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!