The Restoration of Dignity (Further Thoughts From ‘Unbroken’)

dignity defiinition

I appreciate all the fun comments and scoop you’ve shared (here and on Facebook) in response to my last post, about April’s Book Club selection, Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand.

I wanted to write a little more, about one passage in the book that stood out to me. I don’t remember another point in the book when Hillenbrand so clearly broke from the narrative to give commentary, as she did here:

“When the guards weren’t venting their fury at the captives, they entertained themselves by humiliating them…

The crash of Green Hornet had left Louie and Phil in the most desperate physical extremity, without food, water, or shelter. But on Kwajalein, the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity. This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind. Men subjected to dehumanizing treatment experience profound wretchedness and loneliness and find that hope is almost impossible to retain. Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live…

…Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty.”

The passage grabbed me, because it echoed a theme taking shape in my heart over these years, as I have worked among ethnic minority communities and learned some of their stories.

I’ve come to a greater understanding of how my people—white Americans—have systemically oppressed, abused, and ignored minority communities for centuries. And how in doing so, we have deeply damaged the very psyche of these communities.

My friend and co-worker Eric articulated well how the above passage is related to my calling, in his comments on my MLK post:

“I’ve become convinced…that if [we] are truly going to live out the gospel that it must include a fight for dignity and worth for ethnic minorities. It cannot be only about the plan of salvation. It must include the gospel, and that must include worth and dignity.

Contextualized ministry has always been explained as strategic; it needs to also be explained as restoring the worth to human beings who have had it stripped away from them and internalized that as inferiority.”

The more I learn about how my (white American) people have used our power to create and sustain systems of oppression of ethnic minority peoples, and how those systems have worn away at the dignity and humanity of those peoples, the more grieved and burdened I become.

Not that I—or almost all the white people I know—ever intend to cause pain to minorities. But all white Americans are, by default, a part of this system. A system that has dehumanized and denigrated entire communities of people. In our time, the methods may be more subtle than those the Japanese guards at the POW camps employed, but the effects are just as damaging.

But I believe there is hope. With my God, there is always hope.

Because my God is a God of redemption. He loves to lift up that which has been cast down. Which means that where my people have caused damage and created shame in the past, my God can provide a way for us to bring healing and restore honor in the future.

This is the very nature of the gospel. I believe that if we—the white American Church—could get this right, if we could learn what it means to restore dignity to our minority communities, the Spirit of Christ would pour forth on our nation like never before.

It will take work. It will take intentionality. It will require that we humble ourselves. It will take sacrifice.

We’ll need to listen with new ears and see with new eyes. We’ll need to re-examine our assumptions. We’ll need to be okay with making mistakes, because we will surely make them. We’ll have to step down from our places of power. We’ll have to learn to be uncomfortable for long periods of time. We’ll need to be willing to be misunderstood.

But it will be worth it. To see all peoples honored and esteemed as uniquely displaying the image of God, to the praise of His glory.

Yes, it will be worth it.

Who’s with me?

2 thoughts on “The Restoration of Dignity (Further Thoughts From ‘Unbroken’)

  1. agreed – the future of contextualized ministry discussions is dignity and ethics. “strategic” has been a necessary step in the discussion from total ignorance and lack of engagement. But we must go farther and deeper. We're releasing in Epic an article along this lines in a week or so Adrian has been slaving away over and that we've been talking about all year. Need to define what the conversation looks like moving forward and not settle for how it's been defined in the past.


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