What’s a Life Worth

$16 million. That is the estimated cost of the funeral tomorrow of Margaret Thatcher, the late British Prime Minister. It will not be a full state funeral, the British Government says, but to all appearances, the difference between what will transpire tomorrow morning and a full state funeral is really just a matter of semantics. The current establishment of British politics wants to give Margaret Thatcher a grand send-off and that is what she will get. The Guardian newspaper has estimated what $16 million can buy you in Britain: 322 nurses, 272 secondary school teachers, 320 fire officers, 7,042 average householder’s annual gas and electric bills, and most telling of all, 11,111 public health funerals, free funerals for people whose relatives cannot afford to pay for their loved one’s funeral (http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2013/apr/16/margaret-thatcher-funeral-10-million).
All of this raises the question: what is a life worth? Crossing the Atlantic, the reaction around the world to the terrible events in Boston has offered a hard reminder that the awful terror that has been visited upon the victims, bystanders, and close ones of those involved at all in Monday’s bombings is something that people in some parts of the world experience on a daily basis. Listening to a BBC World Service news broadcast of ‘World Have Your Say’ today, some of the callers from the Arab and Persian BBC World Servicedesks reflected on the event on America’s east coast. The words they used were ‘indifference’ and ‘apathy’ to describe the responses that they saw their local populations have as news of the bombing spread.
To those whose lives are somehow intertwined with the tragedy in Boston, such a response seems heartless and indeed indifference felt in response to any death is a tragedy within itself. Yet for those who now have lived with the daily bombings in Syria for over two years, the loss of life seems mercifully small and the devastation to everyday life minimal. Such a perspective begs more questions. Is it any more tragic to see hundreds of people die around you than it is to see a handful? And who is to say that the life of one British politician is millions of time more valuable to humanity than anyone else?
Of course, as a global community we can agree that all life is profoundly valuable, yet it is when we can place that valuation within the context that it properly belongs that we are able to get a sense of why. Societies place value on human beings by various contingent means: consumer spending, defense of the state, positive impact on the lives of others, social capital. However, a theological view of human value is not contingent on anything other than it is a life
whose source is God. Human life is of infinite value because it is a gift of God. Nothing can diminish it or augment it. Its value simply is. Of course our affinities to those who die, in tragic circumstances or not, will impact how we mourn and remember them, yet we should be wary of a world that has become so saturated with indiscriminate killing that one community can mourn while another is indifferent. Today Damascus is indifferent to Boston. Tomorrow it will be the other way around.
It is when we can say as a species that we are all Bostonian now, we are all Syrian now, we are all Iranian now, we are all American now, that we will have begun the long journey to a recognition that it is in our common life that our best hope of lasting peace on Earth lies. Until that epiphany, may God bring comfort to all those who mourn near and far.