Respecting the Dignity of Every Human Being

The title of this entry, as most Episcopalians know, is from the Baptismal Covenant of The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer.    It is one of the promises we commit ourselves to as followers of Jesus in an Episcopal mode:  to respect the dignity of every human being (a promise that is coupled with another promise, to strive for justice and peace among all people).  I have often said that this is the most radical phrase in our Prayer Book, built on the radical life and teaching of Jesus.  It demands a lot of us to respect the dignity of every human being — it isn’t easy to do, especially when we are called to respect the dignity of those with whom we have profound disagreements.

This was driven home to me this week, when an unanticipated political debate on my Facebook page suddenly took a downward spiral when one person weighed in on the subject with unexpected vitriol.   Other participants were rather shocked, one or two responded a little harshly, perhaps, and in the end, the person causing the shock and awe accused the rest of us of being intolerant of other points of view, and then unfriended me (and, indeed, seems to have disappeared from Facebook all together).

All of this has led me to reflect on the poor quality of our public discourse, and the inability of Americans to cross divides (as a Canadian I know recently observed).   The American political landscape for a number of years now has resembled the geography of California, with fault lines running every which way.   No matter what one’s political persuasion, most of our politicians — and most of our citizenry — seem to have forgotten what politics is really about:  compromise.  A generation or two ago, politicians understood this.  Ronald Reagan, for example, knew that he needed Tip O’Neil if anything were going to get done.  Those two men couldn’t have disagreed more politically, yet they were able to engage one another without sacrificing a fundamental mutual respect.  Ted Kennedy partnered with a number of Republican politicians over his long career in order to accomplish some of his goals.  And he and his opposite numbers were able to maintain respect for one another despite their disagreements.  They all understood that in a democracy, one cannot expect to get everything one wants.  Politics demands that two sides meet each other somewhere in the middle, with the hope that somehow that compromise will serve the common good.

It seems to me that, from my particular perspective as an Episcopalian Christian who has promised to respect the dignity of every human being, I might suggest two principles that somehow need to return to our public life:

First, we need to stop identifying people so completely with their points of view.  In other words, we need to recognize that there is more to a person’s personhood than his or her opinion on any particular issue.  I guess I’m talking about a political version of that rather hackneyed theological epithet, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”   It is possible to love and respect one another, even while we disagree profoundly.  Politics and our public discourse needs to be de-personalized in this sense, so that we stop demonizing one another and begin truly to engage the issues.

Second, we need to recover the understanding I outlined above, that politics in a democracy necessarily requires compromise.  Just as we tell our young children that they can’t have everything that they want and about the importance of taking into consideration the needs and wants of others, we adults must relearn this when it comes to our public life.  We cannot have everything we want on our own terms.  The world does not revolve around us.  We must share it with others, and take their wants and needs into account.

It seems to me that this really is quite basic stuff.  My son’s kindergarten class works on it every day.  Yet, our public conversation has drifted very far from it.  And when our public figures can’t engage in civil debate, attacking one another’s arguments without attacking one another, they send a message to the rest of the country that it’s okay to be strident, disrespectful, accusatory and just downright nasty.  It is a way of being in the world that is inconsistent with the way Jesus teaches us to be in the world.  And, recognizing that we are a nation of many different religions, it is a way of being that is inconsistent with the teachings of all of the world’s great spiritual traditions.

I’m not sure how we get to this new level in public life — it may require an act of divine intervention.  Yet, if we never try, we will never get there.  If our political leaders can’t show us the way, perhaps we voters must begin to show the way and start telling those we elect that they need to find a better way.  We all need to find a better way.

5 thoughts on “Respecting the Dignity of Every Human Being

  1. Jesus did not command us to “like one another”, nor does He require that we “agree with one another”. Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Loving our fellow human beings does not require us to agree on everything, or to even like them. But it is impossible to follow the Lord’s commandment and still intentionally inflict hurt upon each other by belittling, embarrassing, or even chastising someone because of their opinions. If all human interaction is done in the context of his commandment, then all of our lives will be enriched, and we will inevitably be drawn closer to our Lord.

  2. I found it helpful to read the post and followup post together, which for me, calls into question one of your two points – the one about compromise. I think it would be helpful to think more about when it is appropriate to compromise and when it is important to be prophetic and uncompromising. For example, it is difficult for me to compromise if that means to meet in the middle, on certain civil rights issues. Being uncompromising certainly need not imply being hateful or disrespectful. Put another way, I would appreciate some examples from Jesus about when to compromise and when to hold firm, recognizing the consequences of each.

    • You raise a very interesting and important issue, Michael. It is interesting to contemplate the matter of Jesus and his relationship to political life. During his ministry, of course, there were many around him who hoped and believed that he would be a political messiah, someone who would lead a revolution against Rome and re-establish an independent Israel. The fact that Jesus declined to be that sort of messiah led to the cross. Jesus focused much more on the individual relationship with God, and what that meant in terms of individual transformation. There was, of course, a small community formed around Jesus, and it seems clear that he expected and valued that this personal transformation would take place within community and, in turn, create a transformed community, which would embody the values he taught. But Jesus (unlike the prophet Muhammed) did not remain alive (in an earthly sense) long enough to found a society based on his teaching. As a result, the relationship between Christians and public political life was left to others to work out. St. Paul was one of the first to attempt to do so. In their own way, Paul and the early Christian communities were rather subversive and revolutionary, applying the titles that belonged to Caesar to Jesus, speaking of the kingdom of God as an alternative to the kingdom of Rome and thinking about the church as a community that embodied an alternative value system to that of the empire. Unfortunately, in large part because of his conviction that the return of Jesus would happen relatively soon, and no doubt because of the vulnerability of the small Christian movement, Paul counsels Christians not to take on Rome, but to bide their time until Jesus returned to establish a reign of justice and peace. The only exception to this policy was when Rome applied pressure to Christians to renounce their religion. That a conscientious Christian was not to do, and to my knowledge, all of the early Christian martyrs met their martyrdom for that reason. I’m not aware of any evidence that Christians overtly confronted Roman authority over any other issue.

