This article considers what makes a human a human. Though global laws address human rights, they fail to answer this more basic question. This failure is acute, as the nature of personhood is subject to various, and sometimes radical, understandings. Arguing that the philosophical assumptions underlying many of these views inevitably dehumanize people with disabilities, the paper demonstrates that only a biblical understanding of humanity will bring justice for all.

Lightyear is a social researcher based in East Asia, who has worked for over seventeen years with governments, academic institutions, and churches to challenge inequalities, exclusions, and discrimination.

On Human Rights and Identity Politics: How Disability Challenges our Missiology

By Lightyear

Mission Round Table Vol. 15 No. 2 (May-Aug): 4-12

The year 2020 is likely to be remembered primarily in relation to the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on global health and economics. However, even at this relatively early stage in the pandemic, the more “lateral” impact of a viral disease outbreak is perhaps likely to leave more lasting changes: the exacerbation of both international and intra-national inequalities; the brutal unmasking of the profound limitations of globalization, capitalism, and liberal democracy; and the amplification of identity politics which had already begun to challenge the prevailing social order. The intersection of these issues was at times explosive, perhaps most vividly in the Black Lives Matter movement, but also in the slower creep of authoritarianism in other places.

For Christians, perhaps particularly for those in countries with substantial Christian populations and legacy, these events have provoked a wide range of responses, and at times challenged or exposed long-held beliefs and practices. For many, this process has been painful, as at the core lie uncomfortable truths about power and the constant call of Christ to relinquish it. Perhaps what has been most exposed are the myriad ways in which human and personal identity are shaped, defined, and used to appropriate, assert, and protect power and privilege in ways which are often deeply hidden within cultural norms. We feel at our most vulnerable, and are often at our most defensive, when our identity seems to be under threat. Likewise, we often fail to see how much of our daily lives are informed by our own practice of identity construction, both of ourselves and of others.

If you read no further, perhaps I can lay out my position here: the tragedy of many of the current movements around identity politics stems not from the existence of different forms of “identity” (like male, female, Black, and White), but the misrecognition of what those identities are and are not. In short, and at the center of the deliberations I will make in this paper, there is a difference between an identity as a person who has a disability, and a disabled person. At the core of the first is personhood, and a personhood which includes, but is not defined by, having a disability. The second creates a category of person based on the presence of disability, and as such, a form of identity which is defined by difference. This results in the loss of personhood as a core, common identity. Fundamentally, then, we are dealing with the question of what it means to be human.

This paper seeks to present insights from the disability perspective which can be useful in re-appraising notions of identity, and from that, a theology and missiology which reflect the values of Christ’s kingdom. The first four sections of this paper explore the issue and nature of personhood as found in contemporary human rights and identity theory, before moving, in sections 5 and 6, to exploring the nature of personhood from a biblical perspective, and how that biblical perspective can help us navigate the complexities of identity politics, and also challenge and stimulate our missiology.

Abstract: Despite the proliferation of human rights law and instruments globally, little attention has been paid to the definition of “human” in human rights, particularly in a context in which changes in social norms and technology are already radically altering perceptions of the ontological nature of personhood. Whether considered performative identities, technologically enhanced trans-humans, or units of monetization in the global debt market, the nature of human personhood is undergoing multiple and radical transformations. Addressing the issue of human personhood is a critical task of twenty-first century mission, not in detached metaphysical terms, but rather in taking full account of the ways in which many biological, sociological, and economic iterations of personhood ultimately risk de-humanizing and degrading the imago Dei.

In Mark 2, Christ’s affirmation of human personhood in God’s image, as his first act towards the man with paraplegia, that precedes any subsequent spiritual, physical, and socio-economic re-orderings, points to the urgent missional task—radical affirmation of the human personhood of those whose biology, performance, or perceived economic value diverge from the majority of persons. The first “right” of humans is that of being recognized as a person. Articulation of this in our contemporary setting is crucial not only in wider society, but also in the church, where hierarchies of “difference” continue to result in exclusion or marginalization. Our “performative acts” of doing church, rather than resulting in the constitution of an identity—the Body—are instead apocalyptic: revealing the reality of the Body which is already there but awaiting a fuller revelation. In this reading, our performance of church in ways which enable inclusion of people with disabilities as full, essential members of the Body is neither reformist nor radical—it is an act of conformity to the nature of the Body already constituted with Christ as the head.

