The Table Podcast

Human Dignity and the Image of God

In this episode, Dr. Darrell Bock and Mel Lawrenz discuss a biblical perspective on human dignity.

Timecodes
00:15
Lawrenz's background and work on human dignity
03:17
Lawrenz's book: A Time for Dignity
05:44
Lawrenz's experience teaching about human dignity
06:55
The basis for human dignity
11:48
A biblical perspective on human dignity
17:12
A biblical perspective on human worth
21:40
Understanding the Image of God
24:57
Being an example of dignified living
26:50
Dignity, freedom, and autonomy
33:24
Dignity, work, and human worth
35:15
Bureaucracy and dehumanization
38:10
Aging, disability, and dignity
42:19
Bioethics and human dignity
44:09
Prejudice and respecting human worth
Resources
Transcript
Darrell Bock
Welcome to The Table, where we discuss issues of God and culture. I’m Darrell Bock, Executive Director for Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary. Today, our topic is dignity. We’re going to talk about the image of God, the importance of human beings, and the way in which they’re treated.

Our guest is Mel Lawrenz, who I have known for a long time on the basis of visits I used to make up to Elmbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. So we’ve got north and south together today. We’re just doing really well. Mel, welcome to The Table.

Mel Lawrenz
Thank you, Darrell. Appreciate the opportunity to chat with you.
Darrell Bock
Mel, talk about – you have an independent ministry, now, that Elmbrook helps to sponsor. Talk a little bit about what you have done and do in ministry, and why you wrote a book on dignity.
Mel Lawrenz
Well, after about 30 years of pastoral ministry here at Elmbrook in different capacities, the last 10 years as senior pastor, I took on a role of teaching and training and networking, developing our partnerships. I feel as though I’m taking 30 years of experiences, learnings, bruises, and a few insights along the way and getting to share them with Christian leaders – church-based leaders and other leaders – really all around the world.

We do a lot of networking stuff. I do a training overseas. We have a program in the church where we bring international leaders here once a year and then do networking outside of that. I write a lot of books along the way and just look for any opportunity to pass on to other cultures and other generations whatever we have learned here at our ministry at Elmbrook.

Darrell Bock
So it’s a combination, I take it, of developing leadership, on the one hand. It sounds like, with the dignity book, you’re doing a little bit of – if I can say this – it may not be directly related, but tangentially related almost to a theology of work and getting people to think about why God has them where they are.
Mel Lawrenz
Well, the rubric that I work under, Darrell, is called The Brook Network. There’s a little verse in Proverbs 18:4 that says, "The fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook.” I feel as though I’ve been on a lifelong search for wisdom. Wherever I go, whoever I visit, whatever group I’m working with, I’m looking for where can I find something of God’s higher wisdom here and then share that.

So that’s really – you know, the dignity thing, it’s a seminal idea. It’s a big ideal. I think culturally, it’s a major, major watershed ideal, which a lot of people are willing to give up on. So the work that I do, with great pleasure, is to be a catalyst for people to talk about some really big ideas.

Darrell Bock
Well, let’s talk about – you talked about it kind of generically, but let’s talk about the book. The book is entitled A Time for Dignity: Crisis and Gospel Today by Mel Lawrenz. The beauty of it, in some ways, is it not only dives into the concept, but it’s so crisply done and concise. It’s a very manageable read for somebody.

So let’s start first with what in the world gave you the idea to write the book? You talk about your experiences in India at the start. What drove you to think about writing on a time for dignity?

Mel Lawrenz
I was teaching some Christian leaders in India, and this ministry also was reaching out to the lower caste, the so-called Dalits. They were developing a mission statement when I was there and wanted me to be a part of the discussion. They were playing with the concept of, “We exist in order to give dignity to the Dalits.”

We had got involved in an incredibly engaging conversation in which I offered, “You’ve got to be careful about talking about giving dignity to anybody because if you can give it, you can take it away.” We don’t give dignity; we recognize it. We affirm it.

What struck me, Darrell, is dignity is such a powerful ideal. I hadn’t heard a Christian ministry bring it centrally into their concept as a ministry, but then, I ran into ministries in Central America and in Asia who were doing the same kind of thing. That launched me into doing a couple years of research. I plunged into the secular literature. I looked for Christian literature on dignity.

