Ninety-nine percent of a human body consists of six elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. The remaining one percent consists of minor elements and trace elements. If you purchased these chemicals on the market, you would have to spend a bit more than $100.
Most of us believe people are worth more than $100.
Yet not everyone. The Nazis considered Jews, homosexuals, Poles, mentally ill people, and others to be of no worth whatsoever. Of negative worth, in fact, worthy only of extermination since they were viewed as a net deficit in the human race.
I went to see Auschwitz in the south of Poland one summer day. Seeing the place in films and still photos is one thing; walking into its netherworld-like reality is another. There it all is: the underground bunker disguised as a giant group shower with holes in the ceiling where the Zyklon B was dropped in; the pallets on mechanized tracks that delivered bodies to the gaping holes of the ovens; the endless rows of barracks built alongside railroad tracks for the efficient herding of victims. Somehow what hit me as hard as the piles of eyeglasses and suitcases and hair, were the mechanisms of this death factory. Carts and tracks and ovens-and rusting spare parts on the side. Human beings did this. They built a machinery of mass desecration and with it millions perished.
The evil irony of it all is that the perpetrators were acting out of a perverse sense of superiority, a kind of exaggerated, twisted dignity. Such monsters were able to treat human beings as refuse only because they saw themselves as gods. The ultimate form of idolatry is viewing the self as sovereign. And it is not only Nazis who view life that way. Idolatry abounds today.
These realities of history show us how radically wrong we can get the dignity equation. The jagged road of history twists this way and that between defaming people and deifying them. This is exactly why we need to get the dignity equation right.
It is fair to ask whether dignity is a biblical concept. English translations of the Bible typically have only a handful of verses in which the word is used. Of course important words like Trinity or omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient never appear in Scripture itself. The word attribute does not appear in Scripture, nor theology. The word Bible never appears in the Bible.
The question needs to be whether the idea of dignity is in Scripture. If we take the word in its simplest sense–worth or worthiness–it certainly is. The creation of humankind is all about value or worth, God-given. The whole sweep of redemption history through the Old and New Testaments presumes that God did many things for the restoration of humanity, not because God had to, but because God considered it worthwhile to do so. In the sacrifice of Jesus we see the highest value. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” not because humanity was worthy, but because God considered it worthwhile to do.