The True Moral Fallacy of #justiceforHarambe

western_lowland_gorilla3 (1)The death of Harambe the gorilla has taken the Internet by storm. If you somehow missed the story, you can find a summary of it here.

It should come as no surprise that animal activists are outraged by Harambe’s death. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed a petition calling for “justice for Harambe,” insisting that the boy’s parents should be held accountable.

The “justice for Harambe” movement is predicated on the concept that all life – human and animal – is of equivalent value.

Most of us, of course, don’t agree. We object to the concept of human/animal equality in a sort of visceral way, without being able to clearly articulate why it’s wrong. “Of course people are worth more than animals,” we say. “It’s just obvious.” Or this: “If it were your child in that enclosure, you’d certainly feel that his life was worth more than the gorilla’s life.”

Many Christians take their reasoning one step further, correctly noting that humans are made in the image of God, while gorillas are not. But few of us can articulate what it means to be made in the “image of God.” As a result, we struggle to explain specifically what is wrong with the “animals are equal to people” arguments making the rounds at the moment.

Upon close inspection, though, the argument that Harambe deserves justice collapses in on itself. In other words, if humans and animals are truly of equal value, then nobody would be insisting on justice for Harambe at all! 

What do I mean by that?

Let’s imagine for a moment that Harambe had, in fact, killed the child. Animal activists, of course, would be insisting that the gorilla was justified. After all, the boy invaded his home! When their environments are invaded, gorillas feel threatened and they rip people to bits. That’s just what they do. There would be no “justice for the boy” movement. Nobody would ask Harambe to go to jail, or pay a fine, or make restitution in any way. After all, he’s a gorilla. The boy and his parents should’ve known better.

But wait a second. Isn’t this a double standard? Why are humans held accountable for killing gorillas, but gorillas are not held accountable for killing humans?

Here’s why: Because we all recognize that humans and gorillas are not, in fact, morally equivalent. We don’t hold gorillas morally accountable for their actions. If they pose a threat to a human being, we restrain them or even kill them, but that’s not a punitive measure. It is a practical measure. The zoo employees who shot Harambe were not trying to punish him or to set an example for all the other gorillas. They were just trying to protect a child’s life.

This is why the concept of “justice for Harambe” contains a deep moral and logical fallacy. The entire movement is built on the premise that people are morally superior to gorillas. Those asking for justice for Harambe recognize that people should be held accountable for moral decisions, but gorillas should not. Gorillas do not have the ability to think morally, even if they have the ability to think rationally.

Let’s imagine another scenario for a moment: Think of the biggest, strongest man you can imagine. Maybe The Rock or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now imagine that the man’s home is invaded by an unarmed 4-year-old child. Would that man be justified in ripping the child to pieces with his bare hands? No? But why not? After all, the child has invaded his home! The man is big and strong and angry and startled – shouldn’t he be able to kill the intruder? Of course not. He would go to jail for that crime. He might even face execution.

We hold the man accountable because we understand that he has the capacity to act morally. He is not driven solely by instinct. He must not allow his size and strength to dictate his actions. We expect more of the man than we do of the gorilla. That is because there is more to the man than there is to the gorilla.

Here’s where we come back to the concept of the image of God. To be made in the image of God is – at least in part – to be capable of reflecting God’s moral character. Because we are made in the image of God, we are called to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:14-16). Humans are superior to animals because we are made in God’s image, and God’s image includes the capacity to make moral choices.

Because Adam and Eve were made in God’s image, He punished them when they disobeyed Him in the Garden of Eden. They didn’t disobey God because they were stupid; they disobeyed Him because they were rebellious and evil. We might call a gorilla dangerous and stupid, or gentle and playful or any number of other things, but we never call it evil. We do not attribute good and evil to animals, because we recognize that they are not morally responsible. Even animal activists recognize that, although they do so unconsciously.

Hence the irony of insisting on justice for Harambe, when we would not ask the same if the gorilla had committed the same offense. People can be evil. We all agree on that. Gorillas, on the other hand, can only act according to the nature of gorillas. They act on instinct. And if that is true, then people are superior. Their lives are more valuable than those of gorillas.

It’s not that gorillas have no value at all. It’s just that their value is less than that of a human being. From a Christian perspective, we recognize that being made in the image of God confers upon us a great deal of value, but also a great deal of responsibility.

