Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Politics & Prose

Byron Borger


January 18, 2013

By Byron Borger

The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster) $26.00 

It has been more than two decades since this remarkable writer garnered the Pulitzer Prize for the first in his magisterial three-volume work, “America in the King Years.”  In this brand new (relatively) slim hardback, the eloquent reporter’s books are available in a considerable abridgment.  It is sad, but true: some may not want to work through his hefty tomes of meticulous detail: Parting the WatersPillar of Fire or At Canaan’s Edge.  The large story of that trilogy spans the years 1954 through 1968, totaling almost 3,000 pages. These wisely chosen excerpts make available to a much wider audience the electricity, profundity and keen insight of these important books.  Before each of the 17 riveting chapters highlighting key civil rights episodes, Branch offers a new introduction, a few paragraphs or page setting the stage for the excerpts to follow.  This is now the go-to primer on the civil rights movement.  It certainly is a good way to dip in to what many suggest are some of the finest books written about the middle of the 20th century.  

The Sacredness of Human Life: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision is Key to the World’s Future  David P. Gushee (Eerdmans) $35.00  

Jim Wallis of Sojourners says that "David Gushee is one of the preeminent Christian ethicists in the country, and his work is important for both those in the academic world and all of us trying to live out obedient and biblical lives."  He has also been a friend of the Center for Public Justice, citing former President Jim Skillen in several of his many books on social ethics and Christian political thinking.

We should all be very attentive to this scholar’s work which offers a thoroughly biblical framework for thinking about what Roman Catholics have called a “consistent ethic of life.” In this one, large volume, Gushee, the Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, offers insight based not only on a serious reading of Holy Scripture but with attention to the teachings of early church leaders.  It is good to wrestle with how best to interpret and apply such ancient wisdom, and Gushee is to be commended for this broad, nearly encyclopedic survey.  From chapters on racism, the death penalty, environmental degradation, biotechnology, war and the like, Gushee relentlessly brings the seminal notion that humans beings are made in God’s image to bear upon how, then, others are to be treated.  

Not all will agree with his nuanced conclusions. Although it will be no simple task to dismiss them, it will be an edifying discussion in which to engage.  As Jeremy Waldron, of the New York University School of Law notes, for instance, on abortion, "even those who disagree with his position will not want to miss the cornucopia of insight he provided and -- most strikingly -- the sensitivity and openness of his discussion."

The title of the book reminds us of the heart of the project. Gushee reflects on the notion of humans as sacred, wondering if this is suitable language for what the Bible teaches, and how the broad Christian tradition has answered that question.  What does it mean we are made in God’s image and what do we mean by the sanctity of life?  He not only draws on the early writers, but shows how things became more complex with Constantinianism, with the Crusades and with the very large shifts in worldview emerging from the secular Enlightenment.  How have notions of natural rights developed? And how have ideologies of the modern world, specifically Nietzsche and Nazism, desecrated such notions?  (Don’t miss the two lengthy chapters on each of these sad and fundamentally inhumane ideologies.)  For those interested in sweeping intellectual history, this is a fabulous read, and the historical research helps to bring a certain gravitas to the righteous call to honor the God-ordained dignity of every human person.

Fuller Theological Seminary's Glen Stassen says, "This is the most significant book I have ever seen about what it really means to say that human life is sacred."  Charles Mathewes at the University of Virginia says it is "landmark." Amy Laura Hall of Duke University notes that Gushee is "an uncommonly patient writer... I can't wait to teach this book!"  It is my hope that many of us, at least, can’t wait to read it. Very highly recommended.

—Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”