Made in God's image?
Let’s mark Martin Luther King Day by asking how we can better value other people in 2022 - and seek an end to the practices and systems that dehumanise so many, writes Nick Megoran
How much have you felt valued this year?
2022 started in a very upsetting way for Kashmiri journalist Quratulain Rehbar. She woke up on New Year’s Day to find herself listed on an online auction website “for sale” as a maid. She was not alone – around 100 prominent South Asian Muslim women, including activists, journalists, actors and politicians, were listed on the fake app. Although it was quickly taken down, Rehbar said that she found the experience, “shocking and humiliating.”
This case of harassment was another unpleasant reminder of how the abuse of women and followers of religious faiths can so easily take place online. But I think it is also disturbing because it implies that human beings have monetary value.
We recoil at that. But in an age where so much of our activity and our lives can be costed precisely – when we can bid for practically anything on eBay – why is it that we find putting a price tag on people so disconcerting?
In theory it should be easy to work out what people are worth, because we are made of chemicals each of which has cash value. The average adult has enough iron in their bodies to make one nail, enough fat to make seven bars of soap, enough sugar for seven cups of tea, enough phosphorous to tip 2200 matches, enough water to fill six buckets, and enough sulphur to rid one dog of fleas. Add that all up and it comes to about £30.
If that seems a bit low, here’s another way to calculate it. We all know the expression that someone is “worth their weight in gold.” What are we worth if we take that literally? I weigh 83kgs, and as 24 carat gold currently sells for around £42 per gram that would set a price tag on me of about £3.5million. More flattering than 30 quid, but still less than our national debt grows in 12 minutes.
The USA’s Financial Accounting Standards Board prohibits companies putting financial value on individual staff for formal accounting purposes. However, a few years ago an article appeared in the Journal of Management arguing precisely that companies should work out each of their employee’s cash values, or what they euphemistically called the “financial valuation of the human capital resource.” They reasoned that this would help them inform “HR interventions.” This of course is another ugly euphemism for sacking, demoting or pressurising people if they don’t hit the right numbers in the CEO’s master spreadsheet.
From slavery to Human Resource Management, powerful people have long found ways to monetarise others so that they can exploit them. It reduces us to mere objects, to line items in someone’s accounting book. This easily leads to dehumanising behaviour – from the physical abuse of enslaved labour, to fear and bullying in the workplace or online.
What’s the antidote? A good place to start looking is the legacy of the Revd Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, the 20th-century’s best-known Baptist minister.
Today is Martin Luther King Day, a public holiday in America celebrating his birthday. It’s not yet a major event in the UK but it is growing in visibility each year. It’s particularly important in Tyneside, where King came in 1967 to receive an honorary Newcastle University doctorate shortly before his murder. In his acceptance speech, he spoke movingly of our collective need to tackle the three “great and grave problems that pervade our world” which he identified as racism, poverty, and war.
Racism is one of the most nakedly ugly ways in which people are dehumanised. But why did King oppose it? It wasn’t because that’s what civilised people do – plenty of nice, modern, educated, ‘civilised’ people in the USA (including churchgoers) supported segregation in the 1960s. To us it might appear obvious that racism is wrong, but much of human history hasn’t shared our particular opinion on this point. No, King opposed racism because he believed in what he called the “somebodyness” – the inherent and equal dignity – of everyone. And he believed this because of the Bible’s teaching that humans are made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1: 27). Theologian Richard Wills argues that a theology of the imago Dei was the central facet of King’s thought, life and work. Attempts to recast him as a sort of secular-saint fail to grasp what motivated and inspired him.
King reasoned that because “The innate worth referred to in the phrase the ‘image of God’ is universally shared in equal portions by all… Every man must be respected because God loves him.” He translated this into secular terms, referring to “the dignity and worth of human personality” in his 1963 ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ and in his 1964 Nobel Prize-winning speech when he insisted that humans are not “mere flotsam and jetsam on the river of life.”
To what for some might seem an obscure theological argument proved to be political dynamite in 1960s America. King contended that the legacy of slavery made white southerners see the African American as just an “animated tool,” so that their “only concern is performance not wellbeing.” In contrast, King insisted, every human being must be seen as “sacred” and the bearer of equal dignity and rights. Therefore segregated buses, schools and the like must go, and everyone should be allowed to vote.
Most people in the UK would agree with that now, I hope. But King said more. War (which destroys human beings) and poverty (which deprives them of equal opportunity) must be ended too, he argued.
We can push King’s conclusions further. The odious languages and practices of workplace ‘Human Resource Management’ (including the proliferation of poorly-paid, temporary, insecure work) should be scrapped. Britain’s economic system, which produces both super-rich and desperately poor, needs a total overhaul. The money and technology that we devote to the military should be redeployed. The misogyny which lets men think it’s okay to pay money to rent women’s bodies for their sexual gratification, or mock them online, needs stamping out. Our misnamed ‘education’ system which values kids on the basis of their grades need junking. And so on.
Let’s mark Martin Luther King Day by asking how we can better value other people in 2022, and by seeking God for the courage and resolution to change, challenge and remake the places in which we live to make them fit dwellings for beings created in His image.
Image | Jerónimo Bernot | Unsplash
Nick Megoran is Minister of Wallsend Baptist Church and Professor of Political Geography at Newcastle University
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