We Need a Dignity Revolution

Daniel Darling
Rebooting with a Christian approach to politics and life.

A few days ago, as I was traveling between Mass and the NR office in midtown Manhattan, I saw a man, after relieving himself, carrying his urine to dispose of on the curb. This was right by Penn Station, probably among the busiest blocks in the city. It was just after lunchtime, and people were everywhere, no one seeming to notice or care. Another man stood outside a café asking for an iced coffee as passers-by ignored him (not even intrigued by the quite specific ask and craving!).

This is how we can be. We get too busy to see the human face in front of us. We get so invested in our parties and ideologies and world, as we try to manage it, that we ignore the needs and indignities around us and the real people that policies and even our social-media commentary might be affecting. Daniel Darling, vice president for communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention, wants to do something about that, so he has authored The Dignity Revolution: Reclaiming God’s Rich Vision for Humanity.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is the Dignity Revolution, and who is going to lead it?

Daniel Darling: This would be a revolution lead by faithful Christians, and rather than inventing new ideas, it is a reclaiming of the Bible’s rich vision for humanity. We live in a world where dignity is being assaulted every day through war, famine, abortion, misogyny, racism, etc. And we are in a world where the advancement of technology is causing us to ask ourselves what it means to be human. I believe faithful Christians are poised to be able to point to the Bible’s answers for both issues. We are at our best when we speak out and speak up and come alongside the most vulnerable and when we continually point people back to the Bible’s beautiful ideas of what it means to be human and of Christ’s restoration of our humanity in the gospel.

Lopez: What is human dignity exactly, and how have we lost sight of it?

Darling: Human dignity is simply the idea that there is something special about humans, more valuable than the rest of the natural world. For Christians, we root this in the concept, from Genesis, that humans are uniquely created in the image of God. Moses, in describing the way God created humans, slows down his narrative and says that God sculpted humans from the dust of the ground and breathed into humans the breath of life. And by virtue of being God’s image-bearers, there is something in humans that reflects the Creator.

This tells us that every human being, regardless of his or her utility, regardless of competence or giftedness, has dignity and worth. This is especially important in a world that constantly divides humans based on their perceived value, a kind of Darwinian concept that sorts people into winners and losers. In a sense, every generation has been tempted to lose sight of what it means to be human. Sin corrupted the human experience and turns image-bearers against their Creator and against one another.

I think Christians, when they fully grasp this idea of human dignity, are motivated to move toward the people whom society deems least valuable. But Christians lose sight of human dignity when they are more formed by cultural influences than by Scripture.

Lopez: What does justice look like in this vision of revolution?

Darling: Justice is simply the desire to see things made right. Christians root their view of justice in a God of perfect justice. The ultimate act of justice is Christ’s satisfaction of God’s just wrath against sinners by going to the cross and accepting the punishment for injustices we committed against God. So we, having been reconciled to God through Christ, are now made ministers of reconciliation.

When we work for justice, we are essentially showing the world a glimpse of Christ’s kingdom, where everything will be made right, where all that sin has destroyed will be restored. In a sense to work for justice is obeying Jesus’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves. If we fully love our neighbors, we can’t be indifferent to the ways that systems and policies affect their flourishing.

Ultimately, we know that we cannot fully right every wrong in a fallen world, and we will not see perfect justice until Christ returns to fully consummate his kingdom. But in this in-between time, if we have voice and agency in a representative republic such as the United States, we should work to effect a just and free and civil society.

Lopez: In your revolution, is there room for policy differences among Christians?

Darling: Absolutely. On some issues, there are, I believe, clear implications for Christians when it comes to policy. For instance, I don’t think you can read Genesis 1 and 2, or Psalm 139, and not come away with the conviction that unborn human life is sacred and should be protected by law.

But there are other issues where Christians might uphold the idea of human dignity, but disagree on the most prudent way forward to bring dignity to the vulnerable. For instance, Christians cannot pass by the most economically impoverished. We should all agree that the poor have dignity and worth and that we should work to see them flourish. But good faithful Christians might have different specific policy proposals on what best lifts the poor out of poverty. That is a legitimate policy disagreement. We need vigorous debate about these things.

What isn’t debatable is the idea that every human being has dignity. Where we sin against Scripture, I believe, is when we consider any group of people disposable or less than human, or when we refuse to see their humanity by ignoring their plight.

