Dentists, lions, symbols and Satans

Some readers who connect via facebook will already have seen a link, but I can announce that every Friday at 7.00 UK time, 1 pm central time, I am co-hosting Global Christian Perspectives with Elgin Hushbeck at Energion, so those who are interested can see me and hear me as well as reading me. Elgin is from the States, and tends to the conservative by US standards, whereas I’m from the right hand side of the pond and the left hand side of almost everything else, which means we fairly rarely agree about anything. Each week we tend to have one or two guests to add a little more interest to what might otherwise just be left and right locking horns and struggling mightily to no great effect!

So far, at least, the format is that for the first half hour we talk about a number of topical news stories, with a Christian spin, and for the second half hour we look at something in a little greater depth. On Friday last week (31st July) the topics were the Planned Parenthood videos, the banning of the GMO Golden Rice, Cecil the lion and, for the last half hour, whether government or the market is the best solution to problems.

Obviously, ten minutes each with three speakers isn’t much to explore topics which can have many levels of significance, so I thought I’d delve a little further here.

My position on Planned Parenthood is that yes, the videos make me feel squeamish – but then, so do most surgical procedures, and feeling squeamish isn’t a reason to ban something; it is by no means clear to me that the Biblical witness is univocally against abortion, particularly bearing in mind the injunction to stone disobedient children to death in Leviticus – clearly, the Biblical view of the value of the lives of the young, even after birth, is not the one we tend to have today.

Once you have a situation where there is living tissue from a dead human being (or proto-human being), the issue as to whether you can “sell” it is an entirely different one from whether the death should have occurred (and I’m reasonably satisfied that “sell” is not an accurate term; reimbursement of expenses would be more reasonable). I can see no good reason in Christian thinking not to allow the use of such tissue to save or ameliorate the lives of the living. Yes, some of those videoed were talking in a rather crass and insensitive manner, but we’re talking about medics here, and just thinking back to MASH indicates that this kind of talk isn’t exactly unusual, though in MASH it was enlivened by being funny. If there’s an issue to my mind, it’s that in the States parts for transplant are a commodity, and one worth considerable amounts of money – and that isn’t the fault of Planned Parenthood, but of a system which puts a price on everything.

On Cecil the Lion, my main comment was that there are at most around 30,000 African lions, while there are over 155,000 American dentists. I highlighted that we should be good stewards of creation, in accordance with Genesis 2:15 – I could equally reference Psalm 50:10-11 and point to animals as God’s personal property; the fact that lions are an endangered species promotes their importance. Yes, I note arguments that the public reaction was greater to the killing of Cecil than to (for instance) reports of the killings of individual humans, which was broadly Elgin’s point. There are, of course, over 7 billion human beings – and the numbers do not mean that we should therefore treat human lives as worth very little, whether in comparison to a lion or in comparison to (say) their ability to earn large amounts of money.

Both of these items raised issues of where we draw lines. In the case of abortion, it is clearly possible to take the position Catholicism was taking some years ago, and suggesting that contraception was evil as it prevented the possibility of conception (“every sperm is sacred” as the Pythons put it, a view which few non-Catholics here regard as anything other than ludicrous). There’s Biblical backing, perhaps, in that Onan was condemned for refusing to impregnate his deceased brother’s wife, in accordance with the good Biblical principle of levirate marriage. Once conception has taken place, most places which allow abortion take some point during the pregnancy, often an estimate of when a child might be born viable (which presents problems as science allows earlier births to survive), as being a cutoff time. Historically, the moment of actual birth has been chosen as an easily established one.

Once born, until relatively recently in history, children were not regarded as full human beings until some point when they were considered mature, and as late as the early years of the 20th century this was reflected in UK law in that the killing of an infant by its parents had to have a separate offence of “infanticide”, as no jury would in those days convict a parent of murder; the stoning of the disobedient child is part of a spectrum in which lines have been drawn at various points historically.

All this goes to show that, to my mind, there is no absolute way in which we can determine where the line should be drawn which is not subject to objections.

How about the line between human and animal? Might Cecil in fact be worth more than an American dentist?