1. Missing persons: locating the human in human rights

It is interesting to reflect that in the process of defining a range of “rights” for humans, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not provide any clear definition of the “human” to which these rights apply.[1]

The human being the [human rights] convention is designed to protect remains undefined, which displays the concurrent contemporary quests for defining a human being through its rationality, its mere being or the quality of life that it enjoys.[2]

Classical definitions focus on two main areas: biological lineage—having features classifiable as homo sapiens—and capacities, such as speech and abstract thinking.[3]

Historically, humans are classified as those born to humans, locating human personhood in the realm of biological lineage. However, more recent debates on abortion legislation have raised the question of when such human-hood begins, and the point at which an in-utero foetus is classified as a human person.[4] The broad assumption of a unique category or taxonomy for humankind has been challenged recently, both by animal rights activists and proponents of transhumanism.[5] Here, the proposals are that non-human entities (such as animals, trees, and rivers) be granted “personhood” and a degree of legal agency which comes with such status.[6] Some, such as Christian Smith, argue for a common “underlying structure of human personhood” which cuts across cultures, defined more by behaviours, capacities, and faculties which are common to humans.[7] Here the question is “what must a being be like to be human?” and considers what kind of criteria could potentially be used to classify human personhood.[8] If the common “underlying structure” is constructed around particular behaviours, capacities, and faculties, does that render those whose behaviours are considered “inhuman” (such as Charles Manson) to be categorized as “non-human”?[9] Does this potentially disqualify as human some whose capacities may not meet the requirement of humanhood—a stance which has historically been used to justify the slaughter of indigenous peoples by colonialists? There have, in many eras, been categories of people considered less human, or even non-human, with often devastating and violent consequences.[10] Does it potentially qualify as human some biologically non-human entities (see the call for personhood for “Robo Sapiens”)?[11]

Beyond legal definitions of human personhood, the nature of human identity as socially constructed is also increasingly contested, with a deeper encoding of legislation and rights for self-determination of identities. The role of technology in altering human capacity, and indeed in challenging more traditional evolutionary biology in terms of framing the future of humanity (as engineered towards the “convergence” and “singularity”) not only challenges the nature of human personhood, but also results in a dramatic re-working of attitudes to disease, disability, and ageing.[12] Here, technology is available not only to “fix” biological aberrations, but to enhance normal human capacity as a way to engineer a better future.

Whilst the category of human is not challenged per se by genderfluid identity constructions, the relationship between human as a biological category of being, and human identity as a social being is increasingly tenuous.[13] The “stuff” which makes “me” human in a biological sense, and the “form” or capacities which make(s) me human in a social sense, are increasingly less important, as other factors—aided both by technological advances and social norms—increasingly open to the personification of non-humans.[14]

Thus, the struggle to define humanity, and personhood, is intensified by three critical trends. Firstly, the rapid technological advances enabling a divergence not only in human enhancement, but also alternative expressions of personhood, such as avatars and Artificial Intelligence. Secondly, more systematic encoding (in legal frameworks) of more performative orderings of personhood, relating particularly to gender, and increasingly to other dimensions of personhood. Thirdly, the changes, through technology and increased mobility, of the economic constitution of human persons, away from ways of being framed around livelihoods to being objects of monetization, either as consumers or as debt-entitled beings—and in many cases both.

I will consider each of these trends and their implications, before moving towards two key conclusions: the missional task of affirming humanity as a “given” status, and the ecclesiological task of “apocalyptic performances” of inclusion which conform to the nature of the Body which is already constituted in eternity, with Christ as its head.

2. Humanity 2.0: the new transcendents

We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.[15]

It is difficult, for me at least, to see any powerful principled reasons to remain human if we can create creatures, or evolve into creatures, fundamentally better than ourselves.[16]

The bold promise (or threat) articulated by Schwab in his description of the latest industrial revolution driven by artificial intelligence (IR 4.0) describes unheralded transformation; but what that transformation will look like remains unclear. Debates on the agendas and merits of “converging technologies”[17] frequently overlook the extent to which technology is already an integral part of most humans, through pharmacology, assistive technological devices such as smart phones, and implantable technology.[18] The notion of “enhanced humanity” is already one of degrees, rather than fact. Steve Fuller, in his provocatively titled work Humanity 2.0, attempts to chart trends within the “subject” of transhumanism, pointing to a resurgence of the “chemical worldview” of science, whose instrumentalist epistemology aims to “construct the most efficient means to our ends”[19] where

“mind” and “life” lose the metaphysical mystique associated with their natural origins and come to be assessed simply in terms of the properties possessed by their realizations—be they human, carbon-based, silicon-based or some cyborgian mixture … starkly put, in this third metaphysical stage, a thing’s identity is no longer constrained by its history, nor even its Darwinian evolutionary history.[20]

Theological debates on transhumanism illustrate varying positions, from more general acceptance (David Grummet on Teilhard de Chardin’s “Christian Transhumanism” to a cautious, but perhaps futile, resistance to all but therapeutic measures, wary of a movement which is at once anthropocentric (placing humans at the centre of human destiny) and, at the same time, rejecting the centrality of the human (carbon) nature of the “anthro” human personhood.[21]

One of the issues arising within the debate on engineered humanity is the tension between “curing dysfunction” and “enhancing function,” where one is essentially “restoring species-type functioning,” and the other “departing from species-type functioning in an upward trajectory.”[22] Both, however, focus on the “fixing” of some capacity as a critical task. The question is: does that “fixing” make one more or less “human”? In debates on ableism, specific capacities are targeted for enhancement, which, proponents say, potentially then redefines the term disability away from more traditional “deficit” models, by re-categorizing humans based on different capacities, such that the “non-enhanced” may find themselves “disabled”. However, as Fuller puts it, “whether this relativization of disability actually benefits or simply marginalizes even further those traditionally treated as … disabled remains an open question.”[23]

