This I believe
I believe in dignity. Dignity, as I see it, is at the heart of many of our values as human beings. Dignity is at the heart of the “Golden Rule” of Jesus of Nazareth. Treat another with dignity because one would like to be treated with dignity oneself. Dignity was at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. If one displays a dignified stance, despite, and in the face of, what another one does, then one has already achieved it.
My own experience with the human need for dignity rests mostly in my work with Habitat for Humanity. Our affiliate in Newburgh, New York, an impoverished and troubled city of 30,000, has built or refurbished two dozen houses. It may not seem like much, but Habitat is the largest developer of single family residences in the city. Habitat families hold down jobs and work on their own homes alongside volunteers. They sign a no-interest mortgage and own their homes, often paying a fraction of what their rent was every month. Instead of trying to raise children in tiny, neglected apartments, they own homes suited to their needs. Money saved through escaping exploitative rents goes to things like clothing, school supplies, small business investment and music lessons. The change in these families is profound and almost immediate. The dignity that comes with home ownership allows children to flourish and avoid the pitfalls of aimlessness, gang membership and involvement with drugs. Habitat houses are the best kept in the neighborhood. They are a model of the transformation that dignity can achieve. Families thrive and whole neighborhoods demonstrate a tangible feeling of revival. People are now proud to say they live in Washington Heights, my neighborhood, because the community is worth something.
You see, dignity is to me primarily about self worth. But self worth is a fragile thing. The blatant or de facto denial of self worth can have disastrous consequences. The frustrated quest for dignity is, I think, at the heart of so called radical Islam, Irish Republicanism, Black Nationalism, Tamil separatism and so many other movements. They may be denied their needs through oppressive regimes, colonialism, or another form of exploitation. We may find these groups and their methods and means despicable, but we must recognize that their search for dignity demonstrates how fundamental the human need for it is. A young man in Newark or Brooklyn denied dignity through poverty, a lack of educational and employment opportunities and a broken home may use a weapon to rectify a perceived act of disrespect, simply to reassert some sense of self worth. This is wrong.
We all need to make absolutely sure that every member of our society, and the societies with which it interacts, are treated not as if their dignity is granted, but as if it is their own. If we do so, we will begin to repair our own society and our communal relationship with the rest of the world.
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