What the penny can teach us about life, liberty and Lincoln

June 29, 2016

They once rattled in pockets and paid off purchases. Now they’re routinely tossed to the ground and trampled underfoot. Some voices have even proposed doing away with them altogether. At a cost of 1.4 cents to mint per cent, the copper-plated zinc coin bearing Lincoln’s image is, the thinking goes, too costly and too inconvenient.

Put simply, the penny has fallen on hard times.

The old maxim, “A penny saved is a penny earned,” adapted from the treasuries of Benjamin Franklin’s wit and wisdom, fell out of mass circulation long ago. Now, it seems, the 2.5-gram one-cent piece is more nuisance than worth.

At least that’s what many think.

Picking up pennies

I’ve written before about our culture’s collective affinity toward our smartphones. We might do well, I suggested, to take our eyes off our hand-held screens from time to time and gaze elsewhere, lest the world around us and the God above us pass us by without our recognition. One might call our surf-and-scroll addiction the looking down problem. Count me guilty.

But count me guilty too of looking down, past the glossy glass in hand to the gritty ground below, while pounding the pavement from one destination to the next. The shine (or dullness) of my shoes is not my interest. Instead, I’m looking for the discarded, overlooked, trampled down penny.

Seldom does a day pass when commuting via Washington’s Metro rail transit system, or walking the corridors of the capital’s Union Station, that I don’t spot a penny on the pavement. Since the first of the year, I’ve stumbled upon and picked up more than 200 pennies (yes, I keep count). At this penny-a-day pace, I’ll be worth a Starbucks venti gingerbread latté by Christmas. Well, maybe.

But my years-long habit of rescuing homeless pennies is not some innovative means to add to my Christmas cheer. Nor, like the misguided pursuit of others, is it a hobby in hopes of finding “fortune” or “good luck.” It is instead, for me, a spiritual exercise.

Let me explain.

Minted by the Master

When I spot a penny on the ground, I’m reminded that the supreme God of the universe cares for every human life, small and insignificant as society may deem any one person. Jesus himself pointed to the penny, one of the smallest denominations in first century Palestine, to convey this rich spiritual truth.

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” he asked. “And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:29–31).

Consider, too, the psalmist’s declaration: “The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens! Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap….” (Ps. 113:4–7).

As I reach down to pick up pennies from the beaten path, my mind reflects upon this remarkable truth. I’m reminded that every life is sacred and created in the Imago Dei—the image of God (Gen. 1:27). I remember that the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills is the same God who picks up the common—the marred, the tarnished, the sin-stained. The God Who Sees does not pass over anyone. None of the world’s 7.4 billion people escape his eye. None go unnoticed. All, in his eyes, bear inestimable worth.

He bends down from the throne of heaven to behold the unlikely and the unlovely. He reaches down to the least and the lost, the lowly and the lonely. He lifts the lame and lightens the load of the heavy laden.

In other words, he reaches down to you and to me. He sets us at liberty. And he does so through the condescension of his Son.

I pause and thank God for such grace.

His was a cost not measured by shekels or weighed in gold. The child of God, I recall, has been ransomed “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet. 1:18–19).

He fashions his redeemed sons and daughters into something quite uncommon. He remakes the middle, the core—the heart—to a pure composition found in the righteousness of his beloved Son, who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phi. 2:7). And in God’s eyes, that prized, purchased possession—minted by the Master—is shiny and new, even as marks on the face shall remain.

It’s a math that doesn’t add up. It’s an incomprehensible calculus, an unfathomable formula. It sounds too simple and defies all logic.

I praise God, penny in hand, for such a math that makes no sense.

And I remind myself that we, the picked up and purchased, are to seek to do something of the same.

Replicating the Master

Abraham Lincoln’s imprint on the face of the penny, beginning in 1909, is, I think, fitting. The 16th president recalled, at Gettysburg, that ours is a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He affirmed the dignity of every man, woman and child. At a time when millions living on U.S. soil were regarded as less than humans, the great emancipator stood in their defense. He reminded them, and the nation, that they bore the stamp of God just as much as anyone else.

In short, he reached down and picked them up.

When we peer down at the thrown out penny, we too can think about the disenfranchised and discarded among us. We can remember the unborn and the aged, the infirmed and the impoverished, the immigrant and the imprisoned—all those routinely denied, by many, the recognition of their God-given intrinsic worth.

Then we can seek to pick them up. We can, in that moment, lift them in prayer to the Father and ask what part we might play in heeding their plight, in helping them find liberty. The “poor in the dust” and the “needy in the ash heap” need no stroke of good luck. All of us, as image-bearers of God, share a need one and the same: a lift, out of our helpless state, from above—from a friend, from a neighbor, from, ultimately, a Father.

We can fixate on the penny’s year of mint, offset in relief to the right of Lincoln’s profile, and lift a word of praise for something good that comes to mind from that particular year. Or, as the case may be, we can offer a petition that God would bring about some good, for his glory, out of some evil that overtook a person or a nation that year. The Father to the fatherless is, after all, the One who brings light out of darkness (2 Cor. 4:6) and sets the captives free (Gal. 5:1).

Riches beyond measure

Admittedly, I hope we don’t do away with the penny. As long as one-cent pieces are around, I’ll keep my eye out for them, covered in dirt and trampled underfoot, and pick them up as a reminder that the Maker of heaven and earth cares for and stoops down to the least of us. And, if need be, I’ll find a bigger bowl to house my growing collection of adopted coins. An ever present reminder.

Indeed, a penny saved may well be a penny earned. But a penny found is, by my accounting, much more: an opportune occasion to consider the lives among us and the Lord who loves us. What better moment to recount the God to be praised, the Savior he raised and our lives that he saved!

To be sure, the once-lost but now-found coin is not a stroke of good luck, but a good gift from a faithful Father. And therein yields a treasure that cannot be weighed in copper and zinc, or silver and gold.

If only we will take the time to stoop down.

That’s just my two cents, anyway.

Doug Carlson

Doug Carlson came to the ERLC in 2004 and serves as the Leland House’s Office Manager, overseeing the administrative and organizational needs of the Washington office. A Fort Wayne, Ind., native, Doug attended Word of Life Bible Institute and received his B.S. from Liberty University and his Master of Public … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24