The Common Good

Sub-Human: A Justification of Exploitation

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness (The Declaration of Independence, 1776)."

These words are some of the most familiar and beloved in the English language, as they offer a moral vision for humanity, and a standard to which the United States of America should strive. 

While such expressions of freedom should indeed be cherished, we often forget the harsh reality that many contributors of the Declaration of Independence were also active participants in the brutal act of slavery. As the English abolitionist Thomas Day wrote in 1776: “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.” 

In addition to racial inequality, while Abigail Adams reminded her husband John to “remember the ladies” during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, her warnings were mostly disregarded, and as a result, women were also marginalized, and they were relegated as dependents of men, without the power to own property, make contracts, or vote. In other words, John Adams’ reply to Abigail’s challenge was far from considerate: “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh …”

With these historical details in mind, one is motivated to wonder: How do we explain this contradiction of freedom for some and not others amongst our national founders? How could our leaders “sign resolutions of independence” with one hand and “brandish a whip” with the other? While some blame a combination of economic expediency, ignorance, and personal hypocrisy, perhaps their only way to justify such exploitation is to perceive others as less than human. In other words, human beings were indeed seen to be created with certain unalienable rights, but slaves, women, and others – in the eyes of those in power – were not as human as white men, but rather, sub-human. As a result, these so-called sub-humans could be humiliated, exploited, and if needed, eliminated by the powerful, who in turn could rationalize a free and clear conscious. This phenomenon – a justification of exploitation – is often called dehumanization

According to David Livingstone Smith, in his text Less than Human:

"Dehumanization isn’t a way of talking. It’s a way of thinking – a way of thinking that – sadly, comes all too easy to us. Dehumanization is a scourge, and has been so for millennia. It acts as a psychological lubricant, dissolving our inhibitions and inflaming our destructive passions. As such, it empowers us to perform acts that would, under other circumstances, be unthinkable."

While dehumanization is seen throughout our history books, it is not merely an epidemic of the past, for it takes place each day, here in the present, sometimes profound, and oftentimes quite subtle. For example, while many would recognize slavery, genocide, and the Holocaust as forms of dehumanization, we often fail to observe the everyday actions and thoughts when we perceive others as less human than ourselves. In other words, when we discriminate, prejudge, and/or take advantage of others for personal gain, we view and treat others as sub-human, and in doing so justify our behavior, for we value our own hopes, dreams, and aspirations as more important – or more human – than those of others.

In addition to serving as perpetrators of dehumanization, we are also frequent victims, oftentimes in ways we refuse to recognize. For example, when corporations see humankind as mere objects of production and consumption, we are treated as less than human, for our identity is defined by purchasing power and/or an ability to raise the price of stockholder shares. In addition, when media outlets affirm stereotypes and/or racial profiling, we witness humanity being stripped away, for people are labeled by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character. And of course, when political propaganda is used to demonize those who hold different views, instead of regarding others as valuable human beings with diverse opinions, the various partisan opponents are classified as ignorant animals that need to be educated and civilized. 

With the above thoughts in mind (and one could list countless more examples), we recognize that dehumanization is in our midst, for some in society are treated more human than others, and at any given time we might be perpetrators, victims, or most likely, a combination of both. And so, in contrast to this flood of dehumanization in our world, the theological understanding of Imago Dei, or “Image of God," is a recognition that goes far beyond governmental declarations, but recognizes that all people – regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, political affiliation, and religious affirmation – are created, loved, and affirmed by the same God who created life as we know it. As a result, the implication of Imago Dei is that, when humans love God, we therefore love all other humans that God has created, for all are an expression of God – all are human beings. 

All together, in the midst of political polarization, religious division, racial tension, and various levels of inequality and conflict throughout the United States and beyond, a key starting point for civil discourse and sustained cooperation is a recognition that there is no such thing as sub-human, for all human beings are created with the sacred identity offered by God our Creator, Savior, and Advocate. We are not defined by the various labels that others place upon us, thus we should resist the temptation to deny the human identity and rights of others. And so, as a result of these affirmations, the implication is that we are given the responsibility to ground our conversations, interactions, and relationships in the understanding that we are loved by God for who we are, and in response to this amazing grace, offer love for God and all that God has created. 

While our views, cultures, and beliefs may indeed be diverse, our starting point is a common connectedness with God, and the result is a declaration of our interdependence with each other, and thus the need for respect, mutuality, and grace. 

Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa).

Declaration of Independence language, Frank Chang / Shutterstock.com

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