As my siblings and I grew up in church youth groups, we learned a moving song in a minor key that still holds meaning for me, especially in these critical times: We Are One in the Spirit. There’s a verse in it that has returned to me in light of current events:
We will work with each other; we will work side by side; (repeat)
And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride;
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love;
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
On today’s social and political stage, we don’t see much evidence of people treating one another with dignity, much less, love! I can point to news stories of would-be immigrants in crowded, unsanitary detention centers, parents who sell videos of their children to sex traffickers, and the desecration of the historical marker over the site where Emmett Till was murdered. In addition, very recently, I watched in horror as President Trump unleashed attacking tweets against four duly-elected congresswomen, spewing racist comments and showing his ignorance by calling for these U.S. citizens “to go back where they came from!” Then, even when vigilant fellow Americans called him on his rhetoric and behavior, he triple-quadrupled down, never apologizing, exhibiting no remorse, and, by his silent waiting during his rally, encouraging members of the audience to join in when some chanted, “Send them back!” He certainly was not treating these public servants with dignity, nor acting in a dignified way!
This is a major problem given the high ideals of our democracy, and for a nation “under God!” Most obviously, when people are not treated with dignity, we have stomped on the opening words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] 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.”
The lack of dignity in the public sphere is also a theological problem. The Hebrew scriptures, particularly Genesis 1, instruct us that ALL people are created in the image of God, the Creator, and therefore, worthy of justice and respect. Plus, Jesus enjoins us in the Gospels to love one another as God has loved us, each one and everyone. From this cornerstone credo comes the religious teaching that “the exercise of freedom belongs to everyone because it is inseparable from his or her dignity as a human person” (Catechism of the Catholic Church), and the more secular United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Other religions also prioritize human dignity; in the Quran, for example, Moses and Jesus are “role-models of dignity because they did not abandon their self-respect by bowing to social pressures.” (Wikipedia)
I immediately felt indignant last week when the tirade against Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Pressley unfolded on our television screens! It took me back to dealing with schoolyard bullies who always seemed to identify and pick on those they considered most vulnerable (those of whom they were ironically the most afraid).
Unfortunately, these four congresswomen were easy targets to Donald Trump, being female first of all, women of color, one a member of a minority religion, and all of them bearing the kind of names that the President trips over, lazily calling them instead, “the squad.” These legislators articulate positions and promote policies that he abhors, but, unwilling or unable to honestly debate the rationales that motivate and direct them, he played to old tropes of race and socialism, aiming at the lowest common denominator.
When the President of our country picks this kind of fight, it surely doesn’t promote dignity amid our differences or unity in our plurality! Enlightenment thereby eludes us.
“Indignant” turns out to be the exact right word for my emotion in the face of such hostility because it derives from the Latin: “in” for NOT and “dingus” for WORTHY. When in everyday life we experience the exact opposite of dignity, it is natural to feel indignant.
While these women are completely capable of taking care of themselves, I noticed how I wanted to leap to their rescue. Childhood instincts kicked in, and I was tempted to somehow defend them by returning evil for evil. I wanted to do something or say something that would insult the bullies, cut the critics of the women to the quick, and convert the guilty. Of course, the theological principle of dignity applies as much to me, even in my moral outrage and self-proclaimed righteous anger!
“Somewhere in us a dignity presides that is more gracious than the smallness that fuels us with fear and force.”
I felt better when, rooting for them from my living room, I watched the dignified way that the four women conducted themselves during their press conference.
They put their constituents first, addressed the real issues, reiterated their love of country, and accurately described the tweets from the Oval Office as intentional distractions. (Upon further reflection, I think President Trump’s ultimate goal in this goading was to paint the entire Democratic Party with the broad brush of ‘socialism,’ in order to simplify his coming campaign for re-election.) These Representatives did not retreat; they did not rant.
After all, none of us can control what others will do with their power. We cannot guarantee that what we say will change their minds and hearts. Only the image of the Divine within them can do that. But we can always exercise our own freedom and power in a manner that adheres to the reality of inviolable human worth! We can always respect others, even when they dis-respect us. As difficult as it is to do, this is really the only rewarding way to proceed.
It is an active endeavor, then, for Christians to become one in the Spirit, to work with others side by side, and to guard each one’s dignity as the song promotes. When there are affronts to God’s image in all of us, we who are claimed by Christ cannot give into easy distractions, or hide in passivity, or settle into silence!
Each of us must do what conscience dictates, of course, but I’ve found myself creating a dignity to-do list in the wake of this particular infraction. To actively guard each one’s inherent spiritual dignity and practice democracy, I plan to register on their websites my commendation of the four women, and on the White House comment line, my displeasure over the racially-charged tweets. I will also pray for President Trump, for the Congresswomen, and for our nation. In other words, by God’s grace and image within, I commit to show up, stand up, and speak up, with dignity.