What are you worth? This question can be answered in many ways. You might consider your finances, or what you contribute at work or in your family. You might consider whether you are worth more or less than others in various ways.
The Declaration of Independence offers a striking alternative: we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights. Despite the rich diversity of the human family, we all have the same fundamental value. We all have equal intrinsic dignity not because of what we own or what we enjoy but because of who we are as human beings.
To be human is to be worthy of respect. This is true of any human being; this is true of every human being. If we take seriously the declaration, we declare that all human beings deserve to be protected by law and welcomed in life.
Human equality in this most basic sense holds true for the rich and the poor, the intelligent and the mentally disabled, the strong and the weak, those in perfect health in the prime of youth and those in deep suffering at the end of life.
In the words of the late civil rights activist and Catholic convert Father Richard John Neuhaus, “We contend, and we contend relentlessly, for the dignity of the human person, of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, destined from eternity for eternity — every human person, no matter how weak or how strong, no matter how young or how old, no matter how productive or how burdensome, no matter how welcome or how inconvenient. Nobody is a nobody.”
For Christians, that we are all created equal is not just a matter of our shared political creed as Americans but is part of our faith as followers of Jesus. In what he said and in what he did, Jesus taught us the inestimable value of every human being.
In reaching out to the man born blind, in healing the woman who bled for years, and in curing lepers of their disease and of their status as social outcasts, Jesus showed us that the love of God extends to everyone in the human family.
Whether we are great sinners or great saints, God loves us all. In his teaching that we should love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and help the hungry and thirsty, Jesus taught us that everybody counts, that everyone is created equal.
Suffering can cause us to question whether everyone is created equal. Can it be that the person in the last stages of life is really equal to you or to me? Does the bedridden person, even the permanently unconscious human being, deserve respect? Is this man or woman fundamentally equal to you and to me?
Obviously, the sick and the dying are not equal in terms of health or in terms of what they can do. But, if we are to agree with the declaration and with Christ, the sick and the dying are equal fundamentally, equal in dignity, equal in deserving protection and love.
If everyone is equal, then everyone — including the sick and dying — deserves compassion from all and protection by law.
Suffering is a serious human problem that begs for a solution. But the solution to a human problem is to eliminate the problem, not to eliminate the human being with the problem. We are fortunate in our contemporary world to have the most advanced methods to eliminate pain ever to be known on our planet.
And yet, technology cannot solve all our problems. Even if physical pain can be relieved, psychological and emotional suffering may remain. Although curing illness is sometimes impossible for us, we can always proclaim in what we do and what we say that we are all created equal.
Many of those at the end of life suffer not just physical pain but the emotional suffering of feeling as if they are worthless. In these cases, too, those who suffer retain their equal dignity with every other person. People who suffer among us are not one bit less human or less worthy of love, compassion and legal protection than anyone else.
Indeed, for followers of Jesus, the suffering of any person is an invitation to imitate Christ. The suffering of any person invites us to accompany those who suffer, even if we cannot relieve their suffering.
We cannot always cure, but we can always care. We cannot always heal, but we can always show compassion. We cannot always restore what is damaged, but we can always accompany those who are vulnerable.
No human being is worthless, no matter how sick, how disabled or how infirmed. To be a true American, to be a true Christian is to live out this creed: everyone is created equal; nobody is a nobody, so nobody should be killed in the name of compassion.