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The American Museum of Natural History in New York has decided that it will remove all human remains from its displays, as well as make policy changes concerning its use of such remains. Over the years, the museum has accumulated the remains of around 12,000 people, and, as of this writing, has 12 cases that display them.
The items on display include such things as tools and beads made from human bones, skeletons, and even mummies. Seemingly, 26% of these belong to Native Americans, with 1,200 of those owned by the federal government. Another segment is of international origin. Still other bodies were African American slaves.
Originally, the remains were collected and used for scientific research that was rooted in eugenics and racism. Researchers were looking for physical proof of the superiority of white people.
The impetus for discontinuing the display and use of human remains came about because of a researcher who was interested in studying the practices of the museum. As public values have changed from earlier times, his disclosure of the existence of these remains put pressure on the museum and caused them to rethink their policy.
In addition to that, various advocacy groups have also brought pressure. Native American and African American groups don’t like the fact that the museum was studying their races without their consent. They feel that, over the years, they have been disrespected, and as long at they are being singled out for display, this disrespect continues. Although the museum no longer does research based on a belief in white superiority, the history alone is enough to make them change their policy.
But there is something else that comes into play, as well. The change of heart is not simply because they were getting complaints. They have come to see the complaints as representing something else – a moral wrong. This begs the question: Why did it not used to be considered morally objectionable, but now it does? What has happened to change the minds of the museum leadership?
Moral beliefs have to come from somewhere. For Christians, we believe that God has revealed to mankind what is right and wrong. And while the Bible does not give instructions concerning the display of human remains, there are principles that can be brought to bear on the subject. Biblical morality, however, doesn’t deal specifically with the use of human bones themselves. There is nothing particularly spiritual either way about the disposal of bones. When people die, their eternal life becomes completely separate from anything in this temporal world, and the bones themselves retain no eternal significance.
The place where moral elements might come into play has to do with the respect one should show for those who are living. It is not really a good thing to treat the remains of people in ways that show contempt or disrespect for others, no matter who they might be. That kind of attitude does not please God.
But the people who are in charge of the museum, as well as the researcher who was looking into the museum’s practices, do not base their moral beliefs on the teachings of Scripture. In fact, it is quite possible that the are not even Christians. That being the case, where do they get their moral proclivities. They have obviously come to believe that what has been done in the past is morally wrong and feel a need to correct it. But where does their morality come from?
Essentially, they have simply made it up for themselves. At some point they have become aware of, and sensitive to, the hurt pride and feelings of the people groups that the museum’s remains represent, and have decided that they should no longer be “insensitive” in that way. This is, certainly, not a bad thing, but the impetus for taking the actions they are taking are straight out of a naturalistic worldview. They are not concerned, in any way, with what God thinks about the matter. And they are not concerned with how it might affect the spiritual life or eternity of those who are offended. They just want to satisfy the sensibilities of certain people and, thus, promote harmony in society. Not a bad thing in any respect, but certainly a very low bar for determining morality. In the future, if the museum leaders’ sentiments change again, they could just change back. They are not following any objective moral principle.
Temporal morality is wishy-washy morality. God has given the world eternal principles and truths to live by. It is only when those are in play that the world will move forward in ways that it was created to move.
Freddy Davis is the president of MarketFaith Ministries. He is the author of numerous books entitled The Truth Mirage, Rules for Christians Radicals, Liberalism vs. Conservatism, and his latest book Shattering the Truth Mirage and has a background as an international missionary, pastor, radio host, worldview trainer, and entrepreneur. Freddy is a graduate of Florida State University with a BS in Communication, and holds MDiv and DMin degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a popular speaker, particularly on the topic of worldview and its practical implications for the Christian life. He lives in Tallahassee, FL, with his wife Deborah.
You may also contact Freddy at Leadership Speakers Bureau to schedule him for speaking or leadership engagements.
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