The Problem with “Innocent Life”

The thing about qualifying life with the term “innocent” is that there remains the implication that there is some sort of life that is not innocent. Right? This is something that has concerned me for a while, but has become an acute subject in light of some conversations that have sprouted up around one of my recent blog posts on the incompatibility of civilian firearms and the Christian life. What follows is not a well-thought-out theological treatise, but the initial inquiry of a question with which I think we need to grapple.

Here’s a question, consider it a follow-up, that I’d like to raise: is there such a thing as “innocent life?” By which I mean, can we — from a Christian perspective — talk about any life that is not innocent, the necessary corollary that follows such a qualification of life?

By virtue of free will and the condition of human sinfulness, there are certainly people who do terrible things and actions that can certainly be considered evil. However, is there anything that someone can or cannot do that affects the innocence of one’s very life?

See, I’m far too committed to the Franciscan worldview that claims, rooted in Scripture, that all life is sacred. By definition, this is what we mean by “prolife,” that one recognizes the inherent dignity and value of all life, always and everywhere. Thinking of the medieval Franciscan John Dun Scotus’s emphasis on the contingency of all creation, God could have created the world and all in it otherwise or not at all. That someone exists attests to the inherent value and dignity of God’s creative gift of life. Furthermore, one’s identity, which Scotus posits is really identical with one’s existence if formally distinct from it, is not subject to accidental value or qualification, but remains sacred by virtue of its being.

I raise this point as an invitation to any who read this to consider the way in which language such as “innocent life” is misappropriated and used to advance, what I believe to be, partisan and, at times, non-Christian values. Take certain interpretations of the “right to bear arms,” for example. The notion of the justifiability of violence in the case of defense is predicated on the distinction (intentional or otherwise) that is made between those whose life is “innocent” (the ‘victim’) and those whose life is not (the ‘aggressor’). Such language applies value in differing degrees to the same category — Life, which the Christian tradition asserts elsewhere is always and everywhere sacred.

So why should a priest with a gun be allowed to shoot to harm or kill another human being even if that other human being seeks first to threat, harm or kill the priest? Is the victim’s life more valuable than the aggressor’s?

This is not my attempt to justify murder or any other violence on the part of would-be aggressors, but the old maternal cliché “two wrongs don’t make a right” seems to carry some unforeseen wisdom in this case of valuing and qualifying life. The Church speaks eloquently, if controversially at times, of the intrinsic dignity and value of all human life regardless of the acts of that person (as in, “love the sinner, hate the sin”), yet in certain cases such as “self-defense” actions begin to dictate a new quantifiability of life otherwise foreign to Christian thinking.

It is counter-intuitive. We are so used to judging, ranking, establishing hierarchies of personal value that it seems common sensical to posit the “victim’s life” as more valuable than the “aggressor’s life,” thereby justifying self-defensive killing. However, I — along with several Christian moral theologians (among whose ranks I do not place myself, this is simply an amateur reflection) — make the claims that it’s all or nothing! Either ALL life is sacred and inherently invaluable or NO life is.

I suggest that we need to dismiss the qualification of “life” in any form when discussing human beings, even when discussing their related actions. There is a real problem in letting that sort of language creep into our discourse, for it begins to justify the objection and dismissal of some, while elevating and over-valuing others. Either an unborn child, a gay or lesbian teenager, a drug user, a single and unwed-mother, the pope, a middle-aged father, an incarcerated murderer, an alzheimers patient all have the same intrinsically invaluable human life that bears inherent dignity – or nobody does.

Stop talking about “innocent life.” Start talking about the value and dignity of all human life!

23 Responses to “The Problem with “Innocent Life””

  1. oh agreed! It pisses me off to no end to listen to people call themselves “pro-life” yet go through convoluted twists of logic to support the death penalty or torture. (But God forbid a woman get a pap at a Planned Parenthood.)

  2. Well said, Dan. I think we have to face the paradox of the fact that all life is sacred and, in light of sin, all humans deserve death. However, the two are linked. All life is sacred and while some evil deserves death, the only One who can fulfill such judgment chooses not to, but instead forgives with His own life. Hard to argue with Jesus’ example!