I would argue for three reasons that the question is “open” rather than straightforward for all but a privileged few with access to the kind of enhancement technologies which transhumanists describe. Firstly, whilst purporting to focus on enhancing certain capabilities which can render an advantage in those perhaps otherwise disadvantaged, the ableist position fails to confirm how those capabilities are selected. As Jonathan Glover stated, “not just any aspect of present human nature is worth preserving.”[24] Who decides which capabilities are preserved, which are enhanced, and which are discarded? This kind of engineered selection in turn produces more “precarious bodies,” as Judith Butler and others would describe them, and by offering advantage to some, would disadvantage others. The most likely arbiter for which “capabilities” would “make it” is economic utility, which, as we shall see in section 4, is intrinsically linked to a de-humanization process.

Secondly, whilst the application of technology to reducing barriers for people with disabilities represents a major development, such processes also have a tendency to create or enhance other inequalities. For example, smart-phone applications, whilst offering significant possibilities for some people with disabilities, can create barriers for others.

Thirdly, and perhaps most critically, access to “enabling technology” and enhancement is staggeringly unequal globally, and the drive for “silicon” enhancement is itself linked to the creation of other disabilities and inequalities, as poorer and marginalized workers engage in risky work to extract and refine the raw materials of transhumanism, and some disable or disfigure themselves by donating organs to repay unmanageable debts.

Each view ultimately considers capacity deficits as, if not “disqualifying” a person from being human, then relativizing their status as a human, where disability is “the master trope of human disqualification.”[25] Against this, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson argues for the essential value of disability and difference in the construction of human identity. As she says,

disability gathers us into the everyday community of embodied humankind. It reflects the truth that we will all become disabled if we live long enough and that every life, every family has disability in it at some time. If disability is inherent in the human, how can it at the same time disqualify us from full membership in the human community?[26]

Fundamentally, then, the issue lies not in whether restoring or enhancing functions are permissible, desirable, or beneficial, but rather on the extent to which capabilities, or a lack of them, relativize human identity and status. If I remain disabled, or unenhanced, am I somehow less human because of it? And if I am somehow less human, am I also less entitled to the rights which come by virtue of being human? Philosophically, we may tend to provide a more reassuring answer, but in terms of practical lived experience, it is hard to argue that the realization of human rights is not heavily contingent on being more “able”.

3. Performing humanity: Butler, gender, and the politics of difference

We are becoming fluid and many sided … evolving a sense of self appropriate to the restless flux of our time … This mode of being … enables us to engage in continuous exploration and personal experiment … [This] self emerges from confusion, from the widespread feeling that we are losing our psychological moorings.[27]

The opening of Robert J. Lifton’s The Promethean Self in some ways presaged the more structured analysis of identity as “performatively constructed” articulated by, amongst others, Judith Butler. Drawing on Searle’s speech-act theory, Gender Trouble and subsequent works describe gender identity not as essentially derived from the nature of the “body” as given, but as something constituted through performances of gender, rather than the performance deriving from a prior identity. In this case, gender is inscribed onto a body, rather than being dictated to by a body.[28] Performativity is, firstly, anticipatory, where “the anticipation of a gendered essence produces that which it posits as outside self”[29] and secondly, “a repetition and a ritual which achieves its effects through its naturalization in the context of a body.”[30] Thus, gender identity is not stable, but is rather “an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted … through the stylized repetition of acts.”[31] The performance does not take place in an echo chamber—there is an audience who validates, who responds, if the performance is credible, compelling, and reasonably recognizable:

Gender performativity and its materialization in the form of “bodies that matter” is driven largely by the desire for recognition of the gendered self as a viable, intelligible subject. In other words, underpinning our performance of gender is the desire to project a coherent and compelling identity, one that is recognized and valorised by others.[32]

Whilst the performative aspect of identity does not in itself challenge the status of being human, it has increasingly impacted the type and value of the human person concerned. The de-coupling of gender identity from biological categories is now enshrined in national laws, which in turn also provide State assistance for alteration of the biological form to further enhance the effectiveness of the performance of identity. This paper does not intend to pursue particular arguments around gender identity; rather it aims to use these as an illustration of how the social construction of human personhood is in many cases derived from the capacity to deliver a compelling performance of “human” to be valorized by society as fittingly “human”.

