What Are Human Beings?
The First United Presbyterian Church of Loveland
“What Are Human Beings?”
Rev. Amy Morgan
June 16, 2019
O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,
7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9 O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,
4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,
5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than 3 million children. • In Zambia, severe rainfall deficits have resulted in a 42% drop in maize production from 2000. As a result, an estimated 3 million Zambians face hunger. • Four million Angolans — one third of the population — have been forced to flee their homes. • More than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance.
Chances are, these statistics will motivate us to do absolutely nothing to address the dire reality they describe. They are not real lives to us. They are statistical lives. They are as vast and mysterious and distant as the stars in the night sky. These statistical lives do not lead us to compassionate action. Like the Psalmist gazing into the overwhelming heavens, they lead us only to question if any human life matters at all.
These statistics were part of an experiment in which participants were given the opportunity to donate some of the money they were paid for their participation in the research to a charity that helps children both in the U.S. and around the world.
One group received general information about the need, including statements such as the ones I read above. Another group was given the story of Roika, a 7-year-old girl from Mali, Africa. They were told that she is desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed her, provide her with education, as well as basic medical care and hygiene education.
The group that received only the general information about massive hunger and displacement gave far less than the group that only received information about Roika’s situation. When the researchers gave both sets of information to a group, or even added the story of one more hungry child, the donations decreased.
As Mother Theresa once said, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
In his research paper titled after this Mother Theresa quote, Paul Slovic of Decision Research writes, that “most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue individual victims whose needy plight comes to their attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of individuals who are “one of many” in a much greater problem…Numerical representations of human lives do not necessarily convey the importance of those lives. All too often the numbers represent dry statistics, “human beings with the tears dried off,” that lack feeling and fail to motivate action.”
This psychological phenomenon can work on the positive end of the feeling scale as well. Research has shown that even large quantities of a good thing – like money or relationships – will provide diminishing returns after a certain point. For example, making more money does tend to increase happiness for people. Until they reach an income of about $120,000 a year. Beyond that, no matter how much more money they make, they are no happier. And, in fact, more money can begin to decrease their happiness.
Anything on a massive scale, be it starving children in Yemen or winning the lottery, is too much for us to take in. Paul Slovic says that when we are confronted “with knowledge of dozens of apparently random disasters each day, what can a human heart do but slam its doors? No mortal can grieve that much. We didn’t evolve to cope with tragedy on a global scale. Our defense is to pretend there’s no thread of event that connects us, and that those lives are somehow not precious and real like our own. It’s a practical strategy, to some ends, but the loss of empathy is also the loss of humanity, and that’s no small tradeoff.”
No small tradeoff indeed.
So what can we do? How can we reclaim our humanity in a world of global news and global markets, massive wealth and massive poverty?
What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? asks the Psalmist.
Gazing on the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains or pondering the night sky, we feel small, insignificant. We are that statistic that no one could possibly care about. Certainly, God, who created and sustains and is redeeming the entire creation – every bug and mold spore, every volcano and ocean, every human being who has ever lived – surely this God could not be mindful of us, care individually and personally about us. That would be unthinkable.
And yet, says the Psalmist. Yet. There is this little Hebrew letter. It looks almost like a little shepherd’s crook. It is called “vav.” And when you find it at the beginning of a word, it means and, or, but, or so. It means the conversation is about to take a turn. It means new information is coming. And it is especially significant when you find it smack in the middle of a Psalm. It is the first letter of the sixth verse of this 10-verse poem. In English, it is verse 5 of 9, if any of you are following along. But in Hebrew, it is verse 6 of 10.
In the first part of the Psalm, the Psalmist has been praising the magnitude and glory of God and of God’s creation. And then, in verse 5, he turns his lens on humanity. We do not shine like the stars and moon. We are not glorious, like those heavenly lights. We will not endure through the ages like those celestial bodies.
We are dull, trudging along through our short span of life, dirt-clods who till the soil and struggle to stay alive. We hear about genocide and famine, war and refugees. But we don’t do anything about it. We will live and we will die. So will everyone else. We can’t bring ourselves to care.
So why should God? What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
Yet, says verse six, Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
We may not shine or be glorious in and of ourselves. But God crowns us with glory. God shares God’s own glory with us, as Paul says to the Romans.
Why would God do this? Why would God share glory with creatures, crown us with honor, care and be mindful of us?
The Psalmist answers: You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.
The Psalmist reminds us of our charge in Genesis. At the conclusion of the creation story, God gives humanity dominion over the creation. From the very beginning, God shares glory and power with us.
The first time we encounter this word “dominion” in the Hebrew scriptures, even before humans are given dominion over the creation, God creates the sun and moon to rule over, to have dominion over, the day and night.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t tend to experience the sun and moon as selfish, oppressive rulers. Okay, maybe a little when I’m hiking Devil’s Backbone in the afternoon in July. But, on the whole, the sun and moon are rather benevolent rulers of their respective domains. Dominion certainly implies power and authority. But power and authority for the benefit of the governed. Power and authority to give life to the world.
That is the kind of power and authority that God has. And that is the kind of power and authority that God gives to humanity. Life-giving power and authority. Dominion to care for the creation, to be mindful of it.
More than one and a half million people have died this year from diseases related to dirty water, and almost 3 and a half million people don’t have adequate access to water. Almost a billion tons of waste has been dumped in the ocean this year. More than 57,000 species have gone extinct this year. If we keep using oil as we are today, we will run out of oil on this planet in less than 35 years. Half a million children were sold as slaves worldwide so far this year. Almost 16 million people have died from hunger so far this year, while there are more than 830 million obese people living in the world today.
This does not illustrate care and mindfulness. This is not life-giving power and authority. And these statistics are guaranteed to do absolutely nothing to motivate us to change anything.
Paul Slovic says that “Images seem to be the key to conveying affect and meaning, though some imagery is more powerful than others. Probably the most important image to represent a human life is that of a single human face.”
The face of a child fleeing her village after it has been accidentally bombed with napalm. The face of David Kirby, surrounded by his family, as he dies of AIDS. The face of a three-year-old refugee boy, washed up on the beach after drowning in the Mediterranean.
These faces sparked compassion. They made us care and be mindful of all the people suffering in Vietnam, all the people suffering from AIDS, all the people fleeing war-torn countries.
A single human face. That is all it takes. To make us care for each other as much as God cares for us, no matter how great the human atrocity is that we face. To make us mindful of the needs of the whole creation, no matter how vast it may be. A single human face is all that it takes, to reflect the glory of God. To have dominion, life-giving power and authority over creation.
It is not easy to look at these faces. Faces of suffering and pain. But the apostle Paul assures us that suffering leads to endurance and character and, finally, hope. If all we see in these faces is hopelessness and despair, then our looking has been in vain. If the Psalm had ended at verse 5, it would have only expressed how inconsequential humanity is. After the despair evoked by the face of suffering, there must be a “vav,” the “and yet.” In that single human face, in all the suffering and death, is hope. Hope that something will change. Hope that the will of God will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Hope that death does not get the final word. Hope that we can be the change we want to see in the world. Hope that in looking at the one face, we will act.
All it takes is a single human face. And we each have one. A face that has been uniquely shaped, a face that is intimately known, by God. Each time we look into that face, in all its beauty and brokenness, we reflect the glory of God. Each time we see that face, and remember that we are just dirt-clods struggling to survive in a world that is red in tooth and claw, we also remember that God is mindful of us and has given us life-giving power over the beloved creation.
Look at the one face. Your own face. And wonder. Suffer. And hope.