This might seem far more obviously not the case. Some commentators have described Cecil as a “feral cat”, which is accurate, if misleading by omission, but strongly argues thinking from an absolute divide between human and animal. However, having referenced Genesis 2:15 earlier, let’s turn to some following verses, Gen. 2:19-23. We might consider whether these show animals as in principle of less worth than women; it is Adam’s choice, not God’s, which makes the distinction here.

The master Biblical passage for both of these is, of course, “thou shalt not kill”, which is more accurately “don’t murder anyone”. The trajectory of interpretation has meant that just as children have become increasingly protected, so have we moved in the direction of taking this more as “kill” than as “murder”, and I note that as “murder” is a legal term, “child-murderer” for someone performing an abortion in a state which permits abortion is inaccurate, as it isn’t murder, but a lawful killing. I do consider it ironic here that most of those who consider abortion to be child-murder have no problems with the death sentence or with killing in war, both of which offend “do not kill”, even if not “do not murder”.

The thing is, by many standards, an embryo is a lesser being than, say, a dog or cat. It’s thinking capacity is smaller, it’s physical abilities vastly inferior and its ability to survive unaided is zero. Yes, it has the potential to become an independent human being which animals are never going to achieve, but potential is not actuality (otherwise “every sperm is sacred” becomes entirely serious).

We do very commonly value some species over others – those who bemoan Cecil’s death would no doubt be markedly less concerned about other species; among mammals, for instance, it is difficult to elicit much human sympathy for rodents; snakes are not well regarded, and when it comes to insects and arachnids, we are inclined to swat them without a second thought. As for bacteria or viruses – no-one would weep were we to eliminate Ebola from the face of the planet. Or, at least, almost no-one, as no doubt there exist a very few microbiologists who would feel that the elimination of even that species was a loss.

I actually think that this trajectory of interpretation is a good one, as my mystical experiences, breaking down all divisions between myself and the other, vividly makes clear to me that in a fundamental way I am one with all other organisms within that-which-is-God; that God is immanently present in all these other forms of life, and that killing them is in a sense a crucifixion. Yes, even Ebola.

To kill anything is a wrong. In that sense, I’m pro-life – but I’m more pro life-with-quality than I’m in favour of creating lives with no hope and no prospects. I don’t think that lives should be a matter of “pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap”.

However, I am wholly sensitive to the fact that there is no way I can exist on earth without killing things; meat or even vegetables are formerly living, and even were I to turn fruitarian, I cannot continue to live without the deaths of countless bacteria and viruses which, even if I take no antibiotics (and I would have died many years ago had I not), are daily killed by my immune system. I am equally sensitive to the fact that there is a spectrum of living organisms and that choices must be made on where lines should be drawn between what I would not kill, what I might kill in certain circumstances and what I would in general kill without too much guilt. That leads me, on abortion, painfully to decide that we probably set the dividing lines in about the right places in the UK at present.

The standard retort at about this point is that I’m a moral relativist, which seems to be in the eyes of some an argument-clincher. It’s probably accurate. I am, however, confident that everyone is a moral relativist to some extent. Those who draw an absolute line as far as abortion is concerned at conception, I find, often tend to temper their “do not kill” with “except in self-defence”, or “except in a just war” or “as a punishment for heinous crimes” – and that’s equally relativism. A line drawn in law ends up having exceptions – there’s an old legal maxim that “hard cases make bad law” and I have rarely found a law to which some bright individual couldn’t find a circumstance in which, morally, the law should be broken – and those where I think I have found one are probably awaiting a slightly brighter person to propose a counter-example.

It has to be a greater crime (or sin) to wipe out a whole species than one member of an abundant one, and the closer you get to that last member (or, more accurately, to the point at which the breeding population drops below viability) the greater the crime becomes. Thus, I am not surprised to find people making more fuss about Cecil than about poor Zimbabweans – there are a lot of poor Zimbabweans, and the supply of more is not in peril.

