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The Sacredness of Human Life: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision Is Key to the World's Future Hardcover – January 14, 2013
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"David Gushee is one of the preeminent Christian ethicists in the country, and his work is important for both those in the academic world and all of us trying to live out obedient and biblical lives. In The Sacredness of Human Life he rescues this most spiritual of concepts from the narrow realm of political rhetoric, which it has come to inhabit in recent years. This book should be read by anyone who desires to reclaim a broader definition of how 'the sacredness of life' should truly be understood."
— New York University School of Law
"No one, to my knowledge, has come up with a deeper or more sustained account of what it means to say that human life is sacred than David Gushee in this magisterial work. The analysis is overwhelming — in a good sense. . . . The title might suggest a preoccupation with abortion, but there is so much more than that in this book. Gushee applies his analysis to issues like the death penalty, environmental degradation, racism, nuclear weapons, and biotechnology. And even on abortion, those who disagree with his position will not want to miss the cornucopia of insight he provides and — most strikingly — the sensitivity and openness of his discussion."
— Fuller Theological Seminary
"This is the most significant book I have ever seen about what it really means to say that human life is sacred. It combines conservative loyalty to preserving the sacredness of human life with liberal loyalty to caring for the basic needs of life. . . . Gushee's work can bring the healing we need in our time of dangerous polarization."
— Southern Methodist University
"To believers and skeptics alike, Christian ethics sometimes appears to be little more than a collection of commands and prohibitions. Gushee makes it clear that there is a central idea to the discipline, one that connects to the core of biblical faith and has implications for human rights, ecology, and global politics. . . . A masterful guide to thinking about the choices that will shape Christian life in the twenty-first century."
Amy Laura Hall
— Duke University
"This story of Christian witness will preach and reach. David Gushee is an uncommonly patient writer. He relates biblical testimonies to the sacredness of life with subtlety and clarity. . . . His summons to think hard and live well invites baffled undergraduates, weary pastors, curious laity, and careworn activists to reengage in small, intentional practices of prayer and study on abortion, torture, immigration, and women's rights. I can't wait to teach this book."
— University of Virginia
"The question of 'human life' has become a major theo-political battleground today in the USA — and battlegrounds are not the best environments for nurturing human life. David Gushee has entered the battleground the way he suggests St. Francis confronted the Crusades — not with another sword but with the Word. . . . Gushee's voice is one that believers of all faiths will want to engage. . . . This book leaves me happily breathless!"
— University of Virginia
"David Gushee is one of the most important theological ethicists writing today, and this book is a landmark for future work in Christian ethics. If you are interested in fundamental moral and theological concepts, or in the character of religious discourse in our public life, or in the future health and sanity of the Christian churches in the USA (and beyond), you owe it to yourself to read this book."
— Fordham University
"Today's political discourse artificially and problematically separates discussion of the dignity of the human person into 'social justice' and 'pro-life' approaches. But in this fantastic book David Gushee articulates how sacred Scripture and tradition offer a coherent and timely defense of the sacredness of life that refuses to accept this simplistic and polarizing binary. A dynamic, readable, and historically aware account of issues like war, abortion/infanticide, racism, biotechnology, and women's rights."
M. Cathleen Kaveny
— University of Notre Dame
"This magisterial volume draws upon biblical studies, philosophy, theology, history, and law in order to illustrate the breadth and richness of the concept of the sanctity of human life. Gushee shows us that the ideal of life's sacredness must not be confined to the narrow quarters of the abortion debate."
John F. Kilner
— Trinity International University
"In the face of today's heated debates over ethical issues, Gushee does a fine job of laying out so-called progressive, conservative, and other Christian perspectives. This book is a valuable resource for all those who want to understand and thoughtfully engage perspectives other than their own."
— Beeson Divinity School
"I welcome this new study on the sacredness of human life including, but not limited to, those members of the human family still waiting to be born. Drawing on both biblical wisdom and the witness of Christian tradition, David Gushee makes here an impressive case that the whole church needs to hear — and heed."
— Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem
"This book's subtitle perfectly conveys the way scholarship of classical texts can speak to contemporary culture wars. David Gushee has identified a crucial debate over the relationship between the modern Western value of human dignity and classical Christianity that seems to be driving an ill-considered polemical political wedge between 'liberals' and 'conservatives.'. . . May Gushee's sophisticated contribution enhance the religious axiom of the sacredness of human life."
Choice (American Library Association)
"The volume is both in-depth and comprehensive in its provision of tools for serious contemplation. Most appropriate for an undergraduate audience, it superbly presents complex ideas in accessible and organized ways. Highly recommended."
"A good entry into a broader Christian ethics of the sacredness of life."
Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
"This book is comprehensive, highly nuanced, well informed by diverse and relevant interdisciplinary scholarship, and is biblically and theologically thick in its descriptions, arguments, and ethical vision. . . . It is a book that can deeply clarify and strengthen one's understanding and theological convictions concerning why and how one practices science as a Christian. . . . I highly recommend it."
Reviews in Science and Religion
"This is a serious examination of the precept, not of mere human sanctity, but of sacredness, a word which pulls us up somewhat in our recognizing that not only human beings, but the world and all other living creatures within it, demand a divinely inspired moral respect. . . . It is well worth buying and reading, and would make a useful present for all thinking men and women — everywhere."
"Offers a very sophisticated evangelical discussion of human sacredness. It makes a timely addition to current public discourses on human rights."
"Gushee takes the best ethical tradition within Christianity and shows how it still provides a significant and sensitive path for dealing with the complexities and conundrums of the contemporary world."
"A worthwhile addition to the library of pastors or scholars who wish to reflect further on what it means to live as a human made in God's image."
Reviews in Religion and Theology
"This excellent and challenging book merits a wider readership."
"This eminently illuminating book . . . opens the eyes of students and teachers of not only ethics or moral theology, but also theological anthropology, political philosophy, human rights and related fields. It should certainly be welcomed as a very significant work."
Catholic Library World
"An excellent outline of why and how human life has been considered sacred within the Christian tradition. . . . An excellent primer on social justice related to a Christian respect for all human life. Highly recommended."
Theological Book Review
"Delves deeply into the core of Christianity's treatment of human life as revealed in Scripture and in ancient Christian writings."
Studies in Christian Ethics
"Gushee seeks to rescue the language of human sacredness from `bad right wing' American politics where it figures almost exclusively in debates about abortion and euthanasia but rarely in criticism of other threats to human life and flourishing. He crafts a rich and compelling narrative regarding the disclosure of human worth in divine revelation, subsequent Christian reverence for and betrayal of that worth, the emergence of secular categories for articulating and affirming it, and its import for a range of problems that imperil human well-being."
“A fully developed, carefully considered evaluation. . . . This is a thoughtful, heartfelt, and deeply Christian treatment of a vitally important topic.”
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Top Customer Reviews
The use of "sanctity of life" terminology by pro-lifers creates a dilemma for "social justice"--i.e., progressive--Christians. On the one hand, they too are anti-abortion. On the other hand, they believe that "sanctity of life"--i.e., conservative--evangelicals, who are uniformly anti-abortion, are insufficiently pro-life on other issues, such as the death penalty, health and welfare, nuclear weapons, torture, war, and women's rights. Using "sanctity of life" terminology seems to align "social justice" Christians with conservative evangelical politics and thus to alienate them from other progressives, both of which outcomes are undesirable to them. Hence, "social justice" Christians have tended to shy away from "sanctity of life" terminology.
David P. Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Atlanta, Georgia, as well as a progressive evangelical from the Baptist tradition. In The Sacredness of Human Life, Gushee diffuses the progressives' dilemma by outlining the history and applicability of a "sacredness of life" ethic. By exchanging the word sacredness for sanctity, Gushee offers a theological ground for a progressive Christian ethic of life that distinguishes it from conservative Christian politics.
Framing Gushee's book in terms of this dilemma does not detract from its value for all Christian readers, however--including conservative evangelicals. What Gushee offers in this book is not, first and foremost, a brief for progressive Christian ethics, although it includes that too (chapter 10, especially). It is, rather, the archaeological excavation of an idea--the sacredness of human life--through various layers of Christian history.
In successive chapters, Gushee shows how Christians built a sacredness-of-life ethic on the foundations of Jewish and Christian Scriptures (chapters 2 and 3, respectively). In early Christianity, this "moral vision" included opposition to war, abortion, infanticide, torture, and the Roman arena; as well as affirmation of peace, piety, impartiality, and help for the poor (chapter 4). The conversion of Constantine to Christianity in A.D. 312, which symbolized the cooption of the Church by the State, blurred this moral vision (chapter 5). This resulted in a "Christendom divided against itself," which Gushee illustrates through three vignettes: Francis of Assisi vs. the Crusades, Bartolome de Las Casas vs. La Conquista, and Baptist Richard Overton's advocacy of religious freedom vs. Christendom's systematic persecution of Jews (chapter 6). As the Enlightenment dawned, philosophers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant retained much of the substance of this Christian ethic, even as they shifted the grounding of that ethic from biblical revelation to autonomous reason (chapter 7). But as Friedrich Nietzsche argued, "When one gives up Christian belief one therefore deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality." Gushee outlines Nietzsche's systematic deconstruction of Christian morality, especially its emphasis on the sacredness of life (chapter 8). The costs of the loss of that Christian moral vision were staggering. Chapter 9 uses the Nazis as an example of the catastrophic consequences of--quoting J. A. S. Greenville--"a contempt for the sacredness of life" (chapter 9).
