Last week, a political firestorm erupted when Roseanne Barr tweeted that Barack Obama’s close adviser Valerie Jarrett resembled the offspring of the “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes.” Laying aside the fact that Jarrett did forge political and personal ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and its U.S. offshoots while in office, associating blacks with primates proved beyond the pale. ABC instantly canceled the top-rated series on television – and Democrats blamed her toxic tweet on Donald Trump and all his supporters.
How a former Green Party presidential hopeful who advocated beheading Wall Street bankers became totemic of all Republicans is itself a useful lesson in misapplying labels. But she tweeted just days after President Trump called members of MS-13 – who commit barbaric and sometimes literally Satanic crimes – “animals,” and his words had been falsely reported as referring to all illegal immigrants.
The episodes raise a vital question: What makes us human?
Scientists define humans as the species homo sapiens sharing an common strand of DNA. But from at least the time of Socrates, philosophers identified mankind as the species uniquely endowed with reason. “It is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust,” Aristotle wrote (Politics, Book I).
People of faith have historically said something more separates us from the animals than the use of our rational faculties: Moral behavior. Many of us have casually described someone who is boorish or uncouth by saying, “He acts like an animal.” For example, the New York Times ran an op-ed called “Donald Trump and Other Animals.”
However, it may surprise some to learn that Jesus Himself used this idiom. He called King Herod a “fox” (St. Luke 13:31-32), and some of the Pharisees “serpents, [the]generation of vipers” (St. Matthew 23:33). St. John the Baptist, the greatest person ever born of woman and who is particularly revered in the Eastern Christian tradition, used identical language (St. Matthew 3:7 and St. Luke 3:7).
This notion permeated classical Western thought. The second-century Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria –who profoundly influenced an entire school of Christian thought – wrote that the Torah taught “the unjust is no man, or more properly speaking a beast in human form … [T]he follower after righteousness alone is man.”
The Church Fathers said this difference could be seen in human physiognomy. St. Basil the Great wrote that, unlike base beasts, the human head looks upward to God. “[W]hen you degrade yourself through the passions of the flesh – and become slave of your belly and lowest parts – you approach the irrational animals and become like one of them,” he wrote.
St. John Chrysostom said the people of Noah’s day “had lost the status of human beings through falling into the pleasures of the flesh.” Noah alone “retained the character of a human … [F]ollowing the Lord’s commands – this is what makes a human being.” He concluded, “[W]e would call a human being the man who retains the character of a human being.”
One might extrapolate that these Church Fathers would consider the MS-13 modus operandi of raping, torturing, and frequently dismembering their victims to fall short of that minimum.
If sin degenerated the entire human race, Jesus raised humanity by uniting the divine and human natures into one Person. In His Body, Christ raised our nature to unprecedented heights and infused it with the potential for union with Him. Pope St. Leo the Great said that, when Jesus ascended into Heaven, “the Nature of mankind went up, to pass above the angels’ ranks and to rise beyond the archangels’ heights, and to be lifted to a boundless elevation until [it was]allowed to sit with the Eternal Father.”
By no means am I claiming that President Trump had any of these passages in mind when he made his comment. He may have remembered something he heard in his childhood from a kindly parish priest – specifically Bing Crosby in Going My Way. His song “Swinging on a Star,” released just two years before Trump was born, warned students if they pursue vice they “may grow up to be a pig.” (Gabe Kaplan’s class of lovable miscreants on “Welcome Back, Kotter” earned the name “Sweathogs” in a similar fashion.)
At any rate, one is not duty-bound to believe that Trump used the phrase in an unambiguously Nazi-like act of dehumanization. He clarified this the following Tuesday, when he told a pro-life gala, “Every life has meaning and that every life is totally worth protecting.” That distinguished him from his critics, who routinely refer to six-month-old fetuses as “clumps of cells” or “parasites.” It is more likely he used the phrase “animals” (repeatedly) in a figurative sense derived from the earlier Christian moral tradition, that living a truly human life requires adherence to a minimal moral standard.
Every life has infinite value and potential, but not every life rises to the high calling of fulfilling its vocation as a human being. That is for each of us to realize through humble adoration of the Trinity and a life dedicated to keeping His commandments, or to discard through senseless acts of violence – or demonizing reasonable human beings who happen to hold different political opinions than we do.