4 min read

How much is a human life worth?

Ryan Gilfeather explores social issues through the lens of philosophy, theology, and history. He is a Research Associate at the Joseph Centre for Dignified Work.

Concerned by the conditional responses to deaths in the Israel-Hamas war, Ryan Gilfeather considers why we should value all human lives.
A line of people, some old, some young, wait to cross a road.
Palestinian life near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, Israel, 2021.
Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash

The horrors of recent weeks have bought a disturbing reality to the surface: human dignity, the unearned and basic worth of all people, is up for negotiation. As I write these words, a dire conflict rumbles on in Israel and Gaza; the latest horrifying flashpoint in an intractable and brutal conflict. A cacophony of voices in the West are espousing histories, interpretations and solutions. Many of them reveal an implicit sense that only certain lives have an inherent dignity.  

Some praised Hamas’ brutal attack as a just act of decolonisation. The lives lost were not to be mourned, because, in their words, these Israelis were fair game for violence because they are colonisers. They asked for it. They have given up their right to the preservation of life. Implicitly, these voices suggest that human dignity is conditional; their actions have taken away their inherent value.  

Just as troubling is the apathy as thousands of Palestinian men, women, and children in Gaza are slain in their homes. Many of our leaders are silent about this unimaginable loss of life, as if it does not represent a tragedy, and as if they are just the collateral damage of war. The implicit message is that human dignity has preconditions, that only certain kinds of people get to have it in the first place, and that these particular Palestinians do not.   

Why should our rational autonomy or other capacities mean that we have an unearned worth? 

It is, in some ways, unsurprising that human dignity is up for negotiation in this way. Secular discussions of human dignity often ground it in the human person.  

In the philosophical tradition, following Kant, many consider our inherent dignity to be grounded in our capacity to make choices, be autonomous, and exercise reason. In other words, the capabilities which separate us from animals give us all an unearned worth or status.  

Others will point to our sentience, our capacity for creativity, empathy and caring relationships, or our membership of the human species. Hence, our inherent dignity is grounded in something that we do or possess, over and above the rest of creation. The problem with this grounding is that it can, at times, seem arbitrary. Why should our rational autonomy or other capacities mean that we have an unearned worth? It is little surprise that dignity is so often overlooked in practice.  

To respect this dignity, we must allow each person to live out this gift. Each person must be allowed to be free to think and act, without having their life violated or cut short. 

In contrast, Christians root the dignity of every human person in something altogether outside of them: the unbreakable love of God. It is a cornerstone of Christian belief that God loves every person who has ever lived and will ever live, regardless of what we have done or will do. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God”, as St Paul put it. God’s love for us is so profound that he became human and died for our sins so that we might be reconciled to Him.  

Central also, is the belief that God is omniscient, he knows everything that can ever be known, and he does not make errors of judgement. For Him to love us without any conditions of who we are or what we do, is to affirm that we are all inherently worthy of love.  

Our inherent dignity, is, therefore, grounded in something far more fundamental than something we do. It is rooted in the love of the creator of the whole universe. If we believe in the Christian God, therefore, we also accept the supreme value of every person. 

God’s gift to all of us expands on this picture. Genesis, the first book of the Bible, tells us that God made all humans in His image.  In this, God gives us the gift of reflecting his goodness and love here on this earth. He has granted us the capacity to use our minds to think about God and abstract things, to live lives marked by His love, joy, peace, justice, and courage. He calls us to use these capacities to nurture and care for creation just as He does. Since God is infinitely valuable; those made in His image are too. Hence, this gift gives us an inherent dignity. To respect this dignity, we must allow each person to live out this gift. Each person must be allowed to be free to think and act, without having their life violated or cut short. Crucially, this gift is unconditional. No matter what we do, we can always turn back to God and accept his gift of reflecting His goodness. There are no preconditions for who God gives it to. He freely offers this gift to all.  

