Inherent or Bestowed Worth and Dignity?

Transient and Permanent’s blog asks the question whether or not the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations define us a liberal religion?  I find the question interesting on a number of fronts. 

I wrote this as an answer to the question at the blog site: “The principles could be a manner in which we define liberal religion. I know that I refer to the principles when I am confronted with an issue that makes me uncomfortable. For example, today I preached on torture. I needed to wrestle with the principle of inherent worth and dignity when the torturers of Abu Ghraib and Gitmo are displaying themselves as monsters of intense evil rather than as humans with inherent worth let alone dignity. I don’t know how successful I am with this question. But if the principle is true regardless of what I see expressed, then how do I reach that essence that reveals it to be true when everything shouts the opposite? I could not gloss over the principle as some rote phrase of rhetoric. If my faith has any chutzpah, any substance to it, then it has to be able to answer this question. Does/Can a person steeped in providing torture have inherent worth and dignity? Does/Can our principles help us in answering these more critical questions of our 21st century reality? I believe they can but on the way, it means that we are going to fumble and sometimes err in our living out the question, but if we are able to maintain our openness to the question, then we can have a fairly exciting journey along the way.”

But I want to explore this a bit further.  In the last decade or so of my being a Unitarian Universalist I have taken the seven principles to define for me, a prescriptive yardstick that I will measure the questions that arise in my journey. 

I will use what is perhaps our most beloved principle, the Inherent worth and dignity of every person.  In the face of evil emanating from a human, does this person have inherent worth and dignity?  It’s a tough question.  It is one that some of my esteemed colleagues have responded with an emphatic no.  

Rev. Bill Schulz, former UUA president and former executive director of Amnesty International, has come to the position that inherent worth and dignity is something that needs to be assigned.  That it really isn’t inherent at all but rather is bestowed upon others.  [For more in-depth on his opinion read Bill Schulz’s 2006 Berry Street Lecture  What Torture Taught Me]  There is documented proof of the power of bestowing worth and dignity.  It is the power behind successful programs like Big Brothers and Big Sisters and other similar mentoring programs.  For a child to have at least one adult person in their life who is in a positive relationship with them is a powerful influence on how that child will approach and experience adulthood. 

The successes that Psychotherapists such as Carl Rogers, Bruno Bettelheim, Victor Frankl have had with their clients also stem from the establishment of authentic relationships in which the psychotherapist has bestowed worth and dignity on the client.   Many years ago, I worked with a developmentally disabled adult who was formerly a client of Bruno Bettelheim’s as a child.  This relationship was so very potent in her life, that to mention his name, she would simply gush with adoration.  Understand this was a person who usually spent most of her day in deadpan expression to any and all activities she engaged in.   So this notion of bestowing worth and dignity is a powerful one and necessary one for all sorts of healing of woundedness in our lives. 

My experiences in working with people with developmental disabilities and with people living with AIDS reinforce this notion that worth and dignity can be bestowed upon another and have remarkable impact on the person’s life and well-being.  I have used in sermons a story about a young man living with HIV/AIDS who was homeless, heavily addicted to heroin and cocaine, considered violent by the police and convicted of many serious crimes.  I worked with this young man and his significant other for several years.  When I first met him, in conversation on the phone, I called him Sir.  A title he was taken aback by.  He told me he was never called Sir ever, he had been called lots of worse things and given the description stated above you can imagine what those things might have been; none of which very affirming.  In my working with him and his common law wife,  he began to soften in his attitudes towards life.  He reconciled with his family.  After he died, his family told me that his relationship with me had reached him in ways that his family never was able to and they were grateful for my assistance of their son.   Bestowing worth and dignity on another can be a very powerful and transformative event in a person’s life. 

But is worth and dignity already inherent?  Unlike my esteemed colleague Rev. Bill Schulz, I still claim that it is inherent. When a child is born, before that child has developed, the child has inherent worth and dignity.  That worth and dignity is the potential of a life well lived.  It is the seed longing to sprout and become a mighty oak.   Life circumstances and experiences might crush that potential. Choices may be made in response to those events that lead the developing child down a path of destructive behavior, much like Sir, described above.  But that seed, remains waiting for any opportunity to break forth.   I call that seed, the spirit of life that pulses through all of creation.  There is such potential.   Even when a person has made choices, even if they are coerced choices, that lead to behaviors that we find detestable, it does not mean that worth and dignity is no longer inherent in the person.  It means that the person is in need of someone who is able, willing, capable, of bestowing worth and dignity upon them in an authentic relationship calling forth the inherent seed of worth and dignity to break through.  In other words, redemption is still possible. 

Finding such a person willing to do this for another is hard.  This is why the iconic Jesus is so palpable for many people today because when a person imagines themselves being in the presence of this Jesus, all forgiving and all merciful, they are bestowed worth and dignity in a world where few people will do this act.  These individuals then find within themselves the ability to turn their lives around, find the strength for recovery from drugs and alcohol, find the will power to hold steady employment.  They then credit this iconic Jesus with the miraculous.  What usually really happens is that after their initial event with the iconic Jesus, someone then takes them under their wing and bestows this worth and dignity upon them.  It is this person who in relationship with them, aids them along.  Christians call this discipleship.  Business men call this mentorship.

Our Inherent worth and dignity comes to fruition through authentic relationships with one another.  This is why coming together in community is so vitally important.  We have an opportunity to be redemptive for one another.  It is a wonderful gift that we can offer others.  We cannot offer it, however, by walking up to someone and say, “Hi, I am here to offer you redemption.”  This is where evangelical Christians quest to save the world misunderstand Jesus’s message.  In bestowing worth and dignity, redemption comes from the day to day relationship with that person.  It comes from doing the mundane things of daily living with that person.  It is in the daily routine of seeking to make choices that will harm none.  It comes from the spiritual quest to be mindful in our thoughts and actions.   Redemption is not a commodity that can be offered.  It is a transformation process that develops within the daily life of community.

For me, our principles offer a touch stone where I can wrestle with the issues of the world.  They are more than just words for an association of congregations.  The principles do define my liberal religious life.  I believe that engaging these principles can be a spiritual practice for many people.  Blessings,  


Published in: on June 16, 2008 at 5:45 pm  Comments Off on Inherent or Bestowed Worth and Dignity?  
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