Dignity Now

Why is this not obvious?

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.

Dignity is a quality of humanity because of two great divine acts: creation and redemption. Worth creating; worth saving. None of us would risk our lives to snatch a photo album from a burning house, but we would put our lives on the line to save a human being. And the rescued person, if he or she is thinking right, will take that moment of rescue as a radical redirection of his or her life because he or she can see that someone else has proclaimed their value.

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29 thoughts on “Dignity Now

  1. I don’t know what your trying to say?we all lack dignity in one way or another We re saved by the blood of the lamb Do all that refuse Jesus s grace lack dignity?

  2. Thank you. The superiority complex is so easy to fall into, so hard to get out of and so very pervasive in our culture. Well, in all cultures. Pretty much a human failing across the board.

    I think getting God’s perspective on human worth is certainly a start on dealing with this, but I also wonder if that’s too simplistic. It seems like there could be a whole reservoir of complexity in this topic. How do we get rid of superiority, when there are places where God seems to pick and choose among his creations? How do we get past the basic human drive to get to the top of the pile? A lot to think about.

  3. Very good!

    If you have an hour you should read the encyclical EVANGELIUM VITAE. John Paul spells out human dignity with many scriptural references.

    • Have done so. I especially appreciate the thoughts on the dignity of work, with compassion for the unemployed, underemployed, and disabled.

  4. Both my grandma and my Aunt Rene visited Auschwitz many years ago. My grandma told me that it was the most haunting places that she had ever been to. She could recall the overwhelming smell of death and decay and it never left her. Just the story that she told me of her visit made me think: How can people do such a wicked evil monstrous thing, just because someone is different from them. Having dignity and self worth is good but when it becomes arrogance, which offends God, then it becomes wrong.

  5. All that exist are the Creator, and the created. No one who believes in a Creator God would dispute His dignity, yet we treat His creation, which declares His dignity, with disdain, exploiting and corrupting everything we can reach, including animals and human beings. In fact, humanity’s first sin involved exploiting God’s creation in the ultimate act of rebellion, hoping to gain from it equality with Him. Only through God’s act of recreation are we able to begin understanding true and undistorted dignity.

  6. Thank you Pastor Mel for your message. Thank you for e-mails. Thank you for bringing the word, dignity, into perspective. Thank you for submitting yourself to God’s will. In doing so gaining wisdom and insight and sharing it with the rest of us. Thank you and God bless.

  7. The words of Pastor Lawrence are so very poignant and true. If we all tried our best to live by Jesus’ commandment ” and how you want to be treated by others is how you are to treat them ” (I’m paraphrasing) , the world wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in.

  8. Actually I don’t think that dignity is a good thing!!! Because to have dignity is a kind of pride and takes pride, and pride is very very bad!! Pride is what makes people to evil things to others because they think they are better than others!! So I think you are a little wrong about a need for dignity. I think we need KINDNESS, and FORGIVENESS!!! We need to say we are sorry to all the black people, and the native americans and the chineses, and the Jews for the way we have treated them in the past, and try to change and treat everyone with kindness and respect!! I think RESPECT is a good word!! But FORGIVENESS AND KINDNESS IS BETTER!!!

  9. Genesis 1:26 – 28 is the fundation of human dignity. We are made in the image of our Creator YHWH.

    • Exactly, Tomaso. And the whole sweep of biblical revelation describes how people can be restored to that ideal which is the image and likeness of God.

  10. If we were all HAPPY there would be no problems in the world today. Happy is A result of God’s love and his forgiveness of our sins. When we live in Christ we are “HAPPY”.

  11. Because we were all created in God’s image ( Genesis 1:26 NASB) by that act alone God commanded us to treat each other with dignity!

  12. I love the information you’re putting out about dignity. God, Jesus, and the Bible are all about dignity. I find it so fascinating that the word is not actually used in the Bible though. I learn so much every time I read one of your books or emails. Thank you so much for all that you are doing!

  13. The Bible speaks to dignity in the first chapter of Genesis. So God created humankind in his image, in the image if God he created them; male and female he created them. Sadly many have de-humanized others to justify many ugly things. Bad theology. Perverted theology.

  14. I have problems for years with people who cannot and will not accept God and what Jesus did for us on the cross. In my daily life (here in Germany) I see and have encountered this arrogance time and time again. I also believe that it is rife in other countries too. For me dignity is what you ascribe to others. You hold your fellowman in high esteem towards God and in His care. That is all you can do. It is rather a choice of to see or not to see. Thank you Sir, for this text it became so real for me in the present day where Auswitz is in the news again because of Pope Franciscus visit.

