Why the “intrinsic worth” of people is a big deal

INTRINSIC WORTH BACKXXXRecently I listened to a public radio interview with author Adam Cohen. Cohen has written a book about the “eugenics” movement in America and the way it created a culture of forced sterilization. According to well-documented research, somewhere around 60,000 people were involuntarily sterilized because they were deemed “feebleminded.” This early-twentieth century movement considered itself a progressive alliance for the future of America. Accordingly, only those judged “fit” were encouraged to reproduce. The ideology reached its apex in 1927 when the United States Supreme Court ruled (8 to 1) that forced sterilization of a woman named Carrie Buck was justified. Lauded justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the majority opinion and used language that I will not repeat here to urge even more involuntary sterilization. It has been claimed that Nazi Germany actually learned much from America’s “eugenics” movement.

 

At one point during the public radio interview, Mr. Cohen underscored the way Justice Holmes not only accepted forced sterilization but earnestly encouraged it! Following Cohen’s observation the radio was silent for a few seconds. Then the host stammered, “I’m speechless.” There were a few more seconds of awkward silence before an abrupt break in the show. The intermission contained pre-recorded statements of acknowledgment for sponsors. (One does not call them “commercials” in public radio.) Many philanthropic foundations were named and thanked for their support. However, some of these venerable institutions actually financed the early-twentieth century “eugenics” movement. I doubt many listeners caught the irony.

 

It is easy to express outrage at injustice. It is much more difficult to understand the role we all play in perpetuating cultures of abuse. Scholars have pointed to the way support for “eugenics” coincided with a fear of immigrants and those who might threaten some imagined American purity. Sound conservative? Look out. Those on the right will remind us that the ideology of “eugenics” was intended as a “scientific” application of liberal principles. There are deep and critical issues at stake that defy the assumptions of both left and right.

 

That is one reason why I often employ the language of “intrinsic worth.” This terminology refers to a conviction that each and every person has value, possesses worth – and that this value is not dependent upon anyone else’s judgment. God is the only arbitrator of value. Intrinsic worth is a creation of God and affirmed, even enhanced, through Christ’s redemption! Some will hear the language of “intrinsic” worth and automatically associate it with the terminology of “sacred worth.” For the most part, that is fine. But I speak of “intrinsic” worth or value as a philosophical truth, not the repetition of agenda-laden denominational language. So do we really believe in the “intrinsic worth” of every person?

 

Most of us would like to think we do, but our behavior often presents contrary evidence. I rarely get invited to speak at or lead meetings of those who operate within typical ideological categories. Conservatives aren’t sure they can trust me. I just might try to love everyone. Liberals don’t like confronting their own pretensions. There are a lot of echo chambers out there. Oh well. I will keep lifting up this notion that each and every person is of value in God’s economy. We’ll go from there.

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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11 Comments on "Why the “intrinsic worth” of people is a big deal"

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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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Paul W.
Guest

Excellent commentary! I also found your related GBCS article that elaborates on Asa Mahan’s concept of “intrinsic worth” to be very insightful:
http://umc-gbcs.org/faith-in-action/intrinsic-worth

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist
Guest

Thank you, Paul. I am grateful for the way you have received my work. I know that I come at things from an independent angle but pray I am listening to our Risen Lord.

Riley B Case
Guest
I affirm the article. The General Conference statement of 2008, which is for the most part excellent, made one serious mistake when it asserted that both conservative and progressive church leaders endorsed eugenics. On the progressive side Harry F. Ward and Francis McConnell of Methodist Federation of Social Service, strongly supported eugenics. The only “conservative” mentioned in the resolution is Clarence True Wilson of Board of Temperance. Those who follow evangelical history would point out that there is a difference between being “conservative” and being “evangelical” or even “fundamentalist.” As far as I know no leading evangelical or fundamentalist leaders… Read more »
Chris Momany, UMR Columnist
Guest

Your comments must be for others; they certainly do not draw any kind of reaction from me. Perhaps others have something to say.

jimmie shelby
Guest

In this writer’s mind, “intrinsic value” is in the eye of the beholder. What/who one holds dear will almost certainly not be the same as what the other holds in the same light.

In this writer’s opinion, only God holds each of us in intrinsic value–and in His eyes, those who are covered by the Shed Blood of His Son–might hold an edge.

In this writer’s mind–one day soon this will all be made plain……..

Susan Lowe
Guest
I’ve spent much of my adult life working with abused and neglected children. After some point, I secretly began to think that some people need to be sterilized. The pain that I saw, the multi- generational instances of years of horrific abuse suffered by children who grew up to inflict horrific abuse on their children caused me to shed tears for those children more times than I can count. I realize that legal forced steriliztion was frequently abused for a number of tragic reasons but I can’t believe that everyone who supported it in the 1920’s and 1930’s had anything… Read more »
Susan Lowe
Guest

Fetuses which cannot survive outside the womb are not babies. They are potential babies. A living, breathing human being, be it a girl or a woman, should not be sacrificed for a microscopic collection of cells or even a pre-viable fetus. Anti-abortion forces rarely consider the desperate woman or girl who is faced with an unplanned pregnancy unless they are doing their best to prevent her from obtaining an abortion by pretending that their outrageous laws are done to protect women.

Richard F Hicks
Guest

Yeah here’s someone with something to say: What part of “all” does the writer not understand. “All” means all or it doesn’t include all and therefore isn’t “all.” 99% ain’t all. Declining to enter the discussion on defining “human” betrays has me hearing a bias favoring convenience abortion. Thank you, Richard F Hicks, OKC

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist
Guest

Richard, I am not sure that I am hearing you correctly, but I am absolutely certain that you have not heard me. Just because I don’t take bait does not mean that my work can be objectified by your assumptions. You might find deeper conversation through more dialogue and less presumptions and pronouncement. . . . and throwing it back on a writer who does not fit your preconceived notions is not good enough.

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist
Guest

My answer is yes — as I have already indicated in my piece.

Sherrie Lynn Robertson
Guest
Sherrie Lynn Robertson

Theologian John Swomley addressed this. What makes a difference between a preborn “baby” and an unwanted pregnancy is when there is a beloved community, even a community of one, present to accept it as such. Otherwise, the entire topic is a useless, meandering, and deceptive exercise in slut-shaming.

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