On a morning early in September, with the heat index heading for 109°, an unlikely collection of geneticists, pastors, and artists gathered in the basement of the historic Enon Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland. As the church’s weekly clothing closet served members of the community in the next room, the gathering discussed how recent advances in genetic technology could benefit the victims of sickle cell disease, a genetic mutation that disproportionately affects African Americans. Most of the pastors in that sweltering room were themselves African-American, with the exception of myself and Chad Baldanza, a pastor at CTK Jamaica Plain/Roxbury. How we came to be present at that meeting is part of an incredible story of God’s providing open doors for the gospel and opportunities to engage the city that He loves.
The story begins last February, when Logan Keck, lead pastor at CTK JP/Roxbury, answered his cell phone. On the other end of the line was Ting Wu, a geneticist working at Harvard Medical School, who was calling to ask if she could come speak to Logan’s church about recent advances in genetic technology. Sounds interesting, thought Logan – why not?
Logan invited me to Ting’s visit, so in mid-March I rode the Orange Line down to the brewery complex in JP to join his congregation for the talk after their worship service. Ting first explained why she was there. Recently developed tools make possible the editing of the human genome in ways that were once only hypothetical, holding out the promise of tremendous therapeutic benefits but, at the same time, raising thorny ethical questions about how, when, and by whom such technology should be used.
Ting explained that she had grown concerned that that while the rapidly advancing technology has implications for everyone, the ethical conversations are being held primarily among scientists alone. In response, she had formed an organization called the Personal Genetics Education Project (pgEd), which seeks to expand that conversation to the groups who tend to not to be a part of it, including communities of faith. On the day that Ting called Logan’s cell phone, she had been frustrated by her struggles to find a church in Boston that would speak with her, so she just started cold-calling numbers from a Google search for “churches near Harvard Medical School.” Logan was the first person to answer the phone.
The discussion that ensued in Jamaica Plain was something that our culture war-weary world would tell us can’t occur: a group of Christians and a scientist of no particular faith background, engaging in a dialogue, genuinely seeking to learn from each other. Ting told me when I visited her office a few weeks later that she had been impressed by the warm welcome she had received from the congregation, the subtle thoughtfulness of the questions she had heard, and the richness of the faith that lay beneath them. She found particularly striking the notion, entirely new to her, that what sets humanity apart is that people are made in the image of God.
So striking did she find this idea that she gave me and Chad a surprising invitation. In May, pgEd would convene an Industry Forum at Harvard Medical School, bringing together geneticists, including Ting’s husband George Church (one of the leading innovators in the field), industry executives from genetics firms in Kendall Square and around the world, policymakers, educators, and artists.
“And,” Ting told me, “I’d like you and Chad to give us a fifteen-minute presentation on what it means that humans are made in the image of God.”
It took no time at all for us to accept this invitation. Chad sat on a panel between George Church and the head of biotech public policy at DuPont. He explained our belief that every human being, regardless of age or ability, is called to reflect God to His creation, and to rule over that creation as His steward. This, he said, means two things.
First, it means that Christianity is wholeheartedly enthusiastic for the work of scientists, as they discern with greater clarity the nature of all that God has made and bring order where there is chaos. Science is one of the most powerful ways that humanity receives God’s gift of creation and obeys his blessing to “subdue the earth” on his behalf.
But second, the notion that humans are made in the image of God stands opposed to the dehumanization of any person made in that image, and it locates human dignity in the way God has related Himself to humanity, not in any characteristic of humanity that could be lost, acquired, or denied. Our history indicates how high the stakes are: time and again, humans have shown themselves capable of failing to recognize the full humanity of individuals or groups, as a pretense to enslave, imprison, torture, eradicate, segregate, or simply discard image bearers whom they have defined as less than human.
It’s in the person of Jesus, Chad said, that we ultimately understand what it means for humans to be made in God’s image. In the incarnate Son of God we see the love that God has for this world, that he created and called good. We see the incredible value He places on humanity—that Jesus would humble himself and assume a human nature, a nature in which he would suffer and die in the place of sinners, but which God would not abandon to the grave. In Jesus, the perfect image of God, we see the immeasurable value and dignity of every person called into that image.
Reactions to the presentation were, as you might imagine, mixed—but Chad had spoken so aptly to the shared concerns of those gathered that even the pushback was constructive. The scientists asked particularly probing questions that, we had to admit, we couldn’t answer definitively, as they pushed into the ambiguous tension between the potential of technology to bring order into chaos and to dehumanize its objects and subjects alike. It was one of the reasons we were there, I said—theology needs to learn from science to bring wisdom fully to bear on bioethical questions, even as science gains from theology a framework in which to understand purpose and meaning that it can’t deliver on its own.
Our path to Baltimore began at the Industry Forum, where we met another pastor representing a group called the Minority Coalition for Precision Medicine. What we learned from him will have to wait for a future edition of CTK Stories…
Nathan Barczi is an associate pastor at Christ the King in Cambridge. He and his wife Leann both moved from California to Boston in the early 2000s for graduate school. They have three children.