People and Things (COMMENTARY)

United Methodist Reporter

One hundred and fifty years ago today, the Civil War was ending. It was a conflict that almost destroyed our nation, and yet—out of it—the very definition of promise emerged. Even the geographically remote college where I teach and serve as chaplain (in Adrian, Michigan) was devastated. We were founded by abolitionist people of faith. Most of our leaders were veterans of the Underground Railroad, and we were tied up in the war’s coming. Our first students left for service during that horrible conflict. Our first president, Asa Mahan, corresponded with national leaders, eventually travelling to Washington, where he met Abraham Lincoln and discussed military policy. Mahan’s son, Theodore, helped lead the Sixteenth Michigan Infantry and was cut down on Marye’s Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Others served in the U. S. Sanitary Commission. Many of them died from disease.

By the spring of 1865 there had been enough bloodshed to make cynics out of most people. More than 600,000 dead and the freedom gained by enslaved people was fragile, at best.

But on May 15, 1865 (150 years ago today) a group of Adrian College students met for weekly debate among the Star Literary Society. These student organizations were common among Civil War-era colleges. They served as part honor society, part debating forum, and most especially a leadership incubator. Students would gather, hear some poetry, maybe a piece of music, and then debate a formal resolution. Our society met in the college chapel, and they often confronted some divisive political or social issue. Other times the topic was more theoretical, even theological. On May 15, 1865, the students of Adrian College met to debate the following resolution: “Resolved that the creation of humanity as the ultimate design of God can be proved from nature outside of revelation.”

This was not really an argument between the authority of nature and that of the Bible. It was a referendum on human dignity following four years of war. To say that people were the ultimate design of God was to say that hope remained, that the worth of people still counted. The Adrian College students debated the question and affirmed the resolution.

What on earth were they thinking?

These were not ill-informed young people. They were not naïve and inexperienced. They may have been in college, but some of them had returned recently from the killing grounds of Virginia. Others were no longer alive to have a voice in the evening’s conversation.

How could they affirm human dignity at such a time in history?

They did so because they believed, in the deepest way, that people possess an “intrinsic worth.” This very particular terminology was inspired by the writing of college president, Asa Mahan and his advocacy for the complete equality of all people. An intrinsic worth is something granted by God that is not subject to human power or discrimination. It is not determined by achievement and accumulation of wealth or resources. It is not qualified by race, gender, ethnicity, or any other dynamics. The students could affirm human dignity (intrinsic worth) because they believed down to their toes that despite fearsome brutality, people possess an inalienable value. That is all. That is enough.

President Mahan even linked this affirmation of human worth with the corresponding sin of materialism. If God’s people were called to struggle for dignity, they were also called to let go of their devotion to things, to signs of social status, to symbols of power. People are people and things are things. Let us not forget the distinction.

Two weeks ago I shared the following words with the graduating class of Adrian College at our all-campus Baccalaureate service:

“Each generation will face its joys and tragedies. Every person will be called on to hope and love, even when there may appear to be little reason for either. Class of 2015, you have worked for your degree, but God has also given you a great gift. You have been given a chance to care, to think, to act, and to stand for that which is good—even when it may not be fashionable, perhaps especially when it is not fashionable. God be with you on your journey of love.”

Given the contemporary behavior of people, there are many reasons to doubt human dignity. But now is precisely the time to affirm the intrinsic worth of all. God is calling us to do so.

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Chris Momany

Chris Momany has been chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College since 1996 and has taught in the Department of Philosophy/Religion since 1998. He is an ordained United Methodist minister, and a graduate of Adrian College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Drew University. His academic interests focus on Christian ethics and philosophy. He has been published in the Christian Century, the Wesleyan Theological Journal, The Asbury Theological Journal, the Circuit Rider magazine, the United Methodist Reporter, and other venues. Chris also writes for the Daily Bible Study curriculum of the United Methodist Publishing House and for MinistryMatters, an online ministry resource. His book on the Wesleyan ethic of love and justice bears the title, Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness. Chris has led many conferences, workshops, and continuing education events. For several years he has combined his research and teaching with a focus on human trafficking. Today it is estimated that 27 million people are held as slaves throughout the world. Chris has been a national leader among college and church professionals in confronting this issue.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Chris Momany, UMR ColumnistGeorge Nixon Shuler Recent comment authors
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George Nixon Shuler

Well written, Chris. I was impressed – it reminded me of one of my favorite “graphic novels” (i.e., a comic for adults, but in this case it’s really more of a graphic biography) called “The Fatal Bullet: The Assasination of President James Garfield by the Assassin Charles Guiteau” by Rick Geary as part of his “Treasury of Victorian Murder” series. While the bulk of Geary’s book focused on the history of the Assassin Guiteau and Garfield’s lingering death, the beginning gave an introduction to Garfield and his studies and teaching at Hiram College, where he met his wife, also a… Read more »

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist
Chris Momany

Thanks for reading the piece, George. I appreciate the historical observations, too.

George Nixon Shuler

You’re welcome. Keep writing!

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