Linking Butler’s work to disability studies, Robert McRuer paraphrases its ideas on gender identity, substituting “able-bodiedness” into the text:

[Able-bodiedness] offers normative … positions that are intrinsically impossible to embody, and the persistent failure to identify fully and without incoherence with these positions reveals [able-bodiedness] itself not only as a compulsory law, but as an inevitable comedy. Indeed, I would offer this insight into [able-bodied identity] as both a compulsory system and an intrinsic comedy, a constant parody of itself, as an alternative [disabled] perspective.[33]

If being human, and being fully human, is linked to certain performances, and these performances are generally ordered around neuro-normative, bio-normative forms, what space does that leave for those without the capacity, or the necessary environmental enabling, to deliver a suitably compelling performance of “human” to avoid being disqualified? At first, this seems overly dramatic, as there are numerous examples of prominent politicians, scholars, and athletes who have been able to render a performance sufficiently deemed worthy and compelling to allow their participation in the higher echelons of society. And yet, we are speaking less of the qualification as human per se, but as what kind of human. Here, there is a subtle performative expectation of the kind of performance expected of a person with disabilities, for example, in negotiating identities in the workplace.[34] Hence, to be accepted as a “qualifying” person with disabilities, a certain performance is required, a performance which conforms to certain societal expectations and norms.[35] Even then, the nature of the identity is still, by and large, defined as a “different” form: human, yes; a person, yes; but a person with disabilities.

Critics of the application of Butler’s theories on performativity into disability studies have highlighted the problems of the tenuous link between the body and identity in Butler’s work, where, in the end, for people with disabilities, the option to enact a different performance may well be constrained by bodily capacity. If qualifying as a human (for persons with disabilities) first requires qualifying as a person with disabilities through an acceptable performance, how does that in turn introduce, firstly, relentless pressure to conform to neuro/bio normalcy (through surgery, medication, or other technology), and secondly, intractable inequalities for those with disabilities resulting in more “anti-social” behaviours or those who lack the ability to conform to the performative expectations of “people with disabilities”? This links to the third strand, that of economic inequality.

4. Precarious bodies: human as an object of consumption and/or debt

Each industrial revolution has redefined human value, and in doing so introduced different patterns of inequalities.[36] The fourth industrial revolution, termed IR 4.0, is so termed to describe the changes emerging from technological advances building on the “digital revolution”. This phase is characterized by “ubiquitous and mobile internet, smaller … more powerful and cheaper sensors, and artificial intelligence and machine learning.”[37] Whilst more visible, accessible dimensions of these technological advances (such as more mobile internet and AI-assisted processes aiding consumption) generate little in the way of headlines, as articles on the role and impact of artificial intelligence on employment and social relations have proliferated in the mainstream media. These frequently focus on varied scenarios for employment.[38] Many futuristic projections dwell on the dynamics of replacement-displacement-redundancy scenarios or the “out of control” scenarios.[39]

Predictions of the impact on employment vary—with some reports highlighting the loss of low-skilled jobs to automation[40]—whilst others predicting a larger effect on more “white collar” work.[41] Some analysts point to the potential of technology to both create more jobs, and changes not only to the nature of work, but also the role of work and wages in society.[42] Discussions on the effects of IR 4.0 cannot be taken in isolation from the technology enabling the processes of automation. In Europe (and increasingly other industrialized countries), the increased portability of the internet is a key enabler of elements of the “gig economy” and newer, more flexible but less financially secure modes of livelihood. At the same time, these processes enable greater networking between individuals through social media, potentially re-shaping union-style relations. For example, social media platforms increasingly provide the platform for individuals and groups to draw attention to unfair practice, which can directly impact consumer practice and, ultimately, share prices. Social media allows less regulated, more fluid networks—and perhaps are the last remaining option for the “zero-hours” contract workers of the precariat.[43]

In the midst of this innovation, inequality—as more and more are left behind—and the place and role of human labour are redefined. In describing the “precariat,” Guy Standing seeks to highlight the plight of those whose work is increasingly commoditized, beyond simple “day-waged” formulae to the “gig economy” where each unit of labour is not only priced, but subject to competitive tendering (“Uberization”). It is not difficult to see the trajectory of this model with respect to people with disabilities: where “work” has little if any connection to livelihood, and where efficiency is the only metric of success.

However, the shift has been broader. Whilst not yet anticipating “post-work” societies, the economic trend increasingly views humans/persons/citizens not as a source of labour, but as sources of consumption of the products of labour. That consumption also extends to debt, such that Neilson and Rossiter provocatively speak of the identity of a human as a “unit of potential indebtedness,” and being human qualifies one to be the target of lending agencies seeking consumers for their product (debt).[44] In this scenario of humans-as-consumers (rather than producers), what place is there for the less efficient to be producers? Furthermore, at some point, where do the sums fail to add up—and so what of those who, at the reckoning, have less capacity to “produce”? I am thinking particularly of people with disabilities in poorer contexts, and even of the situations, mentioned earlier, where body parts are sold to repay debt, a form of disabling to repay debts.

