The Dignity and Nobility of Humanity
Audio: The Dignity and Nobility of Humanity
We currently are called, in a ceaseless and dreary drumbeat, to consider each other exclusively through the lens of the groups we are a part of. Certainly, some of these groups are voluntary: we might be Republicans, or quilters, or Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts. These group affiliations might be indicative of something, but our really interesting memberships are in groups over whose membership we have no choice, the two most popular today being race and sex.
Throughout history many efforts have been made to subsume the individual self into a larger tribe based on some specific shared attribute, then assume that everyone in the tribe behaves the same. Sometimes that attribute has been physical, like skin color, but at other time it has been religious affiliation, nationality, or language. The end result has inevitably been the same: all <insert group name here> are alike. “They” think alike, hold the same beliefs, have the same tastes in food. And all of the sameness is bad, essentially because it opposes the other group’s sameness.
History certainly bears out this observation. Large slave populations and mass genocides are littered across most of human history and all human cultures. But during the enlightenment (c. 1400 ~ 1600), a shift in thinking began to occur about the value of the individual over the tribe. It certainly didn’t happen overnight, nor did it permeate every mind around the globe, but a rise in literacy and economic freedom began to awaken a concept taught by Jesus: each individual is a beloved child of God without regard to external factors. Because this was a direct connection with God, it was a transcendent connection: each individual possessing a shared image of God. This term might imply a oneness to humanity that obviates any real individual distinctiveness. A geeky analogy might be that of a set of computers linked together by one network. Each computer retains its individuality yet is both linked to and powered by a singular network. We all share in God, yet all contain a unique piece of God that provides the distinctive self.
Certainly, Jesus spoke to crowds of people, notably when giving the Sermon on the Mount or the Feeding of the Five Thousand. But he never implied salvation was available to anyone who was simply sitting in the audience. In fact, when the five thousand come back the next day for more, they end up turning their backs on Jesus when he won’t meet their demands. But more poignant are his interactions with individuals. From the hemorrhaging woman to the blind beggar at the Siloam Pool, Jesus reaches in and touches that image of God, catalyzing and activating it without any regard whatsoever to any external groups they might be affiliated with. By the same token, none of the groups they are affiliated with are in any way influenced by Jesus’ actions.
This rise in individual value based on the only shared membership that matters – the shared, embedded image of God – found its first full-throated expression in the American Constitution. In fact, it was the one glaring flaw in the Constitution – the denial of this shared Image of God to Negro slaves and American Indians – that led to grotesque conflicts and bloodshed. In spite of a bloody history, it was the growing knowledge of this shared image of God – paradoxically a singularity that leads to individual distinctiveness – that led to significant efforts at freedom in America and Europe. Abolitionist groups were often led by religious groups, chief among them the Methodists.
Why, then, have we become so eager to imply behaviors and infer motivations across the board based on nothing more than superficial commonalities? A lot of ink has been poured out on this question, but for people of faith, the glaring reason for this is the loss of belief in the shared image of God. Collectives are attractive to shallow thinkers, but they are positively addictive to those seeking power. If <insert group name here> are all alike, they can be controlled as a single entity. Since in this paradigm individuality is unpredictable and therefore uncontrollable, individuality must be erased. But that pesky image of God asserts God’s authority through the individual, not the group, and attaches the faithful holder to the transcendent purposes of God rather than the earthly desires of those seeking power over others.
The Enlightenment has sometimes been referred to as the period in which the nobility and dignity of humanity, embodied in each individual, was brought to the fore. Perhaps there were other cultures or other time periods that did the same, but the rise in humanism in Europe was not initially accompanied by a rise in secularism. By recognizing the linkage between the image of God and the nobility of humanity, the great artistic, scientific and philosophical works of the enlightenment were accompanied by an explosion of religious activity that has only just recently been slowed by the onslaught of materialism that seeks to erase that image of God.
Inevitably, the eroding of our belief in the embedded, shared image of God has been accompanied by a retreat in our respect for the dignity of each human being. Under the new paradigm, a person’s worth can only be measured by their group membership, particularly in groups over which they have no control. The old paradigm, where a person is judged by the content of their character not the color of their skin or any other immutable attribute, is a paradigm that may have been articulated by Martin Luther King Jr., but was established by God as a means for us to focus on God’s image shining from within each and every one of us.