While the death of a beautiful gorilla is sad, the waste of a human life is even sadder. While the life of a gorilla might bring us joy for a few years, the life of a human being can last forever.

While we strive to be kind to all of God’s creatures, let’s never forget the eternal nature and immeasurable value of humanity, created in God’s image and redeemed by God’s son.


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God’s Image and the Gospel

broken_mirrorEvery human life is made in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27). Every man, woman, child, and infant carries the potential to eternally reflect God’s glory. Our bodies, minds and spirits are created to shine His light.

For that reason, Christians have always believed that a person’s value is not determined by his or her size, intelligence, physical abilities, race, or gender. 

Each human being is stamped with a permanent price tag, one that simply reads, “Priceless. Made in God’s image.” That is why God defends the defenseless and calls His people to do the same. That is why, when infanticide was common and accepted throughout the Roman Empire, Christians were the ones who rescued and cared for those abandoned infants.

It is why Christians will never agree with the sentiments of men like Princeton University’s Peter Singer, when he says, “The fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.”

To accept Singer’s logic is to deny the image of God and commit a terrible form of blasphemy. Our value is not defined by our capacities, but by our Creator.

The image of God informs how Christians view all of life. The image of God demands that we care about the weak and defenseless (Psalm 10:17-18; 82:3-4). The image of God means that we cannot passively accept a world in which people discuss the crushing of human babies as an acceptable and routine practice. The image of God means that we cannot passively accept a world in which racial and tribal divisions lead us into a dehumanizing suspicion of those who are different from us (Acts 17:26-29).

That said, the image of God is only part of the story we are called to tell.

While the image of God demands that we defend the defenseless, the gospel calls us to love and pray for God’s enemies. Because only the gospel provides a path by which God’s enemies can become His friends. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ means that no human being, however cruel, however far from God, is beyond the reach of His grace. So rather than isolating ourselves from those who currently reject Christ, we step right into their midst and share the good news that nobody is beyond the hope of salvation. We share that true life is not found in the pleasures and power of this world, but only in the love and redemption of the One who came to save us.

Because God made each person in His image, He longs to undo the sin that has defaced and broken that image for all of us. He longs to repair everybody to their proper working order. And He gave Jesus to make that possible.

If we are to be consistent in our ethics of life, then, we cannot forget that the oppressed and the oppressor are both stamped with the same price tag. All are made in the same image and all carry the potential to know and reflect God.

In Christ, every person matters. In Christ, every enemy is a potential friend. 

Every single person is made in His image yet broken and rebellious because of sin. And the saving power provided by the gospel is the only power in heaven or on earth capable of raising the dead, saving the hopeless, and transforming enemies into friends.

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Made to Shine

iStock_000020158392SmallReDiscovered Word 1

(Genesis 1-3, Psalm 8)

We are broken and rebellious, but we were made to shine. 

From nothingness, from the empty dark, God shone His piercing and powerful light. His light and His breath permeated every corner of the universe. Seas and land, sun and moon and stars, plants and birds and fish and cows. He spoke, and the living Word imparted His blazing and brilliant life to God’s world.

Six days, each more astounding and wondrous than the last, every atom of creation singing praises to the One who made it.

And on the sixth day, he made people to shine. He made us to know Him and to reflect Him. No animal, plant, or mountain bears the very image of God. A little lower than the angels, you and I have been crowned with glory and honor, gifted with the potential to know and represent the One who breathed light and life from nothing.

We were made to shine, our bodies and spirits and minds created to reflect His light, to carry His Word, to relate to the Creator.

When we see our own reflections, we judge them in terms of abilities or appearance or intelligence. We look in the mirror or read our test scores or time our sprints and evaluate ourselves accordingly. All too often, what we see makes us want to turn off the lights, to hide our sadness and pain and sin and rebellion against God, because the weight of the Fall is far too heavy to bear. We want to shine, but living in the light hurts these days. 

It wasn’t always like this, and it won’t always be. The day will come when we see clearly again, when we know that our value derives from His image alone. The day will arrive when the darkness will be lifted and we will shine again, brighter than the very angels who surround the throne of God.

Meanwhile, we remember and we remind: all value derives from God. Every man, every woman, is made in His image, no matter how broken or obscured that image is at the moment. We treat others and ourselves with love and honor, not because our capabilities make us worthy of love, but because the light of God’s image rests on even the most shattered souls and broken bodies. Whether we’re looking in the mirror or looking at our neighbor, we behold the image of our Creator.