5. Broken tiles, whole identities: Mark 2

The previous sections have sketched out some parameters of how human personhood is defined by different intellectual perspectives, in both quantitative terms (who qualifies) and qualitative terms (the forms which qualify, and perhaps are more qualified). Whilst these different perspectives do contribute valuable insights into human being-ness and personhood, they at the same time illustrate the ultimately hollow nature of human personhood which is essentially defined solely in relation to itself. Moreover, such a self-referential defining of human personhood, whether in relation to performance or productivity, inevitably leads away from, rather than towards, a “human right” of equality and dignity, as the “norms” of performance or the control of productivity are not freely determined, but subject to the influences and permissions of a powerful and often faceless few. The orphan may briefly experience “the freedom to name, define, or generate oneself,”[45] but soon finds that the self is determined by a myriad of hidden forces. The self-referential “self” is, in the end, an empty one. What, then, are biblical perspectives on human personhood, and how do these define human being-ness in ways which are not simply self-referring?

The scene in Mark 2 is suitably theatrical. A crowded room, with the pathways into the centre—potential avenues for the weak, the sick, and the disabled to come for healing—blocked by religious teachers, critics, and the general public. None seemed particularly keen to give way to four (men?) and their stretcher-bound friend, despite the known propensity of the Galilean teacher to do spectacular healings. So be it. We’ll go through the roof, perhaps a little risky as brick and masonry fall rather too close for comfort to the healer-man/Son of God. Precariously dangled down on ropes, his body in full view of all, with all its broken, weak, and wasted parts. He passively invaded the sacred space reserved for the holy and the deserving. He had no right to be there. Levitical law prohibited those with disabilities from serving as priests; this man’s place was already reserved for him—begging for alms and, in doing so, providing an avenue for donors to gain “good merit.” What business does he have bursting so violently into the sacred space of religious teaching?

Jesus, “seeing their faith,” then uttered a world-shattering word to this man: “Son”. Before any words of forgiveness, of healing, of restoration, comes a simple affirmation of his identity. In some translations, the words are expanded: “My son.” Here is the first and crucial response to the challenges of transhumanism, of social performativity. In his disabled state, in his non-performative state, Jesus affirmed this man’s status as a son of God, as one made in the image of God, as possessing that image, and as such, fully worthy of being called not only “human” but “human” in relation to God.[46] For us, this confirms three crucial points.

Firstly, that human personhood is fully conferred in the absence of any “correction” or “enhancement” as the inherent property of all being made in God’s image. It is inherited, as gift, and is unchanged by any bodily externality.

Healing the Paralytic at Capernaum by Bernhard Rode (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Secondly, that human personhood is conferred in relation to God, not to bodily form or capacity to perform. The “type” of human we are is conferred by the Creator, not by any particular performance based on societal norms. Whilst a gender pronoun is used here (and here I would add my own opinion, that our “gender” identity is known to God), the emphasis is not on the male/female dimension of gender, but rather the relational aspect of gender—sonship. In a similar passage later in the chapter, Jesus calls the woman healed of internal bleeding “daughter”, again affirming the full human personhood of one whose disability would ordinarily exclude her from religious society. This affirms the most important dimension of human identity—the relationship with our Creator. Even unknown or unrequited, that assignation remains true—all are his sons and daughters.

Thirdly, linked to the above, is the reality that in the case of persons with disabilities, and in the case of this man, he is, before Christ, not a person with disabilities, but a person. His identity is not bound to his form, so that, in Christ, he is a person, a son, first and foremost.

The drama moves on, and the next utterance, against all expectations—here I picture the disappointment on the man’s face, and of his friends’—Jesus says, “your sins are forgiven.” Not for a moment do I suspect here that any link is being made between disability and sin; rather, that, following from the point above, Jesus sees before him not a person with disabilities, but a person, and as a person, this man’s great need is for forgiveness and restoration. There is perhaps a subtext too here. It is possible that institutional, physical, and economic barriers prevented this man from being able to make any ritual sacrifices, thus rendering him unable to make the required “performance” for absolution. Was Jesus just playing the “Advance to Go” card? Either way, the sequence of words and actions affirms three things: (1) a repudiation of any link between sin and disability (evidenced by Jesus’ declaration that his healing was merely to show his authority to forgive); (2) the clear-minded logic of recognizing that this man’s needs, as a human, were fundamentally human—like any other human, and not “special needs”—and (3) that the intention of Jesus was for this man to live a right life as a disciple, and that he anticipated that this would be fully possible in the absence of physical healing. Right here, right now, the man is affirmed, forgiven, and welcomed as a disciple.

The drama continues with the healing of the man and the fascinating addition of the instruction to “take up your mat and walk.” The four friends—where are they now?—are no longer needed. This man must re-enter society and care for himself. He is no longer to be a dependent consumer, indebted to others, but a producer, taking responsibility for himself. This is not then a passage justifying “fitness to work” certifications; rather it is, I believe, a call to challenge the assignation of dependent status on people with disabilities within a religious ecology, mitigating against an inclusive and empowering attitude. This is not setting a normative performative requirement for persons with disabilities to be increasingly self-sufficient, but instead asking—of us all—what we are contributing in our different ways to the society we are part of. This requires a radical de-coupling of contribution from notions of pure economic efficiency, but also liberates the human identity from one simply defined by consumption and increasingly, indebtedness.

