The Least of These
On the third Sunday of January, people all across the country celebrate Sanctity of Human Life Day which commemorates the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion. And the very next day, the third Monday in January, people all across the country celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day which commemorates our complicated history of racial inequality.
On the surface, these two days may seem disconnected, nothing more than an odd fluke of the calendar. But if you look closely, there is a deep and profound connection—one that reaches to the very definition of what it means to be human. Every year, this third week of January reminds us that when society doesn’t view you as a person made in the image of God, it won’t see your children as image bearers either.
This year, this week struck me particularly hard because I had just finished reading Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Published in 1861, Incidents is the first-person account of Harriet Jacobs, a woman who had been born a slave but eventually escaped to freedom. Harriet’s story is important because it shows how women uniquely suffered under slavery. Often preyed upon by their masters and unable to legally marry, these women had little hope. But as Harriet's story reveals, if there was anything worse than being a woman and a slave, it was being a mother and a slave.
During Harriet’s life, American society operated under the legal precedent of partus sequitur ventrem or “the child shall follow the condition of the mother.” Whenever a slave gave birth (even if that child had been fathered by a white man), her son or daughter was automatically a slave, the property of her master who could do with that child as he saw fit. Harriet writes that the slave mother
…sits on her cold cabin floor, watching the children who may be torn from her the next morning; and often does she wish that she and they might die before the day dawns… I saw a mother lead seven children to the auction-block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all. The children were sold to a slave trader, and… before night [they] were all far away… I met that mother in the street, and her wild, haggard face lives to-day in my mind. She wrung her hands in anguish, and exclaimed, “Gone! All gone! Why don’t God kill me?” I had no words wherewith to comfort her.
And I had no words when I read this.
I immediately thought of my own three children—children who live in a world of innocence and security, who know nothing but abundance and love, who trust me to protect them. How could a society be so degraded, so unfeeling, that something as natural as the bond between a mother and her child was completely disregarded?
And then I remembered. We are not much better.
Ultimately, the laws of Harriet’s society saw her children as less than image bearers because they saw her as less than an image bearer. "The child shall follow the condition of the mother..." Today, the laws of our society view unborn children in much the same way. And I wonder why? Could it be that we view unborn children as less than image bearers because we view their mothers as less than image bearers?
"The child shall follow the condition of the mother…"
To all you who are tiring of the fight to protect the unborn, who are jaded by “culture wars” and one-issue votes, let me say this: We are not fighting simply for the imago dei of unborn children; we are fighting for the imago dei of their mothers as well.
To all you who think it is enough to fight for the unborn, who turn a blind eye to the poor, the marginalized, the outcast, let me say this: We are not fighting simply for the imago dei of unborn children; we are fighting for the imago dei of their mothers as well.
Because as much as we’d like to convince ourselves that we’d have stood for the rights of Harriet and her children; as much as we’d like to believe that we’d have marched shoulder to shoulder with Dr. King himself, if we shy away from protecting those who today bear God’s image—whether born or unborn—we must not trick ourselves into believing that we would have protected them then.
So on this third week of January, do not truncate your vision of justice; expand it. Do not walk away from the fight because it has been too narrowly waged on one front. Instead, become a true one-issue voter—a voter who sees the image of God in your fellow men and willingly fights the evil that preys on them. To co-opt C. S. Lewis, the problem is not that our desire to protect the sanctity of human life is too strong; it is that it is too weak.
Do not forget that God Himself once became a child, embracing the weakness and vulnerability of living nine months in His mother’s womb. Do not forget that this same God also made Himself a slave in order to redeem those who were enslaved to sin. And do not forget that this same God calls you to defend “the least of these” even as He defends you. Because it is in the face of those yet to be born, in the face of the oppressed, in the face of the slave that we see Him.
We see them imago dei.