Respecting Human Dignity – Biblical Perspectives
1. The Great Declarations on Human Dignity
2. Creation: The Only Basis for Dignity
3. Dignity Defended (I): Protection of the Weak
4. Dignity Defended (II): No Partiality at Court
5. Cultures and the Universality of Human Rights
6. Modern Challenges to Human Dignity
Conclusion: An Answer to "Dogville"
Introduction: The Questions of "Dogville"
One of the darkest films of 2003 was Lars von Trier's "Dogville", shown in Lithuanian theaters last spring. The film tells the story of Grace (starring Nicole Kidman), fleeing from some mysterious men to the little town of Dogville somewhere in the American Mid-West. In the beginning an angel-like Grace is welcomed by the little community of working class poor. She helps them, and they give her shelter. But distrust and egoism change everything. Grace is humiliated, raped, exploited, has to do slave work, and the only person she has loved there chooses the side of the oppressors. All that happens only step by step, little by little, not dramatically. In the end it turns out that she is the daughter of a Mafia boss and does not accept his non-human rules with no grace and forgiveness. But, nevertheless, she decides after a very serious talk with the father that the people of the town are not worth living – they are all executed. Only the dog of dogville survives – since a dog can not deny grace.
Grace in the film initially believed in humans, in their dignity and their goodness. But she lost that faith. The film thus raises many questions: Why should we treat each other humanly? Do we have a kind of dignity which elevates us above the level of animals?
We can also ask with famous author Douglas Coupland in "Generation X": "What makes humans... human?.. We know what dog behaviour is: dogs do doggy things – they chase sticks... they stick their heads out of moving cars." So we know the dogginess of dogs. But "what exactly is it that humans do that is specifically human?" And "what is the you of you?", the "real you?" I hope that after this lecture we will be able to answer some of these questions.
1. The Great Declarations on Human Dignity
Human rights protecting human dignity were formulated and clearly articulated not before modern times. The famous French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens, adopted by the National Assembly in 1789, speaks of man's "natural, inprescriptible and unalienable rights" or "the natural, inalienable and sacred rights of man".
Today the most widely accepted document on human rights is the Universal Human Rights Declaration of the UNO, proclaimed in 1948. The Preamble stresses that "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world". Article 1 says that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights".
In 2004 the European Convent finished the Project of a Constitution for Europe which is now in the process of ratification. An important part of this EU Constitution is the Charter of Fundamental Freedoms. Article 2 states: "The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights, values which are common to the Member States."
2. Creation: The Only Basis for Dignity
States (see the Lithuanian Constitution, Art. 21), confederations of states like the EU, and the whole worldwide family of people, united in the UNO, have accepted various declarations protecting human dignity, value and rights. This multi-layer structure should, it seems, ensure a firm and almost perfect protection. Hence, are there any problems?
Let's take a look at the oldest of these modern declarations, the American Declaration of Independence (1776). It affirmed as "self evident" that "all men are created equal" and that they "are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights", especially the rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". These rights are said to be "self evident". And that was certainly true for Christians and those who were – like Deist Jefferson who drafted the Declaration – deeply influenced by Christian and biblical values. But are these rights still self evident today?
It is often supposed that everybody knows that people do posess an inherent dignity and that there are human rights. But today hardly anyone is asking the fundamental questions: Why is it so? Why do we have this dignity? Where does it come from? How can we justify it?
Norms with such a broad range like the quoted ones with an unqualified obligation have to be justified and firmly founded. This leads us to the question of worldview and faith because every catalogue of human rights is rooted in a certain worldview. The UN Declaration confirms this importance of faith, talking in the Preamble about "faith in the fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person".
Most of the modern declarations are lacking a firm foundation. More or less consciously they avoid commitment to a higher authority. The French declaration's focal point is the "common use" or, negatively, the "harm to society". Society decides what the human rights are and when they can be suspended – for the benefit of society. Some years later we saw in the results France – the government of the guillotine...
The French Revolution was decidedly anti-Christian and anti-theistic. The American Declaration mentions the creator, God, as basis for human dignity. And rightly so. There is no other firm basis. Modern and even atheistic declarations who are repeating all the good, 'Christian’ rights are hanging in the air. Unless values such as dignity, liberty and tolerance are affirmed in the context of a transcendent framework they lack fixed or objective meanings.
Every Christian explanation and foundation of human dignity begins with the creation account in the book of Genesis. In Gen 1,26–27 God says: "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness... So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him male and female he created them".
