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Universal, Inherent Dignity

Bias from the Bottom: Week 1

Universal, Inherent Dignity
Thursday, March 24, 2016

Paul offers a theological and solid foundation for human dignity and human flourishing that is inherent, universal, and indestructible by any evaluation, whether it be race, religion, gender, nationality, class, education, or social position. We now believe the reason that this one man enjoyed such immense success in such a short time is that he gave human dignity back to a world that had largely lost it. One more god in Greece and Asia Minor would have meant little, but when Paul told shamed populations they were temples of the divine, this made hearts burn with desire and hope.

The Acts account of Pentecost goes out of its way to emphasize that people from all over the world heard the Galileans speaking in the pilgrims’ individual languages after the descent of heavenly fire and wind (see Acts 2:1-11). At least 17 nations or groups are listed and “about three thousand persons” (Acts 2:41) were baptized and received the Holy Spirit that day. The theological message is clear: God’s favor is both totally democratic and unmerited. It was meant to be the end of all tribal, ethnic, and elitist religion. But it did not last long; by 313 A.D. Christianity began aligning with empires and emperors in both Constantinople and Rome.

One of the reasons Paul’s teachings had so much influence in Asia Minor was that he restored human dignity at a time when perhaps four out of five people were slaves, women were considered the property of men, temple prostitution was a form of worship, and oppression and injustice toward the poor and the outsider were the universal norm. Human rights did not yet exist. Into this corrupt and corrupting empire Paul shouts, “One and the same Spirit was given to us all to drink!” (1 Corinthians 12:13). He utterly levels the playing field: “You, all of you, are sons and daughters of God in Christ Jesus . . . where there is no distinction between male or female, Greek or Jew, slave or free, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (see Galatians 3:26-28).

This is quite amazing, considering the divided world at the time! In Paul’s estimation, the old world was forever gone and a new world was born. This was surely impossible and frightening to some people, but utterly attractive and hopeful to the majority who had no dignity whatsoever. Who does not want to be told they are worthy and good? Who does not want their social shame taken away? No longer was the human body a cheap thing, degraded by slavery, or sexual, verbal, and physical abuse. Paul is saying, “You are the very temple of God.” Scholars now believe this is Paul’s supreme and organizing idea. Such an unexpected affirmation of human dignity began to turn the whole Roman Empire around.

Paul’s teaching on sexuality (1 Corinthians 6:15-20) is not the moralistic message that many of us have come to expect from Christianity. Paul is just saying that your body has dignity, so preserve it and defend it. We would now call this a healthy sense of boundaries and identity. When a woman had no sexual protection at all, this was revolutionary. A woman could now claim her own autonomy and refuse to give her body away to every man who wanted it. A man could start respecting and being responsible with his own body. This is a positive and dignifying message, not a finger-shaking, moralistic one. But we are now coming at it from the other side of history. People who hate Christianity after centuries of shaming moralism must also be honest and admit that feminism most strongly emerged in the Western cultures that were formed by what Rene Girard brilliantly called “the virus of the Gospel.”

Gateway to Silence:
Humble me.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, an unpublished talk, February 2015 at the Center for Action and Contemplation.

Image Credit: Little Boy, Juarez, Mexico, 2009. CAC archives.
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