“Christian Dignity is not a Zero Sum Game”
“As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ.” 1 Corinthians 12:12
As I watched with many of you the video of a police officer kneeling on the throat of an unarmed man while his colleagues watched, I was struck with just how cruel and inhuman we all can become. In the protests that have inevitably and justifiably followed, many of us hope that a better world will come from the present national catharsis, where this kind of injustice, and more broadly endemic racism, never happens. Many have also been horrified by the blind injustice and hatred that has spun out of some of the protests, with innocent store owners watching their livelihoods destroyed and several policeman and protesters injured. To a person of faith, none of this is tolerable. And much of it fails to pass the standard of our faith, that all people are created by God, in love, and as such, all possess a special dignity, in His likeness.
A lot of people these days are calling for more love, which is clearly in order. I worry though that without God, and without the foundational concept of personal, human dignity, true love is difficult to maintain consistently. Inevitably, it blows off course. Reform must happen, and it must be executed in a way that preserves and reaffirms the God-given dignity of all.
This weekend, I found myself meditating on St. Paul’s powerful epistle to the young Christian community of Corinth, some 2,000 years ago. The community at that time had begun to experience internal divisions, with various parties vying for leadership and in some cases, seeming to cast aspersions on the others. Paul wrote this letter in part to help guide the Corinthians back onto the path of Christ. To remind them that true love, unselfish love, starts with a profound understanding that all of us are children of God, made in His image, and as such possess a dignity that is unassailable. This God-given dignity, this sense of a common brotherhood in Christ, deserves love. No, demands love.
Most of us are familiar with 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s wonderfully poetic and concise definition of pure, Christian love, of agape (self sacrificing) love; often, we use this passage as a reading for Catholic weddings. “Love is patient. Love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-6)
As much of the western world has slipped off into a post-Christian “spiritual but not religious” reality, we’ve clung to many of the trappings of our Christian heritage. We believe in “doing the right thing”, “being nice to people,” “being good.” At the same time, we’ve been taught to put ourselves at the center, “protect number one first”, “do what feels right to you”, “make your own decisions.” This awkward combination of a post-Christian patina of “goodness” overlaid on a self-centeredness that is precisely anti-Christian can wrongly accommodate some pretty confusing societal outcomes, to say the least. On the one hand we encourage our police to protect us for “the greater good” but on the other we overlook injustices they inflict on others or repeated patterns of misbehavior because they’re “only human” and “lost their temper.” Likewise, we applaud a peaceful protest aimed at bringing national attention to a long-simmering problem, but then look the other way when it morphs into violence against the shops of innocent civilians who’ve seen their livelihoods go up in flames.
Which brings me back to Paul. Paul introduces his definition of love in chapter 13 with first an acknowledgement of our differences in Chapter 12.
Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.” Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy. (1 Corinthians 12: 14-26)
Paul’s point is that our differences should not divide us. To the contrary, each of us needs to be celebrated in our own right. We are all children of God, however different we appear. We all possess a special God-like dignity. And that is why we love each other, however diverse we appear on the surface.
On the streets of New York City, one of the key principles of all missionaries is this Christian principle of God-given dignity. We don’t train our missionaries in this; it is an outgrowth of their relationship with God himself. They recognize that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and as such, they love every soul they meet on the streets, the ones who engage us for sure, but equally, the ones who don’t or even the ones who treat us poorly. And they love everyone they meet, regardless of the color of their skin or how they look.
And when a stranger is approached with an acknowledgement of their fundamental human dignity, an acknowledgement that comes naturally, from within the missionary, that soul recognizes that sentiment as something very different, very unique, very loving. This is the beginning of encounter.
In a society without God, we can substitute the God given principles of “dignity” and “love” with remedial diversity training for wayward police, and increased transparency for police actions. We can try to legislate our way out of this, and legal reforms are in order for sure. But reform is a whole lot easier when concepts like dignity and love come from within, from our relationship with our creator.
Said differently, what our country needs right now is, everywhere, a little less “me” and a lot more “we”. “We” includes not just black and white, rich and poor, but also, God.
When we believe in the fundamental nature of human dignity, suddenly we are no longer in a “We win, you lose” world. Suddenly, one plus one equals three.
June 7, 2020