There are no words in Scripture that correspond directly to our concept of rights or dignity as legal entitlements. The quoted and other texts use the concept of the image of God which has a broad meaning, but it certainly says: Man is special men and women are unique. They are qualitatively different from animals. Man is like God which means we are reasonable, creative, volitional beings made for relationships. We are speaking, thinking, designing, working, and loving beings.
Being created in the image of God means that we are persons. Persons as God himself is a person. He is a person in relationship – an idea that is formulated in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. And so we are persons, created for relationships with God, other people and nature. Dignity in this context first of all means always being treated as a person, not an animal, not a thing.
F.A. Schaeffer (1912–1984), an American evangelist-philosopher and founder of the L'Abri fellowship, said in "A Christian Manifesto":
"We must understand that the question of the dignity of human life is not something on the periphery of the Judean-Christian thinking, but almost the center of it (though not the center because the center is the existence of God Himself). But the dignity of human life is unbreakably linked to the existence of the personal-infinte God. It is because there is a personal-infinite God who has made men and women in His own image that they have a unique dignity of life as human beings."
The origin of human rights is creation. We do not 'acquire’ them. States do not bestow them upon us and they do not graciously give these rights to us. They are inherent in our creation. They have been bestowed on us by our creator and have to be acknowledged and protected by the state.
In this sense human dignity is innate to us. We posess it. But not by virtue of our humanity alone. Dignity is a gift of the creator God, dignity derives from him – not from us. This is a subtle but important distinction. God as creator, rather than man, is central to the world’s moral order. Human rights and protection of dignity are not an invention of the Enlightenment and modern humanism as the framers of the EU Constitution want to make us think.
God is in the center, not man, since God is the creator, and we are created. But in creation we have unique dignity – we have a part in God's glory! This reciprocal relationship between God and us may sound paradoxically however, it is the only way to secure our dignity.
3. Dignity Defended (I): Protection of the Weak
The Bible does not speak in abstract and philosophical terms about human dignity. It is concretely protected by many laws in the OT.
The strong and the rich can easily enforce their rights and fight for their dignity. But not so with the weaker in society. That is why one of the main functions of the Law was the protection of the weak. Their dignity and personhood was almost constantly in danger. Let's take a look at some of these weak groups.
Foreigners. Ancient Israel was the state of the 12 tribes, descendants of Jacob's (Israel) sons. Israel was, in modern terms, a nation state. But, nevertheless, foreigners were in no way legaly despised. In Dt 10,18–19 it says: "He [God] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are alien for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt." God commanded Israelites to give to aliens/foreigners and to the poor from the surplus of the harvest (Lev 19,10 23,22). The tithe of every third year shall be shared with the foreigners, the Levites, the widows and the fatherless (Dt 14,29 26,12).
"Do not oppress an alien you yourselves know how it feels to be an alien..." we read in Ex 23,9. This respect for foreigners meant that their basic rights were to be respected. The foreigner, as the Israelite, had the right to rest on Sabbath day (Ex 20,10 23,12 Dt 5,14). He had the right to just wages. He could benefit from the same regulations of the law as the Israelite. He hast the right to impartial proceedings at court. He must not be sentenced stricter than the Israelite (Lev 24,22). Dt 27,19 exhorts: "Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow ". Loving foreigners also meant that they could take part in the big national feasts of the nation.
These principles are repeated in the NT. In the well known parable of the Good Samaritan in Lk 10,25–37 the selfless help is given by a Samaritan to a Jew – and that in times of deep hatred between these groups! Here Jesus is stressing the view of the OT because some parts of the Jewish society had become very hostile to non-Jews.
Workers. As today so it was in ancient times that workers were in danger of being exploited by their employers. That is why Dt 24,14–15 warns: "Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien... Pay him his wages each before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin." In this context we also find regulations for the protection of clients at the market. It was strongly prohibited to cheat. Dt 25,13–16: "Do not have different weights in your bag – one heavy, one light.... You must have accurate and honest weights... For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly."
Women. About the equality we will speak in the next paragraph. Here is a very remarkable quote about the situation of women in war. Dt 21,10–14: "When you go to war against your enemy... and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. Bring her into your home... After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and her mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her."
This is not a beautiful text, but it is very realistic. It was not allowed to simply rape women – they had to be married. The problem is that in war times much too often all the evil in man comes out – and non-combatants are killed, tortured, raped etc. The big challenge until today is making sure that persons are being treated as persons even in war. The regulations in Dt 21 protected women from not being just at the soldiers' mercy, from being treated arbitraryly.