Lopez: Why is this a Christian thing? Couldn’t it be about all people of good will united for the common good? Would it be possible to get to that point today, when we seem to disagree about the meaning of common words, never mind the idea that there is such a thing as human nature?

Darling: Well, it’s a Christian thing because I believe that the most robust vision of human dignity is rooted in the Christian story. That isn’t to say that other religions or other philosophies don’t have elements of this idea of human dignity. But even so, I believe these all borrow from the Christian concept of dignity. The historian Timothy Shah says in his monumental work on religious freedom that “apart from the Christian Scriptures, classical civilization lacked the concept of human dignity,” and Oliver O’Donavan says that the idea of human dignity is “only ever a theological assertion.” I think without Christianity as a foundation, you have very little basis for human rights and human dignity.

But beyond this, I’m writing mainly to Christians in this book. I’m urging Christians to reclaim what the Scriptures say because I believe that when the church leads on this issue, it can make a difference in the world. It is always the church that is showing the world a different way, pointing people to a different king and a different kingdom, where there is redemption and flourishing and wholeness.

Lopez: What is the “better story” Christianity offers, maybe especially in the wake of the Me Too movement — including sex-abuse scandals in churches?

Darling: The biggest lie of the serpent is this idea that we are better masters of our own fates than God is, that we know more than the Creator about what is best for our own flourishing. I think many people at this point are exhausted by the sexual revolution and its unfulfilled promises and are looking for something better. Christianity does offer a better story in its vision of a faithfulness and love in marriage and a kind of sacred singleness rooted in love for Christ. That doesn’t mean the Christian sexual ethic is always easy, but in following Christ, we find ultimate joy. We are most human not when we worship ourselves or find our identity in our fallen desires, but when we live out the purpose for which we were created.

When it comes to the church’s witness, many people coming into our churches are broken sexually and are looking for a vision of sexuality that is different than the one we see in the culture. The church needs to be unafraid to preach both repentance and a gospel that is good news for broken sinners.

Sadly, in many churches, leaders have abused their power and either have preyed on the vulnerable or have protected abusers, caring more about the reputation of their institutions than the flourishing of those whom they serve. Some of this is so heinous and so horrible that you can hardly even bear to read it. This abuse crisis, across denominations and traditions, should be a massive wake-up call. We need a return to a servant leadership and a healthy view of power and accountability. Understanding human dignity helps us understand power. When we abuse power, we view the people we are called to serve, not as humans, but as objects for our own satisfaction. But when we see the people we serve in their full humanity, we lead as Jesus called us to lead and embody the ethics of the kingdom of God. We see leadership as a way to empower others, not as a means to enrich and empower ourselves.

Lopez: What’s the most important factor in bringing about a renewal of family life?

Darling: There are so many factors that have contributed to the breakdown of family life: the sexual revolution, structural racism, the emergence of individualistic technology, no-fault divorce, etc. I also believe that the breakdown of the family is at the root of man of our social ills. When families break down, it results in an increased need for the state to step in and become a kind of surrogate family, and it results in more vulnerability for children. And it requires an even more robust response from the church.

And yet there is still a longing, I think, for the connectedness that family life brings. And it’s interesting that people who don’t experience healthy family life seek it out in some format, whether it’s with their coworkers or their peer group online or in other kinds of social institutions. My boss, Russell Moore, is releasing a book that really addresses this head-on in a beautiful and unique way, as he rightly acknowledges the brokenness of every family — even families who seem to have it all together — and points us toward wholeness and flourishing by rooting our identity in the family of God. In many ways, the church needs to be the place where those who don’t experience family in their own lives find a new family in that of Christ and then are empowered and equipped to lead their own families in perhaps a better and healthier way than they may have experienced in their own upbringing.

Lopez: You write in the book about when you were without cell service for a few days, and how that revealed to you the lie about who you are and who your Creator is. What was that experience?

Darling: I tell this story about my phone being without service for almost a week. As someone who is way too connected to my phone, this was, as you can imagine, a terrifying experience! I realized that my entire life would change as a result. How would I get from place to place without maps? How would I order things? How would I communicate with friends and coworkers?

In many ways, I felt a loss of control. This is the temptation with technology such as a smart phone. It gives us the illusion of being in control. And in many ways we are: With a few swipes we can order our world and make major decisions. But when that’s taken away, we feel vulnerable. Our phone whispers to us the lie that we are like God, that we are in control, masters of our own fates. But we are not. We were not created for this kind of power. We are dependent creatures whose lives are in the control of the one who created us.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review.

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