Only after completing this archaeological excavation does Gushee outline the progressive implications of a sacredness-of-life ethic: anti-abortion, worried about biotechnological innovations, anti-death penalty, pro-human rights, anti-nuclear weapons, and pro-women's rights (chapter 10). Had this chapter been earlier in the book, I--a politically conservative evangelical--might have dismissed it as a progressive Christian talking the standard progressive line. By placing it near the end of the book, however, Gushee forced me to look again at these issues, but in a brighter historical light. Given the misuse of political power, the depredations of war, and the abuse of capital punishment--especially in the twentieth century, but also during the era of Christendom--Christians need to cast a far more critical eye on the state's power to kill. This doesn't commit Christians to pacifism, however. Gushee does not seem to be on; I certainly am not.
Moreover, Gushee is quite right that "life" issues need to encompass the quality of life. Though his discussion of women's rights occupies a mere five pages of the book (pages 382−387), Gushee argues persuasively (to my mind, anyway) that "the sacredness of life in the twenty-first century requires full engagement with global women's rights issues. Citing Half the Sky by husband-and-wife team Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Gushee highlights "three primary areas": "sex trafficking/forced prostitution, gender-based violence against women, and maternal mortality." One of the difficulties for conservative evangelical readers is that talk of women's rights is usually associated with a pro-choice position on abortion. To this, I can only second Gushee's plea: "Surely Christians can demonstrate the intelligence to separate issues that are intrinsically distinct from one another." I certainly hope so.
As in all books of this length and depth of learning, readers will find themselves disagreeing with this or that factual assertion, biblical interpretation, or ethical conclusion. I certainly did. You will too. But I agree with and was profoundly challenged by its fundamental insight that "God has consecrated each and every human being--without exception and in all circumstances--as a unique, incalculably precious being of elevated status and dignity." This "moral reality" entails the "moral task" of "adopting a posture of reverence" and "accepting responsibility for the sacred gift that is a human life."
Next Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, keep both the reality and the task in mind, not only regarding the child in the womb, but also regarding your neighbor...and even your enemy.
The author writes, "This book offers forays into understanding what it has meant and what it means today to say that human life is sacred, a core belief of the Christian church and the greatest moral contribution of the Christian tradition to world civilization." This is primarily a work in Christian ethics that the author promotes as a work "for both the general reader and the academic." I found it to be quite academic and substantive, as the author himself describes it at times to involve "heavy philosophical sledding." I think the sledding proves fruitful and instructive but certainly is dense as well.
Gushee's research and writing leads to several conclusions that I think can be succinctly summarized by his statement, "If any human life is sacred, every human life is sacred." He argues for the affirmative. He defines "sacredness of life" as the following: "each and every human being has been set apart for designation as a being of elevated status and dignity. Each human being must therefore be viewed with reverence and treated with due respect and care, with special attention to preventing any desecration or violation of a human being." Through the book, Gushee constructs the support for the sacredness of every life and, in fact, all of creation.
Sacredness of life comes as a divine revelation and stands as an ancient Christian doctrine. For Christians, it must not become a mere theological doctrine or political stance. Gushee writes, "A full embrace of the sacredness of human life leads to a full-hearted commitment to foster human flourishing." He strives to encourage this commitment for all stages and situations of life.
The value of human life is not found in the attributes of humanity, according to Gushee. He asserts that, "Humanity's sacred worth is an ascribed status willed by God and communicated through God's actions, commands, and declarations." This is mainly revealed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and God's revelation in Scripture that all people are made in the image of God. Jesus' incarnation made sacred every stage of life from conception to death. This demands that God's people participate in combating and, with God's help, defeating all that wars against life until Christ comes again.
Gushee guides readers through several areas of major moral failures by Christians during the Crusades, New World exploration and anti-Semitism. He dissects Enlightenment developments that compromised the Christian foundation of sacredness of life highlighting the Kantian approach. He then opens readers' eyes to the destructive philosophy of Nietzsche and practices of the Nazis.
21st Century challenges to the sacredness of life are examined. Gushee reminds readers that secularization occurs due to the increasing failure of the Church to be the Church. He writes that
"For fallen human beings viewing other humans as persons of sacred worth and inviolable dignity is not at all `natural.'" Christians must follow Christ's teachings in obedience and engage in "active, compassionate mercy on behalf of the poor, the weak, the powerless, the sick, the suffering, and any others who cannot fully protect their own interests, which is all of us some of the time and some of us all of the time."
This is overall a profound and persuasive argument for accepting sacredness of life and taking action to protect and promote it. I can't imagine that Gushee has left any "loopholes" in his case. To argue against the value of life that Gushee prescribes, one must align himself with Nietzsche and the Nazis. Sadly, this is too often the case in our world community. In light of this book, at least, it cannot be done subtlely or glossed over any longer.