  3. georgebouchey Says:

    “Innocent life” is much like “Preferential option for the poor”. It is ambiguous. If you want t discuss it, it has to have an accepted definition, or one has to be supplied with the term. I would consider a newborn baby as “innocent life”, but not Adolf Hitler.
    george bouchey
    evening division ’76

  4. Ah, George, but that’s precisely the point. Hitler was once a newborn baby. The value of his life at that point did not change, despite the horrors he was responsible for – this is indeed, as Jamie points out above, the challenge and difficulty of our faith. If Hitler’s life (not his actions) is not intrinsically valuable with inherent dignity, then it’s not a far-step for one to see the world through his eyes and likewise de-value other human lives. We don’t like to put those lenses of Christ on because it offends our human and finite sense of ‘justice’ — we want to de-value certain lives to make sense of the senseless — but to value human life as God carries some serious implications, and not easy implications at that.

    • georgebouchey Says:

      All right. I do not favor the death penalty, but I do believe in Self Defense, because I also believe in a hierarchy of values. What does one do about the value of a life that belongs to someone who is trying to take your life?
      george bouchey
      evening division ’76

  5. Brother Dan,

    I have noticed that you frequently cite your pro-life position when you discuss the use of guns for self-defense and I have given a lot of thought to your assertion from a previous post: “Jesus did NOT see self-defense as a legitimate reason for violence.” As a father and husband, I struggle with these words and I do not see anything to support this in Christian scripture or tradition. To put this in a real world context, what would be my duty as a husband and father if my house was the target of a home invasion (think Petit family in Cheshire, CT)? Would Jesus want me to use only words to defend my family from rape and murder? Would I be best advised to flee the situation and call proper authorities? Would I be allowed to physically try to wrestle with my “alleged” attackers? What would be allowed/not allowed in this scenario? Thank you.

  6. Chris VanHaight Says:

    You lay out a good overview of the “Consistent Ethic of Life” argument, opposing not only abortion but euthanasia and the death penalty (even for the non-innocent). It should be noted that self-defense, at least as I understand how it is presented in Catholic moral teaching, involves the principle of Double Effect. It is a good thing to preserve a human life. If that life is threatened by another, firing a gun can be seen as an attempt to perform a good act, defending a human life, even if an unintended evil was the death of the assailant. However, if another solution was possible (running away, for example), that course of action should be followed first. A deranged psychotic with a knife could be considered innocent, while a rational mugger with a knife could be considered guilty, yet one’s response vis-a-vis using a gun would be the same. The guilt or innocence of the assailant is immaterial in the moment. In this scenario shooting the leg of the knife-wielding assailant would be a more proportional response, though.

    • Chris, excellent points! You are 100% correct when it comes to Catholic moral teaching and analysis of an act, but that’s precisely the issue I seek to raise in this post. The language, the discursive grammar centers on qualifying “life,” not an “innocent” or “not-innocent” act. In adjudicating the moral quality of this or that act there are principles such as Double Effect that help inform our outlook, but can life itself (apart from a given agent’s action) really be innocent or not-innocent? Thanks, as always, for your comments!

  7. Pro Life” is often a term that those who seem to support causes that the only life worth fighting for or protesting about is the life of an unborn child. They pray and protest in front of Planned Parenthood offices where the staff promotes birth control to avoid pregnancy and a possible eventual abortion.

    Why don’t those who say they are prolife support other situations where Innocent Life after birth is just as sacred? They seem not to protest against the death penalty, gun control, war, and the physical and sexual abuse of children, the extension and elimination of the statute of limitations for sexual abuse of children. What about the innocent life of elderly abuse? What about the protest about ending the pregnancy that was about to kill the 10-year-old girl who was sexually abused and impregnated by her father? Did not double effect and innocent life apply in that case?

  8. georgebouchey Says:

    Not a criticism, but I think we are drifting. If their is a way to make the right to liffe an absolute, I’d like to hear it. Let’s restrict our discussion to lifes that have been born and are living on their own power.

