by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s and Vice Chair of the Ozanne Foundation
I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s book The Body. It’s a fascinating read about the wonders of the human body and how much of it – of us – is incredibly complex and still little understood. But in Chapter 11 he refers to things medical science learnt about the body through experiments carried out during the second world war by Nazis in concentration camps and by occupying Japanese forces in a huge experimental facility in China. He doesn’t dwell on them, but they were horrifying in their cruelty. Some experiments were supposedly to help soldiers wounded in battle, but others were to satisfy doctors’ curiosity by doing things unspeakably unethical just because they could. And although many Nazis were brought to justice for their cruelty, the director of the research centre in China was debriefed by the Americans to get his medical knowledge and then allowed to return to normal life, while the existence of the Japanese facility was hidden for forty years.
The Uighurs and Rohingya. Political and religious terrorism. Black Lives Matter. Child poverty and homelessness. Violence and discrimination against women, LGBTI and disabled people. Cruelty continues, and those with power who do it will find ways to justify the unjustifiable. We even do it in the Church – not only with repeated safeguarding failures, but by being complicit with society at large in structural discrimination against black people and poor people and women and LGBTI people. The Church goes further now than society does in maintaining exemptions from discrimination against women and gay people, and we justify it in the name of what is acceptable to God – which makes the Church and its God appear inhuman to many.
What is ‘humane’? What is ‘inhuman’? After all, it’s human beings who act ‘inhumanly’ some of the time. Being cruel and discriminatory is something which every single human being is capable of. That’s you and me both. Which of us is without sin and can say that we have never acted in a way intended to be hurtful? Who has never done something which another person experienced as cruel and unkind?
A healthy human body is a dynamic balance of many different systems and needs, where too much or not enough salt or other nutrients can be fatal. Like our body, our humanity is a balancing act, full of difficult compromises to enable life to happen at all, more or less good or evil. Being human means we are capable of being, not either good or bad, but both good and bad, both humane and inhuman. And yet we define acting ‘with humanity’ as being solely good: as the Oxford Dictionary puts it, being human or humane is having ‘attributes or behaviour proper or befitting to a man.’
Why do we do think that being good and kind is ‘proper’ and ‘befitting’ human behaviour, when experience is that human behaviour includes so much that we want to reject as ‘inhuman’? Discrimination, violence, misogyny, racism and slavery come from dehumanising those who are ‘different’, excluding them from being our fully human neighbour, treating them as ‘other’ or as evil or to be eradicated like germs from the social body, acting as we do so out of the evil that has not been eradicated in us. (See the useful reflections by John Root around racism and binary thinking).
The view that ‘acting with humanity’ or being ‘humane’ describes only the morally good aspects of human behaviour is not derived from the reality of the world around us. It is in the person of Jesus Christ that Christians believe humanity in its fulness is fully realised: the human being without sin, the Son of God who shows us what is ‘proper’ and ‘befitting’ to a human being, without hatred or cruelty or exclusion, bringing us together into the love of God in our redeemed humanity.
It is no coincidence that the goodness of humanity is defined by the one who takes on himself our sin for our salvation. Repenting of our sins, cruelties and lack of love, and inviting Christ to dwell in our hearts in love to transform us, frees us to acknowledge both past and present evil in us; it enables us to become more humane, by letting go of the inhumanity of believing that we are good and others are bad.
The case of Jonathan Fletcher is yet a further example of how avowedly orthodox faith can inculcate an atmosphere of fear and repression in which our humanity in Christ is denied and abused, and God is modelled in ways which are more inhuman than humane.
It’s crucial to Christian faith that God is the God we see in Jesus: that God is humane, human, abounding in steadfast love. God is not the inhuman deity who many have experienced through the Church, and of which we must repent. Any Church or Christian disciple making either God or other people become less rather than more human and humane needs to repent and change.
My former colleague Canon Mark Oakley often asks: ‘What do people become in my presence?’ More human, or less? And we might add, ‘What do people become in the presence of the God I worship?’
Through your church and through encounter with you, do people and their God become more or less human?