ASCENSION DAY ADDRESS ON "DIGNITY: DENIED AND RESTORED"
(This Address was given at St Mark's Church, Broomhill, Sheffied, UK on 20th May 2004 following a seminar I had led at St Mark's Centre for Radical Christianity www.stmarkscrc.co.uk )
I want to speak to you today about dignity denied, dignity taken away, dignity respected, and dignity restored. I have several aims in mind. First of all, I want to give you my reasons why I think it is a fitting theme for this Ascension Day. I realise you will already see quite clearly that it is an important concern for today's troubled and uncertain world, even without taking into consideration the varied meanings and symbolism of Ascension Day. Secondly, I want to remind you of the significant role of literature in enabling us to understand a wider range of human lives, than we might otherwise do, and especially the lives of people who have their dignity trampled upon and disregarded. Next, I will contend that Ascension Day can offer hope to such people in relation to new conditions being created which will lead to their dignity being respected again. Lastly, I will put it to you that to create such conditions is the challenge, in all its complexity and difficulty, that cries out to be faced in today's world.
My theme assumes the sacred unique spiritual and moral fact of dignity as being an essential part of our life. I assume the seriousness with which, it is claimed, that God takes our human dignity (whatever the word "God" symbolises for you). The claims of Christian faith suggest that God is not One such as to mock us or belittle us or in some other way to remove our dignity from us. I do not take the Ascension Day story of the disciples of Jesus watching him disappearing out of their sight, as he was lifted up to heaven, in any literal or historical sense. I see it as part of the Christian mythological story that has its own meanings and claims to truth, its own convictions about what is ultimately true.
In that mythological story the Son of God suffers one humiliation after another in the events leading to his excruciating death on the cross. He is abused and derided. The very manner of his death and what happened to the bodies of the many people crucified, at that time and in that part of the Roman Empire, were designed to remove as much of a person's dignity from her or him as possible. The crucified died knowing that the Romans would leave his or her corpse to be eaten by hungry dogs and pecked at by scavenging birds. The Christian mythological story speaks of this crucified Son of God being raised from death and then ascending to heaven to sit in glory at his Father's right-hand side. Here his dignity is respected; here there are no more humiliations.
If dignity is taken seriously and valued supremely in heaven, then so it should be too here in our world, for the same moral values apply. Ascension Day holds out hope for those who have suffered the loss of their dignity in whatever way, because it speaks of conditions changing so that dignity is respected again. It provides an ethical and spiritual challenge as we seek to transform human society and rid it of many of the evils that bring about the disregard of people's dignity, caused by creating humiliating conditions for them in which they have to live and suffer. Let us not be under any illusions. There are some nasty and dangerous people in our societies, and throughout the world, intent on the disregard of a person's dignity; they will use him or more often her as a means to an end, frequently a commercial one or a military one. I regret too that there are also many ordinary people whose regard for the dignity of others they meet in their daily lives is scant. Dignity is also often neglected institutionally in the care of the mentally ill and of the handicapped to mention just two groups of people who ought to be treated much better. The right to die with dignity has also been diminished by the demands of society to make every effort to sustain life - even for a few extra hours.
I am deeply concerned about the many ways in which such human dignity is ignored or deliberately denied. Anyone who pays attention to the world knows about it. To give just a few more examples - it happens in child abuse, in the trafficking of teenage girls and women for prostitution, it has happened in the treatment of people in detention camps and prisons, in the lack of justice for the hungry and the poor, in the compelling of young boys and girls to become child soldiers in the many civil wars that beset African countries in particular, but not only them. It happens when a teacher bullies a pupil - so attacking his or her dignity and self-esteem, and it is found when staff or workers relate to a colleague in a way which ignores his or her dignity in the workplace. The lack of respect among many for the dignity of members of the gay community is another shameful issue.
The United Nations charter on human rights claims, as do similar charters - such as the Geneva charter on the treatment of prisoners of war and on the right to protection from torture or other degrading treatment - that human dignity is an inalienable characteristic and something that is fundamental to what we claim being human consists in. Because we have rights, we have dignity. They go together. Respect for human dignity is paramount for anyone trying to build a more human world for us all to share. I contend "dignity denied and taken away" is an appropriate subject to engage us on this Ascension Day.
In a speech entitled "Turning Points", addressed to university students on receiving their degrees, on 25th May 2003 at Vassar College, New York State, Susan Sontag, essayist, critic, scholar and novelist said:
" - Read a lot. Expect something big, something exalting or deepening from a book. No book is worth reading once that isn't worth re-reading. If you read right, you'll be doing a lot of re-reading all your life….
- Try to imagine the concrete, lived reality that words point to. Words like, for example, "war".
- Try to imagine at least once a day that you are not an American. Go even further: try to imagine at least once a day that you belong to the vast, the overwhelming majority of people on this planet who don't have passports, don't live in dwellings equipped with both refrigerators and telephones, who have never even once flown in a plane.
- Pay attention. It's all about paying attention. It's all about taking in as much of what's out there as you can, and not letting excuses and the dreariness of some of the obligations you'll soon be incurring to narrow your lives."
