Not long ago I was speaking in Washington, D.C., at an event on human dignity and brought my daughter, who’d just turned 13. When the event was over, we had a few days to take in the nation’s capital. I wanted Grace to see as much as we could fit in, so I kept us on a pretty tight schedule. Then one day, as we were walking to the Washington Monument, we passed a veteran—homeless and holding a crude sign asking for money. We rushed by, but a few steps later my daughter stopped and said, “Dad, we should help him.”
I responded with the usual excuses. “I don’t have any cash.” And “We’ll get him on the way back.” But Grace was undeterred.
“Dad,” she said. “He’s made in the image of God. We can’t just pass him by.”
She took some of her spending money for the trip and walked back to the man, gave him the cash, and said, “I just want you to know God loves you.”
I was undone. Here I had just finished speaking on the topic of human dignity and was writing a book on the same subject and yet had failed its very basic test. When given an opportunity to see the humanity of those in the shadows, those whom society is most tempted to ignore, I failed.
How easy it is to simply walk by.
To Know Your Neighbor
In His day, Jesus was answering the same kinds of questions we religious people are fond of asking. “Who is my neighbor?” was a legal expert’s response to Jesus’ repetition of the law that says to love your neighbor as yourself. This man’s inquiry—like ours—was not born out of curiosity but was an attempt to find love loopholes. Surely those people are not my neighbors, we say to ourselves.
We do this today with vulnerable populations we are tempted not to see: the unborn, people in poverty, the elderly, and any others we marginalize and ignore because they don’t fit our preferred narrative of life in the world. There are times we pass by because, blinded by our privileged positions or prosperity, we literally don’t see the hurting person on the side of our own Jericho road.
But other times, we don’t see the people Jesus sees because we simply don’t want to. I didn’t want to see that homeless veteran in Washington, D.C., because I wanted to keep our schedule. Sometimes we are motivated by convenience, as I was. But our eyes can also be averted from the vulnerable because our tribes—whether political, social, or religious—often condition us not to see what we should be seeing. Tribal loyalty can offer perverse incentives to ignore certain people groups. Consider the priest and the Levite. It’s easy for us to rebuke them 2,000 years later for leaving the vulnerable man on the side of the road. But they very likely had religious-sounding reasons for walking by. We don’t know exactly what was going through their minds, but we can imagine things like: I’m on my way to important religious work. He probably made unwise choices that landed him here. If I’m seen with him, what will that do to my reputation?
Other times, we don’t see the people Jesus sees because we simply don’t want to.
We, too, often have religious-sounding reasons to pass by. We can be on our way to do the Lord’s work and yet fail to notice opportunities to demonstrate Christ’s love, to stand up for those who have no voice. Like the religious people of Jesus’ day, we’re missing a big part of what Jesus is trying to tell us.
In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus implies that “our neighbors” include the people we’re likely not to see. When the priest and the Levite found the man on the Jericho road, they didn’t see a human being. They saw an obstacle, a problem. Or they chose not to see him at all.
What Jesus is saying to us is that when we see this person on our own roads to Jericho, we need to see someone fully human—someone who was crafted by God from the dust of the ground, and who bears His image. A soul the Creator fashioned with care in a mother’s womb.
To See as God Sees
When God’s people see this way, just as when the Holy Spirit blows His regenerative power through previously dead souls, it creates communities unafraid to reach the margins of society. We begin to weep at the injustices that break the heart of God. The church, at her best, comes alongside those the world has cast away and says, “These are humans. These are people God loves.” When the church moves like this, it offers the world a small glimpse of life in God’s kingdom.
This is why the Bible says, “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news” (Isa. 52:7; Rom. 10:15). Our feet rush both to deliver the good news that God is saving the world in Christ and to demonstrate that good news by our actions. Imagine if the church really recovered this idea of human dignity—of seeing in the most vulnerable the face of God?
Maybe we really don’t have to imagine. Throughout history, it’s been the people of God who have been most motivated to go to the places nobody else wants to go. In the first century in diseased-ravaged Rome, when little girls were discarded by parents, it was the followers of Jesus who cared for the sick and took in the unwanted, even at great personal sacrifice. And if you look closely at almost every great social movement, you will see Christians motivated to advocate for vulnerable people.
Today is no different. Look around the globe and in the most war-torn, famine-ravished locations, you’ll find Christians are there, doing the work of the kingdom. Medical professionals forsake lucrative careers to spend their lives fighting infectious diseases; relief workers risk safety and security to bring hope to developing countries; and missionaries plant churches as havens in forgotten places. They do this not to gain a platform or for earthly reward but because their vision has been transformed by the power of the gospel.
Great Commission and Great Commandment
But we must remember that the record is far from perfect: For every right action, there are also tragic examples of the church siding with the powerful against the powerless.
That’s why it’s important to see ourselves as children of a King who gives both the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. We are to spread the good news that image-bearers can be reconciled to the Creator who made them and obey Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves.
When a church moves this way—toward the vulnerable, using its power and influence on behalf of those who have seen their dignity assaulted—it becomes a powerful witness to the nature and reality of God’s kingdom.
We become the people who point to the men and women and children discarded by society, and say:
To the unborn targeted for death in America, we see you and God sees you.
To the lonely and forgotten elderly in nursing homes across America, we see you and God sees you.
To people experiencing homelessness and poverty, to the working poor, we see you and God sees you.
To the trafficked young girl, we see you.
To the victims of sexual assault, we see you.
We look at them all and say, “You are human—you are worthy of love and a dignified life.”
And we do this, not because it’s the cause of the day. Not because we fell in love with a hashtag. Not because by doing so we’ll find favor in our tribe.
We see humanity in others because we are the people of God—living and serving, not from a position of moral superiority, but from a heart of brokenness and with a sense of our own vulnerability before the Lord.
This requires courage. To live out the mission of God means we are to live as strangers and foreigners in this world. It also means we’ll never be fully at home in any earthly movement. There will always be a dissonance—a certain kind of discomfort.
Because we serve another King and another kingdom, we will not let ourselves be catechized by our tribes. We will go where Jesus calls us to go. We will not be embarrassed to be pro-life just because our parents are pro-life, and we won’t be embarrassed to be for justice just because our kids are for justice.
It means we’ll embrace both a bloody cross and the Jericho road.
It means our faith will shape our politics instead of our politics shaping our faith.
We will, at times, say no to our tribes because we are saying yes to the Lion of the tribe of Judah.
You see, we need a fully orbed pro-life vision that fights for human dignity wherever it is compromised—whether in the womb, on our city streets, at the nursing home, in the halls of power, or in a refugee camp. We should speak out, with whatever power and influence we possess, for those whose voices have been silenced.
You might suggest that the greatest Christian cause today, the banner under which we can unite, is human dignity. When the last chapter of our generation is written and history is told of what we did in our time on this earth, may it be said that of all people, it was those Christians—the people who believed in a crucified, buried, and risen Savior—who uniquely stood up for the dignity of all humankind. That we of all people spoke for those who could not speak for themselves, and when those who spoke did so despite the world’s deafness, we listened.