The priority of human dignity

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Published in the Catalyst, Vol. 32, No. 1 - Winter 2009

“Human dignity is a right to be protected and promoted.”

People of many persuasions and perspectives in society would likely agree with this statement; and Christians in particular would nearly unanimously affirm that this is among the first principles of their faith.

While we might readily agree on the priority of human dignity in principle, putting principle into practice is a continuing challenge. Let me offer here a brief reflection on resources from Jewish and Christian biblical traditions that might help with the challenge of putting belief into action.

While the word “dignity” is not used often in English translations of the Bible, it is an idea central to much of the thought and teaching of Jewish and Christian holy scriptures.

The sacredness of human life is strongly expressed in the Jewish creation stories where human beings are said to be made in the image of God. Concern for the worth of all is clear in the Jewish law, with its call for special care of the most vulnerable – the widow, the orphan, the stranger. Again and again the Jewish prophets summon political and religious leaders to mend their ways and return to the practice of justice and compassion for those who are disenfranchised. Jewish poets and wisdom teachers also give voice to the priority of attending to the poor and powerless.

The Christian gospels portray Jesus as a fearless advocate for those who are devalued and marginalized by the powers that be. And in the letters of Christian instruction and counsel handed down from Jesus’ early followers, there are clear echoes of their master’s teachings about restoring outcasts to a place of dignity.

The great teaching story known as the parable of the Good Samaritan is an especially provocative reflection on the issue of human dignity. The biblical writer Luke describes how one day, Jesus was engaged in discussion with an expert in Jewish religious law.

They were both in agreement that the great commandments about wholehearted love of God and love of one’s neighbour as oneself point the way to fullness of life. But then the scholar stalled for time, apparently not yet willing to roll up his sleeves and just get on with such costly love. He asked, “And who is my neighbour?” In reply, Jesus told the parable.

That story begins: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.” (Luke 10:30 NRSV). We then watch as two religious leaders – first a priest, and then a Levite – arrive on the scene and, seeing the battered victim, each hastily pass by on the other side of the road. It is finally a Samaritan – outsider and heretic to the mind of orthodox Jews of the time – who stops to help the traumatized man in the ditch.

The victim is passive and voiceless, as victims often are; yet his dignity and well-being are the critical issue of the story. From the outset his plight is the central focus. He is promptly robbed of his money, stripped of his clothing, and beaten into unconsciousness.

But just as truly, he is robbed of his dignity, stripped of his independence, and beaten into powerlessness. Victims of poverty and other indignities in our own communities would readily notice the story’s focus on the victim; they might easily recognize themselves in this situation.

Jesus’ questioner asks, “Who is my neighbour?” Having told this story, Jesus does not have to answer the question explicitly. It goes without saying that the victim – this one robbed of resources, protection and agency – is the neighbour.

At the end of the story Jesus shifts the question uncomfortably to ask, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Who acted as a neighbour to the victim? When the scholar gives the right answer, he is challenged to get busy and follow the lead of the traditionally despised and unarguably compassionate Samaritan.

Human dignity is to be recognized, respected, protected, restored. In one way or another, Scripture repeatedly affirms that those who have been robbed of dignity and left battered and broken by the roadside hold a particular place of care in the very heart of God.

Sacred writings also keep issuing a strong appeal to those who enjoy a full measure of dignity themselves. Like the scholar who questioned Jesus, those with dignity are summoned to use their power, expertise and privilege for the good of others. They are urged to offer the compassionate, hands-on, restorative help of a true neighbour, rather than merely engaging in detached speculation or smug judgment and passing by on the other side of the road.

It is a calling we are all given: an open invitation to act as neighbours to those who have been robbed of dignity and abandoned in the ditch in our society.


Bill Elliott grew up in the rural area of Vankoughnet in Muskoka, and because of this background he takes particular pleasure in serving now as minister of Glebe Presbyterian Church in Toronto, a congregation which dubs itself “the country church in the city”. In the past he worked for several years with the Presbyterian Church on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, under partnership appointment of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. He was also employed for a number of years in case management in a federal prison.

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