“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”
These words were declared long ago, and they have been declared many times since.
As “declare” implies, these words have been uttered with much heart and passion and vigor and through the years. They have been proclaimed as undeniable truth written on the consciences of all. They are rooted in conviction, covered in morality, and said with great American pride. The words grip us as well as ground us. They feel powerful as well as pure.
Yet we simply cannot go on ignoring the irony. During this time, while human rights were being defined on paper, they were very literally being taken away in real life. The exact same hands shackling a man in slavery wrote that all were created equally. Life was beaten. Liberty was obstructed. Happiness was withheld. Safety was not sought. While these famous words were printed into our future as a fact they were simultaneously being re-defined in the present by reality. They were engraved by human hands but ignored in human hearts. Its beauty has hung as a loud banner above us yet its blasphemy has been laid as a silent foundation below us.
As I’ve been thinking a lot about our current state of civil unrest, rooted in the past and twisted up into our present, a word keeps coming to mind. This word or idea is not an attempt to give a one-size-fits-all approach to issues varying in complexity and severity. I hope I am not oversimplifying or under-emphasizing. Yet I think this category with its differing reasons and ranks inside of it (including racial injustice) are worth taking a step back to recognize on the whole. To see as a broader theme. We might not even notice it but I’ve become convinced that this broader theme shows up in our own day to day interactions. It manifests itself in everything from belittling comments, to abusive behaviors, all the way to murderous acts. It is ranging from daily pornography to deadly prejudices. It has been trickled down all around us and rooted itself deeply inside of us.
Webster defines this as “depriving someone of human qualities, personality, or dignity: such as a: to subject someone to conditions or treatment that are inhumane or degrading b: to address or portray someone in a way that obscures or demeans that person’s humanity or individuality c: to remove or reduce human involvement or interaction in something, such as process or place.”
We, too, can be guilty of soulfully pouring over the Declaration of Independence for all peoples while blindly practicing its contradictions right around us. How then, along with fighting for liberty and justice on local and national levels, do we also bring it down to our neighborhoods? Our schools? Our work places? Our very own houses?
I think we need to do the raw and dark and deep and good work of re-humanization.
Re-establish what gives human dignity
The annoyingly obvious question we should never cease to ask ourselves is “why?” I think this is especially true when we see that our lived realities are not mirroring our proposed reasoning. Consenting to the truth of a definition is not the same as acting out of its implications. Maybe during this specific time in history we are being given a chance to stop and examine. To ask, in the face of pandemics and protests, if our definition of human value is lining up with our response to black lives begging to breathe or vulnerable populations asking to be protected?
Ekemini Uwan says, “once we accept, and grieve, that our old way of life is gone, we can build a better future.” If we want to move away from our old normal and towards a better normal we have to be really really honest. Painfully so. And we begin at the beginning again. We ask ourselves to define human dignity. To re-establish what is every person’s worth.
For me, the unshakable barometer of all living being’s value starts with a Creator. A Maker. One who crafted all human beings in His very image. Not apportioning himself in varying degrees of whom he favors. But to all. Completely equal image bearers. Given a mind and heart and even a soul. As David Closson says “Man is like a statue erected by an ancient king—as the statue bore the image of the king and signified rulership, man bears God’s image in the cosmic temple of the world, representing his authority and dominion. Man is the visible representation of the invisible God. If one wants to know what God looks like, simply look at man, the crowning jewel of creation and the only creature made in God’s image and likeness.”
Without some source of a foundational definition we have no starting point. And without a starting point we cannot convince anyone else, let alone ourselves, of what true liberty and justice will look like for all. Or why it even matters. It shapes the lenses through which we see the most bloody times in our history and the most horrific happenings in our present day. Without it, what moral leg do we have to stand on against slave trade and school shootings? What basis do we start with when talking about the horror of the holocaust and the devastation of massacres? What do we make of genocides and plagues and terrorist attacks and different kinds of wars? How do we speak out against human trafficking or domestic violence or child pornography or sexual assault? It is not enough for any of us to say that something simply is. Dignity and equality do not define themselves. That’s why entire people groups have been abused in the name of superiority, used as means of punishment, and written off as primitive animals without a soul.
Once we have established, or re-established, our unwavering definition of human dignity we have to begin the hard work of realigning the every day ways we think and interact and respond, back to it. If in the end our words and our actions continue to be impossibly ill-aligned and unrecognizable from one another we have to be willing to ask do I really, thoroughly, honestly, believe this to be true about all humanity?
Re-prioritize people to their place
Sometimes we realize that we have begun to subtly assign and apportion human dignity based off of underlying beliefs that are different than what we claim out loud for them to be. For some these beliefs have been silently shaped over time and we do not like them when they are exposed to us. While for others they have been consciously chosen and we do not want to change them. They may stem from our belief in divine design or natural designation. We may think they come from evolutionary make up, societal shaping, generational history, or personal choices. We may end up recoiling over our deep down barometer for human dignity or we may, in fact, revel in it.
Wherever we land, though, I think we must land there consciously. We cannot move on into any sort of action, or really even awareness, until we have gotten really honest with ourselves. Until we have meticulously thought through, for ourselves, what qualifies human dignity. Until we have concluded if there are ever any exclusions or exceptions to this qualification. Until we have critically assessed our definitions and called out the parts that have begun to be bent away from its original form. From there, where we spot inaccuracies and inconsistencies in our rawest form and from our deepest places, can we identify what is bubbling over on the outside. Can we see its out workings and implications.