Convicted. People who were sentenced to a certain punishment nevertheless did not loose their dignity as a persons. They were still protected. Dt 25,2–3 speaks about flogging, but stresses that "he must not give him more than 40 lashes. If he is flogged more than that, your brother will be degraded in your eyes." Punishment has to be, but the convicted is still called a "brother" , and he must not be humiliated. He must be treated as a person. The Romans did not care about this principle. Their soldiers could flogg as long and as 'creatively’ as they wanted – we could see that in The Passion of the Christ...
Little children and babies. Finally, let's talk about the weakest people in society. In ancient times sacrifycing children, especially in the Middle East, was common. In Rome that was prohibited only in 97 BC. The father in Roman society ruled over his chrildren like a monarch. His power included even the power over life and death, called the patria potestas. Abortion was common and legal in all ancient societies – with only one exception.
Today we harshly criticize a mother who kills a new-born baby. The general mood in ancient societies was quite differnt. David Gress writes that "Laws of both Athens and Rome assumed that weak and deformed infants would be routinely exposed to die." ("From Plato to Nato").
The Roman and Greek society was highly structured with a strong hierarchy. There were no human rights for people as such. John M. Rist asserted that the view that such rights as "the right to life, to have enough to eat, to live without fear or torture or degrading punishments..." or any other rights, "are the universal property of men as such was virtually unknown in classical antiquity." The ancient Greeks and Romans, he maintained, had no theory "that all men are endowed at birth (or before) with a certain value... though some of its philosophers took certain steps toward such a theory" ("Human Value: A Study in Ancient Philosophical Ethics"). The pagan Greeks and Romans had no premise of inherent or intrinsic human value from which respect for human life could be derived.
We do find all this in the OT. Abortion was not allowed. Infanticide was strictly forbidden. Parents were allowed only to discipline their children, and any stricter punishment had to be executed by public organs, after a trial at court (Dt 21,18–21) – all that for the protection of the children.
4. Dignity Defended (II): No Partiality at Court
The great declarations all stress that people have equal rights – equality is one of the core pinciples in defending human dignity. But neither dignity nor equality are self evident. Some 30 years ago biologist Francis Crick (who, together with J. Watson, discovered the genetic code) wrote:
"You must realize that much of the political thinking of this country [the US] is very difficult to justify biologically. It was valid to say, in the period of the American Revolution, when people were oppressed by priests and kings, that all men were created equal. But it doesn't have biological validity. It may have some mystical validity in a religious context... But it is not only biologically not true, it is also biologically undesirable."
Thus from a pure biological point of view we are not equal. And somehow that is true. People differ in many ways. But man is not just a highly evolved animal (as Crick thought). We are relatives of the animals, but we are also related to God we are moral beings and persons.
C.S. Lewis, the great British writer and apologist, once said that he does firmly believe in the equality of men – not because we are equal but because of sin. In his essay "Equality" he wrote:
"I do not think that equality is one of those things (like wisdom or hapiness) which are good simply in themselves and for their own sakes. I think it is in the same class as medicine, which is good because we are ill, or clothes which are good because we are no longer innocent... Legal and economic equality are absolutely necessary remedies for the Fall, and protection against cruelty" ("Present Concerns").
His point is this: It is quite fruiteless to discuss in which ways we are equal and in which areas we are not. Lewis wanted to stress that equality is first of all a legal, judicial principle. Absolute legal equality is protecting us. It ensures, again, that the strong to do not misuse their strength and make use of the law only for their purposes. This is the reason why we find so many judicial regulations in the OT. Partiality at court was not tolerated.
British philosopher Karl R. Popper (1902–1994) argued in a similar way. In his famous "The Open Society and its Enemies" he wrote: "Legal equality is no fact but a political demand based on a moral decision."
Dt 1,17 says: "Do not show partiality in judging hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of any man, for jugdment belongs to the Lord." In Ex 12,49 we read: "The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you." Courts have to be independent. Dt 16,19–20 speaks against partiality and bribery and exhorts "do not pervert justice... Follow justice and justice alone". Dt 27,25 is very strict: "Cursed is the man who accepts a bribe to kill an innocent person". In Dt 17,6 19,15 we find the important principle of several witnesses to make sure that an accusation is firmly based. Dt 17,4 states that in general at court "you must investigate it [a case] thoroughly".
Dt 10,17 gives the reason for this strict attitude: "For the Lord your God is God of gods... who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes". God himself is the impartial judge. This is repeated in the NT by Jesus (Mk 12,14) and the apostles (Eph 6,9). A concrete application is also found in James 2,1–9 where Jesus' brother is arguing strongly against favoritism in church.