  15. I have problems for years with people who cannot and will not accept God and what Jesus did for us on the cross. In my daily life (here in Germany) I see and have encountered this arrogance time and time again. I also believe that it is rife in other countries too. For me dignity is what you ascribe to others. You hold your fellowman in high esteem towards God and in His care. That is all you can do. It is rather a choice of to see or not to see. Thank you Sir, for this text it became so real for me in the present day where Auswitz is in the news again because of Pope Franciscus visit.

  16. I am a secular Franciscan (OFS). Our founder , St.Francis of Asisi , teaches us to have respect for ALL Creation, humans, animals , nature, the Earth, our “common home” . We live by that conscientiously. Bing a Christian means following in Jesus’ footsteps. Many people don’t grasp the meaning of that, hence the self righteousness, the judgemental attitude, racism, condemnation. An example : on a dreary day with a cold drizzly rain I found two young girls sitting against the wall of our garden. They sat miserably huddled under an old threadbare blanket. Homeless. I asked if they would come in to warm themselves and to have something to eat. My husband and I used to help homeless young people. But these children didn’t want to come in. They had obviously had bad experience. But they accepted the offer of food. So I prepared two trays with sandwiches, fruit and hot chocolate. I sat with them while they ate. Then a man came by. He looked scathingly at us and said to me: “Why do you do that. They’re rubbish anyway, waste of good food. ” I was speechless, angry and mighty upset.
    You see, these two girls represented our Lord to me. Our Lord sat there in the rain and I had the honour to prepare food for Him. The man represented satan who tried to demean us and rob us of our dignity. That night I prayed with my family for the homeless girls and also for that man that he may come to see the error of his ways. I also thanked the Lord for the gift of hospitality. My children are adults now and each one knows the true and intrinsic meaning of dignity. Respect for all Creation. PAX ET BONUM. Peace and all good.

  17. My I-pad has his own opinion about spelling which can be very annoying at times. Please note: Assisi instead of Asisi, and being instead of bing in the next line. Apologies.

  18. Yes I believe that…we must respect, honor, dignify every single human being not by looks but as Gods creation. To do that with strangers or unloved relatives and neighbors is only possible with knowledge of our loving Father. He changes our hearts. On our own we can do nothing.

  19. Unfortunately, though I would like to respond in a kindly considerate way, I am drawn to look at the horrors being perpetrated on Christians today as a new kind of indignity on humans. They use the term “infidel” to place themselves above others as an excuse to murder Christians. Naturally we have not learned from our past to perceive this extermination of humans for what it truly is, a reason to kill those of us who believe in the-one-true God.

    • You are exactly right, Harry. History is full of groups of people who intentionally seek not just to persecute others, but to violate their dignity. Beheading is not just murder. It is a total assault on everything that is right and decent. The Bible teaches both dignity and depravity.

  20. I live in Guatemala city. For years I have worked both in the apparel business and in some other companies and from my labor years I have seen that there is a huge difference on the results between mistreating workers and treating them with dignity. I have seen both abuses from the employeers as well as from the workers to employers (mainly by abusing working benefits without proper responsibility or misleading companies through wrong advises). But I have seen there is a huge difference in the labor environment directly related to fair treating employees which if measured properly impacts productivity in a positive way. I strongly believe that even disciplinary actions are accepted from the employee side if there is enough evidence that the reason for this action is fair in its conception. The problem comes when the reason for a disciplinary action comes from another reason (such as envy, willing to avoid a fair reward to results, etc), because people notice this and react accordingly to injustice. Those who don’t react normally is because of two reasons: fear of consequences or because they receive a bribe for their silence (in any given way, from an unfair promotion to money itself). And this eventually leads to the failure of organizations because they socavate the foundation for their existance which is trust in the beginning. Thank you for this article it was really nice to read.

  21. Well said. It really makes you stop and think. Am I am valuing others and giving them dignity in my eyes. God does, but do I?

  22. A very interesting and thought-provoking article – thanks Mel ! I still haven’t visited Auschwitz, but it is probably something we all should do. I couldn’t understand how people could do such terrible things to other people, but the way you explain it, it starts to make sense. The nazis created a distance between different people, putting themselves above it all and they created a system to be followed. Propaganda takes care of the rest. As you say, nazis are not the only perpetrators of evil and we need to carefully look beyond the mainstream media to find the truth about what is really going on in the world, especially with “regime changes” and arming terrorists (directly or indirectly).

    Whatever words are used in the bible to represent dignity, the examples are many. One is Moses’ commitment to lead the people out of Egypt – a huge sacrifice in his status and a huge risk to his and other lives. Faith in God guaranteed success against all odds.

    We must not forget the atrocities against human dignity in history, in order to recognise similar evil conditions being built nowadays and catching them in time. Corrie Ten Boom personally and directly experienced the nazi horrors and shares some of her wisdom :

    – “Memories are the key not to the past, but to the future.”
    – “The first step on the way to victory is to recognize the enemy.”
    – “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”