Whoever Saves One Life Saves the World
by Matthew Youde
It's a few hours before my flight home from India and I am in the hospitality apartment provided for such intervals. The room has mattresses lining the floor, and I am sitting with my colleague from New York conducting a video interview with a fellow pilgrim - Munetsi from Zimbabwe. The traffic rumbles below on Kolkata's busy V.I.P. road and sounds of frantic concern filter through from another room - a Ugandan Bishop has lost his passport - as I ask my interviewee about life in Zimbabwe. His story is a moving one and although Munetsi has hopes and ideas for the future, the pain in his eyes cannot be masked, and his body is worryingly thin and fragile. He works at the University of Harare and back home, he says, the Cholera epidemic - that his government denies exists - is spreading across the city. The hospitals cannot open because of lack of staff and medicines, and the situation in the countryside is even worse. The notion that all life is sacred seems to have bypassed many of those in power in Zimbabwe as its people suffer hunger, disease and injustice on a daily basis.
For me, the human condition and the suffering therein, is epitomised by individual not universal tragedies.
As a Catholic I usually have a stock answer to questions on the sanctity of life, which should be especially easy for me to dip into now during Lent with the approach of Easter, a time when I feel particularly religious. Yet the multitudes of suffering and injustice we see in the world have brought out a more agnostic side in me, which would have been a bit of a worry under normal circumstances, but I am cushioned by the growing humanism I have been developing alongside my faith in recent months. I have a particular approach to the concept of the value of human life and dignity that has not changed with the ebbing and flowing of my religiosity.
For me, the human condition and the suffering therein, is epitomised by individual not universal tragedies. Even though secret reports from inside Zimbabwe has kept me aware of what is happening, nothing tuned me into the suffering in that country more than the pain in the eyes of my Zimbabwean friend. Likewise the case of the missing child Madeleine McCann: a story that I found heart-rending, even though I am aware that people, and sometimes children, go missing on a regular basis. Some time afterwards, with the media circus still raging, I was having coffee with a friend who bemoaned the continuing coverage. He highlighted the many other problems in the world, asserting that one child could not be more important than everything else. The thing is, for me the opposite was true. The tragedy had moved me in a profound way and I really see it as the beginning of this shift in my faith.
I began to see that if the vulnerability of the human condition can be expressed through one person, it might be philosophically viable to say that one person can, for that moment, be more significantly important than anything else in the whole world. Responding to that person - who represents the wider suffering and injustice - in a positive manner can be a conduit to a wider change: a thought encapsulated in Jewish wisdom: Whoever saves one life saves the entire world.
Empathy and sympathy can be diluted and rendered redundant by focusing on the great, global scale of human suffering, something our limited field of vision cannot fully comprehend and retain in any great detail. For me this is what the God of the Hebrew Bible was referring to in the Book of Job when He compares our limited and narrow perception of the world to the boundlessness of His.
In the Christian tradition, Jesus saved all by His specific sacrifice. His great teachings and profound love, inspiring as they are, would have far less of an impact if not for the way He epitomised these teachings with His death. The example of Jesus demonstrates for the Christian how a specific and personal experience can create wider, more productive ripples than the generalised, passive tenderness that we are sometimes prone to.