That brings me  neatly to a second point, the suggestion that the real fault is with the Zimbabwean authorities who did not prevent the hunting of an endangered lion, or (to stick with the poor Zimbabweans for a moment) who did not provide for Zimbabweans well enough to ensure that hunting an endangered lion would not be an attractive prospect, given enough money. The dentist paid a LOT of money to hunt Cecil, and in Zimbabwean terms, that was a fortune which was going to circumvent any legal restrictions.

Now, Cecil is also a symbol for other endangered species which we have already allowed to become extinct, commonly by hunting them to that point. The Dodo, the Great Auk and the Passenger Pigeon are well-known examples, but there are very many others – and all those who haven’t been hunted, but whose natural habitats mankind has removed or rendered unlivable. I think we need to take into account that symbolic position when understanding the distress over Cyril.

However, the dentist is a symbol as well; a symbol of the ability of very rich people (and he would qualify as very rich by Zimbabwean standards) to overcome governmental principles, to buy their own “justice”. We adverted to this somewhat in the section regarding markets -v- democracy, and Elgin’s book “Preserving Democracy” laments the ability of money to subvert at least the US democracy while suggesting that the market is a better way of promoting human wellbeing than are governments, as he did in the show on the 31st.

Cyril stands as an object lesson that markets are not a good way of promoting the conservation of endangered species – it was clearly very economically sensible for the hunters to lure Cyril out of the protected reserve so he could be shot, given the amount of money available. Markets also, of course, decree that a human is commonly worth more as a set of carefully preserved body parts than as a whole human being; this is the case in the States, evidenced in the Planned Parenthood vidoes; it isn’t so much in the UK, as the UK decided some while ago that body parts were not a commodity to be bought and sold at profit.

Markets certainly have no regard for human beings just in themselves – if there is any value, it is in what they can produce, and that means that those who for reasons of personal capacities social acceptablility, education or sickness are unable to produce much are not valued at all. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are among the categories whom Jesus commanded that we put first.

Markets can be regarded as a kind of impersonal force, not subject to the same temptations as are given representatives in a democracy, and, indeed, that is how they generally function. We all contribute our little piece of supply or demand, but there is no individual human oversight – and, of course, no point at which compassion or human feeling can creep in; the market is predicated on the greed of sellers to get, if possible, a high price for very little good and on the greed of buyers to get, if possible, a great deal of goods for a very small price.

It plainly does not work to produce anything remotely like fairness, or even a balance between seller and buyer. Unrestrained capitalism rewards money with more money and punishes lack of money with forced purchases of the necessities of life at whatever price the seller wants; it tends in the direction of monopolies and cartels, where the sellers can dictate the price (and the wages they pay employees) irrespective of any principle of reason. It concentrates money in fewer and fewer hands, and thus concentrates power in the same way. In particular, it concentrates money in multi-national companies which have profit as their only motivation (not making a bigger profit tends to get you fired when employed by one of them…)

The love of money, says Jesus, is the root of all evil; power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Voltaire said. Voltaire was notoriously anti-religious, but Jesus before him shockingly said “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”. Market capitalism says “blessed are you who have much money, for you will be given more”.

Is there any room for surprise that, in an earlier GCP show, I called market capitalism a Satanic system? It is one which we all do our little bit to create as long as we participate in society, and is contrary to human flourishing without allowing us clear moral choices. Clearly it must be restrained, and the only thing we have which can restrain it practically is government. Where that government is democratic, it has the merit of being one in which we all have a say. (The alternative, of a widespread movement to not cooperate with the system, seems to me doomed to failure, but I mention it in passing).

For those outside the States, it is probably also true that the USA is currently seen as the preeminent representative of the corrupting influences of money and power, and so our dentist manages also to be a symbol of that. Up to sometime in the early 20th century, my own country had managed that distinction for rather over 100 years, gaining in the process names like “perfidious Albion” and song lines such as “we were bought and sold by English gold; such a parcel of rogues in a nation”. This is, I suspect, at the root of various ayatollahs describing the States as “The Great Satan”. They confuse the symbol with the system, to my mind.

One might almost think that having the words “Novus Ordo Seclorum” on your Great Seal was an acknowledgement of the intention…



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