Tuesday, June 7, 2011

With What Dignity

In 1920 G.K. Chesterton published some sketches he had made of his impressions while on a trip to Jerusalem.

In one section he writes:

"If there be one thing, I think, that can safely be said about all Asia and oriental tribes, it is this: that if a married woman wears any distinctive mark, it is always meant to prevent her from receiving the admiration or even the notice of strange men. Often it is only made to disguise her, sometimes it is made to disfigure her. It may be the masking of the face as among the Moslems; it may be the shaving of the head as among the Jews; it may, I believe, be the blackening of the teeth and other queer expedients among the people of the Far East. But it is never meant to make her look magnificent in public; and the Bethlehem wife is made to look magnificent in public. She not only shows all the beauty of her face; and she is often very beautiful. She also wears a towering erection which is as unmistakably meant to give her consequence as the triple tiara of the Pope. A woman wearing such a crown, and wearing it without a veil, does stand, and can only conceivably stand, for what we call the Western view of women, but should rather call the Christian view of women. This is the sort of dignity which must of necessity come from some vague memory of chivalry. The woman may or may not be, as the legend says, a lineal descendant of a Crusader. But whether or not she is his daughter, she is certainly his heiress.

(Picture of Bethlehem women, late 19th Century)

"…The black dress of the Moslem woman and the white dress of the Christian woman are in sober truth as different as black and white. They stand for real principles in a real opposition; and the black and white will not easily disappear in the dull grey of our own compromises. The one tradition will defend what it regards as modesty, and the other what it regards as dignity with passions far deeper than most of our paltry political appetites."

In another place in his book "The New Jerusalem", Chesterton writes, "On the road to Cairo one may see twenty groups exactly like that of the Holy Family in the pictures of the Flight into Egypt; with only one difference. The man is riding on the ass."


It's obviously true that Western Christian culture has become less Christian. And to the degree that it has become less Christian, it has become less human and therefore less humane. This isn't a recent phenomenon. I would say that Western culture has been becoming steadily less Christian for the last four or five centuries after having become increasingly Christian during the previous millennium-and-a-half.

I’m sure that many will disagree with the assertion that our culture has become less humane as it’s become less Christian. And I’m sure that the great atrocities committed or commanded by Christians during the so-called Christian era or “dark ages” will be cited as evidence. But surely these great atrocities are the exceptions that prove the rule. If they weren’t exceptions, marked in black against a much broader background, how would we be able to recognize them as the atrocities they really were.

It might be argued that we have become more humane in our punishment of criminals since the decline of Christian influence began in our culture. But is hanging a man for murder or chopping off his head for rape really less humane than subjecting him to modern conditions in a federal or state prison? I think it’s quite possible to believe that neither is humane—at least that one may not be less inhumane than the other.

Or maybe it’s the horrifying treatment that Africans received at the hands of a confessedly Christian people that could be held to refute what I’m trying to say. But the worst of what we, as a culture, have done to native and indigenous peoples has been done well after the Enlightenment—the so-called “Age of Science and Reason”—was already well under way.

But it isn’t what people have or haven’t done or even what they wanted to do. The point is what motivated them. What basic beliefs about themselves and the world defined their ideas about their own dignity as human persons and the dignity owed to the rest of God’s creation.

Our post-Christian culture has shown an appalling lack of discernment when it comes to being able to recognized the true value and dignity of God’s creatures. This lack of discernment, a creeping and penetrating blindness, has caused us to become less humane.

As we look out on contemporary life in Western culture, we see what appears on the surface to be greater equality and opportunity and greater latitude to express our freedoms and choose our own beliefs. But I think the slaves of Athens and Rome were more capable or recognizing their own dignity and the dignity of those around them than the richest and most educated citizens of today’s democracies.

At one time in the history of the world, one nation proclaimed the value and dignity of mankind in this way:
"What is mankind that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned with him glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet." (Psalm 8)
If a fundamental aspect of one’s system of belief is that humankind has been “crowned with glory and honor” and given dominion over the works of God’s hands, one is probably likely to be particularly impressed with this idea that a little halo of divinity surrounds the head of even the poorest and meanest of human individuals.

The laws of the children of Israel even provided for the dignity of livestock in the way they were treated. Like people, animals were accorded one day in seven to rest from their labor and were even entitled to their labor's fruits. (Exodus 20:10; Deuteronomy 25:4; Exodus 23:11) And the proper slaughtering of animals for food and other purposes was designed to be as painless and honorable for the animals as possible.

Quite often in both the Old and the New Testaments we are treated to an idealization of the shepherd’s loving protection of his herd as a type of God’s loving care for his people.

The honor and dignity afforded the daughters of Israel in their laws and in the stories of their heroines and prophetesses was even more comprehensive. And Christianity, where it has actually been practiced, has afforded women an equal dignity with men as living souls created in the image and likeness of their creator.

Rather than being considered the “property” of their fathers or husbands, wives and daughters were recognized as persons who, like the men in their families, had limits imposed upon them by their obligations and responsibilities. “Freedom”, in the misguided and irrational sense by which we understand that word in contemporary society, simply didn’t exist for anyone. And while it remains true even today that men may hold positions of honor that women are prohibited from holding for no reason other than that they are women, it is nevertheless true that women are and have always been held in the same honor as men.

The picture of the Bethlehem wives and the homage paid to them by Chesterton is an illustration of the special place afforded women in Christianity.

But it will be said that where absolute equality of opportunity is denied true equality of dignity cannot possibly exist but that’s a gross misunderstanding of both equality and dignity. A demand for equality that fails to recognize or respect a person's real dignity is no equality at all. It is an equality-of-opportunity that is impotent to achieve equality-of-results. It misjudges the nature of equality and confuses it with "sameness". To indiscriminately treat things that are equal as if they were the same is an abuse of the things inherent dignity.

To illustrate the point, in the created order it would be as far beneath the dignity of an animal to be treated the same as a human as it would be beneath the dignity of a man or woman to treat an animal like a human. It is a confused attempt at equality based on a misunderstanding about sameness that devalues as completely as it indignifies.

Quite simply, the nature of things in and of themselves demands that they be treated with the honor, respect, and dignity that is specifically due to them.

It's my contention that in our attempt to realize greater equality we have instead reduced everything to an unnatural sameness and that we have done so to our detriment. Instead of recognizing and celebrating the differences that permit individuals to retain their particular dignity and worth we have chosen to see everything as intrinsically identical with the effect that the highest dignity to be afforded anything is usually the lowest available for everything. And what follows is the denigration and abuse of humans and animals alike.

Anyway, this might explain the modern habit of packing humans as well as livestock in the smallest possible spaces that economy will allow while throwing dignity out of the window.

(By a coincidence, I noticed the following story on The New Republic’s web site Wednesday morning about overcrowding in America’s prisons: http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/89575/prison-overcrowding-brown-plata-supreme-court-california?page=0,1)