    If this is going to be a discussion about the absolute right to life of the unborn, that I think has to be a seperate, but related discussion. One step at a time. Bill T makes some good points. For instance, we could argue ad infinitum about olmsted’s decision in the McBride case, to add another example to the Brazil waif incestously impregnated with twins.

    george
    evening division ’76

  9. Sonja, in the Women in Theology blog, has a great discussion about the problem with the word “innocent.” Dan, you might find this helpful in relation to your own post on “innocent life.” She suggests that we drop the word “Innocent” altogether as being unhelpful and inaccurate. Here is the URL: http://witheology.wordpress.com/2011/01/25/fetuses-are-not-innocent/

    • georgebouchey Says:

      Sonja’s post reminds me of a first testament Hebrew view of the fetus, the nborn baby, and I’ve forgotten the word used. Howerer the term means that the baby is an
      ‘intruder’ in the body of the mother. Should the unborn baby threaten the life of the mother, the unborn baby has less right than the mother to life. Such a view would justify the action taken in the McBride case and the Brazil case and when there is a situation such as an ectopic pregnancy. To say that the unborn baby has an absolute right to life which allows its presence and growth to killl two people instead of one seems absurd. In the Brazil case, three instead of two.

      ” — make the claims that it’s all or nothing!”

      So using Dan’s words, it would seem to make the claim “nothing”. So the argument then would be about relative value, not absolute value. BTW, I am not a theologian.

      george
      evening division ’76

  10. Brother Dan,

    Peace and all good! I don’t expect a response, but I was wondering how you would handle the present situation that is in the news: A couple have been kidnapped by Somalia pirates. The U.S. Navy is on their tail. If president Obama called you for advice, would you tell him that any attempt to free the alleged “victims” from the alleged “pirates” could only involve verbal persuasion, or would the use of snipers to free the captives be permissible–as an absolute final resort? What say you?

    • Hello Jared,

      I suppose my response to your hypothetical question would be to encourage the Navy via the President to refrain from violent means of intervention. I’ve never suggested that verbal persuasion is the only other means of action when violence is taken off the table. There are many other nonviolent ways to intervene and certainly non-lethal forms of military intervention. I would encourage all involved to recall the inherent dignity of ALL life, that the lives of the pirates are just as valued in God’s eyes as the lives of the kidnapped (recall the readings from yesterday — in the Kingdom of God, our expectations and intuitions are turned upside-down).

      Hope that answers your question, what do you think your advice might be if you were put in a similar situation?

      • georgebouchey Says:

        The rights of others end and are at least lessened when they unjustly infringe on the rights of others, especially when the others are not infringing. When they do so, they who do so, of their own free will place values on the lives involved. Since the piriates violate the second great commandment, they lower the value of their lives, I’m not in agreement with your statement about value – too absolute for me. Do not murder? Yes. Do not kill? Depends. Self defense in relative terms? Yes.

        Making moral relatives into absolutes is just taking the easy way out. Seems to me to avoid wrestling with the angel. Perception and intent counts.
        george – evening divison ’76

      • Hi Brother–Thanks for your response. I would agree with much of what you say above, but I would not place protection of the pirates on par with the protection of the victims. We could pay a huge ransom to these pirates and ensure the safe return of the captives. That would, of course, only threaten more lives as the pirates would benefit from their crime and it would encourage them and others to continue in their piracy. I would give the pirates a chance to negotiate and turn themselves in to the authorities. I would also have my best snipers on hand maintaining a position in which they could strike with lethal force if the safety of the captives was in doubt. I simply could not say, “Well, all lives on that boat are equal, so if the pirates decide to execute the captives, I will rest assured that my use of deadly force would be wrong.”

  11. George, I think many people intuitively share your outlook for it is one that comes naturally. However, the Christian response is indeed counter-intuitive as we heard again in yesterday’s Gospel: “Jesus said to his disciples:
    “You have heard that it was said,
    An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
    But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
    When someone strikes you on your right cheek,
    turn the other one as well.
    If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,
    hand over your cloak as well.”

    Yes, there are those who have said that aggressors “change the rules” when they infringe, but Jesus says to us something different.

    And again, I feel as though I need to re-focus the direction of this conversation back to the post (sorry, I was getting off topic too a few posts up) that we are talking about lives not actions. ALL life or NO life is inherently invaluable, the actions of moral agents is another conversation.

