Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness . . . .”So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26a,27 NRSV)
Human dignity is a gift to us, not an achievement. True, some of us speak and live with that dignity much of the time, others not often, and some hardly ever. True also, our human dignity can be hidden, corrupted, and even degraded beyond recognition, but it cannot be removed or destroyed utterly because it has been conferred upon our humanity and so persists in all and each of us as God’s gift.
I suspect many people would recoil at what I have just said because we have been trained to view dignity as something we must earn and then may possess with pride as though it were our very own attainment, even if we inherited a head start at birth. We have preferred to regard dignity as something comparative belonging to the superior people but lacking in those we regard as inferior. As deeply entrenched and widely accepted as this notion of comparative human dignity may be, it is a lie. Yes, the way we live may display the gift or hide it, even contradict it, but we cannot lose it entirely because it is not our own to lose or surrender. Our basic dignity comes not from superiority, achievement or supposedly high birth, but from God as an endowment in our creation.
Comparative dignity imposes shame upon society’s lesser people, while tempting the supposedly greater people to a presumption of proper pride. Insidiously, the comparisons persuade both groups to internalize the false hierarchy of shame and pride and so to understand themselves as inherently lesser or greater. Think of how many evils in our world are rationalized and perpetuated by the false belief that some people are more valuable than others and that some people’s lives matter more than others. The insistence that “black lives matter” opposes this life-destroying falsehood precisely at a point where the truth is rejected, not saying that black lives matter more than other lives, but declaring what has been denied with brutal and murderous consequences. The counter claim which piously declares, “all lives matter,” is false, not because all lives do not matter (they do), but because it seeks to cover up the ongoing reality that the lives of black people are disregarded in much of our society.
We judge and are judged according to biological factors: gender, so-called race (a phony distinction among us), sexual orientation, physical size and strength, beauty, etc. Add the biographical factors of family wealth, education, position in society, and list of achievements, and you set the powerful standards for shame and pride used by long tradition to degrade some people while elevating others to prestige and privilege. To hide the unfairness of such comparisons, toss in the remarkable success stories of certain outstanding individuals who have overcome severe disadvantages through extraordinary effort (and often luck), the stories used to justify scorn for the rest of the people against whom our systems are rigged. “See, he did it; what’s wrong with you?” So do we justify our contempt and cruelty while maintaining privilege for the favored.
Biblically it is true that human dignity is not merely a status but a commission to represent the Creator’s love and care for the creation. It is dignity for the sake of responsibility and service. Individually and collectively, humanity is charged with caring for God’s world as well as for each other. It is this stewardship responsibility that lies at the heart of the Bible’s saying we are made in the image and likeness of God. Biblically, it is not our opposing thumbs, complex languages, comparatively large brains, or reasoning powers that most set us apart from the other animals, but our capacity for knowing God and caring about the things God cares about – for the sake of the whole human community and all God’s creatures. As God’s appointed representatives, we are called out from the rest in order to bear responsibility for service to God for the sake of the rest.
Here we come upon a major task in rethinking and re-learning Christian faith. To join with Jesus the Christ in his mission of representing God in and for this world, we must address human dignity as a reality, however tarnished or hidden it may be in someone’s life. We must meet people with respect for the image of God, and so we must respect both their dignity and their freedom. Triumphalist Christianity, enamored of power and glory, cannot represent Christ faithfully to the world’s people. Know-it-all Christianity bears false witness to Christ. As Christendom continues to fade from the earth and as Christian becomes less and less the thing to be even in the United States, we have a chance – a window of opportunity – to hear and rediscover Christ’s call and to become the kind of movement in the world that Jesus launched.
In Jesus’ parable of the father and his two sons (traditionally called the parable of the prodigal son), the younger son degrades himself utterly, but when he returns to what had been his home and family, begging to be taken back as a slave, his father instead restores to him the dignity his son has renounced and tarnished beyond recognition. Who the son is to his father overrides any judgment upon him including his own judgment upon himself, but at the same time his father’s love becomes in a restorative way the greatest possible judgment upon him. No longer will he be the man he has made of himself. That man, the non-son he made himself by disowning his father, is to be no more. His shame is countermanded. True, psychologically, it would not be quick and easy for a living person; he would have to grow out of his shame and into his true place within the family. He would need to become forgiving of others and patient with his older brother’s resentment of his return, but the way his father welcomes him home serves as a major analogy for the redemptive desire of God. The father recognizes and restores the dignity his son has spurned but could not lose completely because his father still loves him.
So, here I believe is one imperative for Christian faith: respect human dignity. We are not compelled to respect all behavior; God’s demand for justice sometimes requires that we do not. But, we are to respect the person because of her or his relation to God, a relation created from God’s side. It’s not difficult to understand. We find ourselves caring more about someone in a degraded condition if we learn the person is the daughter or son of a friend. That’s rather the same idea..
Next, another truth of human life we need to rediscover: solidarity.
I like the term “comparative dignity” and the visual of “degrade” versus “elevate.”
Your last paragraph led me to think about how psychology encourages parents/caregivers not to tell a child that he/she is bad but that his/her recent actions/choices are bad – protect the dignity.
It would be interesting to relate the acknowledgement of bestowed human dignity to the Calvinistic insistence upon the “total depravity” of the human being. When I was a kid, one Sunday school teacher in our church caused a bit of an uproar by having the young children in her class color in figures so that their hearts were black — for their black hearts. That notion didn’t sit well with their parents.