oil fields for U.S. corporations is not as lofty a goal as securing the eternal salvation of the world. But regardless of whether I personally agree or disagree, each man should be free to sacrifice his life to whatever goal he wishes. As it is often said, when one volunteers for the military, the same signs on the dotted line for “up to and including.” Sacrificing other people, however, is a different story.

Humans have sacrificed each other before, and our society is not the first one to think of it. In one of the readings of Lord Byron’s play on the story of Cain and Abel, the former appears to sacrifice the latter, convinced that it is blood, not vegetables, that God desires. The City of Enoch, Cain’s son, may have been founded on the very bones of Enoch. Offering a human sacrifice at the foundation of a city may have been a common practice for some time afterward. Sacrificing one’s first-born son may have been seen as a way to get special favor with a deity. It certainly appears to have worked for the king of Moab, who offered his son as he battled against the Israelites (see 2 Kings 3:27). In the story of Abraham and Isaac, one may suspect that the real tragedy as it is portrayed was not that someone had to be sacrificed as a whole-burnt offering, but that it had to be Abraham’s only son. Presumably, Abraham’s faithfulness was not in the fact that he was willing to offer a human sacrifice in general, but in that he was willing to sacrifice his only heir. The very same sentiment appears to be found in the story of Jephthah’s offering his daughter as a whole-burnt sacrifice to God. It is not that someone had to die–that much had already been promised by Jephthah as a bargain for God’s help in a battle (Judges 11:30-31), and he was happily willing to sacrifice a human–but that God chose Jephthah’s only child (34) who was still a virgin (39)–that is to say, she had not yet produced a continuation of Jephthah’s lineage.

The custom of thanking gods by sacrificing humans was not limited to the ancient Middle East. Prince Vladimir of Kiev, who is usually remembered for bringing Christianity to Kievan Rus’, is also responsible for the appearance of the very first Christian martyrs in Kiev. While still a pagan, Vladimir decided to celebrate one of his victories in the customary way–by offering human sacrifices. The lots fell on a young Christian Ottor (John). His father Thor (Theodore), also a Christian, attempted to interfere, and both martyrs were killed by their Viking comrades.

I find it necessary to “begin with Adam and Eve and end with the Second Coming” only to highlight the fact that our “fuzzy” relationship with the value of human life is not a modern problem. Humans of all cultures and throughout human history have been eager to sacrifice themselves and each other for a variety of causes. In fact, sacrifice may be an integral part of being human. We are created in the image and likeness of God–the God who “gave His only-begotten son” (John 3:16), the God “who gave Himself for us” (Titus 2:14).  When the Apostle Paul wrote of Christians being “accounted as sheep for the slaughter” (Rom 8:36), he undoubtedly spoke of sacrifices offered to God in the Temple; and Christian martyrs have always understood themselves to be just such sacrifices.

In our time, we have sent brave men and women to their deaths in our bid for space exploration and oil exploration. Both of these causes may be as noble today as rain for crops or victory in a battle against a neighboring tribe three thousand years ago. Sacrificing infants to Cronus or Moloch in ancient times was done for survival, peace, and prosperity of a tribe, city, or nation–values of the highest order to the ancients. But are all of our modern values as high as those of our forefathers? Should we question more when our society pays a toll with human lives? To whom do we pay the toll and in exchange for what?

Our politicians may discover that they need not lie next time they decide to invade a foreign country. Perhaps they will find that our society places great value in Venezuelan oil, and that we are willing to pay a toll. The answer may not be obvious, but honesty may be the best public policy. Perhaps deaths from medical errors could be re-imagined as a sacrifice to Asclepius, and alcohol-related deaths as a sacrifice to Bacchus. Of course, I am not speaking of a State-sponsored revival of paganism, but of gods in the Jungian sense–as that which is of the highest value; or, to paraphrase, as a value that we put above human life, to which we find it acceptable to sacrifice human life.

Perhaps the highest of all modern American values is convenience. We consistently sacrifice more infants to this god each year than to any other value–even to the god of war! It is as if the ancient Cronus and Moloch, starving since their worship was abolished millennia ago, are finally feasting more than they ever have before. It is likely that more abortions are performed in the U.S. in one year than all the infants sacrificed by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians in the entire time that their cults of Moloch and Cronus continued:

There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos, its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing until the contracted body slips quietly into the brazier. Thus it is that the ‘grin’ is known as ‘sardonic laughter,’ since they die laughing. (Clitarchus, Scholia to Plato’s Republic, I, 337a, trans. by Paul Mosca)

The disposal of medical waste in the U.S.–and killed unborn children are classified as medical waste–is also done through incineration.

Humans have always made sense of their world through myths and stories. It is not until recently that many important aspects of our world have become dehumanized and senseless. Our lambs and fruits of the earth are no longer brought into the Temple and offered to the God who created them. Instead, we buy pre-packaged “cuts” and “nuggets.” Our young men are no longer sure whether they die and kill for God and country or for Exxon and Raytheon. And no one any longer sees our infants’ sardonic laughter as they “slip quietly into the brazier” of a medical incinerator. We must reclaim our myths and our stories as the only way to give dignity to our sacrifices, as the only way to make sense of what we do. Perhaps then, we will have a much better understanding of the value of human life–when we stop calling it ‘collateral damage’ or ‘medical waste,’ when we stop dehumanizing it, and when we find the courage to look at the face disfigured by a sardonic grin.

Socrates once said that an unexamined life was not worth living. (Plato, Apology 38a5–6). Perhaps we must begin to examine in earnest the way we live and to teach our children to do the same, so that we and they may find worth in our own lives and the lives of others. We sometimes refer to human life as the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ or the ‘ultimate price,’ but it has never been our ultimate value. Humans have always been willing to pay that ultimate price in pursuit of those values that are considered worth the price. And if our highest values are viewed as Jungian gods, then we must honestly recognize that rather than presenting ourselves as a “living sacrifice” to the God who first gave Himself for us (Rom 12:1), our society offers human lives by the tens and hundreds of thousands at the altars of Hermes, Moloch, and others in pursuit of profit and convenience.

In Luke’s retelling of the story of the healing of the blind man, Jesus asked the man what it was that he wanted. “That I may receive my sight,” the man replied (Lk 18:41).  We might think it obvious that a blind man wants to see, and Jesus should have known that with or without any divine insight. And yet, He asked. The reason, I think, is that seeing is quite dangerous. Adam and Eve wanted to see. They wanted to be like gods. But when their eyes were opened, they saw that they were naked; they saw their true state; they saw themselves for who they really were. They tried hiding in the bushes, tried blocking the sight, but it was too late. But seeing is also salvific. One does not seek healing unless he sees that he is ill. One does not seek salvation until he sees that he is dying. We do not have the choice of not seeing. The real paradise is lost, and no amount of soma can build a brave new virtual-reality paradise to replace it. We can try hiding in the bushes of euphemisms and spins or we can come out and see the naked truth. The better we see, know, and understand what we really are, what we actually do, what we truly value, and what we are willing to sacrifice for those values, the sooner we will turn to Christ for healing and salvation. We wanted to be like gods, knowing good and evil, let us at least begin by pulling aside every curtain, including our own–no matter how appalling–to see the real man behind it.

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