Bottom line, here’s what I found: Dignity is a nearly universally held concept. It certainly has been in Christian circles, although there are very different ideas as to what it is. For a lot of people, it’s very fuzzy. It’s kind of a generic ideal. I was very enthused to, I think, discover that there are some very concrete things you can get to. I think it’s a great way to express the gospel today.

Darrell Bock
I couldn’t agree more. Hopefully, in the midst of the podcast, that will become transparent. Now you’ve not only pastored and done leadership training, but you’ve taught as well. I see here on the back of the book that you have been an adjunct faculty member at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and at Trinity International University. So you’re used to taking these kind of concepts and presenting them in a context where you get people thinking about how they think about the way they view the world. So this pursuit of wisdom has transferred itself into the classroom as well. Is that right?
Mel Lawrenz
Yes. When I was finishing my MDiv at Trinity, in my last elective classes, I gravitated towards history classes: church history, historical theology. Much to my surprise, I was fascinated with it. I started my pastoral ministry when I was 25 years old, here at Elmbrook. That was 36 years ago now. I always had a very strong conviction about history, historical ideas and ideals, and historical theology.

So when I stumbled into something like dignity and started digging, I’m looking for the history of it. You’d think that we know these things, that they’re on the table, but there are still things – like dignity and the gospel – that I think are new minds that we can open up.

Darrell Bock: Yeah, I think what sometimes is called “the creation mandate” in Genesis 1 and 2 is not deeply enough appreciated for what it says about humanity. We get all locked up in the debates about the historicity of those chapters and the genre of those chapters and sometimes miss the theology that’s coming out of them, to our great loss.

Obviously, if we’re talking about dignity, we’re rooting the idea, in part, in the association with the idea that men and women are made in the image of God and that this is where dignity comes from. On the other hand, and your book opens making this point, dignity is something that, if you use it in the public square, is seen in a variety of ways.

There are a lot of options for the way that dignity is presented. So let’s work through that to start off with. What are the ways people use the concept of dignity in distinction from the way, perhaps, Christians think about it as being related to the image of God?

Mel Lawrenz
Great. That’s my entrée for the history lesson, but I’ll keep it brief. I promise.
Darrell Bock
[Laughs] Okay, okay.
Mel Lawrenz
So dignitas, Latin, means worth or worthiness. In classical society, that had to do with social status. If you’re born into an upper class, good for you; if not, tough luck. Either you have dignity by the luck of the draw, or not.

Then there’s a concept of dignity that relates to behavior: a person who comports themselves with dignity, respectability. Though we would all love for all of us to behave with more dignity, that’s not the core of the concept.

Then you have the biblical concept, which you identified: inherent worth, dignity as a worth that is inherent because of God’s will, God’s decision to create in his image. It’s inalterable, although it can be denied and stomped on by others, and that is why we need to step up to the plate.

But then, in more recent times, Darrell, the tragedy is the modern concept of dignity as simply autonomy. Dignity is “you let me do whatever I want to do, and therefore you’re showing my dignity.” That’s an empty concept. It’s essentially relative. It doesn’t have any connection with the historical idea of dignity. But that is where things sit, including Supreme Court judgments, which, when they use dignity, they’re largely using it as autonomy.

Darrell Bock
It’s interesting because, really, if you think about it – if I can say it this way – it is a little bit of a natural place to land if you pull the idea of divine design, et cetera, out of the equation. If you move to a more secularized about thinking about things and thinking about who we are – you’re asking a basic question about who we are as human beings and how we should regard one another.

We either attribute dignity to something that otherwise doesn’t have merit or we recognize that inherently, human beings have dignity and are inherently worthy of respect. So it’s a huge difference in the use of the term and the conceptualizing of it.

Mel Lawrenz
Yeah, but there’s an opportunity there too –
Darrell Bock
Right.
Mel Lawrenz
– because most people – I mean, there are some people who say, “Just give up on the concept,” and in the book, I talk about people like bioethicist Ruth Macklin, who wrote, “Dignity is a useless concept,” and a psychologist from Harvard, Steven Pinker, who wrote, “The Stupidity of Dignity.” There are people who are saying, “Just give it up because it’s a metaphysical, quasi-religious belief, and we know we don’t want to go down that road.”

