My good buddy Christine has a blog up that calls us to the age old question – do even bad, even evil, people still have inherent worth and dignity.
Quoting her great piece, The Wolf’s Inherent Worth and Dignity,
This is a bit of a crisis of faith for me. My religion has teachings which do not correspond with what I know to be true, at least not in the universal light of which they are cast. Do the principles How much skepticism is appropriate with the UU principles? Does having, “yeah, but” clauses dilute the faith?
Yes. Even sociopaths have inherent worth and dignity. Because there’s a difference between being inherently good and having inherent worth and dignity.
Let’s do a quick thought exercise – do diagnosed sociopaths deserve to be tortured?
No, seriously, do they?
I bet just about everyone reading that recoiled and thought “Of course they don’t deserve to be tortured.” Or, hopefully, “no one deserves to be tortured.” And if they have no worth or dignity, what would it matter if they were tortured or not?
It clearly matters. Even the worst people in history and in our society now have some sort of inherent worth and dignity, just by their very nature of being a person. Even if the only thing we can think about them is that we’re glad they exist so we know how good life can be… by not being around them anymore.
I’ve talked before how I want trust to be my default. And I faced something of this crisis before – when due to bank fraud my checking account was completely wiped clean and had no money to live on for about a week until it got fixed. Back in 2011 I wrote,
And it would be easy, it would be SO EASY for me to say whomever stole my debit card info (my current working theory is unsecured wifi at some point when making a purchase or restaurant) is evil and ought to, well, go away forever, or that they just aren’t a valid person. Because they stole/tried to steal 1500 bucks from a relatively decent person who did no wrong and tries to be a good person.
But I can’t. I just can’t. Because even with all of this, I still believe…I still HAVE to believe…that this, well, thief has some kind of inherent worth and dignity too. Part of me right now is telling myself I have to believe that, because if I believe one person has no inherent worth and dignity, then no one has it, and if no one has it then I don’t either. And if I don’t have inherent worth and dignity, then stealing 1500 from me is fine and dandy.
A person is a person. By the very nature of being a person, they have some kind of inherent worth and dignity to them, because in some sense they are the same as me.
Believe you me, this belief is being tested. Mightily right now. It’s easy to put into theory but hard to put into practice. (And yes, for those who will comment, I’m aware Inherent Worth and Dignity is technically part of the covenant between congregations. I have chosen to adopt it as a personal belief as well.)
So yes, even the jackass who stole/has tried to steal 1500 bucks from me today has some kind of inherent worth and dignity.
I may…strongly dislike them right now, but even people I loathe still have inherent worth and dignity.
And that still rings true to me today a couple years later. I certainly didn’t accept the bank fraud – I fought it, reported it, etc. etc. I didn’t accept the person’s behavior despite thinking the person has inherent worth and dignity, because there is a difference between a person and a person’s actions. It goes against my belief to think that people are evil – people’s actions, yes, but people, no.
Even the sociopath is saved.
As to another point Christine makes,
If you see a wolf in the wild, you do not engage. You avoid. This advice is easy to follow if your easily recognize the wolf; if the wolf is disguised as a dog, and you know all wolves to be such, then how do you avoid being bitten? Do you avoid all dogs? Do you cast away dogs to protect your safety?
My response would be that this is why we are a covenantal faith. We come together to covenant to form a community grounded on mutual understanding. If a wolf appears in a congregation, either at once over time, and the wolf has begun to threaten the safety of the entire community, then we hold them to covenant or respectfully ask them to leave the community, as they can no longer uphold the covenant.
But that’s an answer that only talks about how we as a congregation can respond. In our everyday lives outside the walls of our congregations, what are we to do? We bring the covenant home. If people in your life aren’t engaging in mutually acceptable behavior to further the common good, then talk with them…and then cast out if that’s the only solution left.
You can acknowledge their inherent worth and dignity while letting go of further interaction. It’s not a contradiction of faith – it’s living up to our covenantal faith.