This draws attention to an urgent missional task in a world where identity politics are deeply intertwined with inequalities—whether of those with disabilities, or those of excluded ethnic or sexual minorities. Our gospel message starts not with the power of Christ to heal, or the urgency of forgiveness, but with the affirmation that humanity and personhood is a bestowed status. As we engage with people—with communities excluded, marginalized, downtrodden, and forgotten, as well as those bewildered by choice and confused by the fluidity of social expectations—we bring the same message: before everything else, you are a son/daughter of God. Identity is then not a matter of karma, of cursing, of moral failing, of bad luck, of societal prejudice, of bad genes, of poverty, of sexuality, of religion. It comes first from an affirmation, or revelation, of that first truth—made in the image of this God. In twenty-first century Europe and Asia—whether in cities or villages, in refugee camps, or call centres—our urgent missional task is radical re-humanization, against the dehumanization of much modern and postmodern social and economic arrangements. The answer to the question “who am I?” (or even “what am I?”) is framed not in biological terms, nor performative capacity, nor economic value, but based on one factor entirely external to humans: our “made-ness” in a particular image, and the intention of our Maker to restore the relationship with him.

The “human” of human rights is, then, defined in this way, from which flows a more nuanced debate on the rights which are inherent to that human. But we can say, first and foremost, that the fundamental right of all humans is to be addressed as humans, as persons.

6. Genesis: The created human and the dimensions of personhood

Perhaps this section should precede the account in Mark, but here I would like to sketch three points from the Genesis creation narrative which give some dimensions to human personhood and then to extrapolate from that a means by which Galatians 3:28 is a reality for all humanity, and not just those who are recognizably “in Christ.” Firstly, as alluded to above, humans are created beings, and in particular, created in the image of God. Immediately, we affirm that this does not refer to physical form, but to nature. In particular, that humans are the only created beings whose nature relates to both heaven and earth. Angels are heavenly bodies, animals earthly, but humans are created to straddle both worlds. Personhood is thus conferred as a specific category of created being, not as a higher form on a continuum.

Secondly, by creating humans in his image, male and female, God made a clear distinction between humans as a category of being, and different expressions of that category. Humans were created in the image of one God—meaning there was one image—but the expressions of the human persons made in that image took on diverse forms. They remained, however, one category of being.

Thirdly, humans were created to be innately interdependent—with God and with each other. Thus, even if the form of being appears to embody a degree or type of dependency which renders that person less “independent,” that can in no way be considered a basis to determine a different category of being, such as “disabled”. If interdependency is a crucial, innate part of what it means to be human, the drive for independence would appear in some ways to be “anti-human.”

What we reach, here, is a foundation which resists the creation of categories of being as separate or hierarchical ontologies. We can accept that there are different expressions of “human” which vary in physical form, emotional outlook, etc. But such different expressions do not permit us to create separate categories which confer variegated status. Hence, returning to Mark 2, for Jesus, the man with the disability in front of him was a human person, and his expression of personhood did not result in any change in that category or permit assigning him to a sub-category of human personhood.

What Galatians 3:28 affirms is this: that those now in Christ are, from a sociological perspective, drawn from a range of different categories of humanity, determined by gender, free status, and ethnicity. And yet, in Christ, such categories no longer define who they are—they are in Christ. Furthermore, as God’s people are indeed the “proto-people” for the new humanity, our outlook on others is similarly defined by these truths from Genesis, Mark, and Galatians: that those around us, whilst expressing a wide array of physical, cultural, and emotional diversity in their expressions of human personhood, all nonetheless are human persons, and we resist using their diversity as a framework for making categories of people. That resisting of categorization is crucial; otherwise, our tendency is to relate to the category, rather than the person. So often the question arises: “How should I reach Buddhists/Muslims/Hindus?” A danger here is that we are relating to others based on a specific category, rather than as people, as humans.

By resisting the use of difference as a means to categorize and “Other” people, we are also free to embrace the diverse expressions of humanity which we meet. Diversity represents a point of engagement, but not a means to frame our interaction. Gender, religion, ethnicity, disability—all of these are part of “who we are” and yet at the same time do not define our being, or the “beingness” of others. This cuts across two major contemporary identity theories: firstly, intersectionality, and secondly, performativity.

Intersectionality rightly points to how facets of identity contribute to persistent inequalities, such that often gender, race, and religion combine to effect privilege or exclusion. However, application of intersectionality to create categories of being is rejected here for the reasons explained above—that the dimensions of variety are significant in shaping who we are, but are ultimately not determinants of our being.

Likewise, performativity locates identity within the realm of what is enacted and presented—thus, gender is not a trait you are born with, but something which you “act” in concert with societal expectations. Again, we return to our points from Genesis, that our identity, whilst shaped by factors with which we are born and those which we enact and present, is not the same as our essential beingness, and that again, creating categories of being based on “performance” is also flawed and runs counter to the truth we know of our essential beingness being located in the image of God.

7. A body which matters: when Butler went to church

In Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Judith Butler considers plural performative action in public, and assembled responses to precarious conditions, such as the Tahir Square uprising.[47] Whilst performativity was initially used to describe the capacity of speech to act, or consummate an action, in this reading, the performative “enacts or produces that which it names.”[48] Through a collective performance, a “space” is created and maintained, a space inhabited by bodies, whose plurality and proximity results in the expression of a “something”—a movement. Through this collective appearing,

a new space is created, a new “between” of bodies, as it were, that lays claim to existing space through the action of a new alliance, and those bodies are seized and animated by those existing spaces in the very acts by which they reclaim and resignify their meanings.[49]

This performativity is rooted in collective identity, inscribing a wider shared identity within a claimed space. This perhaps illustrates the ambiguous nature of performative assembly: what are the scripts, and who writes them? Or to expand the notion: which “collective” determines the “collective identity”—raising questions of power and privilege again.[50] As Butler argues:

Their struggle is its own social form … an alliance begins to enact the social order it seeks to bring about by establishing its own modes of sociability. And yet, the alliance is not reducible to a collection of individuals … action in alliance happens precisely between those who participate, and this is not an ideal or empty space.[51]

Both Butler and transhumanism speak of a restless remaking of identity, in search of an image which is an evolution or iteration of what we are. That restless remaking is well known in Christian theology, yet the restless remaking we know is not towards an as-yet-unknown transcendence, or a compelling performance, but a process of conforming, conforming to an image known to us, however dimly. In Butler’s gender, and de Chardin’s transhumanism, a body is either reconstituted or re-engineered to some more advanced or compelling form. Drawing further on Butler, what kind of “body” is in some way “performatively constituted” by Christian believers gathered as “church”? And how is that performance, that “alliance of bodies”, shaped by the individual bodies which inhabit the space, which are part of the performance? To phrase the argument more simply: how does a “performance” of church look when the “bodies” who are included in that performance are varied, are plural, are expressive of a wide range of ethnic, economic, and disability status? And what “form” is constituted by different ways in which the performance is performed?

I would argue, however, that in Christ, that body—the church—has already been constituted, and our participation does not reconstitute it, but is a conforming to its likeness. This perhaps then describes our performances as apocalyptic: revealing a truth otherwise hidden, but revealed through humble, holy theatrics of inclusion as worship. If that is the case, our inclusive practice is not aimed at somehow reconstituting the body, but rather in conforming to what it already is. It needs neither an identity change, nor a technological enhancement, but a thorough appraisal of what, cosmically, is already there. His resurrection body bore visible wounds, as if there were glory in the evidence of disruption to the bodily form. That we are his body, the church, indicates that it is not in performing inclusion that we bring an inclusive body into being, but that by doing so we reflect the kind of body which is already there.

[1] United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), (accessed 9 October 2020).

[2] Lars Reuter, “Human is what is Born of a Human: Personhood, Rationality, and an European Convention,” The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy: A Forum for Bioethics and Philosophy of Medicine 25, no. 2 (2000): 183.

[3] R. E. Fishman, “Patenting Human Beings: Do Sub-human Creatures Deserve Constitutional Protection,” American Journal of Law and Medicine 15, no. 4 (1989): 461.

[4] Michael F. Goodman, ed., What is a Person? Contemporary Issues in Biomedicine, Bioethics, and Society (Clifton, NJ: Humana, 1988).

[5] S. S. Strum and B. Latour, “Redefining the Social Link: From Baboons to Humans,” Social Science Information 26, no. 4 (1987): 783–802.

[6] Gwendolyn J. Gordon, “Environmental Personhood,” Columbia Journal of Environmental Law 43, no. 1 (2018): 49; Christopher D. Stone, “Should Trees Have Standing—Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects,” Southern California Law Review 45 (1972): 450.

[7] Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University, 2003), 4.

[8] Goodman, What is a Person?, 1.

[9] Goodman, What is a Person?, 3.

[10] Tony Barta, “Mr Darwin’s Shooters: On Natural Selection and the Naturalizing of Genocide,” Patterns of Prejudice 39, no. 2 (2005): 116–37; Richard M. Lerner, Final Solutions: Biology, Prejudice, and Genocide (University Park, PA: Penn State University, 2010).

[11] Peter M. Asaro, “Robots and Responsibility from a Legal Perspective,” Proceedings of the IEEE 2007, 20–24, (accessed 10 October 2020); Jennifer Robertson, “Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Humanoid Robots and the Posthuman Family,” Critical Asian Studies 39, no. 3 (2007): 369–98.

[12] Steve Fuller, Humanity 2.0: What it Means to be Human Past, Present and Future (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near (London: Gerald Duckworth, 2010).

[13] Gunther Teubner, “Rights of Non‐humans? Electronic Agents and Animals as New Actors in Politics and Law,” Journal of Law and Society 33, no. 4 (2006): 497–521.

[14] Teubner, “Rights of Non-humans?”

[15] Klaus Schwab, The Fourth Industrial Revolution (Geneva: Portfolio Penguin, 2017).