Apart from that, though, most people believe in some sense of worth, in some sense of dignity, at least as an ideal. So there’s a bridge opportunity there, I think, for evangelism. Most people think of evangelical Christians as biased and closed-minded and belligerent and so on, not people who treat others with dignity and respect. So if we can turn that around, there’s a wonderful opportunity there.

Darrell Bock
Yeah, I absolutely agree with that observation. Let’s turn our attention, now, to the biblical concept of dignity. Let’s talk a little bit about Genesis 1. Obviously, the idea of being made in the image and likeness of God is the starting point for this kind of a discussion.

I think of a psalm like Psalm 8, where the psalmist praises God for having made us just a little lower than the angels, that kind of idea. So the idea of every person being a reflection, to some degree, of God is an important concept. But there’s a lot of discussion about what “image of God” means.

Mel Lawrenz
[Laughs]
Darrell Bock
I thought you broke this down pretty nicely, so, okay, what does “image of God” mean? Just as kind of a fun introduction into this, I tell people, when I talk about this concept, that you don’t hear about the First Baptist Church of Porpoises or the First Presbyterian Church of Bears or the First Methodist Church of Butterflies. There’s a distinction in how we’ve been made in the creation vis-à-vis other creatures. What makes us different?

Mel Lawrenz: Well, historically, people have explored that. You know, the interesting thing about Genesis 1 is that it doesn’t explicitly tell us what is meant by “image of God.” It’s tantalizing in that there’s the strong affirmation “made in the image” and “made in the likeness,” but then we’re left to figure out what that may mean.

One historical approach is to say, “Well, what is unique about humanness? It is things like spirituality because you won’t find your dog or cat praying in the early morning hours when you go downstairs. You won’t find –

Darrell Bock
I can’t definitely attest to the fact that I’m not worshiped by my dog or my cat. [Laughs]
Mel Lawrenz
[Laughs] You won’t go out in the woods and find that the animals have crafted some kind of a primitive shrine. They don’t have spirituality. They don’t have rationality in the same way, in the same sense of self-awareness. They don’t have morality. Of course, CS Lewis thought that morality is perhaps the strongest argument for the existence of God.

Maybe even creativity. We don’t create the way God creates, but I noticed the robins in my backyard this spring are building their nests in exactly the same way that they always do, whereas you or I could sit down with a piece of paper and draw a design of a house that nobody has ever imagined. So a historical way of understanding “image of God” is to say, “What’s unique about humanness?”

Dr. John Kilner picked up my book and was very affirming, but also very helpful just as I was finishing it. His book called Dignity and Destiny, published by Eerdmans just last year was, I think, Christianity Today’s book of the year in its category.

Dr. Kilner is very strong on saying, “Let’s be very christological about this.” We know, in the New Testament, Christ is the image of God, so the image that we are created in, really what we find in Christ is the ideal to which we are being constructed. He feels very strongly that let’s not ever talk about the image being broken or lost. Sin certainly has broken us, but the image, the ideal of God-likeness, is still there.

What’s in common with all of this is that our worth consists in God, by his own choice and by his amazing creative act, creating a race of people that have dignity, and that can’t be taken away even because of sin.

Darrell Bock
Yeah, and of course, if you think about the “new man” imagery that you get in a text like Colossians 3 – just to piggyback on what you were saying about what Dr. Kilner was saying – is there’s a character that’s involved in this that’s important. Certain attributes and characteristics of relating are very, very central to what it means to be a Christian, to put on the new man versus the old clothes, the old man, that kind of thing, that are designed to image.

In fact, we’re being conformed. One of the passages you mention is Romans 8, where we’re being conformed to the image of his beloved Son, which itself is a reflection of who God is. So these passages come together in emphasizing this ability to relate to one another well and to relate to God well.

This, of course, also goes back to Genesis 1 because in the creation mandate, the assignment – should you choose to accept it – is an assignment about managing and stewarding the creation, in which God has put us, in a healthy way, in a way that takes good care of the garden, if you want to use a picture to talk about it. I have assumed, by reading Genesis 1 in context, that the idea of being imaged in the reflection of God helps us to accomplish that task.

