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On “Inherent Worth”

One of the movies getting rave reviews these days is Just Mercy, the film adaptation of Bryan Stevenson’s memoir of the same name. Stevenson is a defense attorney who has made a career out of fighting biases against the poor and minorities in the justice system, and often defending those deemed indefensible. It is, by all accounts, a powerful and inspirational story. I’ve not read the book or seen the film, but I plan on doing both. 

My interest was further piqued today by a podcast where this film was one of the topics of conversation. At one point, one of the guests talked about Stevenson’s twin convictions that nobody should be defined by the worst decision they ever made and that every human being has “inherent dignity and worth.” That last statement gets heads instinctively nodding. What could be more self-evident than that all human beings have inherent worth? But one of the podcasters, RJ Heijmen, gently pushed back on this statement. Do human beings actually have inherent worth, he wondered? Is this where we ought to take refuge? Is this the category that ought to bear all the moral weight? Or is there something deeper and truer about us that this admirable truism obscures?

I instinctively cringed at the aforementioned pushback. I pitied the poor soul who would challenge one of our few (only?) remaining sacred cows. Who would dare speak a word against the “inherent worth” of each human being? That way lies madness! Failure to acknowledge this most basic moral truth could lead (and has led!) to all manner of horrors, after all. Surely if there could be anything resembling a shared common conviction that could transcend creed or colour or class, it would be this. And, after all, isn’t the inherent worth of each person implicit in Jesus’ most basic teaching? You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. That “as yourself” bit surely requires the prior assumption that all selves have equal worth!

So, why the pushback? Well, according to Heijmen—and I’m paraphrasing here—the word “worth” is too close, lexically and conceptually, to the word “worthy.” It leads us to imagine that there is something about us that makes us valuable and/or worthy of moral consideration. We shouldn’t mistreat anyone because there is something that resides within them that confers upon them a certain value. It is this value that we must respect.

But what about when we’re talking about a murderer? Or a rapist? Or someone who has done little in the world but cause harm and wreak a path of wanton destruction? What about, to go straight to the predictable extreme, Hitler?! Does Adolf Hitler have “inherent worth” as a human being? For Heijmen, it is not “inherent worth” as some kind of special human property that each of us possesses that ought to the moral heavy lifting. It is the fact that we are loved by God.

The question is indeed an interesting one. Do we have worth because we are loved by God or are we loved by God because we have worth? I think it has to be the former. The latter is attractive, certainly—we would like to think that God loves us because we are inherently lovable. I would, at any rate. We are trained to think of love and value, like everything else in our world, as a meritocracy, and we are very good students.

But the logic of this way of thinking and speaking about human worth inevitably introduces a performative aspect to our loveliness or our lovability. We have inherent worth because, so we think, we are all amazing, beautiful, special, competent, etc. Even if we objectively meet very few of these criteria—if we’re actually sort of ordinary (or worse) most of the time—we have to re-describe ourselves and others in these terms to make the moral equations work. We have worth because we are worthy!

Except well, we’re not. We’re not all death-row inmates, of course. Some forms of ugliness are easier to conceal than others. But it surely doesn’t take too great a leap of the imagination or the memory to come to the conclusion that we don’t always measure up to the standard. We do ourselves no favours when we avoid hard truths about who we are, when we try to convince ourselves and others of that we all have inherent worth because of our admirable worthiness. We need a more durable category than our own moral performance to turn to.

I think Heijmen is right. It has to be, can only be the love of God. The Christian view is that our worth as human beings is anchored not in some special property that we possess and must constantly maintain and project into the world, but in a relationship. Our value emerges out of being created in and for love. The Christian view points to the fact that God didn’t choose the people of Israel because of any special thing about them, but simple because he loved them (Deut. 7:7-8). It tells the story of a God who loved us while we were yet sinners, before we even gave God a second thought (Rom. 5:8). It anchors all human value in a love that existed before the foundations of the world, and it commands us to extend this love into every ugly corner of the world.

Like many, my favourite story in Scripture is the story of the lost son in Luke 15. We so naturally see ourselves in wretched sons off debasing themselves in shameful ways or obedient sons meticulously keeping score, piously singing from the meritocratic songbook, or in fathers and mothers longing at the gate for their wayward sons to return. The story speaks to and for us on so many levels.

But surely one of the most incredible parts of the story is contained in one little sentence fragment: while he was still a long way off. Before the son can even start apologizing, before he can say a single word about all the wrong he’s done, before he can offer a single excuse or try to justify himself in any way, before he can rehearse his speech that acknowledges that he knows he’s not worth much of anything at all (go ahead and treat me like a hired man, not a son), the father rushes out to embrace him.

While he was still a long way off. While he was doing everything he could possibly do to demonstrate how little he was worth, the son was loved. And so he had worth. The latter must come from the former.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. howard wideman #

    Mary read the book some time ago. we saw the movie and were deeply moved.

    January 29, 2020
  2. Paul Johnston #

    I have quickly decided not to take my understanding of Bryan Stevenson’s work from a hollywood film adaptation, rather I listened to the man speak at one of your favourite forums; a, “Ted” talk. 😉

    He appears to be a brilliantly articulate and compassionate man. Intentional or not, his presentation on, “identity” was as compelling a case for, “Matthew 25” ethics, as I have ever heard.

    I will buy his memoir and learn more. Thank you for the recommendation.

    February 3, 2020
    • Very glad to hear this, Paul! I plan on reading the book, too.

      (I must say, though, that I’m puzzled by your description of TED talks being a favourite forum of mine! I can’t even remember the last time I watched one of those 😜)

      February 3, 2020

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