[16] John Harris, Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2007), 48.

[17] Defined by Fuller as “the integration of cutting edge research in nano, bio, info and cogno-sciences for the purposes of extending the power and control of human beings over their environments.” Fuller, Humanity 2.0, 103.

[18] Fuller, Humanity 2.0, 137.

[19] Fuller, Humanity 2.0, 135.

[20] Fuller, Humanity 2.0, 136.

[21] Ronald Cole-Turner, Transhumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement (Washington, DC: Georgetown University, 2011).

[22] Harris, Enhancing Evolution, 51.

[23] Fuller, Humanity 2.0, 156.

[24] Jonathan Glover, What Sort of People Should There Be? (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), 55.

[25] David T. Mitchell, and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2014), 3.

[26] Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “The Case for Conserving Disability,” Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 9, no. 3 (2012): 339.

[27] Robert Jay Lifton, The Protean Self (New York: Basic, 1993), 1.

[28] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 2nd ed. (New York and London: Routledge, 1999).

[29] Butler, Gender Trouble, xiv.

[30] Butler, Gender Trouble, xv.

[31] Butler, Gender Trouble, 179.

[32] Melissa Tyler and Laurie Cohen, “Spaces that Matter: Gender Performativity and Organizational Space,” Organization Studies 31, no. 2 (2010): 179.

[33] Robert McRuer, “Compulsory Able-bodiedness and Queer/disabled Existence,” in Lennard J. Davis, ed., The Disability Studies Reader (London: Taylor & Francis, 2010), 373.

[34] I. Dyck, “Body Troubles: Women, the Workplace and Negotiations of a Disabled Identity,” in Ruth Butler and Hester Parr, eds., Mind and Body Spaces (London: Routledge, 2005).

[35] Ellen Samuels, “Critical Divides: Judith Butler’s Body Theory and the Question of Disability,” NWSA Journal 14, no. 3 (2002): 58–76.

[36] Tom Hewitt, Hazel Johnson, and Dave Wield, Industrialization and Development (Oxford: Oxford University, 1992).

[37] Schwab, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, 7.

[38] “Meet Dash and OSHbot: The Robot Workers who might Steal your Job,” The Guardian (2 October 2015); “Meet Eva, the Workplace Robot that won’t Necessarily Steal your Job,” The Guardian (15 August 2017); “What will Artificial Intelligence Mean for the World of Work?” The Guardian (17 February 2015); “Robots will not Lead to Fewer Jobs – but the Hollowing Out of the Middle Class,” The Guardian (20 August 2017).

[39] “Who Wants to Live in an Artificially Intelligent Future?” The Guardian (14 August 2017); “Elon Musk: AI ‘vastly more risky than North Korea’” The Guardian (14 August 2017).

[40] Melanie Arntz, Terry Gregory, and Ulrich Zierahn, “The Risk of Automation for Jobs in OECD Countries: A Comparative Analysis,” OECD Social, Employment, and Migration Working Papers no. 189 (2016), (accessed 10 October 2020); Richard Berriman, “Will Robots Steal Our Jobs?,” UK Economic Outlook (March 2017), (accessed 10 October 2020).

[41] Aaron Smith and Janna Anderson, “AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs,” Pew Research Center 6 (14 August 2014), (accessed 10 October 2020).

[42] Henning Kagermann, “Change through Digitization—Value Creation in the Age of Industry 4.0,” in Horst Albach, Heribert Meffert, Andreas Pinkwart, and Ralf Reichwald, eds., Management of Permanent Change (New York: Springer, 2015), 23–45; Dale T. Mortensen and Christopher A. Pissarides, “Technological Progress, Job Creation, and Job Destruction,” Review of Economic Dynamics 1, no. 4 (1998): 733–53; James Ferguson, Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution (Durham: Duke University, 2015).

[43] Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011).

[44] Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter, “Precarity as a Political Concept, or, Fordism as Exception,” Theory, Culture & Society 25, no. 7–8 (2008): 51–72.

[45] Roger Lundin, “Interpreting Orphans: Hermeneutics in the Cartesian Tradition,” in Roger Lundin, Clarence Walhout, and Anthony C. Thistleton, eds., The Promise of Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 19.

[46] This paper considers the imago Dei from an ontological point of view. For an understanding of the term from the perspective of Old Testament theology, see Walter McConnell, “In His Image: A Christian’s Place in Creation,” Asia Journal of Theology 20 (2006): 114–27 and “‘And Let them Rule’: Humanity’s Relationship with God and Creation,” in A Dialogue between Now and Eternity (Singapore: Singapore Bible College, 2007), 127–142; Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 215–9; and John H. Walton, Old Testament Theology for Christians: From Ancient Context to Enduring Belief (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017), 84–8, 97–8.

[47] Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[48] Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), 23.

[49] Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, 85.

[50] Butler, Gender Trouble.

[51] Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, 84.

Healing the Paralytic at Capernaum, engraving by Bernhard Rode (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons. It is in the public domain in its country of origin, the US, and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

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