Mel Lawrenz
Yeah. Yeah. Whatever it is, it’s really, really important. Now I, as a pastor, reflect back on everything that I’ve experienced today where people suffer the indignities of life. This is a whole other angle on this, Darrell, that was eye-opening to me.

Dignity can be sometimes talked about theoretically or as an ideal, or sometimes applied in a very limited way like with pro-life issues or bioethics. It’s so much more than that. One of the ways that we know that is when we say, “How do people experience the negation of dignity or the denial of dignity, the indignities of life?”

Darrell Bock
Right.
Mel Lawrenz
I did a survey in our congregation. As you might imagine, the responses were all over the place. Maybe we can get into this more. Things like aging and illness, anything that takes away our sense of worth gives us an indignity. So this is an eminently practical concept as well as a high ideal.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, I know that. I mean, you do have a chapter in which you go through, really, as best as I could tell, four categories. One is abuse. The other is the issue of aging: how aging can take away our dignity. How illness can take away our dignity in one way or another.

Then one that I thought was a curveball; it wasn’t one that I was expecting: bureaucracy. The way in which we interact and manage each other is really what you’re talking about, the way in which we engage in our work and the way we pursue it. So those are the indignities that you raise.

I think, inherently, people get the abuse one. I think through the experience of life, sometimes they experience the age one. Illness is certainly one that you see people in hospitals sometimes wrestle with because of what they are and aren’t able to do for themselves as a result of being ill or sometimes not just ill, but – how can I say – in a context of an accident or something like that. Like I said, the surprise one was the bureaucracy one. It’s an interesting list, and it does cover a wide range of life.

Mel Lawrenz: You know, I mention at the end of that chapter, “Here’s four, but here are eight others.” The criminal justice system, unemployment, it goes on and on. This is what really struck me, Darrell: though we believe that nobody can take away our dignity, people can stomp on our dignity. Or the circumstances of life. If you’re suddenly disabled, and you say, “I do not feel as though I’m worth as much as I used to be,” that’s a major issue.

But that’s where the gospel comes in, where Christian faith asserts, for people who are suffering, people who are unemployed, people who are getting older – you know, I’ve got some gray in my hair. I see you do too.

Darrell Bock
Yep.
Mel Lawrenz
Do we have to go to Asia to be respected, Darrell?
Darrell Bock
[Laughs]
Mel Lawrenz
[Laughs] It shouldn’t be.
Darrell Bock
That’s a long trip. Yeah, you’re right. The way in which people view age is just one example. It’s an interesting thing. You know, as I get older, I relate to commercials differently because when I look at them, I go, “Those folks are all younger than I am,” except for the ones that come from the long disclaimers that go with them that say, “If you take this medicine, you may die.” We do almost worship youth in a way that ends up leaving older people in an undignified position if we’re not careful.
Mel Lawrenz
We really do. We really do. People in their 80s will say it’s very, very common for people to treat them as irrelevant and like they don’t have anything to say anymore. Now that’s going to be a problem because, in the world, the population of people 60 and older is going to get dramatically higher. If we put people on the shelves and if we treat them as if they have no worth, it’s going to hurt everybody. And theologically, it’s wrong.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. Well, there’s one other concept I want to kind of sneak in before I hit the break. We’ve got a couple of minutes left. That’s the idea of being “bent.” You said we shouldn’t talk about the image of God being damaged or anything like that, but the idea that we’re “bent,” coming from CS Lewis, is a way of thinking about this. I tend to think about the fallen life as life with a lot of static in it that ends up taking you off direction. Is that a better way to think about that concept?
Mel Lawrenz
Better than CS Lewis?
Darrell Bock
Oh, not better than CS Lewis –
Mel Lawrenz
[Laughs]
Darrell Bock
– but a way of thinking about it, a way of articulating it, rather than having thought about something being damaged.
Mel Lawrenz
Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think you’re right, Darrell. We need to help people understand sin and depravity as something other than a foreign contagion because then it’s like, “Okay, I’ve got a germ in my body, and I need to get rid of it.”

