Publication Year: 2013
Brett McCarty: The Sacredness of Human Life is a sweeping and marvelous book in which you bring together a number of discourses, including biblical studies, church history, and philosophy, to offer a framework for considering human life as sacred, enabling us to better consider and respond to many of today’s moral challenges. What I really appreciate about your account is the way in which you don’t give a gloomy declension narrative in which human life was once valued but no longer is, but instead you show how the history of Christianity and Western society is filled with things going wrong (human life being devalued) and things going right (new insights into how we should be holding life sacred). Given this mixed legacy, then, how should Christians think and speak about the influence of Christianity upon Western society? What does that mean for how we should engage in society today?
David Gushee: Thank you for the kind praise, and for seeing exactly what I was trying to do in telling the historical part of the story. My summary answer is: Christianity contributed much of the best moral insights and practices to Western civilization, and these remain with us today in various forms and contexts. But Christians often violated, compromised, and misplaced those very insights and practices, often through complicity with state violence. This contributed to the secularization of Western culture that has only intensified since the early modern period when it began. Christians should be able to manage both a confident reclaiming of our best heritage and an honest repentance about our worst. In general, humble public engagement is better either than proud triumphalism or hysterical declension narratives.
What was your inspiration for this project?
I kept coming back around to sacredness of life as central at both a head and heart level to all of my ethical concerns. I was unsatisfied with existing uses of the phrase, mainly to showboat conservative, anti-abortion views on the part of politicians. I wanted to offer a comprehensive treatment of the question and in so doing work through some of my own unresolved issues.
Why should the general public be interested in this work?
Because “culture of life” and “pro-life” language remains salient in the public arena. Because this is indeed one of the grand moral concepts of the Christian tradition. Because the work ranges widely and comprehensively across disciplines and so there should be something for everybody.
What is one question that you wish someone would ask you about your work, and how would you answer?
Question: Does being for “the sacredness of human life” inevitably make you a pacifist?
Answer: No, it actually has made me understand that much better the underlying logic of a strictly limited just war/just violence perspective.
In The Sacredness of Human Life, you hardly mention controversies around LGBT inclusion in society and the church. Yet this book could be read as conceptually moving you from opposing such inclusion, as you (briefly) did in your highly influential Kingdom Ethics, co-written with Glen Stassen, to arguing for full LGBT inclusion in your recent Changing Our Mind. How would you describe the role played by The Sacredness of Human Life in your own thinking about this? Will revised editions of Kingdom Ethics and The Sacredness of Human Life reflect this change?
I wasn’t quite ready to deal with LGBT issues in Sacredness. But it is indeed true that the more deeply I understood what it really means to say that each and every life is sacred, the more uncomfortable I was with the way Christians have related to LGBT people historically and today. Writing Sacredness, combined with other life experiences and reflections, helped me to reframe the LGBT issue as a sacredness of life issue rather than merely a sexual ethics issue. The second edition of Kingdom Ethics will be revised to reflect these new insights. At this time there is no plan for a second edition of The Sacredness of Human Life.