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Do our very yearnings to see the world become a better place, actually point us to someone, not merely something, better?

Covid, Class and Colour

In an impassioned speech for the opening of BBC’s Newsnight on 9th April 2020, news anchor Emily Maitlis said, “They tell us coronavirus is the great leveller.  It’s not.  It’s much, much harder if you’re poor.  How do we stop it making social inequality even greater?”[1]  Following Maitlis’s sobering words, a montage of faces was displayed after the title sequence, faces of key workers who had died because of the virus, notably many from ethnic minority backgrounds.  It was a moving and memorable piece of reporting that highlighted the deadly nature of the virus whilst encouraging us to address how its sting is exacerbated by social inequality.

But then, another tragedy hit.  Our news and social media screens were flooded with scenes of George Floyd pleading, “I can’t breathe!” whilst police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee upon Floyd’s neck.  Such brutality struck an angry chord among our global community which had been grieving the unprecedented deaths of so many loved ones in the pandemic.  Fighting to breathe because of Covid-19 was already too much, but the footage of Floyd seemed to confirm that an enemy we thought we had defeated in the past was actually alive and well – racism.  Seminal moments in history like the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the introduction of Black History Month in 1976 and the 2010 Equality Act appear to have only done part of the job in slaying the great leviathan, racism.

For some, racism is the problem of individuals who mistreat others due to their own personal biases.  For others, racism is the outworking of biased institutions which disadvantage already marginalised ethnic groups.  And for others still, it’s a combination of the two.  Whatever our definition of this sensitive subject is, most agree that it is truly reprehensible when a person experiences prejudice because of their skin colour.  It is this core belief in the wrongness of racism that made the murder of George Floyd so confronting for many of us.  Seeing Chauvin extinguish the life from Floyd pointed the finger of judgment at us all.  How was it that in 2020, and in the midst of a global crisis, we witnessed such a brutal scene?  Weren’t we better than that?  Sadly, the fact that we continue to fight the evil of racism is an affront to the picture of progress that we have painted of ourselves.  And from where does the idea of progress arise?

Problematic Progress

In his book Humankind: A Hopeful History, Rutger Bregman writes about the work of American psychologist Gordon Allport, who argued that “Contact.  Nothing more, nothing less” would be the answer to ending prejudice. On Allport’s work, Bregman writes that contact is necessary because, “We generalise wildly about strangers because we don’t know them. So the remedy seemed obvious: more contact.”[2]   Bregman goes on to relay the story of reconciliation between two Afrikaner brothers, General Constand Viljoen and Abraham ‘Braam’ Viljoen.  Their journey from advocating apartheid in South Africa to drinking tea with Nelson Mandela is certainly compelling.  With the Viljoen brothers, we see a great triumph of love over hate and the capacity for good which lies in all of us.  Celebrity humanist Stephen Fry endorses the work as, “An extraordinarily powerful declaration of faith in the innate goodness and natural decency of human beings… we are not the savage, irredeemably greedy, violent and rapacious species we can be led into thinking ourselves to be.”

But not everyone is as convinced by Bregman’s hopeful history.  Atheist professor, John Gray, critiques the very foundations of our modern pursuit of moral progress.  Can we really take for granted the idea that society must and will improve as we march along to time’s beating drum?  Can we look forward to a day when racism, and injustices of every kind, are done away with?  Surely the emancipation of slaves and women’s suffrage is evidence that our world is getting better.  Surely it is the tolerance of secular humanism, and not the constraints of religion, which has facilitated these moral achievements.

However, Gray reminds us that, “The belief that humans are gradually improving is the central article of faith of modern humanism. When wrenched from monotheistic religion, however, it is not so much false as meaningless.”[3]   Gray’s sentiments are a harsh but perhaps an apt reminder that the notion of human dignity cannot simply hold together because of shared understandings or agreements between people.  There is just too much at stake.  It would mean that our value and what it means to be a human, deserving of respect and freedom to live authentically, is predicated upon what we agree between ourselves.  Whilst this sounds like a progressive idea, the danger comes precisely because we don’t always agree.  Right now, thousands of Uyghur Muslims are being forced to live their lives as second-class citizens in China, and all because their humanity is not viewed in the same light as their Chinese counterparts.[4]  Modern slavery also undermines any self-congratulation we might have in the West where many people find themselves confined to domestic work or sex trafficking.[5]  Again, these victims are not afforded a full humanity because their abusers have a low opinion of them.

Now all of this is not to say that secular humanists are without morals or indeed that Christians have a monopoly on morality.  Not at all.  And as a concept, progress is a good endeavour but without God it seems to mask the subjective nature of our modern moral goals.  Subjectivity on deep matters such as human dignity can be a very costly thing.  Progress, then, is simply not enough.  If it is dependent upon our shared ideas about human value and what’s best for human flourishing, what happens when these ideas aren’t shared at all, or when every culture, group and nation have their own persuasions about progress? Christianity, however, leads us to look at a person, not the abstract concept of progress.

From Progress to a Personal God

Could it be that our very yearnings to see the world become a better place, actually point us to someone, not merely something, better?  If human dignity seems to be inextricably linked to our ideas about progress (which we ironically fail to live up to because of our human condition!), it would not be unreasonable to look to someone outside of ourselves to ground this intuition.

In conversations with African-American men who, rightly, take issue with Christianity due to its entanglement with the Transatlantic Slave Trade, apologist Adam Coleman raises a thought-provoking challenge.  “If everything came from nothing, and the universe springs into existence from nothing, by nothing then nothingness has no intentions. It can’t confer value on anybody or anything.”[6]  Coleman’s point is that in a universe without God, the outworking of mindless, cosmic forces could not give any of us inherent dignity.  If this is the case, as we emerge from the primordial soup and evolve into complex creatures, we have to decide human value for ourselves and herein lies our predicament.  These so-called “shared” decisions about human worth and progress don’t always mean the flourishing of everyone and can actually result in prejudices of all kinds.

Yet the hopeful beginning and future of Christianity is that humans were made in the Image of God.  Our value is not determined by who says we are human enough, what we own or our abilities.  As theologian Ekemini Uwan writes, “The image of God, also known as the imago Dei, is not a supplementary gift or addendum, nor is it accidental. The imago Dei is irrevocable.”[7]  Our present-day pursuit of progress is a good and worthwhile desire.  However, it makes the clearest sense in a world where our dignity as human beings is grounded in a personal God who has endowed us with inestimable worth.

[1] BBC Newsnight Youtube Channel. April 9th . https://youtu.be/L6wIcpdJyCI
[2] Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History, Chapter 17, ‘The Best Remedy for Hate, Injustice and Prejudice’, p348
[3] John Gray, Seven Types of Atheism, Chapter 2, ‘Secular Humanism, a Sacred Relic’, p23
[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-22278037
[5] Home Office YouTube Channel https://youtu.be/Jv1H_fAoOG4
[6] Adam Coleman from Tru-ID Podcast, YouTube interview with Bobby Conway, The One Minute Apologist https://youtu.be/-hhZ46dEZOc
[7] Ekemini Uwan, Truth’s Table: Black Women’s Musings on Life, Love and Liberation

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