Theologically and biblically, of course, we know sin essentially consists in the corruption of every part of our being and every one of our faculties. That gives us an opportunity to help people to realize you can get back from that because you can “unbend” something that’s bent.

Darrell Bock
At the end of your book, Mel, you go through eight ways in which dignity applies. That “believers can follow the mandate of the gospel that also promote and restore dignity today,” is what you say. We probably should stop here for a second and talk about this before we go on to the eight, that dignity is something to be restored and not given. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re getting at there?
Mel Lawrenz
Well, if we believe, theologically, that you can’t take away somebody’s dignity – but also the reality that people’s dignity gets denied, stomped on, abused, and people can lose their sense of dignity – then the work, really is helping people have that restored or to have their social relationships properly ordered like the example in India that I used. So that’s the restoration of dignity, and I think it applies in just almost area of life. It goes hand in hand with the gospel.

By the way, I like to use an analogy when I give talks on this. I’ll take a crisp $20 or $50 bill out of my wallet. I talk about the worth of it being objective and consistent in my community. Of course, if I wrinkle it up or I tear it a little bit, of course, it’s lost its worth. Well, no, it hasn’t because an external authority has defined it to have a certain worth. Our dignity is divinely defined, therefore unalterable, though it is stomped on and forgotten, and that’s our work.

Darrell Bock
Okay, well, let’s take a lot at this crinkled world in which we live and think about the application of some of these. Like I said, these are eight statements that you have towards the end of the book that I think will really help us to think through the applications. These aren’t the only eight, but these are the eight that you highlight.

It begins by saying, “We must be examples of dignified living.” I’m assuming that part of that is aimed at the less-than-dignified way in which some people conduct themselves – in some cases to get quite a lot of attention and that kind of thing – and, I’m going to coin a word here, the de-dignifying of our culture to some degree in the contrast that a life of dignity would represent.

Mel Lawrenz
Well, our culture clearly is coarser and more vulgar. The media tools that we have mean you get attention by being ugly, in a way. So that’s the culture. Specifically, I want to encourage Christians with this idea.

We can’t say that we stand for dignity in the gospel – pro-life or whatever – and then go out and behave in very undignified ways or treat other people with great disrespect. We are undermining our message. To put it positively, if we behave with dignity because of the gospel, that’s going to make the message of God’s defined worth and the gospel all the more compelling for people.

Darrell Bock
So step number one is to live out the character and the concern – this is actually part of the new man. If you look at the relational characteristics that are a part of the new man – kindness, forgiveness, tolerance, meekness, humility, those kinds of things – you see that a dignified life has a certain way of relating tied to it.
Mel Lawrenz
Yeah. It’s wonderful, and we need to be very intentional about it because we can act in very undignified ways.
Darrell Bock
Okay, the second one is – you express it this way, “We must show freedom to be a better value than autonomy.” My little take on this one is that what we’re talking about here is a kind of responsible freedom. The way freedom is used in our world, sometimes, freedom and autonomy are almost synonymous with each other.

“I have the right to choose to do whatever I want; I might have some concern with whether it gets in your way or not.” One of the values in our culture is freedom, but we’re talking about – when we wed freedom to dignity, we’re talking about a responsible kind of freedom, aren’t we?

Mel Lawrenz
Yes, and something far, far better than autonomy. Autonomy is the cheap substitute of modern societies for dignity. It’s merely saying, “You let me do whatever I want to do, and then you’re showing me dignity.” It’s an empty concept. It leads to chaos.

Freedom is different. I think that we do need to support each other in the freedom that we have to make our choices. My kids are in their 20s now. If I pretend as if, somehow – well, my best chance at influencing them is to show them the respect that they do have the freedom to make their own choices.

But your point is well taken. It’s not freedom in the sense of complete lack of constraint. As a matter of fact, one of the basic definitions of “freedom” is that it gives constraints. It is liberating with constraint. That’s what we need today.

Darrell Bock
Yeah, now I’m reminded of the passage in 1 Corinthians where Paul says, “I’m free to do all things, but not all things edify.”
Mel Lawrenz
Yep.
Darrell Bock
So there’s the recognition that with the freedom of freedom, there comes responsibility, and the exercise of that responsibility is important in the exercise of healthy freedom as anything else. I think you’re right. The idea of autonomy here, where everyone operates as a great independent, actually reinforces a value that runs counter to the biblical emphasis.

