In 1808 Hendrick Aupaumut—a Mahican leader and former captain in the Continental Army—wrote to Thomas Jefferson of his people’s struggle to find a “Sure habitation” in the rapidly expanding new nation. Captain Hendrick’s story is immediately recognizable to anyone with a passing familiarity with United States history:
We were compelled to move from place to place… We have been Seeking a habitation for our tribes for a number of years—at last have Settled down on the land along the white River… They granted to us to occupy & possess Said Land for the benefit & behalf of our tribes & their posterity… By observing the population of the United States—It appears to us—that all Indian Claims on that Country will be extinguished by the white people before long—The land on which we wish to dwell all our days—will inevitably be Sold from under the feet of our poor Children after us—In that case what will become of them?
President Jefferson responded to Captain Hendrick’s despair with a grand and hopeful vision of the tribes’ future flourishing. Mr. Jefferson welcomes intermarriage and intermingling between American settlers and the native people, and he sees a promising future for Captain Hendrick’s tribe in America. But that promise is predicated on assimilation:
If you wish to increase your numbers you must give up the Deer & buffalo, live in peace and cultivate the earth… Give every man a farm, let him inclose it, cultivate it, build a warm House on it, and when he dies let it belong to his wife and children after him… You will unite yourselves with us, join in our great Councils and form one people with us and we shall all be Americans, you will mix with us by marriage, your blood will run in our veins, and will spread with us over this great Island… I wish [your people] to live in peace with all people, to teach their Young Men to love agriculture, rather than war & hunting…
To twenty-first-century ears, aspects of President Jefferson’s letter sound shockingly condescending—in keeping with convention and Captain Hendrick’s manner of address, President Jefferson refers to Captain Hendrick as “my son” and his tribe as “my children,” for instance. Still, compared to many earlier and later European and American responses to the Native Americans, Thomas Jefferson’s letter is remarkable in its open-handedness and its recognition of the Native Americans’ shared humanity. His words are suffused with liberality and even hospitality. That generosity and promise, though, entirely depended on Captain Hendrick’s tribe giving up and rejecting their distinct way of life and living instead under the foreign laws and customs of the young American republic.
President Jefferson’s letter, in other words, implicitly assumes an antagonistic relationship between difference and equality. In so doing he reveals a generally unspoken premise that has often plagued many of the various movements that have, over the past two centuries, sought equality for the unequal and voices for the voiceless. This mindset suggests that in order to have equality you cannot have difference. Indeed, sameness and equality become indistinguishable. As a result, the work of ensuring equality transforms into the task of erasing difference.
This assumption dominates the thinking and actions of other European colonists and American settlers who sought a place for Native Americans, both before and after President Jefferson. The attitude can be found, too, among those fighting for the equality of Jews in nineteenth-century Germany. And, despite an abundance of multicultural language embracing diversity, it constitutes the unspoken premise of advocates for equal rights in debates that rage today.
A few decades after Thomas Jefferson wrote to Captain Hendrick, German liberals in the Lower Chamber of the Grand Duchy of Baden voted in favor of Jewish emancipation for the first time in history. The law, which ultimately stalled in the Upper Chamber, would have given Jews in Baden full equality with Christians, eliminating restrictions on political offices and military positions and granting full freedom to move from town to town.
In a fascinating study of “religious politics” in early nineteenth-century Baden, historian Dagmar Herzog examines the convoluted development of the fight for Jewish equality in the 1840s. The Lower Chamber’s sudden embrace of Jewish emancipation in 1846, she argues, had less to do with “a commitment to universal equality” and more to do with “’liberals’ hatred of conservative Catholicism” and fear of its emergence as a political force in Baden. Even still, significant figures within Badenese liberalism developed remarkably philo-semitic ideas and attitudes. While conservative Catholics in Baden asserted the immutable differences and essential inferiority of Jews, upholding the necessity of barriers between Jews and Catholics, radical liberals formed a social club uniquely inclusive of Jews and women. For leading figures in the club, full political equality represented a necessary step and not a final goal. They wished, radically at the time, to bring about true social equality as well.
As with Mr. Jefferson’s attitude toward the Native Americans, the philo-semitism of German liberals should not be underestimated or scorned because of its limits. Still, those limits should be recognized. Here, as with President Jefferson, assimilation formed the under-girding premise of equality. In rejecting the prejudicial barriers established by conservative Catholics, liberals rejected too, the idea of difference. Equality and difference became irreconcilable. Advocates for Jewish equality disagreed about whether assimilation should precede emancipation or whether emancipation would itself bring about assimilation—but, one way or another, assimilation was expected and assumed. Moreover, bitter frustration with the obstinacy and intolerance of conservative Christianity shifted some toward rejecting the validity of confessional differences altogether. These limitations expose what Ms. Herzog calls the “authoritarian underside” of philo-semitism. Philo-semitic liberals saw a place for Jews in German society, but it was entirely predicated on “erasure of group differences.” That is, Jews had the right to participate as equals in German society—so long as they stopped doing or being anything that made them distinctly Jewish.
At first glance, the idea that equality and sameness must go hand-in-hand seems to have Christian origins. It is our shared status as beings created in the image of God, one might say, that makes us equal. But in the Biblical context “equality” may be too weak a word. A mosquito is equal to another mosquito, after all, but that says nothing about the mosquito’s value. It is possible to be equally contemptible. And while the modern concept of equality condemns discrimination, it has no positive demands. Asserting the equality of each person makes no statement about each person’s dignity, and so it cannot engender respect.
