Valuing persons 3

Observation on the preceding article: What I’ve called “assigned value” shows up all the time in the pricing of merchandise. How much is commodity X worth? Answer: Not what the maker thinks it’s worth, not the cost of the materials and labor that went into it, but what people will pay for it. They’ve assigned it its value. How do you determine the value of an in-kind charitable contribution that you want to use as an income-tax deduction? In the absence of some agreed-upon reference source, you are entitled to use whatever price you might get for the item at a yard sale. That’s what the market will bear; that’s its value. Your car may be a Rolls-Royce, but if the most anyone will pay for it is $3.95, then $3.95 is what it’s worth.

Recall the scene in the movie Hooper, where veteran stuntman Sonny Hooper (played by Burt Reynolds) scolds newcomer Ski Chinski (Jan-Michael Vincent) for refusing to do a potentially lethal automobile stunt, for which Chinski has signed a $50,000 contract:

Ski: My life is worth more than a piece of film.
Hooper: I’ll tell you exactly what your life is worth. Your life is worth fifty thousand dollars. That’s the price you put on it when you got behind this wheel!

Just so. That’s the value the studio assigned, and Ski agreed to it. He is now a commodity.

I submit to you that in this post-Edenic world where we choose to be as gods,1 such “commoditization” is inevitable. We’re self-oriented, and therefore everything and everyone else is valued for what they can do for, or to, us. Martin Luther’s got us nailed:

It is said that human nature has a general notion of knowing and willing good, but that it goes wrong in particulars. It would be better to say that it knows and wills the good in particular things, but in general neither knows nor wills the good. This is so because it knows only its own good or what is good, honorable, and useful for itself, but not what is good for God and for others. Therefore it knows and wills mainly a good that is a particular good, indeed, that is good only for the individual self. And this is in agreement with the Scripture, which describes man as curved in upon himself to such an extent that he bends not only physical but also spiritual goods toward himself, seeking himself in all things.

Now this curvedness is natural; it is a natural defect and a natural evil. Hence, man gets no help from the powers of his nature, but he is in need of some more effective help from the outside.

That outside help, he goes on, is God’s love in grace.2 Without God’s transforming work, each of us is the center of our very own black hole, and everything and everyone else is relevant only as they cross our event horizon. Consider what it would take to escape the event horizon of an actual black hole, and you get some glimmer of why people toss around extreme terms like “new birth.”3

Apart from that work, may I suggest that assigned value is the only one we’re able to recognize. And that unless we come to honor people through a derived value instead, the line between “people” and “things” will remain forever blurred, and the apostle Paul’s verdict in Romans 3:17 — “‘The way of peace they have not known'” — will continue to haunt us.

  1. Stewart Brand opened the first Whole Earth Catalog with the statement, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it,” a line he says he stole from Edmund Leach, A Runaway World? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), 1. Stewart Brand, “We Are As Gods — man recognizing its divinity — Editorial,” Whole Earth (Winter 1998), available on line.

    Incidentally, that background noise you hear is the hiss of the snake in Genesis 3:4–5: “You will not ‘surely die.’ For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God [kjv “ye shall be as gods”], knowing good and evil.” (Single quotes and emphasis added.) We’ve all made Eve’s choice. []

  2. Luther: Lectures on Romans, trans. and ed. by Wilhelm Pauck, Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), 218–19. Note Paul’s description of agape love in 1 Corinthians 13:5 — literally, it “does not seek its own things.” []
  3. And why Ephesians 1:19 speaks of his work as requiring such remarkable power. []
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