Recently I spent a week co-deaning at the beautiful Smoky Mountain Christian Camp in Coker Creek, Tennessee. The week was fantastic as I met new faces and celebrating seeing familiar ones again. Questioning my dignity may sound strange, but it all started with a slice of head cheese. For those of your unfamiliar with this particular culinary experience, Google it and find yourself confused as I am as to why this still exists. However, in order not to spoil any lunches, I will only go so far as to say I have not gagged while eating anything in a long while. I cannot say the experience was edifying, aside from the fact that our 3rd-4th graders raised nearly $400 to support children in need.
And then, after having lived inside of the camp bubble for a week, I return to discover that the United Kingdom has decided to leave the European Union. I won’t comment on the consequences one way or the other except to say that I am currently trying to decide where I fall on the issue. Regardless, I began to hear some of the hateful speech coming from both sides of the aisle and I was reminded of our own situation in the United States.
Listening to a particularly insightful podcast by Dan Carlin (“Common Sense”) pointed out that in the United Kingdom, similar to the United States, there is a growing number of individuals who feel themselves being swept along by the culture and political elites. They are told that they are fine and everything will work out fine in the end if they just buck up and get back to the grindstone. And, yet, these people have, with each passing year, felt their dignity as human beings slip away as their own beliefs, opinions, and traditions become more and more vilified or considered obsolete by the mainstream culture. And, suddenly, they have decided that they are, like Twisted Sister, “not gonna take it anymore.”
But then I ran across and idea from a Jewish theologian and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel: dignity is tied to both our obligations and rights. I thought about this for a second and realized just how deep this sentence was. Consider that we have been in an argument of the dignity of human life for years now concerning the beginning and end of life. How many times do we hear someone bring up not only rights, but obligations? And what obligations could we be talking about?
For one, we have an obligation to God. Form the moment of our creation, the command in Genesis is spoken to us as well: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” We are commanded to have a benevolent rule over the earth, being ultimately answerable to the King of Kings. As people of Jewish and Christian heritage the covenant at Sinai and the cross reaches forward to us as well, reminding us of the generational promises we made to God and God made to us.
We also have an obligation to others. The command “love your neighbor as yourself” is nothing more than a weak platitude if not lived out in the active concern and care for others. Lately, I have heard so many arguments for personal freedom and expression that I have despaired a little at the lack of discussion about obligation. Obligation is not always a bad thing, it spurs us to care for family, friends, and others. And just because we have obligations, it does not cheapen what we do to honor those obligations. I am obliged to show love to my wife, but does it cheapen those acts of love? Does it cheapen my affection for her to state that I also do my best to honor my commitment to the covenant we made with one another just over five years ago?
Dignity is not earned, it is inherited. It can be ignored or honored, but it can hardly be denied. Often, in response to our own dignity being ignored, we begin to ignore the dignity of others in order to gain even a false sense of our own dignity. I’m seeing this in the violence surrounding discussions on sexuality, immigration, welfare, and other deeply trying topics.
In our families, we should instill a basic sense of dignity: an understanding of individual obligations and rights. These are the things that make up our identity. An interesting philosophical thought is that I can only know myself in relationship with others, and that understanding is based on what is expected of us (obligation) and what we can expect from others (rights.)
How are you shaping your child’s understanding of human dignity? What obligations do you make sure to instill? What rights do you teach them to expect? How do you model a good balance of obligation and rights?