In Israel even the kings were under the law and had to learn and study it (see Dt 17,14–20). They were not more equal than equal. Like the rest of the people they were not allowed to commit adultery or to kill someone. A good illustration we find in 2 Sam 11–12. David is attracted by Bathsheba, Uriah's wife. He sleeps with her and she becomes pregnant. To cover the adultery and to be able to marry her David gives order so that her husband would surely be killed in battle. The prophet Nathan rebukes the king harshly for this crime. David repents and so that the punishment is a little softer.
In Israel the people were equal at court, but even more fundamentally they all equally took part in the covenantal relationship with the Lord. Dt 29,10–12 says: "All of you are standing today in the presence of the Lord your God – your leaders and chief men, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, together with your children and your wives, and the aliens living in your camps... You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with the Lord your God... "
God repeatedly and consciously turned to all of the people. He was – and is – interested in personal trust and obedience by persons, individuals. This underlines our dignity as man and woman. Dignity means that we have such a high worth that God turns to us personally. And that he encourages us, all of us, to learn to know him and his Word better: "Assemble the people – men, women and children, and the aliens... – so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law." (Dt 31,12)
In other ancient cultures and religions this was quite different. James S. Jeffers writes in "The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era": "Codes of behavior written by Romans were usually addressed to the head of the household only. Women, chrildren, and slaves normally were addressed in the third person... By contrast, the New Testament passages listed above [Col 3,18–4,1 Eph 5,21–6,9 1 Pt 2,13–21 3,1–7 1 Tim 2,1–6,2 Tit 2,1–10] address wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, masters in the second person. This suggests a recognition of the basic equality or various classes of humans before God, even as it lays out specific roles for them."
5. Cultures and the Universality of Human Rights
The UN Declaration in the Preamble clearly states that human rights are "a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations". This underlines the universality of human rights – no matter to which culture and religion people belong.
Today, in postmodern times, this principle is under attack. Politically correct language and 'correct science’ requires to accept cultures in all their diversity and with all phenomenon. To talk about universal rights is said to be imperialistic.
Of course, there is a lot of truth in that. Westerners have been imperialistic and much too often tried to impose their narrow worldview on indigenous people. But do we have to remain silent toward these practices: headhunting in Borneo wife-trading of a traditional people in New Guinea practice of burning of widows in India, suttee (which is now past!) circumcision of women in Muslim countries? Do we have to agree with a non-judgmental ethnologist: "Don't interfere! Who are you to judge?!"
I think in this context it is helpful to shortly outline some basic points of the biblical view of culture. Culture itself is very positive. The command to subdue the earth (Gen 1,28) is also called the cultural mandate, because this has to do not that much with oppression or lordship, but with care, responsibility and creativity (see the naming of the animals, Gen 2,19). Cultural diversity in general is positive. Christians are not working toward a united world-culture.
But cultures after the Fall are not in themselves totally good. There is always a mixture of good, neutral, bad and evil. The only standard by which we can evaluate concrete phenomenon in a culture is the inerrant Word of God. Especially for Westerners, it is very important, of course, to distinguish between our own culture, inculding our own religious/pious culture, and the absolute principles of God's Word. In 1 Cor 9,19–23 it also says that we are to creatively adapt the Gospel to people of different cultures. Missionaries like H. Taylor who in XIX century China adopted a new lifestlye, dressing Chinese, gave a good example of that.
Today, in the third millenium, in the era of globalization, every culture does change. Conservation of a culture at a certain level is in itself not good or bad. But today the challenge is to moderate the fast change in the right direction.
Christians, Christian missionaries, although often attacked for their alleged imperialistic attitude, imposing their faith on people, do quite a good job moderating this change. This is due to the character of our Gospel. Christianity is a word-orientated religion, stressing the importance of language. In non-developed countries it is almost always the missionaries putting languages into writing and creating orthography. If a missionary or anyone else wanted to kill a culture, killing the language would certainly be the way to do it. When a culture looses its language, it loses its soul. But Christians do help to keep the language of its own – they are defending culture in this respect, defending human dignity too.
Giving a people the gift of literacy is the opposite of compelling them to submit to an imperialistic culture. Literacy is liberating. The people can then, with the Bible as tool in their hands, decide for themselves which elements of their culture are wrong, and which are good.
6. Modern Challenges to Human Dignity
There are, of course, many challenges, and we touched some of them like biological materialism/ evolutionism. Others are extreme individualism and material segregation – the gap between rich and poor. But here I want to mention another three of them which usually are not associated with human dignity.
