The other day at Thinking Christian I put forth the question,

Can you identify the context of this passage?

To have a persona [to be a person] was to have a face before the law—which is to say, to be recognized as one possessing rights and privileges before a court, or as being able to give testimony upon the strength of one’s own word, or simply as owning a respectable social identity. For [your turn—fill in the blanks here], legal personality did not exist, or existed in only the most tenuous of forms…. [Fill in the blank again] was [someone]… “not having a persona,” or even, “not having a face.” Before the law, he or she was not a person in the fullest and most proper sense.

Of whom might this author might be speaking? Does this represent an injustice? If so, on what basis, and what could be (or might have been, if this was in the past) be done about it?

Someone guessed slavery. Someone else thought it was quite believable that it had to do with unborn babies.

There’s one author here at First Things, David Bentley Hart, who will have no trouble answering the question. Here is the (nearly) entire quote, from his highly-recommended historical survey, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. (I trust he will not mind my using it here.)

Even Christianity’s most implacable modern critics should be willing to acknowledge that, in these texts and others like them, we see something beginning to emerge from darkness into full visibility, arguably for the first time in our history: the human person as such, invested with an intrinsic and inviolable dignity, and possessed of an infinite value. It would not even be implausible to argue that our very ability to speak of “persons” as we do is a consequence of the revolution in moral sensibility that Christianity brought about. We, after all, emply this word with a splendidly indiscriminate generosity, applying it without hesitation to everyone, regardless of social station, race, or sex; but originally, at least in some of the most cricuial contexts, it had a much more limited application. Specifically, in Roman legal usage, one’s person was one’s status before the law, which was certainly not something invariable from one individual to the next. The original and primary meaning of the Latin word persona was “mask”....

To have a persona was to have a face before the law—which is to say, to be recognized as one possessing rights and privileges before a court, or as being able to give testimony upon the strength of one’s own word, or simply as owning a respectable social identity. For those of the lowest stations, however—slaves, base-born non-citizens and criminals, the utterly destitute, and criminals—legal personality did not exist, or existed in only the most tenuous of forms…. A slave was so entirely devoid of any “personal” dignity that, when called to testify before a duly appointed court, torture might be applied as a matter of course. For the slave was a man or woman not habens personam: literally, “not having a persona,” or even, “not having a face.” Before the law, he or she was not a person in the fullest and most proper sense.

Today, as Hart reminds us in the surrounding context, such a thing is unthinkable, outrageous. This change in Western attitudes toward human persons is directly traceable to New Testament Christianity, the “texts” he referred to in the first sentence of the above quote.

Isn’t it fascinating how well this language concerning slaves in ancient times fits abortion-supporters’ view of unborn babies today? Someday, maybe, our culture will wake up and recognize that human beings are persons, whether they have been enslaved, live in poverty, lack citizenship—or haven’t quite been born yet.

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