One of these gauges and indications is where our priorities lie. Naturally, we desire things such as power, pleasure, possessions, and praise… even over people. When this happens we begin to see a person as a mere object standing between where we are and what we want. We then make the choice to either remove them as an obstacle or use them as a stepping stone. But that’s not our only option. We don’t actually have to land there. Instead, we can see what the layout of our placement and prioritization is becoming and we can do the continual work of putting people back in their proper places. Realigning them with our truest definition of who we have already established that they are.
So we take them out of the middle. Again and again and again. The middle is where they are reduced to merely a means of our own end. But when they are placed on the other side, they become a person again. They are repositioned to become the end itself. The focus. The priority. The point of value. It is here, directly in line with us, that we can actually exercise power, experience pleasure, enjoy possessions, and give/receive praise in mutually healthy and beneficial ways. We can function as one. Not as objects of helps or hindrances to where we’re headed but as human beings with equal worth and irrevocable dignity.
Re-define how it plays itself out in society
When the choice we are handed lies between people and possessions the answer seems fairly obvious. Unnatural to choose, perhaps, but hard to actually argue against. But what would it be like if instead of just dethroning power and praise over people, we had to choose between actual personhood? If we were somehow faced with the choice between which two people could live. What then, would rise to the surface in us? Would our definition of equal dignity and worth for all human beings quickly become met with a barometer full of assessments and questions? Maybe our instinct would be to consider their ages, or factor in their accomplishments, or weigh their contributions, or compare their records.
While we ourselves will likely never be faced with such a choice, what happens in us when we hear about a gang related shooting? An elderly lady passing peacefully in a nursing home? A firefighter not making it out of a burning building in time? A person of color begging for breath? A child’s heart monitor no longer beeping? A prisoner being beat to death?
In the midst of everyday headlines filled with tragedy and trauma we are left with the choice to listen to our own visceral reactions and mental responses. To be mindful of our internal questions about the person. To pay attention to our assumptions based off of where they were and who they were with and what they were wearing. When we sit with our own honest responses they will answer the question for us of who we deem more deserving of death and who we see as less worthy of life. When we are present with ourselves in this way we can actually catch our minds going to the places we do not want them to and then we can do the repetitive work of realigning and reminding ourselves why none of those things matter. It is in these small and crucial moments we can convince ourselves once again that all human life is equally dignified. And then we are conscious of where we allow our conclusion to go. About them. About humanity. About life. And even about death.
Dehumanization, though, is not just about dying at the hand of injustice. It is also about living from a place of inequality. Those we deem most tragic in death, we will also see as most worthy in life. We may not ever say that a person is not actually worthy to live. But, to what do we assign their quality of life? Is it one of equal opportunity for education and position? Is it one that is given a strong voice and sought after as a needed presence? Is their mind just as smart, their body just as capable, and their being just as strong?
Our degradation and objectification of others comes out in the every day ways we respond and relate to them. In the manner we address them in and the time we give to them. It seeps through in the ways we esteem certain jobs, praise specific positions, and place power with select people. This shows up in the way we smile at the CEO behind a desk and ignore the homeless person behind a sign. In the way we greet the guest at our front door and mumble a hurried hello to the server at our table. In the way we engage or dismiss children. In the way we talk tenderly or mockingly about the elderly. In the way we clap for those who wear uniforms and yell at those who answer our phone calls. In the way we keep together those who are the same and cast off those who are different. In the way we classify intelligence and dismiss disability. In the way we label foster kids as troubled instead of laboring with them as traumatized.
Being worthy to stay alive is not the same as being worthy to really live. To live in a way that we all long for: without being treated as inherently inferior or locked in as innately less than.
Re-build what has been lost
“When we see people without recognizing that they have a story, we become pornographers. Pornography almost by definition lacks a story.” I think Ragan Sutterfield was on to something far more than only poses and pixels. The same effortless reduction of a person into a prize for our own self pleasure does not just stay on our screens. It manifests itself into the people we pass by quickly, the newcomers we get to know slowly, and the classmates and coworkers and church members we interact with daily.
They could be young or old or rich or poor. They could have thousands of followers on Instagram. They could have dropped out of high school. They could have graduated with the highest degree. They could live in the suburbs or the city. They could be a white person walking down our street or a brown person grazing our shoulder in a grocery store or a black person pulling up next to us in a parking lot. An immigrant or an international student. One who is pushed in wheelchair or relies on a walker. They could be wearing a suit or sagging shorts. Someone who is bilingual, reads brail, or communicates with sign language. They could have eyes that are stone cold or ones filled up with tears.
But what do we see?
Do we see a service or a statistic or a social status? Or do we see a story? A lived experience. A survived trauma. A family they come home to. A job they lost. A generational cycle they were born into. An addiction they are overcoming. A disorder they are functioning with. Do we hear their voice behind their language, see their skin beneath their clothes, and remember their blood beneath their bodies?
As Lore Wilbert powerfully puts it, “when we enter a room, we often forget the blood—the story—pulsing beneath the skin. When we divorce a body from the story—the humanity and the life—that God has given it, it becomes a mere object to us. We can no more separate our blood from our bodies than we can separate our story from the bodies who have lived through it.”
It doesn’t matter who they are, where they come from, or how long they’ve been in our life; we can simply forget what it means for someone to be wholly human. There is a lot inside there, living inside of them, that we forget to see. To look for. To ask about.
We are all too quick to forget that people are dignified- with bruised skin, with broken bones, with beating hearts- fully and fiercely, dignified.