Returning to Western responses to Israel-Gaza, we see that the Christian vision of human dignity does not countenance celebration of or apathy toward this loss of life. Some people saw Israeli deaths as unworthy of grief because they believe their actions forfeit their right to life. They implicitly see human dignity as conditional. In contrast, Christians believe our inherent value is unconditional, God will never cease to love us and will never take away our ability to reflect His goodness. Indeed, the death of Palestinians has been met with apathy and silence by many in the West, much as human tragedies in the Middle East often are. Implicit to this response is the sense that human dignity has preconditions, it is only extended to certain groups, those who live similar lives to us. The Christian vision objects here. God’s gift has no preconditions, it is freely offered to all. All possess an inherent dignity. This is not to pre-judge the complex questions of how to deal with the heart of the Israel / Palestine conflict, but it is to say that as we do so, the value and dignity of every human life must be paramount in the decisions taken   In the midst of this darkness the Christian message offers hope: every death is a tragic loss beyond all imagination and measure because all are infinitely valuable in God’s sight.  

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7 min read

Red radical: the tales behind the Santa we see today

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A determined, fiery, culture warrior lies behind the iconic image of Santa. Graham Tomlin unwraps a tale or two and find some serious theology.
A Lego Stanta figure strolls across a table holding a wrench
Artem Maltsev on Unsplash.

There is one figure in our cultural memory who pops up at this time of year without fail. It is the unmistakable figure of Santa. 

Santa Claus, AKA Father Christmas, Sinterklaas in Holland or Kris Kringle in the USA conjures up a definite image in the mind’s eye. The Santa of popular imagination with elves, red suit, bushy white beard flying in a sleigh towed by reindeer was shaped more by the famous Coca Cola adverts of the 1930s than anything else, and may seem to have very little connection with the birth of Christ. There are, however, strong connections between Santa and the Christian celebration of Christmas.  

Santa Claus is a linguistic development of St Nicholas, who was a real, fiery, determined Christian bishop of the early 4th century. Many of the stories about him date from later centuries, and some, no doubt, are legends developed to enhance his reputation. Yet he clearly made a deep impact on those who encountered him. On the principle that there's no smoke without fire, while some of it may be fiction, these stories may also contain a grain of truth.  

A group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home. 

Nicholas was born around 260 AD. His parents, or so the story goes, died of the plague while he was young, leaving him a reasonable fortune. The other thing we know about his youth was his profound and strong Christian faith. This shaped his mind from early years, and led him, like many young Christians at the time, to enter the demanding spiritual boot camp of the monastic life, and then in time to becoming the Bishop of Myra, a city in southern Turkey known today as Demre.  

Christianity at the time was deemed a dangerous religion, subversive of the unity of the Roman Empire and in 303 AD he was one of many Christian leaders imprisoned under the wave of persecution initiated by the emperor Diocletian. Not only did he survive the rigours of a brutal Roman jail, but he encouraged other Christian prisoners to stand firm, who, like him, emerged more determined than ever. He died around 335 AD and within a few hundred years had become one of the most celebrated saints of the mediaeval era, with numerous accounts of his life spreading around Europe.   

In the 10th century the Russian emperor Vladimir visited Turkey and was so impressed with the stories of St. Nicholas that he pronounced him the patron saint of Russia and he remains a hugely venerated figure in Russian Orthodoxy to this day. In 1087, when Myra had come under Islamic rule, a group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home, where with great fanfare, a large basilica was erected around the resting place of the bones of St Nicholas – an attraction which enhanced the status of the city no end. It became a pilgrimage destination for numerous medieval Christians (which was what the sailors had in mind) and the edifice still stands on the very spot to this day.

He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. 

There are two stories of St Nicholas that get us closer to understanding why he became such a key figure in our Christmas celebrations.  