That emphasis is when I’m working autonomously, what I think about is what I want in my life. We become little demigods. We become in control of our own destiny, and the arrow of attention points inward towards us.

But the Bible is really full of reflection that says, “No, my arrow, my attention, should be towards my neighbor. My attention should be towards my God.” The arrow goes out as opposed to in. So autonomy really works against the development of the very character and attributes that God wants us to have in our lives.

Mel Lawrenz
Well, dignity is our only basis for human rights and justice. I have in the book a great little telling of the 1948 drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which starts with, in the first sentence, an assertion of “inherent dignity.” That’s a Judeo-Christian concept.

There was a Lebanese diplomat by the name of Dr. Charles Malik, who had more honorary doctorates than anybody else in the world. He was a diplomat to the US and the UN. He was one of a handful of people that drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That’s why we have the idea, the biblical idea, of inherent dignity woven into the modern concept of human rights.

Darrell Bock
Yeah, here’s the –
Mel Lawrenz
With autonomy, you don’t have it. It’s gone.
Darrell Bock
That’s right. Yeah, here’s the opening sentence of the document you’re talking about. You cite it. “Whereas, recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world…”

Boy, I wish I could read the rest of the sentence to see how that gets filled out. But, boom, right at the starting point. Of course, Ambassador Malik is a well-known Christian who has spoken around the world not just on the issues that he was involved in but also about his own faith.

The concept of responsible freedom versus autonomy, I think, is a very important one. Well, let’s move on to number three. I’m getting nervous now that we’re not going to get through the list. It says, “We must be champions of dignity for those whose dignity is being violated.”

Mel Lawrenz
Yeah, you know, I’ve been interviewing people, Darrell, who minister to prostitutes and people who have been victims of human trafficking or people that have been discriminated against because of their age or people in the criminal justice system who frequently – whatever human worth they retain because of all the problems in their life, it gets squashed because of the system. That’s a bureaucracy that’s like a meat grinder.

So I think that it should be a joy to believers to proclaim the gospel at the same time that we’re supporting anybody who’s a victim of indignity of somebody else.

Darrell Bock
Because we’re showing the way in which God cares for those who, sometimes, the world tends to forget. In fact, you opened this section with a citation of Jeremiah 22:3, “This is what the Lord says, ‘Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless, or the widow, and do now shed innocent blood in this place.'”

That’s summary of really several Old Testament texts that have that theme running through it. The idea of honoring the dignity of our fellow human is an important biblical theme.

Mel Lawrenz
And, Darrell, I ask people, “Do you see somebody who is sold into prostitution as a child and who has lived in that bondage for years, can they get a sense of dignity back?” and they say, “Absolutely. Absolutely. You come alongside them, minster to them in the name of Christ, teach them, and it’s amazing how many people can bounce back from what would seem to be a doomed existence.”
Darrell Bock
Number four: “We must promote an ethic of work and productivity that supports the dignity of individuals.” That’s almost a podcast all by itself, but what are you getting at here?
Mel Lawrenz
Well, work itself about just the money in the bank. The paycheck that puts the food on the table is good, but work is meaningful and significant involvement in life. That reminds us of our worth. On the other hand, for people that are unemployed and underemployed, we need to make sure that we support them when, in circumstances not of their own choosing, they could feel as if they have zero worth – but that’s not true either. I would say that the Roman Catholics have been ahead of Protestants on thinking about the theology of work and dignity on this.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm. Yeah, in fact, you cite a work from John Paul II, in which he talks about the dignity of work consists of. He teaches that man ought to imitate God as Creator and working because man alone has the unique characteristic of likeness to God.

Guess what? We’re back in Genesis 1. We’re talking about the way in which God has designed us to work, you know, be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and then subdue the creation. We’re talking about how we manage and interact with one another.

The work that we do is actually part of the central call of why God created us: managing the garden and being good stewards and being managers in the proper sense of the term, not in the sense of control, as it often is brought forward, but often with a sense of mutually encouraging one another to make the best kind of existence and flourishing that we’re capable of making.