I do not know what the students made of her words or whether they have struck a chord with you or not. I myself like what she said; I find her words inspiring; they resonate with my own vision of life. Her words place an emphasis on the use of our imaginations, but they also emphasise reading books and paying attention to what is happening in the world. I think that underlying all her ideas is the need to take human life seriously, to ask what is worth taking seriously, and to respect the dignity of each person, simply put - to respect people.
Through listening to the reading from Solzhenitsyn's extraordinary book "One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich" we were enabled imaginatively to get inside life in those deadly camps with their inhuman degrading conditions under which the prisoners were expected to live and work. There indeed human dignity was disregarded. D.H. Lawrence said that one of the functions of reading was to extend the sympathetic consciousness. Susan Sontag would agree and so would Martha Nussbaum to whom I will refer in a moment, she named one of her books "Cultivating Humanity" and drew the title from a quotation from Seneca who wrote, "While we live, while we are among human beings, let us cultivate our humanity". No person can get really fired up about disrespect for human dignity, so prevalent and pervasive in our world, unless she or he can imagine what other people's lives are like. And for that to happen she or he needs understanding and knowledge and needs to use her or his imagination and draw on her or his empathy and compassion. It may be also that a person can draw on her or his own experience of abuse or disrespect or humiliation, she or he knows from within what it is like to have her or his dignity disregarded and trampled upon. Even though, in some way, despite this inhuman treatment, perhaps she or he managed to retain her or his dignity, as I suspect a person like Nelson Mandela may largely have done through his years of isolation, imprisonment and harsh labour.
It was part of the function of Greek tragedy, as Nussbaum points out in the book to which I have just referred, to help increase understanding of other people's lives. In Athens, going to a tragedy was not just an aesthetic experience, it was a time to be exposed to civic and political concerns, and it formed part of the shaping of citizens' lives. For example, men imagined the lives of women - rape by the enemy, the meaning for women of the death of their children or what capture meant and what it was like to be treated by one's enemies in captivity. Literature does not transform society single-handed, but it can have a significant role. If you not a reader or a great reader, and are feeling excluded by my remarks, think of all the other ways there are to get yourself, imaginatively, into other people's shoes, and by so doing, to come to understand more about the meaning and difficulties of their lives. There is, for example, opera, theatre, film, and the Media. Walt Whitman thought that literary art develops capacities for perception and judgement that are at the very heart of democracy, including especially, so he held, the ability to see "eternity in men and women", understanding the aspirations of their world, and its complexity, rather than to see them as "dreams and dots". Literature can speak on behalf of the unheard; it can be the voice of silent people or of people who for cultural reasons find it almost impossible to speak of their experiences, such as the difficulty of Iraqi women talking about being raped. We are less likely to demonise others if we gain more understanding of them, literature is there to disturb us and help us grow.
Not all literature is good literature; it needs to be read selectively and critically. But if we give ourselves to reading at least some really good books each year, then we will bring new eyes to the attention that we seek to pay to our world. But to have knowledge and understanding of some of the lives of people whose dignity is denied is one thing, to use that understanding and knowledge is a different moral responsibility, though a related one. What can you do or what can you do better? Will you challenge those who demonise others, those who look on others they fear as simply vermin, who should be exterminated by any means at all, who deserve no respect or understanding? Will you challenge insensitivity and prejudice when you encounter it in others? Will you express your concerns publicly by writing to the newspapers, being in the audience for a radio or TV show where you might get an opportunity to put across your point of view? Is there a human rights organisation that you could join and benefit from as well as serve? Are you a parent, could you challenge some of the values that your children are exposed to through the Media and encourage them to think more deeply? Is there someone at work you could speak up for who tends to have their dignity maligned or undervalued? Can you encourage a political or religious leader to be more outspoken or to make an apology?
We need to allow our compassion and empathy, our understanding and concern to continue to shape and transform our lives. We are all vulnerable, we need to remind ourselves as we seek to put ourselves in another person's shoes that "this could have been me", and we ought to ask ourselves the question "if that were so how would I have liked to have been treated?" We all have opportunities to make a difference, to uphold the key value of the dignity of the human person, to reach out to those maltreated in this regard, and to express solidarity with them, and if we look, we will find ways to transform our society and our world, so that the millions of oppressed people may find their dignity upheld and their lives respected and held sacred. May I encourage you not to underestimate the potential of the example of your own life in showing respect for the dignity of other people through your ordinary dealings with them, no matter that you may have failed in certain respects to do so in the past? May I remind you of the incalculable spiritual influence of your own self-respect manifested in your behaviour and bearing? I have spoken to you about "Dignity taken away, dignity denied"; let our vision and goal be "Dignity restored".
To realise this vision and goal we need to continue to struggle to ascend to the heights of our humanity. The climb is hard, the ascent to the heights of our humanity is difficult, but the journey is not about the survival of the fittest, but rather it is about seeing that nobody gets left too far behind. My brother, my sister, turn around as you climb and hold out your hand to me as I struggle behind to keep up, my friend hold out your hand to someone else who also has fallen behind and is struggling to keep going, and you my friend to another person. Let me hold out my hand to grasp yours. If we can grasp each other's hands in this way, we will have grasped the meaning of our existence, we will have discovered the dignity of our humanity. My brother, my sister, I tell you that the heartbeat of God will quicken, for my friends, the heart of God will have begun to dance.
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