Livy relates that the “leaders thereupon came forward to conclude a treaty; and not only concluded a peace, but formed one state out of two….They united the kingly power, but transferred the entire sovereignty to Rome.”[xii] This story of the rape of the Sabine women, religious studies scholar Davina Lopez writes, was the paradigmatic model of, and justification for, Roman expansionism.Can we have a rationally coherent, morally compelling, and historically sustainable discourse as well as a practice of humanistic values and human rights absent a “thick” metaphysical or religious framework, such as the one provided in the Western tradition for some two millennia by Judeo-Christian sources?Put another way, the question “Can we be good without God? The urgent question is: we still be good to the stranger in our midst, or good in the same ways, once we have fully grasped the contestable character of humanism and once we have utterly abandoned the essentially religious idea that every person is made, in the enigmatic language of Scripture, ?We can imagine other religious narratives that could have provided an equally powerful vision and inspiration for humanistic values, but it was this narrative that actually provide the moral and intellectual foundation for the rise of humanism, and finally liberalism, in the Western tradition.In classical antiquity, dignity was an acquired rather than inherent trait.Some persons were always deemed more fully human than others.[vi] Infants born with mental or physical defects, Plato and Aristotle both declared, have no right to share in the life of the community and indeed have no right to life at all.In , Socrates says that those “born deformed, [the Guardians] will hide away in an unspeakable and unseen place, as is seemly.” He goes on to encourage free sexual intercourse among adolescents on one condition: that they not “let even a single foetus see the light of day,” and, “if one should be conceived, and, if one should force its way,” that they “deal with it on the understanding that there’s to be no rearing for such a child.”[viii] In both Greek and Roman thought, slaves, women, and children possessed less dignity than free males, while philosophers capable of attaining heights of speculative philosophy possessed more —prestige, status, or worthiness—than those who labored with their hands.
Romulus sends ambassadors to neighboring states asking them to give their daughters as brides to the Romans, but this request is met with refusals, and, as a result, tensions rise.According to the earliest Christian documents, God had not only taken on human flesh but was also incarnated in the person of a poor, provincial laborer in the occupied territories of the Roman Empire.Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a tiny village about four miles from the town of Sepphoris, which was struck by Varus’s legionary troops in 4 BCE.It is a question that even committed atheists, for the sake of good atheism, should find worthy of consideration.Answering this question requires that secular humanists attend more closely to the scandalous particularity of the story of the God made visible in the life of a poor manual laborer from a defeated backwater of the Roman Empire who was tortured to death by the political and religious authorities of his day on charges of sedition and heresy.Josephus records another attack, led by Lucius Annius at Gerasa just across the Jordan River, and his account makes apparent the atmosphere of violence and national trauma in which Jesus was raised: [Lucius Annius] put to the sword a thousand of the youth who had not already escaped, made prisoners of women and children, gave his soldiers license to plunder the property, and then set fire to the houses and advanced against the surrounding villages.The able-bodied fled, the feeble perished, and everything left was consigned to the flames.[xvi] We can perhaps now better appreciate the scandalous, as well as dangerously “unpatriotic,” political significance of Christ’s declaration in the Gospel of Matthew—at time of foreign imperial occupation punctuated by periodic massacres, mass crucifixions, and insurgency—that God’s kingdom was breaking into history through his own words and actions, and that the shape of God’s in-breaking kingdom entailed an ethic of radical love of one’s enemies : You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.[xvii] Lest anyone interpret Christ’s words as a retreat from the burning political matters of his day or as capitulation to Roman imperialism, however, we might ponder the Magnificat, the song of praise by Jesus’s mother, Mary, in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, which is presented as a prelude to what her son’s entire life will be about: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, And has exalted those who were humble.The assumption of a rank-ordering or natural hierarchy of human types, with only a few individuals possessing true dignity and so full social standing, may actually represent the most nearly universal political morality that we can identify.These classical beliefs in the natural inequality of persons did not give way to the idea of shared human dignity and equality as a result of detached philosophical reasoning.In other words, bourgeois Europeans responded to the erosion of religious authority by creating authority of their own from the cultural resources that lay scattered around them.And they then globalized it via the infrastructure that the imperial civilizing project bequeathed to them.[v] Hopgood’s bracing critique of rights talk and his call for a less lofty, more pragmatic dispensation forces us to face the implications of the loss of theological anthropology for concepts of human equality and dignity.