Human Dignity is one way of expressing the sanctity of human life. It serves as a cornerstone concept in bioethics, a bulwark against the assault on human value in issues that range from stem cell research to euthanasia, or from “womb to tomb” as Dr. Gregory Rutecki of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity has put it.
As a value statement, Human Dignity has traction beyond bioethics and well beyond the common assumption the dignity concerns those who are dying—either “death with dignity” or compassionate care for the dying, so they may die with dignity. This is a sadly truncated view.
Dignity is a value more important to living than dying, and a way of expressing the values of life that is more pointed than pro-life. It is pro-human.
Dignity is a way of saying that human beings have worth simply because they are human beings. People have intrinsic value, absolute value, which must be respected absolutely. This is different than attaching a price. For everything money can buy there’s Master Card. For human beings? Priceless.
Theologically the principle is rooted in the Creation of the human in the image of God, male and female, as the Scriptures say. It is reaffirmed by the incarnation of the Son of God in human form. Dignity is evident in Jesus’ compassion for the poor and his confrontations with the powerful. It is revealed supremely in his identification with sinful humanity on the cross. In Jesus, God becomes one with us. This is the foundation of human dignity. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).
But there is a sharp edge to the idea. The concept of Dignity cuts across all other categories: race and religion, age and gender, saints and sinners. It stands guard serenely over the unborn child, but then like some bulked-up bouncer refuses to let us dismiss or disparage anyone on account of any lower-level criteria. Unborn? Human. Birth defects? Human. Less-than-normal intelligence? Human. Very old? Human. Mentally incompetent? Still human! The logic of human dignity is relentless and the implications are exacting. Murderer? Rapist? Terrorist? Enemy? Human, all of them, even those who act inhumanely!
Human dignity confronts me with a very demanding standard. Even when I feel entitled to despise people because they are so obviously wrong, bad, or evil, they still possess inalienable Dignity. I am required to respect their humanity, even while I am free to judge the acts of murder, rape, terror and a hundred other things as wrong.
This is harder than “hate the sin but love the sinner.” Hating the sin (of others!) is easy, of course. But loving the sinner whose sin I hate is slippery business. Love in that mode easily slides into a kind of thinly disguised condescension. Looking down upon another while I refrain from making judgments (or so I tell myself), I am doubly virtuous and pleased to be so: superior in my righteousness, noble in my pity, and proud of my own magnanimity.
Dignity sets the bar lower and beckons me to come down from on high. It tells me to recognize that the person before me is irreducibly the same as me, a human being with equal dignity, whatever other feelings may collide within me. As soon as I admit the intrinsic dignity of all human beings, I am associated with the wrong kind of people. Degrees of dignity, caste of some kind, pecking order—any of those mechanisms sets me free to set myself apart from those who are other, outside, alien, or less. Human Dignity sticks me on a bus with fellow-passengers I would not choose, and whose company I don’t necessarily enjoy.
I was thinking recently, on account of the holiday, about the Wampanoag people (a.k.a. Native Americans), who joined the Plymouth Pilgrims in a week of feasting, the first Thanksgiving. From a Christian point of view they were pagan, unaware of the revelation of God in Christ and uninformed by biblical instruction. What motivated them to peaceably join the Pilgrims in a feast, rather than despise or destroy the strangers on their shore? Was it the recognition, despite a wide cultural gap, of shared humanity? A sense of respect for human dignity?
Equal dignity defines the ground on which unimaginable reconciliations become thinkable, such as the peaceable kingdom Isaiah foresaw, where “natural” enemies rest together. An alternative vision is to deny the dignity of others and reap the whirlwind.
As my friend and mentor, Haddon Willmer, has written, “Enmity is intensified whenever people feel that their honour has been slighted.” The comment goes a long way to explaining conflicts around the globe, and around the house. He goes on to say, “Some want to give rather than receive. If that giving is spurned, an insatiable passion for revenge or justice can be provoked. That is why it is not only the wickedly proud and selfish people who can become implacable fighters; when the good intentions of generous constructive people are thwarted, they become very angry.” And so we are, Americans steeped in the self-imaginary of our national good intents, perplexed and more than a little angry that the world is not more grateful for all that we are trying to do for them.
But of course the real lesson is this: disregard the God-given dignity of others and even the best intended deeds cause offense. Then off we go in a spiral of mutual recrimination, hostility, violence and destruction. Give dignity its due and something better might happen.
In the work where I’m involved with impoverished communities, LifeWind International, the principle of Equal Dignity is foundational. It is the coming issue, I believe, in the continuing campaign to find solutions to world poverty. Dignity forces the discussion of poverty beyond economic development, a discourse that too easily slides down the path of condescending pity and lurking superiority. In our secret hearts we are tempted to believe that poverty might be a sign of some intrinsic defect, while wealth is the confirmation of our superior abilities. Noblesse oblige. Here come the rich to rescue the poor. But those on the receiving side of our intended generosity see the truth of what we believe behind our stuffed pocketbooks. If we deny equal dignity, we sow the seeds of long-term resentment. Dignity for the poor and oppressed is not the prize we give them at the end, once we have won the battle, but the starting point for a new way of working together.
This principle is the missing element in much of what goes under the name of mission still today. But where it is embraced and practiced, Equal Dignity of all people, rich and poor, believers and unbelievers, is the path upwards, a steep and narrow way that opens to life and liberation from the vortex of humiliation. Seeing people with the dignity endowed by God is how we begin to discover what it means to live God’s life in this world, as Jesus did, together.