In many Christian circles, conversations about the sanctity of life wend toward abortion and the pro-life movement. That application of the sanctity of life isn’t wrong. God cares about all life, including the lives of the unborn. It is, however, limited. Sanctity of life refers to more than the unborn. It covers the expanse of human life, from the baby arriving in four months time to the woman with dementia. It concerns men and women, young and old, Muslim and Christian, White and Black. Sanctity of life includes every human, because every human receives inherent dignity and worth from being made in the image of God. His image sanctifies life, every heartbreaking and heart-lifting moment of it.
Such a broad understanding, though, can make it difficult to apply in day-to-day life. It’s one thing to affirm a concept in one’s head and possibly even heart; it’s another to realize it in one’s actions. (And honestly, the latter may need to occur first to know the former. The doing of the thing reveals what the mind thinks and heart believes.) The theoretical must somehow become the practical, the “stuff” of everyday reality. Very well then, an everyday application: the workplace. How does—or could—believing in the sanctity of life play out in the workplace?
A first step rests in discovering and recognizing the lens through which one views the world. The onus is not on the minority, the disadvantaged, the marginalized, or the vulnerable to make themselves heard and understood in the workplace (or any other context). Rather, it rests on the person with power and privilege. This person should listen and ask questions—not the kind that dismiss or demonize, but ones that accept and invite unfamiliar and uncomfortable experiences, questions like, “How have I unwittingly offended you?” and “Could this question or plan cause hurt, be taken amiss, be rooted in an incorrect assumption?”
In addition, a critical examination of the self is required. The person with privilege and power must start to ask, “How or where do I have privilege, and what do I do with it? How do I, consciously or unconsciously, perceive the world in a way that is foreign to someone of the opposite gender, someone of another ethnicity, or someone of a different age?”
But comprehending one’s viewpoint, while beneficial, is only a starting point. Mental acquiescence to the idea that every human is made in God’s image isn’t enough. Neither is sympathy or a “commitment to diversity.” A mental acknowledgement, twinge of sympathy, or diversity program are not enough to sanctify life, to see and treat employers, coworkers, peers, and employees as image bearers of the great and mighty Creator. In that regard, identifying one’s mental position performs somewhat like the trigger fired at the start of a race. The trigger is not the race; rather, it prompts the runner across the starting line and around the course.
Besides identifying how one sees the world, a sanctity of life ethic requires acknowledging the limitations of one’s viewpoint so that it can be challenged and stretched. No person can fully unearth their unconscious biases, prejudices, and perspectives. No one can fully understand another person, either. Each person is unique, both because of how God has made them and because of their lived experience. But people in positions of power and privilege can try to empathize. They can attempt to put themselves in other people’s situations and lives.
They also can form friendships with people who are willing to graciously and patiently endure the unthinking questions and awkward processing, and who are willing to speak the truth in love when something offensive or assumptive is said, such as telling an Indian person, “You must make fantastic curry.” Such work can burden the person in the minority, so the person in the majority—the one with position, privilege, or power—should do as much as they can to understand other people’s perspectives through indirect means like books, films, interviews, lectures, podcasts, etc. In so doing, a person of privilege or power can better understand how limited their perspective of the world is and work to expand it as a way of honoring the image of God, the sanctity of life, in each and every person they meet inside and outside the workplace.
An expanded view of the world and its beautiful inhabitants, however, isn’t the end. Seeing people with limited opportunities because of gender, age, or where they were born and feeling compassion for them is a good step. But embodying a belief in the sanctity of life requires one to move toward people, to bear with them. Such embodiment is messy, complicated, clumsy, time-consuming, and at times humiliating—in the best way possible. Being for life demands humility, the willingness to admit a lack of unawareness and ignorance, to make mistakes, and to apologize for them.
Consider Jesus, the perfect Son of God. He made no mistakes and never needed to apologize, and yet, He empathized with us. He became like us, cramming His divine and holy being into a frail and finite human body. Jesus bore our griefs; He carried our sorrows; He was pierced and crushed for us (Isaiah 53:4-5). When He saw our need—spiritual, emotional, and physical—He didn’t pretend it didn’t exist or think it was unimportant. He felt compassion, and it moved Him. He acted in response to it:
13 Now when Jesus heard this [the news of John’s death], he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. (Matthew 14:13-14)
He then called His followers, which includes us today, now, in the here and present, to act in a like manner. The narrative in Matthew 14 continues with the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish, but He involved His disciples in the work. Jesus told them to feed the crowd and to serve the meal. They acted, in obedience to Jesus and His compassion for the people who were a long way from home.
Matthew 9 presents a similar account. Jesus felt compassion for the people. But rather than taking action solely on His own, He turned to His disciples and told them to pray. “‘The harvest is plentiful,’” Jesus said, “‘but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest’” (Matthew 9:37a-38).
Jesus continues the theme of acting from compassion in many of His parables, including His well-known one concerning the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). When asked to expound upon the greatest commandment, Jesus replied with a story about a bloodied, broken man no would touch except for a Samaritan. The Samaritan saw the need and moved toward it. He risked danger; he discomfited himself; the Samaritan spent time and money he could have spent on a meal or his family or upkeep for his donkey.
But he chose the risk, the discomfort, and the personal expense. He entered into the other man’s life, overcoming social conventions and perhaps even personal biases, to care for a person who, if walking and well, might have cast slurs or spit at him. At the conclusion of the story, Jesus says, “You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Act with compassion. Care for the broken and forgotten.
Now, the probability of finding a wounded man on the side of the road in Austin isn’t necessarily low, but it is unlikely if one’s life largely orbits home and work. But wounded men and women reside everywhere. They recline beside the community swimming pool. Employees stand next to the copier waiting to compile a report on profits and losses. They leave work parties early because no one invites them into conversation. Employers and employees work long hours because a boss or coworker defines their worth in terms of output and dollar signs. They wait for promotions they deserve but never receive because another person is perceived as more valuable, more desirable.
All people, however, are valuable. They possess inherent worth because of the One who made them. His imprint on them sanctifies their lives, meaning they are worthy of not only respect and recognition but also love and relationship. Those things, though—recognition, respect, and relationship—require work. They arise from concerted, intentional effort, not passivity. They overflow from drawing near to the person wearing a hijab, the person in chronic pain, the person who prefers flip phones to smartphones, because, while it’s impossible to see another person perfectly, it is possible to see better. Seeking improved sight always is a worthwhile venture. It leads to seeing the beauty and dignity God has imbued in His image bearers, and to valuing those image bearers, not for what they do or the quota they fulfill, but for who they are as men and women with wonderfully, divinely crafted bodies and souls.
Image: Coffee Channel (Creative Commons)