Land: Barbarism looms if life is devalued

NEW ORLEANS (BP)--Civilization stands at a fork in the road and will either ascend to greater heights or tumble into barbarism unless Christians reassert the value of all human life and absolute moral truth, Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land told a Founder's Day audience at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the future of civilization turns on two fundamental questions: Is moral truth real and knowable or is it merely a preference? A question of human value follows: Is mankind of value because of who we are -- our essence -- or only for what we can do?

These questions are at the heart of policy debates over abortion, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, physician-assisted suicide, euthanasia and health care reform, Land said Oct. 6.

Land reminded the audience of C.S. Lewis' warning of more than a half-century ago in "The Abolition of Man." Lewis argued that human essence would be destroyed by "men without chests" -- a scientific and technological elite that would possess mind and instinct but no heart or moral compass to govern thought and action.

"We would produce traitors, and wonder why we had men without honor and we would create moral geldings and then tell them to go forth and multiply," Land said.

Evidence of moral relativism can be found on college campuses, Land said, where professors report that students increasingly are incapable of judging Nazi atrocities as evil. They increasingly say that while Americans have been trained not to kill people based on ethnicity, it is up to Germans to decide if the Nazis' actions were wrong.

"That's a long way from the society that condemned the Germans at the Nuremberg trials," Land said. "Some things are always wrong, even if they're legal. And some things are right, even if they're illegal."

Counter to Lewis' contention and contrary to the Judeo-Christian ethic, the British behaviorist B.F. Skinner argued that the essence of man, as well as freedom and dignity, are outmoded ideas.

"This kind of knowledge/class bigotry that Lewis warned us about and Skinner became the poster boy for is barbarism with a Ph.D," Land said.

Borrowing from Reinhold Niebuhr, Land said that even barbarism accompanied with technological advantages remains barbarism.

"Denying life-saving health care to the elderly just because they're old, just because it's cost-effective, is no less barbaric than leaving your elderly to die of exposure on an ice floe or out in the jungle. The only difference is the sophistication with which the elderly are dispatched. It's still barbarism and must be called as such," Land said.

Land cited the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:13-16 in which the disciples are called to be "salt" and "light" in a depraved culture.

"We are to be a people in whose presence it is easier to do and say and think the right thing, and in whose presence it is more difficult to do and say and think the wrong thing. We are to be a moral preservative in a dead, dying and decaying world," Land said.

However, Christians must engage the culture in order to meet Christ's mandate, he said.

"If we are going to be obedient to the command to be salt and light, then we cannot withdraw from the world. We cannot go into a spiritual holding pattern, just going around in circles until it's time to go up and be with Jesus."

It is oxymoronic to believe that Christians should avoid controversy, Land said.

"The Gospel by its very essence and nature is controversial," he said. "The Bible says that men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil. You go shining the light into dark places and they start trying to shoot out your headlights. Salt does preserve, but it also irritates and burns. There's something in the Gospel to offend all fallen flesh."

The need to be salt and light has never been greater, Land said, citing the current debate over health care reform.

"We are being subjected as human beings by those who do think truth is relative, and by those who do think that human beings are defined by their functionality to what I call biological bigotry," Land said. "And it is a bigotry that is just as perverse, just as anti-Christian and anti-Gospel as the racial and ethnic bigotry of our past. It says that certain human beings are less valuable than other human beings because of their biological condition and their age."

Land called President Obama's chief health care adviser, Ezekiel Emanuel, the "poster boy" for this kind of thinking. Emanuel is the brother of Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and a member of a presidential commission that Land said will "make decisions on what your doctors are allowed to do to treat you, and what they will not be allowed to do to treat you in the future."

Ezekiel Emanuel, Land said, has written articles in leading medical journals including the Journal of the American Medical Association and The Lancet calling for reform modeled after the British health care system.

Land said Emanuel argues that maximum access to health care should be reserved for those between 15 and 40. After 40, access to care should decline, bottoming out at around 65 because, as Land put it, "you've already had the chance to live a complete life and society needs to adjust as well to those who have complete lives left to live."

After age 59 and a half, Land said, British patients can't get dialysis or open-heart surgery, because they are not deemed cost-effective within that nation's health care system.

Mortality rates for cancer, Land added, are much higher in Britain than the U.S. because it is more difficult to get prompt diagnosis and treatment.

Land said Emanuel also argues that because society has already invested 10 years in the education and medical care of a 15-year-old, an older child takes precedent over an ill 5-year-old.

"At the very least, Emanuel and his cohorts are saying that some human beings have lives less worthy of life than other human beings," Land said.

The Senate bill authored by Max Baucus, D.-Mont., reinstates the so-called "death panels," Land said. Also, the bill contains language that, beginning in 2015, will fine physicians whose per patient Medicare costs are in the top 10 percent.

"What this means is that doctors are going to be under intense pressure to withhold care that's expensive. And the Baucus bill says the target is to cut cardiac care by 40 percent to Medicare patients, meaning more Americans will die of heart disease," Land said.

In the wake of these developments, Land said Christians must reassert the reality of absolute truth and the value of all human life -- truths that are found in Scripture and in the Declaration of Independence.

"We're up against it now. We're either going to define human beings by their functionality or we're going to define them by their essence. In Christianity and in western civilization, we have historically said a human being has the right to life because he's a human being. It's part of his essence, an essence that continues into eternity, that we're immortal, created in the image of God, and part of that that imago dei is immortal."

As for humans who try to answer the question of human value by saying it is "above their pay grade," Land said, "God has answered the question."

The survival of civilization hangs in the balance, Land said. He painted a dire portrait of an America that fails to reaffirm the Judeo-Christian ethic of humanity and moral truth.

"Some of us will live to walk the streets of cities we've known, neighborhoods we've lived in, and we will be strangers, in an alien land, pilgrims in a wasteland unless we reassert the unique value of every human because they are human beings, because they're someone for whom Jesus died."

He added, "When you live in a society where nothing is always right and nothing's always wrong, you live in society in which anything is possible, including the sacrifice of 55 million babies because at least one parent considered that baby to be too embarrassing, too expensive, too ill, or merely too inconvenient."

Land's message marked the 91st anniversary of the opening of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Originally known as the Baptist Bible Institute, the school was founded in 1917, but the start of classes was delayed until 1918 due to a yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans.


Paul F. South is a writer for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

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