Tagged: Joseph Merrick

How to be Human

Sermon preached on Nov. 15 at Billtown Baptist Church.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:26-7, NRSV)

***

The image I am about to show you is a bit grotesque, but I think it is necessary in order to reflect on the next essential truth of the Christian faith we are going to tackle today.

The person I am about to show you is Joseph Merrick. Born in 1862 in England, Merrick developed from birth a very rare disorder where his bones began to fuse together and grow lumps.

Again, I warn you that the picture is a bit shocking.

Joseph Merrick, nicknamed, “the Elephant man”

After his mother died when he was 9, his father soon rejected him and remarried, deserting him, seeing him as a monster. As a young boy, he was not able to work well due to his deformed hand, and he soon found that the only work available was in circus, as a freak show act. He was nicknamed the “Elephant Man.”

He rarely went out in public, but when he did, he wore a hat with a sheet around it to cover his face.

While on tour in London, a doctor saw him and felt compassion on him. Dr. Friedrich Treves gave Merrick his card, pledging to offer any medical assistance he needed.

Merrick continued on his tour into Europe, and there even his own circus managers took advantage of him, robbing him and leaving him for dead.

His deformities caused him to lose his voice, but he was nevertheless able to make it back to London, and still holding on to the business card of Dr. Treves, he made his way to the hospital in London.

Dr. Treves found that the deformities were incurable and would eventually be fatal, but he allowed Merrick to live the rest of his days in the care of the hospital. Dr. Treves flipped the bill, and became Merrick’s close friend, visiting him often.

Several years later, Merrick died at age 27. His deformities were so severe that the bone formations around his skull eventually prevented him from getting enough oxygen, and he died of asphyxiation, a terrible way to die, gasping for air.

Who was Joseph Merrick? Was he an abomination such that his own father abandoned him?

Was he a freak, such that the only place he could work was a circus?

Even then, was he just a way of making some money, a resource to be exploited? That is what his circus managers saw him as. What is the difference between a human being and a piece of property?

Or was he a person how Dr. Treves immediately saw him? Not an abomination, not a freak show, not a piece of property, not even a medical phenomenon, but a person of worth, worthy of compassion. Someone to help; someone who had needs; someone who needed friendship.

Was Joseph Merrick human? And if he was, does that mean anything?

Why do we choose to see something of worth in those that others deem worthless?

Is it something in us? Something we do? Or is it a decision of faith? Faith in something more than ourselves?

The Question of Being Human

Admittedly, this is a strange question to ask this morning. It comes out of this week’s readings from the Believe book that I have been told you are going through with Pastor Chris.

The question is this: What does it mean to be human?

It is one of those questions that is fundamental to who we are, but it is of the kind of philosophical nature that we rarely ask. After all, has any of us gotten up in the morning, sat down to our morning breakfast and coffee and asked ourselves questions like, “How shall I be human today?” If you did, I think I would either be very impressed or be a bit worried about you. I know for myself, putting full sentences together before my morning coffee is a bit of a challenge!

At face value it is an almost insulting and obvious question. What is a human? We are humans….silly! That’s like asking the question, “What’s breathing?” …I am sure you will figure it out.

What does it mean to be human? I looked up some definitions in the dictionary. One definition wrote, “A bipedal primate mammal.” Have you ever looked in the mirror and said, “Good morning you handsome bipedal primate mammal?” If you did, I would again worry about you. For some reason, that definition just doesn’t get to the core of who we are.

Another definition said, “Humans are not animals, nor are they aliens from outer space,” which is true, but not really narrowing it down all that much.

Even then, that is probably a bit overstated. Are we that distinct from animals? When we look at the animal world, there are lots of things that animals can do better than us.

Most land animals are faster than us.

Dolphins and Octopuses have problem solving intelligence.

Baby piglets have about the same emotional intelligence as a baby human.  

Ants are capable of organizing societies of over 300 million per colony. Given that 300 million is roughly the population of the US, I’d say ants could probably teach us a thing or two about how to be harmonious and productive.