That’s a nice transition into number five. It says, “We must reform bureaucracy’s that dehumanize.” I mentioned earlier that I thought this was a curveball. This is something that you’ve paid special attention to, so I’m interested in hearing how you fill that one out.

Mel Lawrenz
Well, as we’re talking here right now, Darrell, there are plenty of people out in office buildings and in work settings whose bosses are treating them like gears in a machine. Any of us can do it. Even church leaders can do that. It’s treating people as a means to an end. That’s the problem with bureaucracy.

We should turn around our thinking on that. If you’re a manager, you should be helping your people be more fulfilled at the end of the week and not used and discarded.

Darrell Bock
Yeah, you know, this is interesting because I just had a conversation with someone. We’re in the process of hiring somebody, and we’re talking about how our office works. The person was interesting in the hierarchy – you know, who reports to whom and that kind of thing.

I was saying to them, “If we take you on and you become a part of what we do, you’re going to find that we’re committed to working together to accomplish a variety of goals and encourage one other and grow. These lines, these demarcations, that you’ve been taught be the world to recognize and respect, are really less important to us in our work.

Our goal, as a team, is to figure out how to do what we’re being asked to do in the best way possible. Wherever it comes from and whoever does it, whoever has responsibility for it, that’s what we’re going to be affirming and dealing with.”

I think sometimes the hierarchy and rank thing gets in the way of our relating in ways that aren’t healthy and perhaps sometimes unintentionally demean people without being aware of it.

Mel Lawrenz
All the time. All the time, and if it’s severe, it’s dehumanizing. If it’s subtle, it’s still bad. We can do better than that if we open up our eyes.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, well, I think that this, as you said, this is an across-the-board type of thing that hits in a lot of areas. I think if you put the last two together, the idea of, on the one hand, creating an ethic of work and productivity that supports the dignity of the individual, and being careful of bureaucracy that dehumanizes, you’re doing things on two ends.

Not only are you trying to be – if I can say this – effective in the way you’re promoting human well-being in the work that you do, but you also give the person who possibly feels displaced and disconnected and not a part of the system – you try and work to develop them in such a way that they can step in and become a part of contributing rather than feeling like they’re always drawing from the system or that the system doesn’t care about them.

Mel Lawrenz
Yes. Yes.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. Number six: “We must respect the elderly and support those who suffer from physical or mental illness or must cope with disabilities.” It’s a wide range of things, but the whole area of dealing with the dignity of people who, in one way or another, have limitations.

Let’s talk about that a little bit. I’m sure, as a pastor, this is something, I think, you know, the myriads of hospital visits that a pastor does with people in these kinds of situations. As a pastor, the communication of caring and dignity and the affirmation of the person in the midst of going through hardship is really a pretty important ministry.

Mel Lawrenz
It is, and it’s amazing. I mean, after all these years, Darrell, I’m still surprised at what five minutes in a hospital room can do for somebody’s spirits, either a pastor or somebody else. I still have this idea, “Well, what can I do? I can’t take that disease away.”

But, my goodness, it tells people they’re not alone, but it also tells people, “I’m worth something,” because disease, disability, aging, it doesn’t objectively take away people’s dignity, but it takes away their sense of worth or dignity. We can turn that around, and it’s a wonderful thing to be able to do that.

Darrell Bock
Yeah, we’ve got some time now, so let me ask this question ’cause it just popped into my head as you were talking about this, and that is: where does our sense of worth and dignity come from? Really, what we’re talking about is identity. Identity is obviously very important in a person’s psychological makeup.

In fact, Paul pounds away at identity in establishing who the Christian is. You’ve connected all this to the gospel, and I actually think that’s wise because part of the good news of the gospel is this restoration of who we are as God has made us to be. We tend, sometimes, to present the gospel as if it’s this checklist of dos and don’ts, and rights and wrongs, but there’s actually far more profound going on with the gospel, isn’t there?

