It is inherent to sin’s nature to rationalize itself. This is hardly a new insight. After all, the almost immediate response of Adam and Eve in the aftermath of the world’s first sin was to justify themselves by shifting the blame. This is precisely why it is so important that churches have a confession of sin as part of their weekly worship: Confession forces us to plainly acknowledge the things we know deep down but labor so strenuously to avoid acknowledging.
Little has changed since Genesis 3. When evangelicals wish to justify their support for Donald Trump, they do not argue about the basic goodness or badness of his bullying behavior or his racism.
They explain it, either rationalizing it or simply explaining it away. To rationalize the behavior is to absolve the person. We are now witnessing the same thing, though on a smaller scale, as many supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar are grasping at various straws to justify her deplorable behavior toward her staff over a lengthy career.
Sometimes the most important thing a Christian can do is cut through the justifications, the rationalizations, and all the other bullshit that sinners come up with to avoid confronting their own sinfulness. We have a severe shortage of Puddleglums, modern-day saints willing to stamp out the seductive smelling fire and state what is plainly true. This basic but necessary service is what Daniel Darling offers his readers in his new book The Dignity Revolution.
Darling’s book is not a particularly shocking or even innovative one. But that doesn’t make it unneeded—sometimes plain truths are the first to be forgotten. Indeed, there is ample evidence that our era has forgotten the basic truth that all people are loved by God and, thus, deserving of kindness, deference, and even honor. We are, after all, currently engaged in debates about whether or not we should be able to murder the unborn and whether or not it is OK to separate immigrant families at our nation’s border (often after forcing them to enter the country illegally by closing the legal ports of entry). This is to say nothing of the alarming treatment our nation often shows to the elderly, who we simply stick in a home and forget about, and the poor.
To be sure, every era seems to need a reminder of the basic humanity of one’s neighbor. After all, it was C. S. Lewis who said that you will never meet a mere mortal. Writing not long after, Francis Schaeffer said there are no little people. Darling’s book is of a piece with the same ideas proclaimed by these two men.
In all cases, they are simply echoing the commonplace point made throughout Scripture that God does not look at man as people so often do. He delights in inverting our expectations—the prostitute in the line of the Messiah, the fisherman called to build the church, the fools given the task of shaming the wise. Central to the biblical narrative is the notion that every person is beloved by God and called to glorify him, even (perhaps especially) those that the powers and principalities of the world see as inconsequential.
Though this point is, as I already said, well-established in Scripture God’s people still, nonetheless, have a long history of cruel behavior toward the very people through whom God frequently works. And, as is our won’t, we find a million reasons to justify bad treatment of the remarkable, dignified beings we meet every day, beings made by God and beloved by him. Darling’s book is a reminder that we ought not do that.
By simply asserting the dignity of each person and calling evangelicals to reverence each person they meet, Darling is offering a useful service. It is often the case during times of widespread unfaithfulness amongst God’s people that the most basic messages are the most necessary. Darling draws our attention to the dignity of racial minorities, the unborn, those imprisoned, the elderly and the sick, the poor, and to those who struggle with various questions of sexual orientation and gender identity. It is as if he is saying, in each chapter, “I think Jesus loves them too.”
The challenge with a book of this sort is that we cannot simply stop at ascribing positive value to various classes of people, looking at them and seeing a person beloved by God. This act of seeing rightly, something Darling teaches us to do quite well in the book, must be followed by an action that fits with this Christian vision of human beings. Toward that end, Darling’s work would be helped by a closer interaction with the primary sources of the church. A deeper treatment of “dignity” will help us define not only the basic worth of our neighbors, but the basic responsibilities we owe to them—responsibilities that will likely press on us in uncomfortable or unfamiliar ways.
This is not to say that Darling’s account fails because it doesn’t interact with older Christian writers on human dignity. Darling’s point is more foundational and does not contradict the older writers on any key points. But by camping out here and generally steering clear of the primary sources, Darling constrains how far he can go in the development of his ideas.
The downside to Darling’s just-the-foundations approach is that he sometimes twists when I wish he would stick. In multiple chapters, everything from immigration to healthcare to politics, he eventually arrives at some variation of “good Christians can disagree on what respecting the dignity of (the group in question) looks like practically.” In one sense, this is a good point: We should not, for example, make support for a 70% marginal tax rate a measure for whether or not a Christian loves the poor. Political objectives are distinct from political policies. But his argument would have more teeth given greater specificity.
A willingness to get specific is what makes the book’s penultimate chapter the most interesting. On religious liberty, Darling speaks plainly not only about objectives, but about the policies that should be adopted for advancing those objectives. That chapter is the book’s penultimate in which he turns to the question of religious liberty. As a Southern Baptist and a staffer with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Darling’s position is predictable, but it is well-argued enough to be worth reading, even for those familiar with the debate and for those who tend to think the Baptists mistaken on the issue. Darling’s argument for religious liberty is impassioned, clear, and compelling. More work with this level of specificity and precision is needed.
The Dignity Revolution is a book that can be the first word in a conversation about the worth and value of human individuals. Good work often requires a clearing of the land. Houses cannot be built on a field overgrown with weeds. Darling’s book does not raise the house—a more rigorous understanding of what a Christian doctrine of human dignity demands of God’s people and of society—but it does something essential to the eventual building of the house by reminding us that God loves our neighbor and calls us to love them too.