Blood on the ground produces panic and confusion and rage, but is also an opportunity for moral clarity. We are watching it all right now. The blood at a traffic stop, the blood of assassinated police officers, the blood of men, women, and children run over by a terrorist driving a truck.
Moral clarity begins with the question of what preceded the blood. The bang of the pistol or the crack of the assault rife marks the moment of failure. But it does not need to go that far. We are awed by what Dallas police chief David Brown has accomplished in recent years in bringing assaults on officers and shootings by police dramatically downward. When Brown explains his methods, it is obvious they include moral and spiritual diagnoses and remedies. This is the kind of wisdom we need today. Through community policing Brown has proactively developed a relational link between residents and officers.
Deep down, what we are struggling with as a nation is a crisis of dignity. Violence is a lapse of dignity, and sometimes a cynical attempt to steal it away.
Most people will say they believe in dignity, but are hard-pressed to define what it means. Dignity means worth. To treat someone with dignity is based on the conviction that they have worth. For some people, like Chief Brown, that conviction is so deeply ingrained that they don’t even think about it. They go into tension-filled situations with a motive to de-escalate. But it is not naive—when a sniper in a parking garage needs to be stopped, he will be.
Other people have no such conviction. They enter into human interactions with a motive to dominate. They look to control or use others, and in so doing violate their dignity. This is the story of much of human history. In the Roman empire you had dignity if you had social status. If you belonged to the slave class you simply had no dignitas, no worth.
But across the centuries, an alternative view of dignity was proclaimed, that life is a creation of God, and thus has true worth, or dignity. In this view, human dignity is granted by God, and so it is inherent. So the Declaration of Independence asserts that all are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
At a personal level, we should not be surprised that violations of dignity through injustice or prejudice result in deep wounding and bitter resentment. If we just stop and think about a time when our worth was violated by someone else, and remember the hurt, the anger, and even the shock of it, we would better understand when whole classes of people are tied up in bitterness and suspicion.
But understanding is hard work. Empathy is not the natural state of the human heart. We think we’ve put ourselves in the other person’s shoes when we awkwardly shuffle along for brief spells. But on our best days, when we do stop and listen, when we take the time to reflect and understand, there is some hope for us.
Our crisis of dignity will be ongoing. It is now hard-wired into human nature. Habitual criminal offenders routinely violate the dignity of others, at the same time violating their own dignity. Terrorists will continue to desecrate human dignity because killing is not enough for them, they must deface their victims. Racism is a mindset that is only overcome by a revolution in the heart. We cling to all of our prejudices (racial, class, religious, etc.) because they make life easier. They are the lazy ways we decide who we’re for or against. Political leaders at the highest level behave with extreme indignity when they deal in deception and wallow in avarice. What hope can we have for decency and dignity when integrity is so hard to find?
The worst crisis we will face, however, is if we give up on the idea of dignity. If we turn cynical and only talk about the ways one class of people can dominate another. Or if we cheapen the idea of dignity by equating it with autonomy: that we have dignity only insofar as other people let us do whatever we want to do.
Freedom, with all its appropriate boundaries, is better than mere autonomy. Dignity only makes sense with responsibility. Honor comes from a higher obligation.
Dallas police chief David Brown is only one man, yet there are many like him throughout our society. It is time to put the spotlight on them and to follow them. And it is time for us to require our national leaders to behave with dignity themselves.
Mel Lawrenz is minister at large for Elmbrook Church and the author of 18 books, the latest, A Time for Dignity: Crisis and Gospel Today.