Consumerism. Human dignity is closely connected with the questions Who am I? What is man? Descartes' famous "I think, therefore I am" we could today change to "I buy, therefore I am." Let us listen to the British theologian and sociologist Alan Storkey in his essay "Postmodernism Is Consumption":
"We are food junkies, fashion addicts, computer game epileptics, chocoholics, TV addicts, drug dependents, sports-gear obsessives... What is now becoming cultural orthodoxy is that we have freedom only to buy. Watch football, wear clothes, go for a walk, surf the internet, date a girl and we learn it is a buying experience... The appeal is to false images, herd instincts, the insecurities of chrildren and adults. The weakness of the arguments is overcome by repetition. Visual mantras pull the fool. Along with the 'freedom' only to buy is the prohibition against other things – thinking (for captive consumers need to be dumbed down), education, faith, relationships, art and family." (From "Christ and Consumerism")
Consumerism distorts our humaness because it gives wrong answers to the question who I am, what is important in life and what is real freedom. It diminishes our dignity.
A concrete example for this is the attack on Sunday. God's working for six days and resting on the seventh is clearly presented as the pattern for human behaviour for man, made in God's image, is supposed to imitate him. Very unusually, the sabbath is blessed in the Genesis account and in the list of the ten commands in Ex 20. A day off per week is good for us. But we prefer to ignore that more and more. Shopping centers became our modern day cathedrals...
New Religiousness/Eastern Religions. Human dignity depends on our being created in the image of God. But the concept of creation is denied in most of the forms of pop-religion. We have to mention Buddhism with, at least in the strict Theravada version, no gods at all and certainly with no personal God of any kind. God is also de-personalized in the writings of the Dalai Lama, Buddhism's most effective propagator, or in the books and essays of J. Ivanauskaite, most popular Lithuanian writer today. P. Coelho – I think I do not have to explain who he is – also intensively contributes to that destrcution of the biblical God, regardless of all his religious talk.
The de-personalization of God goes together with an idolization of nature. Nature is animated, infused with a divine spirit, consciousness or a life force. Nature is divine. Just take a look at the book shelves in shopping centers and all that stuff about feng shui, magic, astrology, bio-energy etc.
The problem is that all this is not just theoretical talk. Worldviews have an effect in the outer world. And there they concretely touch on human dignity and rights. Half a century ago Arthur Koestler was right:
"The Oriental attitute to the sick and the poor is notoriously indifferent, because caste, rank, wealth and health are pre-ordained by the laws of Karma. Welfare work in the slums and care of the poor in general was, and still is, a monopoly of the Christian missions in Asia. Gandhi's crusade for the Untouchables and Vinoba's crusade for the landless are modern developments under Western influence..." ("The Lotus and the Robot")
A good subject for a research paper would be: Human dignity and human rights in Tibetan Buddhism and in Tibet before Chinese occupation – unfortunately, politcally not at all correct...
Feminist Theology. Feminist theologians very much pretend to defend human dignity. Elisabeth Johnson in "She Who Is" about the male imagery of God: "Wittingly or not, it undermines women's human dignity as equally created in the image of God". It is certainly true that women ar not to be oppressed. And man and women are equally created in the image of God. But feminist theology argues for a very special kind of equality of total symmetry between the sexes. I do not think that this is the view of the Bible.
The problem is that in attacking the concept of headship (of man) very often submission and authority as such are denied or deminished. So God himself as a ruler and Lord is under suspicion. The biblical concept of creation is said to be male and is replaced by "making room within himself for the nondivine" (Johnson) which often leads to spimple panentheism. Or the "Mother Earth" is advocated as a new goddess which smacks of pure paganism. Although fighting for dignity, the very basis for that dignity, the creator God of the Bible, is attacked and destroyed.
Conclusion: An Answer to "Dogville"
"Dogville" is strong in its realism: Man is not as good as he seems to be. Naturally, we do not tend to treat each other humanly, with dignity. Often what seems beautiful and nice on the surface is just thinly hidden pure self-love. Dogville shows a world without human dignity.
There is a church in Dogville, but no minister, no priest for years. The church is only used for the humanistic speeches of Tom who initially believes in Grace and the moral improvement of the people in Dogville. There is no God in Dogville. And therefore in a world without God Grace is not graceful anymore. She becomes an angel of revenge and judgement – with the permission of her father, a kind of Mafia God-father.
So the only answer to Dogville and to the whole question of human dignity and a person's value is the God of the Bible, the creator, and the God of grace. In the reel world of von Trier's "Dogville" he does not exist, but in our world he is truely there – He is real, giving us true dignity and true grace.
Lecture given at the WSCF international conference "Respecting Human Dignity and Integrity: Gender and Theological Perspective on Human Rights", Vilnius, April 20th 2005.