On the Value Of A Human Person

We all know we live in challenging times. When we are under pressure or under challenge, perhaps even under persecution, it’s often the case that what we really think about the things that matter comes more readily to the fore. We don’t have the strength, or the capacity, to pretend. We get closer than we usually do to saying what we really think; we prioritise the things or the people that are most valuable or precious to us; the values we hold and the lengths we would go to to gain or to protect them become obvious, when we would usually try and keep our personal and privately held motivations to ourselves

Over the last few weeks, I’ve read too many times that the lives of ‘vulnerable’ people should be sacrificed, in whatever sense that particular thought is expressed or meant, so that everyone else can ‘get back to normal.’ This isn’t theoretical, it’s personal. To me. If you think, or say that stuff, do you know what it says to me when I read it?

It makes me think you think the lives of disabled/elderly/unwell people are worth less than those who are, at the moment, none of those things. It makes me wonder if you realise you may well, sadly, be any of them, or all of them, someday.

It makes me wonder what you would do in response to a govt policy, now or in the more distant future, which said that ‘we can’t possibly afford to support people’ or something like that. Would you vote for a party saying that? I wonder these things. It’s more than possible that one of the outcomes of the economic and health and social care policies pursued during 2020 and beyond will have societal consequences. They will undoubtedly have fiscal consequences. All this bailing people and industries out was not, I believe, done out of largesse. We and our descendants will very likely be ‘paying back’ what has been paid out for a long time to come. In these uncertain circumstances, who will be valued, prioritised, encouraged, supported? Can we afford to support those who aren’t at present able to work to support themselves? What happens if we make the decision that ‘we’ can’t? My question would rather be, can we afford not to?

All of us have changing circumstances. Not only that, but they are constantly subject to change and often the change is outside of our control, however hard we try to pretend we have it all sorted. Not all of us live to an old age, but all of us are vulnerable, all of the time. All of us have underlying conditions. Some of us have over(?)lying conditions too. Do we want to live in a society that seeks to deny or demonise this idea? That’s one of many things I think is at stake here. The slow, gentle progress towards a thinking which makes covert or overt eugenics seem to be a sensible policy. And that is not acceptable to me.

If you’re a Christian like me, the language being used in public discourse, often by prominent people of faith, ought to give us pause for thought. Is the value of a human life only measured in terms of an economic unit, our productivity and net give and take? I don’t think people would say it is, but in practice it looks like a lot of think that way, judging by what we do, what we think and what we say. We all need to come to terms with the uncomfortable truth that ‘vulnerability’ is a breath away for any of us. If and when you or I become vulnerable, how do we want the society we are part of to respond or treat us?

And, speaking to people of faith again, how are we going to work to show that there is a hope-filled way of living which shows what a huge lie it is to think that ‘survival of the fittest’ has ever been a good way to choose how to live? Our faith ought to have something to say about this idea. If you’re not a person of faith, your ethical senses ought to start tingling, all of ours should, wherever our foundations are found and placed. Either every human being is of equal value (I believe this deeply) or they are not. If the prevailing wisdom is going to be that each human being is only valuable if able to perform certain functions, I think this is hugely dangerous and will oppose it with every fibre of my being.

 I know others have other views. My main point is, it actually hurts me to see what I perceive to be hard-heartedness towards others coming from people. I hope that I don’t fall into that trap, but I know I do sometimes and I’m sorry for that. It is not ‘woke’ to say that it matters greatly how a society behaves towards those who are poor, or vulnerable. If we harden our hearts and look after ourselves, good does not automatically follow. 

As an impaired and disabled person (those are not the same thing) I have spent a lot of time thinking about how I am valued. It follows that if I think I’m valuable then others ought to be too, no? If I decide because of the prevailing wind of things saying that I’m not valuable because (pick a reason) I wear glasses, can’t walk, can’t reach high shelves or cupboards, sometimes find it hard to do my job because of physical or mental/emotional impairments or ill-health or myriad other reasons, then it follows that I can both isolate myself from reality and also not value others. I am forced to look up to those whose function is higher than mine and I am forced to value them more highly. Is that the way we want it?

Alternately, if others are allowed, or even positively encouraged, to ascribe value to me and place me on a particular echelon or rung simply due to my impairment or functional ability, voiding my God-given personhood and identity, that means that it follows that beneath a certain echelon or rung a person could be deemed not valuable enough, too expensive, too needy and so on. It might seem that we in Britain are a long way from seeing or describing people in this way, but the recent debates in media and on social media about vulnerable people leaves me feeling at beast queasy and at worst fearful. I might be deemed valuable at the moment because I’m a public figure in a job which some people think is worth something, but it won’t always be that way. What happens when the protections afforded to me by my role in society are taken away? It’ll happen one day. It could happen to any one of us.

Jesus said that the way that people would know that those who followed him were his followers was that they would love one another. This is not a theoretical concept. It needs to be seen in practice and only when it is seen in practice can we truly be able to call ourselves Christians. Whether you consider yourself a Christian or not, I would say that loving one another, in the way of sacrifice, service, working for the good and benefit of all, those ideas should form the core of who we are or seek to be, whatever our ideology. If we love one another, that means that I don’t need to spend so long worrying about loving or taking care of myself (although valuing the self is important, certainly) because someone else will love, care for, support of me. That might seem twee or naive to you but I would contend that it is only when we live this way that we can claim to live in anything approaching a decent society. At the moment, the promotion of the cult of the individual, which we see everywhere, including in the Church, means that if some people at the bottom of the ladder’s rungs are gently eased off their perch, we don’t see it or don’t mind quite as much, because we ourselves, and the core of family and friends around us that we love, are ok. This is not a long term solution. It’s short-termism born out of fear. We need each other. Each person is precious. Each life is valuable. At present it is undoubtedly the case that not everyone agrees with my last two statements. The battle is on, one heart and one mind at a time, to turn it around. At the moment, on the particular evening that I’m turning a series of tweets that I fired off at relative random into something a little more formed, I find myself concerned. What are we about, as people? What do we think is important?

I’m vulnerable. You’re vulnerable. We’re all vulnerable. We have just celebrated Christmas. Some of us still are celebrating Christmas. At Christmas, we as Christians mark the birth of a vulnerable baby (all babies are inherently vulnerable) ‘born to save the sons of earth, born to give us second birth’ as the Carol you’re now humming goes. God decided that each and every human life was of such value that it was worth taking the slightly madcap and undoubtedly a little bit dangerous step of becoming vulnerable in order to both fully identify with what it is to be human and also to show us that the way to true fullness of life is the way of sacrifice, of true self-giving. It’s not fashionable, it’s not cool, it doesn’t make sense to most people, but as long as it makes sense to enough of us, there’s a little bit of hope that things can be different, that they can be better. I don’t want things to return to normal. Normal wasn’t and isn’t good enough for me. I want to see life transformed, one heart and one mind at a time, so that we can truly say that we did our best to love one another, whether we think of ourselves as vulnerable or not. Wouldn’t that be nice?