Person stretching in front of water

Human dignity

Rooted in the capacity to give and receive love

It was a “self-evident” truth to Thomas Jefferson and the other founders of the United States that “all men are created equal.” In what way we are equal, the founders didn’t say. When it signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights about 150 years later, the United Nations declared human beings “equal in dignity and rights.”

Christians should agree. Equality in dignity may not be self-evident to a lot of people today, but it is something that Christians should declare and show in how we behave. Dignity is a fundamental value, in some ways the pre-condition for all other ethical values, and it cries out for respect. Each and every human being has incommensurable value—a value not calculated in dollars and cents or productivity or sexiness.

So what does human dignity consist of, if not wealth or power or fame?

Eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant zeroed in on the idea of humans made “in the image of God,” especially on “autonomy”—the capacity of individuals to set goals and act on them using their own rational powers. In Kantian terms, the fundamental sin is to “use” another person—to override or ignore their wishes in order to serve your own purposes, denying autonomy and assaulting their dignity as equals.

Surely there is a really important insight here. The Salvation Army champions the anti-trafficking cause in large part because the people who are trafficked are being “used,” treated more like commodities than persons, sold as objects for others’ pleasure or profit. This is offensive in the extreme. Not because those who are trafficked are not going for fair market value, but because the force, coercion, manipulation and fraud used against them means they cannot really make choices. Their dignity as persons, God-like in their creation, is simply trashed. And as my friend Dianna (an anti-trafficking specialist) tells me, the horror is made worse when those who have been trafficked internalize the message and think they don’t deserve  anything better.

Autonomy is precious. We should fight to defend it for ourselves. We should fight to restore it to others. But autonomy is not the whole of human dignity, or even its heart. There are many people who cannot be self-determining, who have lost the capacity or never had it in the first place—the profoundly mentally disabled, for instance. Shall we say their lives lack dignity because they lack rational decision-making capacity? Faced with cognitive frailty, there are academics who will frankly deny that all people are equal or deny that the mentally disabled really are people. Christians need to stand firm against this. “Made in the image of God” does not equal “smart.”

Henri Nouwen powerfully narrates this lesson. A professor of theology at Harvard and Yale, Nouwen naturally prized intellectual prowess. What a different space he found himself in, however, when he joined the L’Arche Daybreak community in Toronto. He was asked to work with Adam, a 24-year-old man who couldn’t speak, walk, dress or undress himself.

The experience transformed Nouwen’s understanding of human dignity. “My whole life had been doing, so people would finally recognize that I am a worthwhile being,” he said. “Adam taught me that the heart is more important than the mind. If you’ve come from a university, that’s hard to learn.

“Minds thinking, arguing, discussing, writing, doing—that is what a human being is,” Nouwen said. “Well, Adam didn’t think. Adam had a heart, a real human heart. I suddenly realized that what makes a human being human is the heart with which he can give and receive love. I suddenly realized that Adam was not just a disabled person, less human than me, but was a full human being.”

Not the mind, but the heart. Not strength but vulnerability. Human dignity rooted in the capacity to give and receive love. What Nouwen says is profoundly Christian, and we need to hear it.

If I were to quibble, it would be to warn about the risk of patronizing the Adams of the world. Nouwen may not have been guilty of this, but some of us have been. In fact it could be a risk to which Salvationists are especially prone. When we are at our best, our hearts go out to “the vulnerable,” and the marginal—“to love the unloved in the legions of the lost.” We see those whom others don’t, we tell ourselves. And that may be true. But such attitudes can stoke pride and arrogance.

Before long we find ourselves saying we are giving dignity to the world’s unfortunates. Which is nonsense, really. The dignity that people have, his or her fundamental worth, is inherent, and the best we can do is recognize what God put there.

In Jesus’ parable, when the King commended those for what they did for “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine,” he was not emphasizing the leastness of those who were helped but the fact that they are his brothers and sisters.

To be created in the image of God, therefore, is more about bearing a relationship than a resemblance. Dignity. Human dignity. Equal dignity. Rooted first of all, not in our intellect nor in our vulnerability, but in the fact that God calls us his kin.

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James E. Read

James E. Read, Ph.D., is executive director of The Salvation Army Ethics Centre in ##, and a senior policy analyst for the International Social Justice Commission.

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