Article Sep 24, 2018

How human dignity changed my life

One of the best things about Christian theology is its practicality. As you grow in your knowledge of the Bible, the Bible reshapes the way that you think and, ultimately, the way that you live. I’ve seen this pattern in my own life time and again. And one of the best examples is the way that the Scriptures have reshaped how I think about other people.

Viral hate

Twice in the last few weeks we’ve seen major news stories centered on the issue of human dignity. One of these stories became breaking news because of a photo that went viral. “The image featured Geoffrey Owens, an actor best known for his portrayal of Elvin Tibideaux on the Cosby Show,” working as a grocery store clerk. As the photo spread across social media, countless people cruelly mocked and shamed Owens by posting demeaning and offensive comments about his “failed” career and “pathetic” job. Days later, a video went viral that drew forth the same kind of hateful mocking and jeering. Footage captured Anthony Torres, a 56-year-old man, shaving his face on a train leaving New York City after spending several days in one of the city’s homeless shelters.

The negative response to both of these events was overwhelming. And by now we know the internet is a unique medium for kindling our worst impulses; it provides varying degrees of anonymity and distance, and allows one to engage any issue instantaneously on these grounds without pausing for reflection. The comment threads from both the photo of Owens and the video of Torres are beyond disheartening; they’re sickening.

But in each case, not all of the responses were negative. In addition to those who spoke out to defend Owens from the virtual mob, many of his friends and fellow actors made statements to publicly demonstrate their support. Similarly, many people also spoke against the judgmental comments being directed toward Torres. And from these positive statements, a common theme emerged: every person has dignity.

The Bible’s power

Watching these events play out in real-time reminded me of the way that God used his Word to change my own understanding of human dignity. I didn’t grow up being a hateful person. I was saved at a young age, and even then I knew that I was a sinner and that I had natural prejudices in my heart. But I certainly wasn’t a racist. As a young Christian, that was the only kind of prejudice I knew to avoid. Moreover, when I heard the words “human dignity,” I thought only of abortion. I knew I had that one right, too; I passionately believed that human life begins at conception, that every person, including the unborn, bears the image of God and is accorded inestimable dignity and value.

As Christians, the first thing we should recognize about people we see is that they are fellow image-bearers.

But as I matured, God began to expose gaps in my understanding. Up until that point, human dignity had been fairly one-dimensional. It applied narrowly to my pro-life position. For a long time, I assumed that phrases like “human dignity,” “sanctity of human life,” and “pro-life” all pointed toward the same narrow application. I don’t regret coming to such a firm conviction on the issue of abortion so early in my life. I do wish, however, that I had come to a more robust view of human dignity sooner than I did.

Through his Word, God began to show me that being pro-life is about all of life. It does apply directly to abortion. But that is because it applies directly to life. From the moment of conception to one’s final seconds on a deathbed, all life is sacred. Or, to put it more succinctly, life matters “from womb to tomb.”

Renewing my mind

What God moved me toward was a robust, holistic view of human dignity. He took my facile perspective, and replaced it with an integrated understanding of what it looks like to value life all the time. Of course, I still don’t do this perfectly, but the change has been substantial and meaningful.

Personally, this shift has changed the way that I think about everything from immigration to end-of-life care to criminal justice to pornography. And with each of these, the common theme is the same: every person is a person, a creature made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). No matter what else they are, no person will ever be less than that. This doesn’t mean that the Bible offers prescriptions for all of these things. It certainly doesn’t offer a comprehensive plan for immigration reform, for instance. But it does change the way that we see people, and the way that we talk about them.

Every person is a person. Whether they’re an adult bagging groceries, a child playing too loudly, or someone working in the sex industry. As Christians, the first thing we should recognize about people we see is that they are fellow image-bearers. That doesn’t mean we accept every behavior, or that we make light of sin and overlook transgression. It means we never allow ourselves to forget a person’s value, regardless of the circumstances.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking through the reasons that the internet mob poured out such scathing invective toward these two men. It might have been some effort to feel superior, or some twisted means of pleasure through another person’s misfortune. I’m still unsure. But I am sure that the people of God have no place among the mob. Our calling is to act justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Christians should be the first to show compassion to our fellow man. We must weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn, and refuse to bully or belittle people in order to exalt ourselves. My colleague, Dan Darling, has recently completed a new book exploring this very issue titled The Dignity Revolution. I not only commend Dan’s book to you, but urge you to explore deeply the Bible’s teaching on human dignity. It might just change your life.