While he was still a young man, so we are told, he heard of a local family who were falling into poverty. A father who was badly in debt desperately needed money to pay off loan sharks, otherwise his only option (as happened in many families at the time) was sell his three daughters into slavery, or in some versions of the story, into prostitution. St Nicholas, aware of the teaching of Jesus that good deeds should be done in secret, resolved to do what he could to help. He wrapped up a bag of gold coins and secretly dropped them into the window of the house to the relief and delight of the poverty-stricken family. Nicholas performed this act of generosity three times for each of the three daughters, and on the third occasion threw the bag of gold coins so far into the room that it fell into a sock hanging over the fire to dry - hence stockings on Christmas Eve. On that occasion the father caught Nicholas as he tried to slip away, and thanked him profusely. Nicholas insisted he tell no one, which the man assured him he would not. Obviously, he didn't keep his promise. 

It is this kind of story that gives rise to the idea that Nicholas was a picture of radical generosity. Ever since then, depictions of St Nicholas are recognisable by his carrying three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold coins – and the same symbol found its way to hang outside many a pawnbrokers’ shop, after St Nicholas was adopted as their patron saint.  

The other story relates to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Although historians debate the question, there is some evidence Nicholas might have been present at this Council at which the Nicene Creed was written, the Creed that describes the heart of Christian faith for most Christian churches to this day. The Council centred around the controversial teaching of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who had taught that Jesus, although the best person who ever lived, the pinnacle of creation, was not in any significant sense divine, as the Council eventually discerned he was. The story goes that Nicholas was so incensed by the teaching of Arius that at one point he strode across the room in which the Council was taking place and struck him on the face. He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. A heretic being punched by Santa Claus is an image to conjure with.  

The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous. 

So why did St Nicholas become a person of such radical generosity? Were these two stories, however apocryphal some of the details may be, strangely linked? 

At stake in the debates at Nicaea was the question of whether Jesus Christ was just an illustration, a good example of what human life can achieve, or whether his radical love and self-sacrifice was in fact an expression of the heart of God, the very heart of reality itself. That is the core insight at the heart of the Nicene Creed – that when we see Jesus, we see God. The compassion, courage, grace, generosity, the anger at evil of the world, the deep compassion for those who struggle with life that flows out of him at every moment – all this is not a brief moment of light in an essentially dark world, but is the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Jesus Christ represents God giving to the world, not just a gift, but giving Himself.  

That kind of belief seems to have animated the soul and the mind of Nicholas, and if you believe that generosity is what lies at the very heart of things, its not surprising if it starts to seep out into a life full of generosity. Alongside the gifts to the struggling family, Nicholas is said to have argued the emperor into a tax cut for the people of Myra, and secured extra shipping of grain for his people during famine. The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous – it’s the difference between the lucky tennis player who plays a good shot every now and again, and the pro who plays that shot nine times out of ten. That is virtue – where a person is generous almost without thinking about it, because it has become second nature.  

There are, of course, differences between the Santa of popular memory and St Nicholas. It’s hard to imagine Santa punching anyone, whereas St Nicholas had the fierce, determined faith of the early church, a faith so compelling that it took over the entire Roman empire. Then again, Santa gives gifts to children who are good but not to those who have been bad. He is a moral arbiter who rewards those whose good deeds outweigh their bad ones. That is about as far removed from a Christian understanding of grace, as depicted in the stories of St Nicholas as possible. In Christianity, divine generosity is not a reward for goodness, but is the wellspring of it. The God that Nicholas learnt about from his earliest days gives first and asks questions later. Generosity inspires gratitude and generosity as a response. 

St Nicholas became associated with Christmas partly because his feast day, December 6th, was near to the annual feast, but also because of this theme of radical generosity. Christmas is the time when Christians recall God’s greatest gift – the gift of Christ given to people of dubious moral standing like us. Not because we deserved it but despite the fact that we didn’t. It’s why we give gifts at Christmas, not to win favours from others, but for the sheer joy of it. We give as an act of gratitude for we have been given, before we even asked for it – just like three helpless young women, and their desperate father, in need of help.  

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