Demonstrated dignity is how we, as members of a society and formative voices within society, declare which lives matter. It is also how we participate in the divine creative act and undermine the hell of nothing. Demonstrated dignity brings heaven to earth.
Sadly, in complete contradiction to Jesus, broken Christianity is far more interested in perpetuating the status quo or restoring an age that assaults dignity rather than seeing it granted to all people. In other words, broken Christianity brings hell to earth.
The Country I Thought I Knew
If you are like me, you grew up believing America is a land of equal opportunity. To put it in the language I use here, I believed it to be a place where everyone belongs. After all, our Declaration of Independence talks about “inalienable rights” and our Constitution sets out to make, “a more perfect union.”
Sure America struggled to embody these words at different times. But I learned to see these as blips on the historical radar than perpetuating systemic issues. It never dawned on me that the men who wrote those words, land-owning White men, many of whom owned slaves, limited their application to people like them.
The Dignity Delusion
I will admit, I feel a bit foolish today for being so blind. At the same time, I do not blame or shame myself for seeing America that way. After all, I grew up in an upper-middle-class suburban neighborhood in schools that taught American Exceptionalism. As a White man from the modern land-owning class, in very real ways our Founding Fathers described my American experience. I remember hearing that the worst day in America is better than the best day anywhere else, and it seemed true.
I was aware that not everybody’s life was just like mine. Occasionally, a group from the church would head down to the Denver Rescue Mission and feed the homeless. I was aware of others, but I never questioned that their experience of America might be different from mine. At least once, I chose not to join my friends because I saw people on the streets as being there by choice. That was their decision and it was wrong for them to live on the charity of others. They had an equal opportunity to thrive, so why should we take care of them?
Based on the information I had and the story I learned, this is a perfectly rational conclusion. Today, as others continue to dwell in this perspective, I do not believe demonizing them is helpful. Rather, I see ample evidence that attacks only raise defensive barriers that block the empathy essential to seeing the deprival of dignity.
It is far more helpful to expand perspectives through experiences and relationships. For me, this expansion began as an undergrad.
Denying the Undignified
My first sense there might be more than one American experience came as a college freshman. Two memories linger from the experience. First, the adjunct professor who shook my world a bit only got the job because he was the son of the university president. The irony that the only professor who challenged my conservative narrative held the position for no reason but his privilege, does not escape me.
The only thing I remember from the class itself was one chapter in a book exploring inequality in school systems throughout the United States. The chapter focused on East St. Louis, Illinois. The author’s description, which including dilapidated school buildings worthy of condemnation, was abjectly horrifying. Incapable of believing it could be true, I dismissed it as propaganda. After all, believing our society only offered such undignified solutions to some kids would destroy my illusion of equal opportunity.
So my world was shaken but, but compassion was not stirred. Denial guarded my perspective until the Fall of 2002.
Discovering the Undignified
In May of 2002, my then-wife and I packed up our belongings and moved halfway across the country so I could attend Seminary (pastor school). We went from the wine country of Sonoma County, California to the expansive upscale suburbanism of St. Louis, Missouri. We came, fully equipped with ample warnings to avoid downtown and, even more so, not to cross the river. Downtown was dangerous, but on the other side of the river was East St. Louis. East St. Louis was deadly.
Early in the fall semester, we received our fieldwork assignment. Mine sent me to Unity Lutheran Church in, you guessed it, East St. Louis. That first Sunday morning as I drove to church, I passed a school building and I suddenly realized that book I read a decade earlier was not propaganda. Rather, it spoke to the stark reality that there is more than one American experience. Some lives do not matter. There are people in our country to whom we deny basic demonstrations of dignity.
What is Dignity?
Dignity is the recognition of inherent worth. It ignores measures like usefulness, capability, or production that drive meritocracy. Dignity declares that simply by being human you have value.
My earliest sense of dignity came from a sign in my childhood church basement. I remember my dad pointing out. On it, the simple saying, “I know I am somebody special because God doesn’t make junk.” How ironic that I would read that right before heading upstairs and confessing myself to be a worthless sinner deserving nothing but punishment. But perhaps, while I would never encourage anyone to make that confession, there is something redeemable about it.
The Theology of the Cross
The Reformation Theologian Martin Luther, for all his flaws, taught some brilliant and world-challenging concepts. One of those is the Theology of the Cross, which he contrasted with a Theology of Glory. In the Heidelberg Disputation, he distinguishes the two. Ultimately, the Theology of Glory is about meritocracy and the Theology of the Cross is about dignity. Simply put, God does not love you because of what you do. God loves you because you are and because God loves you, you are valuable.
Moreover, there is nothing you can do to change that. Others can assault this truth by declaring that you do not belong. You can assault this truth by not believing it to be true. But that is how we do and experience evil. That is how we deny dignity and bring hell to earth.
So how do we create a society so our experience affirms and reinforces the reality God declares?
Article: Ethics Explainer: Dignity
Still not sure what is meant by dignity and where it comes from? This post explores the topic further and includes a TED Talk on instilling dignity amongst the most despised children in India.
Book: Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (affiliate) by Chris Arnade
Chris Arnade held all the markers of meritocratic success, but left it all behind in pursuit of meaning. He started by documenting poverty and addiction in the Bronx, but then found himself on a journey that took him to towns throughout America where he heard the stories of those who society is leaving behind.
I do not remember where I originally came across this introduction to the Heidelberg Disputation and Luther’s Theology of the Cross, but it is far more accessible other texts, including this excellent one by Gerhard Forde (affiliate). I include both links here with some reservation because I believe Luther gets some things wrong.
Second, I think Luther (or at least Lutherans) generally turns faith (belief) into a work, as if God does not love you until you believe. You are loved whether you believe it or not, you just deny yourself the benefits of being loved by not believing it.
That said, I include it because I think it gets something right. We are not loved because we are lovable, we are loveable because we are loved. And the more we realize we are loved, the more we love others and behave in lovable ways. That is why we need to start with demonstrations of dignity … so people can come to believe that they are in fact loved.
Make time to talk to someone who sees the world differently than you do. Listen to them and try to see the world where they are coming from.
What might a society that demonstrates dignity and brings heaven to earth look like?