18. February 2018

Freedom from Indignity

Service Type:

‘May your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless’ (1 Thess. 5, 23)

So much of who we are, what we are is defined for us. But at the heart of who we are is just that ‘who we are’. Regardless of externals, who we are is intrinsic to us. We have an identity that is our identity regardless. But just as important is the value we attach to our identity – not how much are we worth in the eyes of others, how much are we worth to ourselves – that is our dignity. Far too many people have been devalued by wider society to such an extent that their dignity has all but been stripped away; denuded of their self-worth, denied any sense of self-esteem, dehumanised, even demonised…

“Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live.”
(Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption).

It is to the credit of so many that in spite of everything, they have refused to let go their grip on their dignity…

“Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man's soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it.” (Laura Hillenbrand, ibid).

Jesus was at pains to remind his hearers that each one of them, whatever label might have been stuck on them by others, had an essential dignity, a self-worth, that cannot be denied because it was a gift of grace, God’s gift, that by which they are identifiable to God; precisely because each one is valuable to God, each one of us is worth something to God, so each one of us should realise what we are worth to ourselves, just how valuable we are. The parable of the Prodigal Son reminds us that God will never deny us the dignity – the self-worth – invested in each one of us, because each one of us is always and forever a child of God, however much we succumb to the temptation to allow ourselves to be devalued by others to such an extent that we believe we have devalued ourselves in the sight of God. The Gospel declares that, Once a child of God always a child of God, always and forever valuable in God’s sight, because in Christ we are accounted as worthy before God, having imputed to us a self-worth that we would otherwise deny ourselves; and all of this is regardless of the judgement imposed upon us by wider society…

“Although claiming my true identity as a child of God, I still live as though the God to whom I am returning demands an explanation. I still think about his love as conditional and about home as a place I am not yet fully sure of. While walking home, I keep entertaining doubts about whether I will be truly welcome when I get there. As I look at my spiritual journey, my long and fatiguing trip home, I see how full it is of guilt about the past and worries about the future. I realize my failures and know that I have lost the dignity of my sonship, but I am not yet able to fully believe that where my failings are great, 'grace is always greater.' Still clinging to my sense of worthlessness, I project for myself a place far below that which belongs to the son,” (Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming).

Everyone has an intrinsic value arising out of their being a child of God. This is the essence of one’s dignity, of one’s self-worth, the realisation that one is valuable to God. But of course, that begs the question, what is value? How do we measure it? Too often our society is characterised as knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing…

“But today’s society is characterized by achievement orientation, and consequently it adores people who are successful and happy It virtually ignores the value of all those who are otherwise, and in so doing blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness. If one is not cognizant of this difference and holds that an individual’s value stems only from his present usefulness, then, believe me, one owes it only to personal inconsistency euthanasia of all those who have lost their social usefulness, be it because of old age, incurable illness, mental deterioration, or whatever handicap they may suffer. Confounding the dignity of man with mere usefulness arises from conceptual confusion that in turn may be traced back to the contemporary nihilism.’ (Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning).

The Pandora’s box of a godless world opens far too easily for the good of any of us. All too easily we get drawn into a discussion concerning ‘dying with dignity’, rarely if ever do we confront the challenge inherent in the clarion call, ‘living with dignity’: as we consider during Lent the plight of those incarcerated in our prisons, for many of them, what does it mean to ‘live with dignity’?

“To lead by force all you need is a greater army, but to lead by example, to be a city on a hill, you need an uncompromising respect for basic dignity. And you don't gain either of those things by breeding monsters in dungeons.”  (Jonathan Maas, Horsemen).

…This is why I am thrilled that we as a church are prepared to be at the service of those who we call ‘homeless’ because being without a place to call home takes away so much more…to be homeless is to be denied the dignity that society demands of us: how often are we asked for our name and our address – without an address, a name counts for nothing…The Gospel demands of us nothing less than to campaign to ensure the right of each and alike to be afforded the dignity they deserve; the sense of self-worth that is a basic human right; to be valued for who they are, just because they are as we are…