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Sticks and Stones and Dignity

Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. – Clarence Thomas

*This was originally published, by me, back in October 2017 on an old blog. I loved it so much, I decided to resurrect it. The content remains the same.

“One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized and cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered.”

Michael J. Fox
© Victoria Will/Invision/AP
© TimSloan/Getty

A discussion broke out between Justice Clarence Thomas and Actor/Activist George Takei. Here I use the word discussion meaning a non-interrogative exchange of ideas wherein neither party is communicating with the other party.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

Classic children’s rhyme

Justice Clarence Thomas, in the second part of the dissent in the Obergefell v Hodges case,  wrote about the nature of dignity.

Along the way, [the Majority] rejects the idea—captured in our Declaration of Independence—that human dignity is innate and suggests instead that it comes from the Government. This distortion of our Constitution not only ignores the text, it inverts the relationship between the individual and the state in our Republic.

My attention was piqued, being someone who cares about the interpretation of a text, when he wrote, “[they are] ignoring the text.” In Christian circles, it’s been a long battle to enforce the idea of rightly dividing the text of the Bible and not promoting every unsubstantiated idea awkwardly wrenched from the text.

Aside from Thomas’ brilliant statements on the nature of liberty, he goes on to explain the nature of dignity with regard to the United States Constitution.

Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built.

Consider the Christian response to that statement. God created us with certain rights and inherent worth that cannot be alienated, or taken away, by man. When Cain killed Abel, he defiled God’s creation leading to the law of Genesis 9:6 Given hundreds of years before the 10 Commandments, it says:

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.

Genesis 9:6 ESV

Why is it wrong to kill? Because God created us in His image. Then there’s this statement from the Proverbs of Solomon:

Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.

Proverbs 14:31 ESV

Why do we help the poor? Because to ignore them is to insult God while generosity honors God. Our worth is given to us by God and no man can take that away.

Justice Thomas continued with a statement that has sent the activist blogosphere into an absolute tizzy.

The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

In a Christian context this statement makes sense. The government, via slavery and internment camps, can ruin lives, destroy families, and make life unbearable, but it cannot take away that which is given to us by God.

When I was a kid and I got my feelings hurt, my parents reminded me of a simple rule: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. In fact, I even remember teachers saying this to our entire class back in those early grades. What was the result? Thicker skin. A greater sense of self-worth and self-respect. The understanding that there was absolutely no need to fret over the words of people I didn’t like anyway.

Our current culture has changed all that. Teachers and even Pastors have given in to the current climate and said that words do hurt and the old saying is wrong. Certainly words do hurt when those painful words come from someone you love, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to not allow a person that you didn’t like anyway, to take away your sense of self-worth and for the Christian, your worth to God.

The current culture is reinforcing and doubling down on the idea that your sense of worth comes from other people and now even from government.

George Takei is evidence of the change in thinking. His response to Justice Thomas was racist and poorly reasoned.

He is a clown in blackface sitting on the Supreme Court. He gets me that angry. He doesn’t belong there. And for him to say, slaves have dignity. I mean, doesn’t he know that slaves were in chains? That they were whipped on the back. If he saw the movie 12 Years a Slave, you know, they were raped. And he says they had dignity as slaves or – My parents lost everything that they worked for, in the middle of their lives, in their 30s. His business, my father’s business, our home, our freedom and we’re supposed to call that dignified? Marched out of our homes at gun point. I mean, this man does not belong on the Supreme Court. He is an embarrassment. He is a disgrace to America.

Notice how Takei changed the context of Thomas’ statement. Thomas never said there was dignity IN slavery, or there was dignity IN what happened to so many Asian Americans during World War II. They still have their dignity, Thomas said, because it was given to them by God. Takei is an example of the continuing problem of ‘inverting the text’ and he wasn’t alone as several news and opinion outlets took up his charge and perpetuated the inversion.

Righting the text and restoring our understanding of dignity is no easy task. People are stubborn and in a culture where so many seemingly want to be victims, restoring an innate belief in one’s own dignity is difficult.

There is hope. Since dignity is given to us by God we need only point people to God in order for them to begin to see their worth. As we lead people to Christ in gentleness and respect, without force or manipulation, they will see their worth in the Gospel: Jesus Christ came to save sinners and reconcile us to God and that He did so according to the Scriptures. Christ reconciles us to God; How can we not have dignity?

In this way, we are diligent about not “inverting the text” and hold securely the dignity given to us by God that no government can bestow, or take away.

Footnotes:
Thomas – http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/14-556_3204.pdf (pages 78-95)
Takei – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCOpYxSkysk
Thomas – http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/14-556_3204.pdf (pages 78-95)
Takei – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCOpYxSkysk