Every Human Life Has Value

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

In recent weeks the world has been rocked by deeds of horrific violence, which have had tragic consequences and brought fear and sorrow into the lives of people everywhere. Yet sudden acts of terrorist violence are not the only type of random destruction occurring today. Structures of domination and exploitation impose a kind of subtle violence that also take many innocent lives as their toll. What unifies both terrorism and systemic violence is a refusal to recognize that every person is an irreplaceable center of subjective experience and thus a bearer of intrinsic value. 

Over the past two weeks, deeds of horrific violence have erupted across the globe, tearing at the strings of the heart. A suicide bombing in Ankara on March 13 killed forty people, the latest in a series of bombings in Turkish cities. Two suicide bombings took place in Brussels a week ago, at the airport and on a train, killing more than thirty, turning an ordinary business day into a nightmare. On Easter Sunday in Lahore, a major city in Pakistan, a suicide bombing in a park claimed the lives of more than seventy people, most of them women and children enjoying a family outing. Another suicide bombing in a soccer stadium in Iraq, south of Baghdad, killed thirty, mostly youngsters.

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Mourners in Pakistan after bombing at park in Lahore

Such deeds testify to a shocking disregard for human life that has spread like wildfire from country to country. These acts of senseless violence leave us speechless, stricken with grief for the victims, shaken by sorrow, anxious perhaps that in the weeks and months ahead we ourselves might just happen to find ourselves standing at the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet the number of lives these deeds of desperate cruelty claim, while shocking, is still miniscule compared to another kind of violence that is all the more pernicious because it does not strike suddenly out of the blue but creeps up slowly, imperceptibly, like a viper hidden in the grass. This is the violence, often lethal violence, inflicted by global systems and institutions that are considered normal, inevitable, and even respectable.

Systemic Violence

Systemic violence does not snuff out lives in a matter of seconds, and thus it does not grab headlines, send shock waves around the world, and draw forth eloquent words of sympathy from global leaders. It seldom even registers in our consciousness. Unless we are affected, it does not shake our faith in the predictable order of things. But this kind of structural violence is also deadly. It takes lives, the lives of many people who never expected to fall victim to institutions they trusted and took for granted. It takes lives slowly, over extended periods of time, and thus the death toll does not appear as a neat, quotable sum. At the end of a year or decade, however, when the calculations are made, the number of lives lost is to be counted not in the dozens or hundreds, but in the thousands and even millions.

The forms that institutional violence takes are many. There is hardly a need to mention the military-industrial complex and the weapons manufacturers, which thrive in dependence on wars around the world. The tobacco industry for decades denied the connections between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Its spokesmen protested before Congress, and they even hired scientific experts to testify that such a connection was non-existent. Yet the deception cost millions of lives. Pharmaceutical corporations, too, keep the prices of drugs sky-high, beyond the reach of those who need them. In order to maintain their high profit margin, they have also refused to allow countries in the global South to market generic forms of their life-saving drugs, with deadly consequences. The fossil fuel corporations continue to extract and promote coal, oil, and gas, while blocking grants to facilitate a switch to renewables. They thus go on increasing carbon emissions, which escalates global warming and brings on droughts, floods, heat waves, and wildfires, all of which cost millions of lives.

The food industry is another major establishment that has been responsible for the early deaths of millions around the world. Dominated by giant agri-business conglomerates, with links to chemical and transport corporations, the industry has flourished by making food production dependent on the use of toxic chemicals that enter our bodies, causing cancers and organ failure. In Sri Lanka’s North Central Province, the nation’s rice basket, an estimated 70,000 to 400,000 farmers have been affected by a lethal kidney disease that researchers trace to the use of agri-chemicals. In India, farmers are forced into the trap of a debt-based system that drives the most desperate to suicide. Over the past twenty years, some 300,000 Indian farmers have taken their own lives, mostly because of debts incurred to purchase costly fertilizer, pesticides, and seeds. Often these farmers are further driven to desperation by crop failures caused by lack of adequate rainfall, probably a result of climate change. With the pushing of GMOs, the impact on human health is still unpredictable.

The untimely death of innocent people may be sudden, triggered by suicide bombers – by men and women whose minds have been warped by a toxic ideology picked up in madrassas and rented rooms – or it may be slow and gradual, brought on by corporate enterprises managed by respectable executives in glass skyscrapers, people who in their own communities might be models of responsible citizenship. What unites them, despite their differences, is a conviction that certain lives are disposable. For the Islamist bomber, it is the lives of Americans, Europeans, Iraqis, or Pakistanis going about their day-to-day business, simply because they follow the wrong religion or a wrong version of the one true faith. For the chemical company or petroleum firm, it might be the lives of brown and black people on the other side of the world, or the urban underclass in Texas and Oklahoma, simply because they are poor, nameless, and far out of sight.

The belief that certain lives don’t matter may take the form of a conscious conviction, as is held by the terrorist, or it may be an unspoken premise underlying a system that puts profits above people. But when one adopts this belief, either as a conscious conviction or simply as a corollary of the imperative to maximize corporate profits, there is no line one will not cross in pursuit of one’s aim, even when others must die for the greater cause. In the case of terrorist violence, the death of innocents can be dismissed because the victims were infidels. In the case of structural violence, such deaths can be written off as “collateral damage.”

Affirming that Every Life Has Value

What is needed to counter these trends, and to prevent the heart-breaking tragedies they bring about, is a recognition that every human life has intrinsic value. Every human life has intrinsic value because every person is a center of subjective experience. Because I see myself as a center of subjective experience I believe that my own life has value, that I deserve the optimal conditions to flourish and realize my potentials. I know that I want to live and not to die prematurely; I know that I wish to be happy and not to suffer. Yet it takes just a slight act of the imagination, a subtle shift in consciousness, to realize that the same is true about everyone. If we can let our minds expand and see the world as a community of subjects, of people who are not just nameless faces, who are not mere objects, but subjects exactly like ourselves, centers of experience, beings who can feel joy and sorrow, who love and are loved by others, our attitudes will undergo a shift. From being engrossed in self-concern, we will extend our concern to others. From seeking our own benefit, we will seek to benefit others. From being attached to our own beliefs, we will respect the right of others to hold their own beliefs, as long as these do not entail harm for others.

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BGR Walk in San Francisco Photo: Kevin Cheung.

The work of Buddhist Global Relief is an attempt to put this principle into practice. Our projects are spread out across the world, from China through southern Asia and Africa to the Caribbean and the United States. Our decisions about which projects to implement are not governed by considering ethnicity or religion. We support followers of Buddhism, but also of Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Animism. We try to see our beneficiaries as more than mere statistics, objectified and codified, to see them as subjects of experience who deserve to thrive and flourish. We put special emphasis on helping women and girls, because they are too often the victims of oppressive systems, and too often their lives are treated as dispensable. Our focus is on food security because food is the key to life. But our projects also extend to education because it’s education that provides a ladder up from poverty, and education that enriches people’s minds so they can realize their potentials. Though the work of BGR is small scale, it is, we hope, a stepping stone toward a world order in which peace, harmony, and mutual respect will prevail among all peoples everywhere.

This is the cover essay of the spring issue of the BGR newsletter, Helping Hands. See the full newsletter here:  http://www.buddhistglobalrelief.org/newsletters/HH_V08N01_spring.pdf

The photo of mourners in Pakistan Creative Commons Licenseis taken from MWC News and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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