      Later Christian theologians continued the work begun by Paul, and this enterprise largely took place after the Roman embrace of Christianity, which sadly led to increasing collusion between the church and political authorities. Christians came to view kings and princes as possessing a divine authority, which demanded largely unquestioned obedience. And so, the church and the state largely became one, and the church more often than not played the role of sanctifier of secular authority, with very little room left for prophetic witness.

      All of this serves as the background when we consider how we, as followers of Jesus, should engage faithfully in the public political life of a modern democracy, and so we return to the example of Jesus himself. It seems to me that there is no instance in the gospels in which Jesus is seen ever to compromise. He is a person of absolute integrity, in the sense that his life is absolutely aligned with his teaching: there is no disconnect. As his followers, the degree of disconnection between the teaching of Jesus and the way in which we live reveals the degree to which our personal transformation in Christ remains incomplete. I think what this means in terms of our participation in the political life of the republic is that we must seek to be people of Christ-like integrity, who are uncompromising in terms of what we believe to be right in terms of public policy. We have an obligation to be witnesses to that, to offer that to the larger body politic, and to work within the democratic process toward the realization of what we believe to be right.

      As citizens of a diverse nation, however, we must also realize that even though we may believe our prophetic witness to be right and to be true in the eyes of God, there will be others in our society who do not share our view. This is where the art of compromise enters the picture, in my mind. Having offered our witness and done our best to work toward its realization, we will at some point have to decide when an interim step is better than no step at all. For example, is a healthcare reform that reduces the number of uninsured Americans but still leaves some uninsured better than no healthcare reform that allows that status quo to remain? We may well decide that reducing the number of uninsured Americans is better, even while we continue to witness to our conviction that universal healthcare remains the goal. It is this dynamic that I think is so often missing in our public life, where people too often take an all or nothing stand, and in the process, so often demonize those who do not share their convictions.

      This is the dynamic that so often operates within the Christian right. They are certainly convinced that their take on what their faith demands from them is right, and true in the eyes of God, and they are uncompromising in their witness to and pursuit of what they believe to be right. However, for the most part, when their witness and work comes up against the realities of our democracy, they are loathe to accept interim steps — or to entertain the idea that the majority of Americans may not accept their definition of what is right and true. The solution which they mostly seem to favor is what many of them term a “re-Christianization” of the country, founded largely on an erroneous understanding of American religious history. In effect, they wish to return to a new kind of imperial Rome, where the state becomes an agent that imposes their convictions upon the populous, all in the name of God. In reality, they reject the democratic process, because they cannot handle the fact that it is precisely this process — and the political compromises that are a part of it — that leads to policies which they believe to be deeply wrong.

      Jesus was not one to use coercion. On the contrary, Jesus was highly suspicious of coercive power, because that power always ended up marginalizing the more vulnerable members of the community. Jesus offered his witness and acted uncompromisingly on it, but in the end, it was always up to those who heard him and saw him to decide whether to embrace him or not. He always allowed people to walk away, if that was their choice. That, I think, is the model for us: to be uncompromising in our witness, but never to cross that line from witness to coercion. It was this principle that Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., embodied so well, I think. They were uncompromising in their witness, but they refused to use the coercive power of violence in their effort to translate their convictions into reality. Indeed, the state’s use of coercive power against their peaceful witness served only to magnify the rightness of their cause. We tend to think of violence in the narrow sense of physical violence. But I would broaden that, to include verbal and ideological violence, which can be just as dehumanizing.

      King and Gandhi refused to go away, until their vision was sufficiently realized as to satisfy the demands of faith and conscience. They, indeed, would have been unsatisfied with interim steps, no doubt. Whether one is willing to accept an interim step depends, I think, on one’s own discernment regarding the issue at hand. However, even as we may find ourselves needing to accept interim steps from time to time to achieve a partial moral good, we should not go away, either, but continue to offer the witness which faith and conscience demand from us, yet always avoiding the excesses of violent speech, ideology and action that dehumanize the other.

  3. There are echoes of Grand Theft Jesus here! I wish members of Congress could read your blog and that book, but one needs an open mind to grow from the self-examination that it provokes. Confession is good for the soul, but only if it is preceded by that careful self-examination, followed by a willingness to change. I fear that Jesus would be disappointed in how poorly we have handled the integrity and compassion for others issues.

  4. I think it is true that there are deeply held positions upon which we find ourselves unable to compromise or reach a “middle ground”. However, that never justifies approaching one with opposing views with hostility or malice. We each know persons with whom we profoundly disagree on issues we (and/or “they”)cannot find a mutually satisfying solution and must simply admit that we will not resolve the issue. Nevertheless, we can still approach those persons with love and respect…and are commanded by our Lord to do so.

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