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

Wonder, Heartbreak and Hope (12)

Gideon Strauss


February 25, 2011
by Gideon Strauss

(In this series I reflect on my work as an interpreter for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the late 1990s, and try to tease out some of the biblical beginnings for a spirituality of political practice, looking in particular at a few Psalms.)

The apartheid regime in South Africa derived its legitimacy from its claim that it intended to make room, politically, for the cultural diversity of South Africans to flourish. It lost any claim to that legitimacy because of its denial of an equal humanity to all South Africans.

One of the biggest questions we face as human beings is the question of what it means to be human. Our understanding of the origin, meaning, and purpose of our humanity determines much else of what we believe, and how we behave. This is not only a philosophical question; it is also a political question. Politically, this question is not limited to what it means to be human individually, but expands to ask what it means to be human together.

This question is clearly stated in Psalm 8: “What is man?” In Hebrews 2 this Psalm is quoted as answering its own question:

            You have made him for a little while lower than the angels;
            you have crowned him with glory and honor,
            putting everything in subjection under his feet.

The theologian Gordon Spykman translates a similar answer to the question, found in Ephesians 2, as follows:

            We [humans] are God’s poem, created in Jesus Christ for good works.

Geoffrey Grogan in his commentary on the Book of the Psalms writes of Psalm 8 that “nowhere is human dignity more strongly affirmed than here.” Even as the Psalm recognizes our relative frailty as humans, and even given that in this Psalm, as Grogan writes, “the great theme is not humanity but God,” it celebrates the great power and responsibility of human beings, our unique responsibility among God’s creatures, as the reflectors to all creation of who God is, and the caretakers of all God’s other creatures, responsible for doing justice to all other creatures.

Francis Schaeffer, a couple of generations ago, captured the teaching of Psalm 8 when he wrote that,

            … man is wonderful: he can really influence significant history. Since God made
            man in his own image, man is not caught in the wheels of determinism. Rather
            man is so great that he can influence history for himself and others, for this life
            and the life to come. … man is not a cog in a machine … he really can influence
            history. From the biblical viewpoint, man is lost, but great.

This psalm of wonder celebrates what human beings are, among God’s creatures: God’s representatives, or image-bearers, and God’s assigned managers, stewards, vice-regents, of all God’s other creatures. And this message of wonder sustains us when we face the evil we humans do to one another, reminding us that for all of the meaninglessness that evil wreaks, yet our given creatureliness retains its meaning and holds as a standard also by which to measure our behavior in relation to one another. So, for example, when in Genesis 9 God censures murder, it is because “God made man in his own image.”

I would argue that we recognize, without being told by anyone, that there is something wrong about treating human beings as though we are other than human beings. Chattel slavery requires no further argument for its abolition than that it treats human beings as chattel. Abortion on demand requires no further argument for its abolition than that it treats human beings as sub-human organisms. The racism at the root of apartheid required no further argument for its de-institutionalization than that it treated some humans as less human than others. This recognition rests in our heart, given there by the Spirit of God in our very creation, and Psalm 8 awakens us to this reality, and in its language of human authority hints at the political implications of our confession about what it is to be human.

— Gideon Strauss is editor of Capital Commentary and CEO of the Center for Public Justice.


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