The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A
“It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
“He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
I Peter 2:19-25
How much is your life worth? Seems like an outlandish question, and frankly, it is, but it is a question that has quietly determining how much corporations and politicians are willing to gamble with your life. The Value of a Statistical Life has been developed by economists throughout the past 40 years in order to help policy makers and businesses evaluate the potential value of proposed safety measures against the cost of implementing them. That is, an entirely theoretical value is placed against a measurable value in deciding whether making products, services, and policies safer is worth the potential profit loss of a given industry.
Before 1982, the value of human life in the United States was disputed, but generally determined by various court precedents in cases involving wrongful death, and later, the health insurance industry. Because there was no standard calculation for the value of a human life, and because many were uncomfortable with the idea of attempting to calculate it, they would simply use the individual’s expected remaining lifetime income given their profession; and if that were inapplicable, the average lifetime earnings of any American, about $300,000. This was called the “Cost of Death”.
Essentially, for most of modern western history, the value of a human life was determined primarily by one’s job. Children, the elderly, and others who were not considered “producers” would be valued either by the average, the potential economic impact their death would have on a “producer”, or simply not at all.
In 1982 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, known more commonly as OSHA, and the Office of Management and Budget, were engaged in a policy battle about whether businesses should be required to label hazardous materials as hazardous in workplaces. There were already labels to warn customers if products contained hazardous materials, but for the construction worker installing asbestos insulation, there was no labeling for them to be aware that the material they were handling was deadly to their lungs. Using the Cost of Death standard for valuing human lives, the cost of labeling would be more than the value of lives saved, which was the Office of Management and Budget’s stance. In response, OSHA employed W. Kip Viscusi, an economist from Vanderbilt to re-evaluate the monetary value of human life.
Viscusi’s approach was based on what workers in various industries were willing accept as compensation for increased risk. For example, the difference in compensation between a janitor who helps clean nuclear power facilities verses a janitor at an elementary school. He also included other factors such as the chance of accidental work-related death, inflation, location, etc.1 The value he was able to calculate was far larger than the original $300,000, and as a result, OSHA’s policy was determined to be more cost effective than the cost of implementing labeling. Viscusi borrowed an older title for his calculation: Value of a Statistical Life, or VSL.
And so we return to the original question: How much is your life worth? Well, according to most government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation, your life is worth a little under 10 million dollars. While there have been attempts to alter the number based on age or health status, giving an idea ultimately based in eugenics friendlier titles such as the proposed “senior discount”, most organizations have kept the VSL equitable. According to the collaborative math of the federal government and large businesses, every American man, woman, and child is “worth” 10 million dollars.
We are led to believe that this is a generous calculation. We are expected to be grateful that our lives are considered valuable at all outside our potential lifetime earnings. Numbers are such a wonderful way of divorcing ourselves from responsibility, especially when weighing “Fiscal Responsibility” against real human tragedy.
How much is your life worth?
To God, your life is worth everything.
In difficult times, we are tempted to doubt the value of our life. Surely if we had some sacred, incalculable, intrinsic value, our life would not be filled with such hardship. This was the despair I Peter addresses.
I Peter was written to a particularly marginalized group in Roman Society, slaves and women who had recently become Christian. An already marginalized group, by turning from the traditional civic religion of their masters and husbands, they had become the victims of further abuse. What little their lives were worth before had been reduced to nothing. By giving their life to following Christ, they transformed from at least minor assets to their master’s portfolio into liabilities. The small community they formed was met with scorn, suspicion, and derision. They divested themselves of any social capital to follow the teachings of a condemned criminal.
On a society built around patriarchy and patronage, women and slaves were expected to be grateful if their lives were counted as having any kind of value outside of their fair market price in salt, coin, or dowry.
What is an apostle to write to these marginal people, who for giving their lives to charity, love, and the coming of God’s kingdom, are rewarded with spite, suspicion, and abuse?
“But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” [I Peter 2:20-21]
The author of the letter gives us a rather startling answer. Rather than a theodicy, or comforting words of the kingdom to come, where the wicked will be punished and the righteous rewarded, we are expected not only to endure unjust suffering at the hands of the world, but to understand that suffering unjustly is an essential part of our mission from God.
I Peter is a challenging epistle in many aspects. For the ancient readers it challenges the entire social hierarchy, claiming that all human life is of equal value; citing that all people are redeemed by Christ’s Grace, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” [I Peter 2:9].
For modern readers, the challenge comes from the ironic and tragic history of the epistle being used to justify abuse. The powerful and those who hold human life of little value hear only “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” [I Peter 2:18], and “Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands…” [I Peter 3:1]. Yet when only hearing these verses, they miss the thesis of the letter:
“You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.” [I Peter 1:18-19]
To God, every life is precious and irreplaceable. We were bought not with salt, dowry, or even $10,000,000, but with God’s own life. From the slave to the CEO, God gave everything to give us life.
So why the present suffering, and why the call to accept the authority of human institutions; especially institutions and people who do not recognized the full value of human life?
The present suffering is the inevitable result of institutions and people who do not recognize the full value of human life. As citizens of God’s kingdom, we are blessed with the sight how things are meant to be, and we are cursed by the world to recognize how they currently are. We are called to accept the fact that the powers of the world exist and are the cause of our suffering. The author is careful to note that these powers are not necessarily just, in fact the author is generally assuming that the powers of the world are foolish, gluttonous, or stalked by the devil [1 Peter 1:18, 2:4, 2:8, 2:15, 5:5, 5:8]. They simply for the present time hold earthly power. As believers, we are expected to recognized injustice and evil and to resist it in our own lives. When we are subjected to evil, we are to not return evil for evil, but follow the example of Christ and conquer evil through love.
“When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” [I Peter 2:23]
When we are suffering unjustly, we are called to follow Jesus’ example of entrusting ourselves to the one who judges justly, God. God has justly judged that all human life is irreplaceable, its innate value incalculable. This judgement applies to the righteous and the unrighteous. When we are suffering, we are tempted to devalue human life: to devalue the lives of those who hurt us through their evil acts, to devalue the lives of those who are different, who may appear to threaten our way of life, to devalue our own life, and falsely assume that we somehow deserve to suffer at the hands of evil.
While we are suffering, we cannot forget that all life is valuable. We are called to love even those who do wrong, as much as we are called to love ourselves. While we are called to love our enemies, this does not mean we cease to love ourselves by submitting to evil. We are called to resist and transform evil without giving into it. We are to hold all life to equal account, protecting ourselves from evil as much as we would protect another from evil. Loving your enemy may mean simply not returning evil for evil, and trusting that God and others may call them to righteousness.
It is our calling to proclaim the good news that God came into the world to save sinners. In Christ, we see how God transforms suffering into hope. Jesus gave himself up to death to free the ones who killed Him. He gave up everything to show that all of humanity is worth saving.
The world is slow to recognize this, and for that we suffer unjustly. But we too, have been given the power to redeem our suffering. Through Christ, we have been given the power to transform our suffering into healing the world. By imitating Christ, recognizing the incalculable value of life, respecting the dignity of every human being, returning good for evil, and striving for justice and peace for all of God’s people, we prepare the way for God’s kingdom.
Your life is worth more than $10,000,000 or any sum that the world could muster. Your life is worth everything to God. He calls us each by name, for we are all precious to Him.
1. Kniesner, Thomas J. and Viscusi, W. Kip, The Value of a Statistical Life (April 10, 2019). Forthcoming, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Economics and Finance ; Vanderbilt Law Research Paper No. 19-15. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3379967 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3379967