What Is Human?

I received a response to my comments on The Walking Dead season premier from Jon Pasiuk, zombie fan, cultural analyst and new pastor of Whistler Community Church.  His response was so insightful, I thought I’d share it.  Here are Jon’s thoughts:

In season 5, episode 1, the migrant refugee community encounters (as Trent has already pointed out), its foil. A few things are going on here:

1) Nietzsche’s aphorism, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.” has played itself out. The terminus group has been so terrorized that they have become the terror (a la Robespierre in the French Revolution). It is a well known cycle of victims becoming victimizers as a protective measure. It plays out in our world on the macro scale of nations (Bolshevism), and on the micro scale (many child molesters were themselves abused). This cycle cries out for intervention that can bring wholeness to victimisers so they don’t have to be the guarantors of their own personhood. They need forgiveness and the ability to lay down their arms in trust that someone has their backs.

Critics of Christianity have often said that belief in a hereafter causes people to avoid the problems of the here and now. But if God is the ultimate guarantor of justice and can restore life to those who will willingly lay down their lives, people have a legitimate way of meeting that most basic instinct of self preservation without having to neutralize victimizers through violence.

2) Throughout the show we have seen several failed attempts at the formation of a primitive state; Herschel’s farm, Woodbury, the prison, and now Terminus. These proto-states arise in a definitively Hobbesian “state of nature.” While other political philosophers have argued that people submit to membership in a state for the promotion of the common good, Hobbes saw the role of government as protecting people from each other via a government monopoly on the use of force.  As you watch the show, there is a sense of longing that one day something of a remnant of the U.S. government or military will sweep in and establish justice and take away everyone’s guns (this happened in the post-apocalyptic series Jericho, I believe). This vision of the state of nature reminds us of the value of government (sorry libertarians), even if it’s not a particularly good one. Lets face it; who wouldn’t choose Sadam Hussein over ISIS at this point?

3) Finally, there is an important moral development around the question of personhood in this episode. Back when the group was holed up in the CDC, the last scientist remaining provided a definition of personhood, something to the effect of “see these brain waves in your frontal lobe? That’s the thing that makes you, you. When a person turns, that part of the brain is dead, and your brother, sister, father or spouse is gone.” The group accepts this with only minimal resistance, until we meet Herschel, who has a much broader definition of personhood. Herschel may not have a firm definition of personhood, but in the midst of ambiguity, he chooses a functionally broad interpretation of the situation. To Herschel, to act based on a constructed defection is to commit an atrocity. We don’t know where the line between humanity and monster ultimately lies, but if you are willing to exclude some from human dignity, you may just find that someone excludes you.

And so we meet the Terminus collective. In their community personhood is simply will to power, and arbitrary membership in their tribe. If you have fallen into their trap, you are powerless. You are cattle to be butchered. Not human.

And so we see in the conflict between the prison collective and the Terminus collective a battle between an ethic of abstract human dignity and a more pragmatic ethic of power.  Both believe in right and wrong, but the terminus group has adopted a definition of right based solely on the exercise of power. The words of the Athenians recorded in The Melian Dialogue could very well have been spoken by the butchers at the opening of the episdode:

“Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

As secular post-modern society insists, that a baby in the womb has no humanity unless conferred by its mother, and, when it passes through the birth canal, by the government.  Here we see the might-makes-right ethic of Terminus realized. We are a culture that no longer knows of any inalienable rights, only the rights we have the power to carve out for ourselves.

Our society is on the precipice of legalizing physician-assisted suicide. This is phrased as “the right to die with dignity” by its proponents (especially the editorial staff of the Vancouver Sun). Dignity is defined by these folks as a state of life where suffering is not yet unbearable and (more importantly), a person has the power to do the kinds of things that they feel give their lives meaning. To be powerless is to lose dignity, and therefore personhood is compromised.

In contrast, the Bible never grounds dignity in a person’s ability to do anything. Dignity is inherent by virtue of the imago Dei, and it is realized in our adoption as children of God. We can’t earn it, and no amount of physical infirmity can negate it. The community of the triune God confers dignity on all humanity, whether on a podium, in a wheelchair or in the womb, human beings have inherent worth.


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