No matter how old or sinful or broken you are, you were made to shine. Those who know Him will one day shine again.

Genesis begins with the light of God piercing the darkness. One day the story will end with His light rendering the very sun obsolete, bouncing from the hills to the sea to you and me. We will blaze with the blinding radiance of God’s glory, and we will celebrate once again that He made us to shine from the inside out, with a light that will never again be extinguished or clouded.

“Let there be light.” And there was light.

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Gosnell and God’s Image

Over the past week, my Facebook feed has been filled with the story of Kermit Gosnell, the abortion doctor who is now charged with several counts of murder. It is alleged that Gosnell killed at least 7 live infants over a period of several decades. He is also charged with the death of one woman who came to him seeking an abortion. (If you have not yet read the stories, I need to warn you that the case is extremely disturbing and the news coverage is often graphic).

Most of the posts on Facebook have focused on the news media’s lack of interest in the case, and the national discussion has centered around whether the media has a bias against reporting stories like this.

While the question of media bias is interesting, I think the deeper question is, “How could something like this go on for so long in a ‘civilized’ society?” What are the factors that lead a person to devalue human life to the point of cutting the spinal cords of healthy, live infants? And what kind of society allows it to continue unchecked for years and years, despite repeated warnings and complaints?

The real issue at the heart of the Gosnell story is that we lack a sufficient understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God. In other words, the problem is primarily theological and spiritual. If we evangelicals lose sight of that, our responses will be short-lived and ineffective. In other words, we cannot simply attack the political and governmental issue of abortion without addressing a major deficiency in our own understanding of humanity itself.

Here’s the heart of the matter: If we fail to understand what it is to be made in God’s image, we will assign value to people using terribly inaccurate methods of accounting. Gosnell killed infants because he believed that they were less valuable than other people. That’s why he can confidently claim to be a “good person,” despite ample evidence to the contrary. I can almost guarantee that Gosnell’s defense will argue that he was doing the world a service by providing a way for young women to live in freedom and autonomy, without the burden of caring for unwanted infants. Because the infant is small and helpless, and can’t exert its own opinion, it’s deemed less valuable than bigger and smarter people. Gosnell assigned value to people based upon their abilities.

A biblical understanding of the image of God protects us against devaluing those who are physically weaker, less intelligent, or who wield less power in our society. Every human being bears God’s image, and His image is not tied to our mental or physical abilities. God’s image is not a matter of how smart or strong we are. Once we buy into the lie that some people are more inherently valuable to others, then we will inevitably drift toward abusing (or at least neglecting) those who are most in need of our protection. That theological deficiency is actually at the heart of the abortion debate, and as Christians we often forget that.

The image of God is best understood in terms of our potential rather than our current abilities. Every person, regardless of size, race, mental capacity, or even moral rectitude, has the potential to relate to God and to represent Him. Unlike the animals, our bodies and minds and spirits were designed for perfection, a perfection that has been temporarily defaced. For those who know Christ, that perfection will one day be restored. We will literally shine with the glory of God (Daniel 12:3). We will perfectly relate to Him without any hint of sin (1 Corinthians 13:12). We will finally demonstrate what it means to be made in God’s image.

Every single person, from the unformed infant to the well-educated professional, possesses the image of God. Because of that fact, we are called to treat each person with love and respect. Because of that fact, we are obligated to protect the weakest among us, those who possess the image of God but who are prone to abuse from those who don’t recognize it.

If we fail to understand and teach about God’s image, then our lives won’t accurately reflect the standards of God’s love and holiness. It’s not only the unborn and newly-born who need our protection, although they certainly need it. We’re called to protect everybody the world sees as unimportant or less valuable. If we can teach that concept in our families and our churches and our communities, then we have a much better chance of making a real difference in the lives of those around us. We have a much better chance of reducing the number of people who feel their only option is to go to a place like Gosnell’s terrible death clinic. More importantly, we have a better shot at communicating the Gospel, which is the only way to fix our broken image.

Everybody you know, even those you find irritating or annoying or stupid or weak, is made in God’s image. It’s a broken image, yes, but as Christians we carry with us the promise of redemption and restoration. So let’s shine like the stars we are, created to show God’s love and glory to a lost world.

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