Better, perhaps, to speak of each person’s unfathomable and infinite worth. The Christian doctrine of the Imago Dei, rooted in the first chapter of Genesis, accords this unlimited value to each person. This worth does not rely on appearances or ability or any other means of measuring one person against another. It inheres in human nature because of our status as part of the creation that God deemed “very good” and because we, alone among creation, bear the stamp of God’s own likeness. The worth of human beings, therefore, exists independent of human activity. It originates in God’s creative act and cannot be undone or eliminated through human action or behavior no matter how disgusting, repulsive, or indeed wicked.
While human worth is universal, human dignity is fully realized—and the divisions between us are transcended—through incorporation into the body of Christ. In Galatians 3, St. Paul lists a series of pairs: Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. His audience would have immediately recognized these as pairs distinguished by inequality, by superiority, or inferiority. But Paul shockingly claims that these distinctions are irrelevant for those who have put on Christ through baptism—“for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Temporal categories of greater and lesser have no effect on the Christian doctrine of human dignity. This allows Christianity to embrace difference in a unique and powerful way. Or, rather, it should. Historically speaking, Christian proselytization has very often involved cultural annihilation and erasure of difference. This constitutes a failure on the part of Christians to properly embrace the Biblical picture of created humanity. Ever since St. Paul spoke of many members of one body in 1 Corinthians 12, the promise of worth in difference has been part of the Christian story. And, at times, that promise has been reality.
Care for the poor, the despised, and the outcast distinguished early Christianity from the surrounding pagan culture of imperial Rome. The Roman emperor Julian’s famous “Epistle 22” attests to this remarkable reality. Julian earned his epithet, “the Apostate,” by converting from Christianity to paganism and by subsequently attempting to wrench the newly baptized empire back into paganism—or, more accurately, into a new post-Christian form of paganism. He wrote Epistle 22 to Arsacius, the pagan high priest of Galatia, to advise the latter in combatting Christianity effectively. In so doing Julian provides a general sketch of Christianity’s remarkable reputation for charity and compassion. “It is their benevolence to strangers,” he claims, “their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism”—by which he meant Christianity (because of their rejection of the pagan gods, Christians were often referred to as atheists). Julian further bemoans that “the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well.”
Disabled persons were among those discarded outcasts of pagan society cared for by the Church. On Volume 116 of Mars Hill Audio Journal, theologian Brian Brock explores the various ways Christians and the Church have responded to disabled persons throughout history. He contrasts Christian charity—the expression of Christ’s love and care for his children—with the disability rights movement of the 20th century. In general Christian care for the disabled has operated from an assumption of interdependence and thus an embrace of the difference between the caregiver and the receiver of care. In contrast, the disability rights movement and its crowning achievement, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), explicitly intends independence and self-reliance. Undoubtedly this movement and Act have improved and enriched the lives of countless persons. Still, as with Thomas Jefferson and the Germans, appreciation for goodness ought not blind us to limits. Practically speaking, most measures of the Act’s aim to achieve equality through the elimination of difference.
A careful look at many of the debates raging today shows the broad influence of that premise. A similar mindset is at work as churches and society consider differences between the sexes and the meaning of marriage. This mindset suggests that difference and inequality are more or less synonymous, and the consequent impulse to flatten difference has now shifted to the physical human body. In contemporary debates the actuality of the body is discarded as an irrelevance or an inconvenience disguising the reality that we are all the same. Any suggestion that, no, perhaps we are not actually all the same, is condemned as rank intolerance. To acknowledge difference is to create inequality, and so in the name of equality, we must overrule, eliminate, or as a last resort ignore differences—and those who claim the reality of difference.
In the past half-century, American liberals, particularly academics, have lauded diversity and celebrated difference. But that celebration has been, if not superficial, at least partial. In the afterword to a marvelous collection exploring nineteenth-century interactions between German Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, historian Margaret Lavinia Anderson writes, “Our own generation congratulates itself on its commitment to diversity and its embrace of multicultural values. But if ‘multicultural’ is to mean anything at all—that is, if we really do prize difference—then we can hardly desire to erase entirely the ‘bias’ that comes with belonging to a particular religious community and participating the special and surprising message [its] revelation gives to life.’”
If the American liberal celebration of difference has been partial, the American conservative response to difference has been anything but laudable, often marked by fear of difference and xenophobia, by contempt for otherness. Or, to put it Biblically, many American conservatives have poorly served the strangers sojourning among them—strangers God commanded them to love as themselves in Leviticus 19, strangers with whom Our Lord explicitly identified himself in Matthew 25.
In his polemical “historical essay” Atheist Delusions, theologian David Bentley Hart suggests that ancient Christianity’s meteoric rise and broad appeal had little to do with “signs and wonders”—still less with apocalyptic proclamations of hellfire and brimstone for the damned. Instead, the Church’s great appeal lay in its unprecedented message of universal human dignity. We have become deaf to the explosive implications of the Christian story, whether because of liberal preoccupation with equality in sameness or conservative fears of difference. The Church must remind a culture grown hard of hearing of the great creaturely worth of all God’s children. We must remind ourselves of our obligation to love and cherish each human being, no matter how unappealing or even horrifying. We must find new ways to celebrate and explore the diversity of the many members of the body of Christ. And we must love the strangers who sojourn among us.
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