“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights . . .” These hallowed words from the Declaration of Independence are the very core of the American ethos. The principle they express is enshrined in our Constitution with its Bill of Rights. Indeed, these words are engraved on every American heart. They have been the standard by which we judge our conduct. Without them there would have been no abolition, no women’s suffrage, and no Civil Rights Movement. They continue to call us to account for the condition of Native Americans and for the perennial struggle for racial justice. They protect the weak from the strong and create a space for every human life.
For most of my life I more or less associated, with little reflection, this principle of creation equality with the Bible’s affirmation that humanity had been created in “the image of God.” Then it dawned on me that creation in the divine image and created equal were two very different principles. To begin with, one was based on our relationship to God, the other, despite the word “created,” on our horizontal relationships. The one showed me how I was to treat my fellow human beings, the other, how I expected them to treat me. For, indeed, honesty demands that we also acknowledge the negative impact of the principle of creation equality. This approach has often fostered a self-centered ethic, an ethic that focuses on “my” rights, on what you owe me, instead of my obligations to you. It has been used to sanction acquiring every advantage for myself with little consideration for others—because it was “my right” to do so.
So, while we acknowledge the good that has come from the principle of creation equality, I suggest that the Bible calls us to a higher ethical standard. It calls us to treat others as creatures made “in the image of God.” It calls on us to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses” (C. S. Lewis, from the last paragraph of “The Weight of Glory.”)