Mel Lawrenz
Yeah, and most importantly, it’s christocentric. It’s centered in Christ. I think the answer to the question, “Where do we root this sense of worth or dignity?” is not the cheap thing from the 1970s, the self-worth movement, which was kind of wishful thinking, let’s just hope that…

No, no. It’s based in something objective: creation and redemption. Maybe a good summary of the whole subject, Darrell, is that worthwhileness or dignity in life is derived from two things: creation and redemption. In both of those great acts of God is the divine assertion of worth, which is what shapes our behaviors and our relationships and so on.

It’s ultimately seen in Christ, who, ironically, on the cross, suffered the cruelest indignity that the world has ever seen, only to come out the other side and be declared, in the book of Revelation, “Worthy is the Lamb.”

Darrell Bock
Yeah, you know, and I think about the creation-redemption issue that you raise. Of course, it’s creation that gives us our inherent worth, and it’s redemption that seeks to restore that which has been damaged in that worth by how we poorly, dysfunctionally, sinfully – whatever word you want to use – relate to one another. It seeks to restore and rebuilt that which get damaged when we handle each other poorly.
Mel Lawrenz
Mm-hmm. Yep.
Darrell Bock
So the gospel is right in the middle of the idea. The only way you really ultimately restore dignity is by reconnecting people to their relationship with God, which is part of why they were created, to begin with: to serve him.

Number seven: “We must build our bioethics on the foundation of human dignity.”

Mel Lawrenz
Yes. I think we’re a little more familiar with that. Where evangelicals have talked about dignity has frequently been in issues of abortion, pro-life, and so on. Also end-of-life issues, Darrell. When I started writing this book, there were two states in the country that had physician-assisted death laws on the books. When I finished it, there were five. So we’re moving quickly towards –
Darrell Bock
Now did you write slow, or has it happened that fast? [Laughs]
Mel Lawrenz
[Laughs] No, actually in a very short span of time, all of a sudden, I think in California and one or two others, it just fell into place. We have this long-time aphorism, “Death with dignity.” You can talk about how hospice people help people to die with dignity, but dignity does not consist in having the power to act like God and to end your own life.

Bioethics on the front end of life, on the back end of life, but, my goodness, organ donation and – I mean, it covers everything. I’d refer people to experts like John Kilner, who have really given us a lot on that score.

Darrell Bock
You know what’s interesting about that is we talked about how illness can take away dignity, and this is an example of that idea gone awry. The idea is that if you’re dying, you’ve already lost your dignity in some sense, so we have the right to shorten that process in some way or something to that effect. It’s a capitulation to autonomy in some ways, at the same time that these are coming together.

We’ve got one more. “We must rise above all forms of prejudice.”

Mel Lawrenz
Easy. Right? [Laughs]
Darrell Bock
Right. [Laughs] Yeah, everyone knows what to do. Everyone knows we should do it, but getting there is a whole other matter.
Mel Lawrenz
You know, I say in the sentence after that that it’s easy to say, but hard to do. It’s something that should be said –
Darrell Bock
Right.
Mel Lawrenz
– and it’s assumed, but, my goodness, this is our daily work. It is to rise above that. I learned relatively recently the etymology of the word “respect.” Re-spect: so the word for vision, to see. To re-spect means to take another look.
Darrell Bock
Hmm.
Mel Lawrenz
I mean, here’s a practical little thing. Our first impressions of people are usually where our biases and prejudices always come out. It’s when you take a second look and you take a third look that you see other people in a deeper way. That’s going to go a long way.

In a culture obsessed with ease and convenience, I think we’re going to continually lean our prejudices because prejudice is simply the front-end filter that is the lazy person’s way of navigating life.

Darrell Bock
Yeah, by pushing that away, that for one reason or another he feels is different or something like that – I often say in work that I do that everyone understands that racial reconciliation is something we should be committed to, but figuring out how we get there is a whole other matter.
Mel Lawrenz
Yep. Yep.
Darrell Bock
Well, Mel, our time has literally run away from us. I thank you for the opportunity to think about and contemplate what dignity is all about, what human worth is all about, what it means to be made in the image of God, and how that works out practically. We really appreciate your taking the time to be with us today.
Mel Lawrenz
Thank you. I hope this small book will be a discussion starter for people. Get the discussion going, please.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, it’s a great idea. We thank you for being a part of The Table and being with us. We hope you’ll be back again with us soon.
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Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than 40 books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
Sexuality
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Theology
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