Did you know we are genetically 98% percent similar to chimps? That 2% goes along way.

That 2% accounts for the biggest different between us and the rest of the animal world, a little part of the front of our brains that control the production of language and advanced problem solving.

Think about that: a tiny chunk of pink gooey tissue at the front of our brains makes the difference between civilization and swinging from trees. There really is not that much that separates us from animals, biologically speaking. It is that little bit that goes a long way.

If that is all that it is, what leads us to believe we are special, better than the animals? If we are, again, so similar to chimps, chimps can instinctively kill one another over food. They have been known to cannibalize each other. Are they wrong to do that? Is it wrong if we kill others? Why are we different?

One atheist wrote over a century ago that since we are no different from animals, war is really just nature’s way of thinning out the herd. Is that true?

If not, why are we different? Are we special as humans because we talk and reason; we build and write; and we sing and philosophize?

We are human because of the things we do? Are we human because of the things we can achieve that no animal can?

We have a tendency to define our humanity according to the greatest things humans have achieved. We look to the greats of history such as conquerors like Alexander the Great, scientists like Albert Einstein, athletes like Michael Phelps, or artists like Van Gogh.

But if to be human means something we do, our achievements, where does that leave those that don’t do these things well? Where does that leave the average Joe’s?

If to be human is to have reason and ability, are people with physical and mental disabilities less human?

If to be human is have freedom and morality, are criminals less human?

History has shown that we often define certain people as more human than others based on these characteristics: men were defined as true humans and women defined as “defective males” for centuries in the western world based on the philosophy of Aristotle. In Europe, Jews were less human than Germans. In the United States, whites more human than blacks. In Canada, particularly, indigenous people.

Today the question is whether we really consider immigrants and refugees truly human, and therefore as deserving of care as a citizen gets.

We live in a day where human rights are assumed, but what it means to be human has no agreed answer. And some have even given up bothering with the question all together. Yet we can’t have one without the other.

In an age of white nationalism and mass displacements of refugees, anger and resentment over anyone that might economically threaten us, whether countries like China or different communities here at home like the indigenous fishermen or people in the sexual minority– so much of our laws hang on the notion of our common humanity, but the fact is, agreement on what it means to be human is far from common.

And things are only going to get more complicated. As we develop technologies like gene modification or artificial intelligence or the ability to merge human bodies with robotic parts, this question is not getting any easier. How do respond?

Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us of an important truth: “A human being is one thing, to be human is quite another.”

The problem with questions like “What does it mean to be human?” is that we can’t answer why we are the way we are. Biology and history offer clues, but not answers. Why? Because we did not make ourselves. The answer to who we are as humans and why we are the way were are, and whether we deserve dignity or forgiveness or, more importantly, salvation, must come from the one who did make us: God himself.

In God’s Image and Likeness

How does God see us? It is a question so important, it seems that writers of the Bible had the foresight to include it in its very first chapter: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Notice a few things in this text:

First is that Genesis is an ancient book and it was written for ancient people. This is a narrative written to say something to poor Israelites who have endured slavery and exile, who obviously did not have science nor thought in a scientific way. It was written to a people that were inundated with mythology that taught that Pharaoh and other kings were the true image of God, that since they are god, they can oppress whomever they choose.

If we are to understand Genesis, we have to understand that it is saying something to these ancient people, and through that, something that applies to us today.

In Genesis, notice that all people, male and female, regardless of age, gender, status, bears the divine image, where everywhere else in the world, kings, warlords, and priests were in the divine image. This idea is unique to Israel that drives Israel forward in thinking about what it means to be human.

What does it mean to be in the divine image? There are many possible answers to this, but we get a hint of it a few chapters later when Seth is described as being in the image of his father, Adam. It is parent language. Children are in the image of their parents. If you were to look at my kids, particularly, Rowan and Asher, and looked at a picture of me when I was their age, you might say they are a spitting image of me. What this means in Genesis is very important: all humans are in God’s image, therefore, all humans are considered God’s children, not because of what we can do and achieve, but because of how God has chosen to see us.

This is important because if we try to start with ourselves, why we deserve dignity, I think, as I just reflected, we will come up short. We will make our dignity conditional on something we have and do. But if we start with God, we realize that God considers us, no matter who we are, where we are from, or what we have done, to be his children.

You are God’s child. Regardless of who you are and what you have done. You are God’s child.

If we want to understand who we are, why we are here, and what we are meant to be and do and to become, we have to look to the one who made us, the one who knows us, the one who loves us.

Notice also that we are made in his likeness. We were made in his image, bestowed with dignity, considered his children, but we were also made in his likeness, intended to be like God.

As God is loving and holy and good, God wants this for each one of us.

If we want to be more human, we must learn to obey him. Obeying here is not God being a tyrant that want us to jump through hoops for his own amusement. The commands of God, understood through Jesus, his example of selflessness, his rule that all the laws are summarized in the law of love, applied for their weightier matters like compassion and justice and humility – so interpreted rightly, God’s commands are his ways for us to be more human. Consider some of the Ten Commandments:

God wants a way of life for us where we stop putting our worth in the things of this world. That is idolatry.

God wants us to stop reducing ourselves to our work. So he commands sabbath.

God wants a life for us where we are honest with ourselves and others. Do not lie

God wants a world where we do not harm one another or life in fear. Do no murder.

God wants us to know that if we love our spouses, our partners in life, there are certain things we simply will not do to them, such as committing adultery.

You can see this with each of the Ten Commandments, understood according to their spirit, how they offer a way that is better for us.

But there is a problem, also, which the next chapters in Genesis tell. The first humans like us today, when it came down to trusting God and choosing a way that was life-giving and good or to go our own way, down a path that was self-destructive, harmful to others and ourselves, and cut off from God. For no good reason, they chose that path, and we still do today.

To be human also is to realize that we are fallible and fallen. We are a admixture of mystery and misery, truth and tragedy, sacred yet sinful. Despite being made for love and life and light, we allow pride and hate and greed and lust and fear to get the better of us. We turn from God and others and even are inauthentic to ourselves, and so, we are can be caught in sin.

I once sat with a man whose wife left him because he beat her in an argument, and how he was consuming himself with alcohol. As I realized, he was punishing himself, drinking himself to death, because he knew he had done something that he could not forgive himself for, destroying his marriage, the one good thing in his life.

As I got to share with him, if forgiveness is up to us, we don’t have the right to forgive ourselves, that is true. The modern notion of Oprah-style all we need to do is accept ourselves is a myth. Forgiveness is not up to us. But whether our lives have worth, whether we deserve a second or third or forth chance, whether our lives are redeemable after we have done things that we can’t even think to forgive ourselves, these are up to the one who made us, knows us, and loved us, who has the right to all judgment, who has the right then to all forgiveness.

Since God loved his children so much, he came as one of us, God in the flesh, God Immanuel, in Jesus Christ as a sign that God is for us not against us.

And when we rejected him, betrayed him, took him and murdered him on a cross, God in Jesus Christ forgave us; he bore our death, so that we could have his life, and on the third day, he rose from the grave to show that nothing can stop the victory of his love over sin.

Because of this, we human beings have love, forgiveness and hope. And I have learned that we humans cannot live without these things.

Learning to be Human Together

Now what does this mean for us here as a church? Someone once told me they don’t go to church. I asked, “Why not?” They responded, “The church is full of people, and I am just not the kind of person that can put up with people.” To which I had to respond, “You do know you are also a ‘people’ too right?”

God has loved us with a self-giving love, and so we ought to love others as we love ourselves. It is in loving others and being loved ourselves that we discover how we are human.

Being human is not merely that we have brains and bodies, sexuality and smarts, it is why do we have them, and what do we use them for? For importantly, it is how do we treat others with the love and respect we wish for ourselves? It is to see ourselves in and through others. That is what we mean by our common humanity.  

There is a simple notion that we often forget. We do not control how we are born. So many of the things I take for granted about my identity I did not choose: I am a Canadian born, male, of Dutch descent, born to a middle class family that thankfully provided a good home to grow up in, good schools to go to. I don’t have any major health concerns. I did not choose my body. I did not choose my ethnicity, my sexual orientation, my citizenship, so many things about me. One of my defining characteristics in my career as an academic is my mind. While I worked hard to be where I am today, I also recognize that I did not choose the brain I have.

If we recognize this, we have to realize, I could have had a very different life. If I could have been another, how would I want to be treated? How do I treat others who have been less fortunate than myself? How do we understand people who have made terrible mistakes, destructive choices?

I am friends with a federal level prison chaplain. He works with people leaving prison after committing crimes like murder. He said working this job has been profound for so many reasons. One reason is the most startling: He has come to realize that those that commit murder are not monsters. We want to think of them as such, but the reality is scarier: They are people just like us. We all are a lot more alike than we are different.

We are all humans made in God’s image, and when we realize that, we also know we are all sinners, people who fail to live out God’s likeness. Each and every one of us. We are a lot more alike than we are different.

Sometimes we expect the church to be perfect, to say fundamentally, “I am not like them; those people.” Sometimes we convince ourselves we are: we try to be perfect at church, and put on a face to hide that we are not.

But the church, as I have found, is that place where we learn how to be human. And that means not showing off our achievements and strengths, but contending with our weaknesses and failures.

This is why I believe in the work of the church: It not because the church is perfect. It is the opposite. It is the place we can relearn our humanity by realizing I can’t be who I am without you.

I can’t fully realize how God accepts me for who I am, until I accept others for who they are.

I can’t fully realize how I am forgiven, until I start forgiving others.

I can’t be honest with myself, until I can be honest with others.

I can’t know that I am loved until I am vulnerable about the parts of me that I don’t love myself.

Why? This is all a reflection of who God is, the God that is relationship in his very essence as Father, Son, and Spirit. God is, in the Trinity, a community of being, and we are made in his image to find ourselves in community as well. We are the visible family of God, called together from our diversity into a common love.

And that makes the church, when it is taking its calling to be radically human, both profoundly difficult but also profoundly beautiful.

Our constantly tendency is to define ourselves according to our strengths and achievements, our titles and roles. But this way makes us terrified of failure, of growing old, of losing status or ability.

What if we see ourselves more clearly not in times of strength and success, but in times when we have been the most vulnerable and shown our weaknesses? But what if we see define ourselves not by what we have achieved, but by what we have received?

One of the most powerful books I have ever read is Jean Vanier’s Becoming Human. Vanier’s own life, as we have seen, tells the tale of both the sacredness and sin, but that perhaps allows his work to be all the more applicable: He tells in this book of how his communities for people with disabilities got started. He tells of one man, Eric, so tormented with loneliness and fear from being abandoned due to his severe disabilities, that he would leap on people and squeeze them.

When Eric was brought to Vanier’s community, Vanier realized that this person’s biggest problem was not medical, it was emotional. So, they figured, what if he really does just need someone there. So, they got the biggest orderly they could find, someone that was not going to get hurt by Eric, and they let him squeeze for as long as he needed. And as Eric did, the orderly just hugged him back and reassured him that nothing bad was going to happen, he was in a place that he was loved and accepted. Slowly but surely, Eric’s condition improved. He of course was still severely disabled, but his quality of life and ability deeply improved and it was really only because he had come to know that he was loved.

Eric needed a love that would never let him go in order to heal of his wounds and be all that he could be. We are no different. I think that is what the church when it is being the church, can do.  

May you know today, that you are God’s child, made in his image.  

May you know that he loves you, has drawn near to you in Jesus Christ, and even has we rejected him and turned from him, even then, God has loved us so much that he died our death and offered us his perfect life.

May you received this love today. May it define all that you are, and may you turn then and show it to others.

And in knowing, in receiving, and in living it out in turn, may we together be as God intended his church to be: fully human.

Amen.