    Loving the conversation on this page! I’m happy to see so many continuing the share!

    Peace.

  12. Br. Dan,

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post! It articulates some of the things I think I was thinking when I wrote my post, “Fetuses Are Not Innocent.” (Thanks, Jane, for the shout-out.) I agree with you that Jesus sets no precedent for a right to self-defense.

    Up until very recently, I identified myself without hesitation as a pacifist. And on matters of war, I am still very much in that camp, precisely because I think war is more than just several individuals engaging in simultaneous acts of self-defense. The whole is greater than the parts, in some way (perhaps in that war has a collective meaning-making function), and its that dimension that makes me feel like a pacifist. But since thinking more about feminist and post-colonial perspectives, I’ve become suspicious of my own denials of a “right” to self-defense. (I have problems with the language of rights to begin with, but that’s another can of worms.)

    On our WIT blog a while back, Nichole and Katie did a couple of posts critiquing Hauerwas’s emphasis on obedience, arguing that it had little to say to people who find themselves systematically and historically powerless. I love Hauerwas, but even I began to wonder whether his was a “white luxury theology” in some way. In the same way, I wonder whether a complete pacifist stance could be a “male luxury theology” when applied to cases such as lethal pregnancies.

    I am really uneasy about the principle of double effect and other components of “act-centered” morality because of some of the things they’ve been used to justify, but on the other hand, double effect is what saved that woman’s life in the Phoenix case.

    Anyway, I’m babbling. I just wanted to thank you for such an interesting post!

  13. Well, hm. Let me complicate my claim that Jesus sets no precedence for a right to self-defense:

    “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down on my own accord.” or

    “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”

    I really don’t know what to do with that.

  14. Hi Sonja,

    Thanks for some really great comments! Like Jen, I loved your post over on WIT (I think I was the first to comment on that particular post!). I agree with much of what you’ve written here, particularly the challenge of “white luxury theology,” a challenge that I — like Hauerwas — need to be aware of when examining operating hermeneutics. The only thing I would add to this conversation is a reminder that my post initially was concerned with what I’ll call, for a lack of a better term (although this isn’t quite accurate), a pre-moral concern. The adjudication of life as “innocent” or otherwise prior to an agent’s action.

    I think you’re absolutely correct in highlighting the problems with act-centered morality. Others have commented here on the act of self-defense, whereas I am more interested in talking about the language we use with regard to human life and how it helps to shape and subtly justify systems of injustice.

    I certainly don’t mean for my post to justify passivity, but instead non-violent resistance. You’re right to emphasize the right for defense in the case of systematic and personal oppression. Here I think of the powerless, the subaltern. But that right stems from the universality of human dignity, not because this or that life is “innocent” and others can be considered otherwise. While my thoughts are still nascent, and I too am now babbling, I think that what I’m getting at actually bolsters some of the things you are advocating.

    Anyway, I hope our conversation continues! Thanks again!

    Peace!

  15. Yes, I agree totally with what you’re saying. I didn’t mean to imply that you were advocating passivity. Your post, which is definitely not reducible to the things I was saying, just reminded me that that’s an issue I’ve been batting around in my own head recently. Thanks again for some great food for thought!

  16. georgebouchey Says:

    “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down on my own accord.”

    Sounds like justification for self defense, at least to me. And I still have a problem with “innocent” life. If there is such, then is there not also other life, such as “guilty”? Or unnecessary? Or dependent? Or is innocent an unnecessary embellishment?

    I suspect that all life has equal value to God. But a rationale that proves that all life has equal value to those of us that are here on Earth has yet to be proposed. What is absolute with God seems relative to humankind.
    george – evening division ’76

  17. Great blog Bro. Dan. Since we crossed paths in March, I’ve followed your posts, so I am glad you pointed this out because I probably would of never read it (BC it’s from Feb.). The idea of, “Either ALL life is sacred and inherently invaluable or NO life is” intrigues me because I understand the concept, but at the same time it’s difficult to truly stand by that concept. I often find myself saying that a person, such as Osama bin Laden’s life is less worthy or important than others. Maybe one day I will grow into FULLY understanding and appreciating this concept but right now I just can not do so.

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