At the annual service of United Methodism’s pro-life caucus, United Theological Seminary Dean David Watson defended the sacred humanity of all persons, including the disabled.
The service was in the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill, which for decades housed abortion rights advocacy. But the denomination’s 2016 General Conference renounced over 40 years of support for Roe v. Wade and the church’s membership in an interfaith abortion rights coalition.
Watson’s remarks at the January 19 morning service preceded the National March for Life nearby on the National Mall.
“All of creation belongs to God, but we human beings belong to God in a particular way,” Watson said from the pulpit of the Methodist Building’s chapel. “We are created in God’s image. All of creation is good, but only human beings bear the divine image. What does this mean, that we bear the image of God? It’s a difficult question to answer.”
Watson noted Augustine and Aquinas identified “intellect and rationality as the markers of the divine image” but doing so implies people with dementia or intellectual disabilities lack the true image of God. He warned:
The equating of humanity and intellect, however, seems to have permeated Western thinking very deeply. Perhaps that is one reason that 80-90% of pregnancies in which Down syndrome is detected are terminated, often at the urging of medical practitioners. In fact, in Iceland, people with Down syndrome have been almost entirely eliminated as a people group by means of prenatal testing and abortion. Why is this allowed? Why are we not calling this what it is: eugenics? Perhaps the reason is that people with diminished intellectual capacities are somehow seen as “less than”–less than the rest of us, less than human.
And Watson noted:
If I might channel my inner Stanley Hauerwas for a moment, let me suggest that people with diminished intellectual capacities challenge the most cherished value of a liberal society: individual freedom. You see, if we can think, then we can do. We can achieve. We have freedom, and freedom–choice–has become a value above all other values. We want freedom to do what we want, to shape our identity and destiny. Today we have the freedom even to defy our biology, to reshape with the scalpel our appearance, even our gender. People with diminished intellectual capacities don’t fit the template of human beings as entirely free and rational subjects, and therefore they are viewed as aberrations. Theologian Hans Reinders summarizes this nicely: “The culture of modernity, according to Hauerwas, seeks to get rid of people whose very existence makes a mockery of its most cherished ideal, namely, that individual freedom defines the moral meaning of being human”
Again citing Hans Reinders, a Dutch Christian ethicist who wrote Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics (Eerdmans, 2008). Watson observed:
To be created in the image of God, he says, has nothing to do with our capacities. It means that we are created to be drawn into loving relationship with God and one another. Consider the nature of the Christian God: God is three persons existing in a unity of love. God is love, and love is necessarily relational. Thus to be created in the image of God means that we are created to be in relationship with God and one another. It is not good that we should be alone. We are created for togetherness.
“Not all human beings can think,” Watson said. “But all human beings can be in relationship to God and other people. Not all people can love, but all people can be loved–loved uniquely by God, and loved by one another.”
Did God really say that those other people, the ones who are inconvenient for us, the ones not like us, the ones we really don’t like, are created a little lower than God, and are crowned with glory and honor? Through the years we have found myriad ways to answer this question with a resounding “No!” Human beings have achieved feats of genius in our attempts to dehumanize the other, to make ourselves more and others less, and most often with tragic and lethal consequences. History is rife with examples of how we make our tribe, our race, our people, our nation somehow more human than those unlike us. We hear that the fetus is not human, as if the image of God only appears after a certain point in the pregnancy. We call people with severe brain injuries “vegetables.” We call people of other cultures savages. We all know the tragic history of the dehumanization of European Jews. Our history in this nation is rife with examples of the dehumanization of people of color. We should not be so naive as to think that the genocide against people with Down syndrome will not eventually extend to people with other disabilities.
And Watson further warned:
We are in rebellion, not simply against our creator, but against the way in which we are created. There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways. And if the church will not rise up and proclaim loudly the value of human life, the divine image within each and every person, then there is literally no hope. There is no hope for a people who don’t know who they are. There is no hope for a church that will not live into its calling.
Watson shared about his own eleven year old son who has Down syndrome:
I have no ambiguity about his value as a human being. He is created a little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor. He bears the divine image. He is fearfully and wonderfully made. And he is a baptized Christian. I know who he is, and I know whose he is. Much of the world does not. Much of the world would suggest that it would be better had he never been born. But they are are wrong.
And Watson concluded: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways.”
Video of Watson’s remarks here: