One of the foundational concepts upon which western civilisation is built is the Judeo-Christian insistence that every human being is inherently valuable.
It’s right there in the opening chapters of Genesis as God creates mankind in his own image. Later, in Psalm 139, King David famously declares that he is fearfully and wonderfully made; that God has created his inmost being, having stitched him together in his mother’s womb. And in the gospels, Jesus is constantly liberating, in this life and the next, the least and the last — those that others deemed deplorable, intolerable or even just expendable.
Thus, from its infancy, the church maintained that there is no distinction between Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free as far as someone’s essential value is concerned. This radical notion of all people having inherent value was the motivation for the establishment of countless hospitals, clinics, refuges and schools. It inspired heroes such as William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, and Mother Theresa (to name but a famous few) who maintained that all members of the human family are inherently precious and that their fundamental rights are worth fighting for.
As a consequence, the English speaking world (and much beside) has, an admittedly chequered, yet nevertheless proud history of ensuring that every person, regardless of their ability to contribute to society, is acknowledged as being of value: you bear God’s image, and thus, you are of eternal consequence. Your life matters. You matter more than any pampered, prize-winning pug or pekingese. You matter more than any botanical beauty or bloated bank balance.
This belief stands in stark contrast to any number of godless belief systems (for make no mistake, despite claims to the contrary, systems of belief is precisely what they are) that have a proven track record of dehumanising some sub-section of humanity for one reason or another. Once you have dehumanised someone, it becomes scarily easy to dismiss their worth, viewing them as not quite as ‘equal’ as others, and any number of dark possibilities then become tolerable in the name of ‘the greater good’.
This brings us to the current debate surrounding ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ workers that governments seem besotted with in their efforts to contain covid and thus preserve human life – a worthy goal, to be sure.
As I write, the residents of south-western Sydney are endeavouring to interpret the state government’s labyrinthine list of really important people who are still allowed to travel about the place. (Note, restricting people’s freedom of movement in any but the most extreme of circumstances is not a thing in western liberal democracies, but let’s continue). The policy has predictably caused chaos. I say predictably because any attempt by government to ordain one group of people as being more special than others is bound to end in tears.
Take a moment to reflect on how subtly Orwellian the concept of ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ workers actually is. It doesn’t take too much imagination or delving into history to see how it ends, but allow me to cut to the chase: it’s never good.
If you’re scandalised by people driving across some imaginary line on a map in order to make a living, visit a relative, or simply attend to their own well-being in whatever way they see fit, let me give you a reality check: Every person who gets up in the morning and goes to work to provide for their family is essential. Every school kid and tertiary student studying to better themselves and their society is essential. Every volunteer who gives their time to serve their community is essential. Every visit to a loved one is essential. To claim otherwise is to immerse oneself in a zero-sum-game of subjective exceptions and questionable value judgments.
We all want to be rid of this pestilence, but this policy of deeming some but not others as ‘essential’ is misguided, dangerous, and perhaps given the need for two extensions (and counting) suggests, ineffective.
So from one Sydney hotspot where I currently reside (the Eastern suburbs) to all the members of my human tribe in another where I was born (the south-west), let me give you a word of encouragement: You are essential. You are essential, and you should never let any safely-salaried senior public servant or securely superannuated politician or priest tell you otherwise.
Rev Peter Chapman is a Uniting Church minister.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.