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The dignity of each person

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 “In the absence of faith, we govern by tenderness. And tenderness leads to the gas chamber.” Flannery O’Connor

Is anyone else wondering how we got here? Or, more accurately, got back here? It’s like I woke up one morning and somebody had turned the clock back to 1968. Racial unrest, riots in the streets. Have we made so little progress in all this time?

As I read the news, on the rare occasions that I’m not trying to avoid the news, my mind keeps going back to this quote. We are so separated, so horribly divided. And I don’t think there is anybody on either side who is not feeling some tenderness, some compassion, for somebody. I know no one, for instance, who doesn’t feel compassion for George Floyd and for his family, and outrage at what happened to him. Regardless of his or anybody’s criminal background, nobody deserves the merciless “vigilante death penalty” he received. That’s not how we do things in America. It is outrageous.

But once we move past that agreement, everyone seems to split. Based on what I’m seeing on the news, and on social media, and scrawled on the sides of buildings, it appears to me that we are balkanizing. We are seeing each other, not as individuals with individual autonomy, but merely as members of a group. Groups who feel justified in lashing out at other groups.

Of course, this is nothing new. The roots of racism, and all unjust discrimination, lie exactly here: in looking at a unique, unrepeatable human being created in the image and likeness of God, and only seeing that person’s skin color, or nation of origin, or religious heritage.

I thought we had figured it out. But apparently we haven’t.

For many, the response to this gross injustice has been to further balkanize ourselves. And that has led, in many cities, to riots where “justice for George” escalated to violence, destruction of homes, businesses and property, and the loss of additional lives.

This is what our friend Flannery was talking about.

She went on to say, “When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”

Tenderness is good. Compassion is good. But they are emotions, and they go where they will. And, according to O’Connor, when detached from the source of tenderness (i.e. Christ), those emotions can become dangerous indeed.

What is it about Christ that anchors and secures our tenderness? It is what Walker Percy called Christianity’s “scandal of the dignity of every human person.” The world has never been quite able to grasp that true Christianity is dedicated to the good of every human person. Yes, the one in front of you. But not only the one in front of you. All of them.

And when your compassion for the person in front of you comes at the expense of your compassion for someone else, your compassion becomes disconnected from the source of compassion.

Racism — and so many other evils —  have sprung from disconnected compassion. It was in no small part a concern for the success of the southern plantation owners that drove this nation to endorse the “peculiar institution” of slavery — the wholesale buying and selling of human lives —  in the first place. Likewise, it was misplaced “compassion” for a lying woman named Carolyn Bryant that spurred her husband and brother-in-law to literally beat the life out of young Emmett Till. And how did Hitler inflame German sentiments against the Jews? By portraying them as a threat to their innocent German neighbors. This is the history of tyranny since the beginning of time. Incite hatred for one group by stirring compassion for another.

People are naturally compassionate. It’s difficult to get them to hate any group just for the sake of hating. But if you can convince them that one group is a threat to someone else for whom they feel compassion, then the sky is the limit. Or the gas chamber.

As Christians, what is our response —  to racism, or to any other human evil? Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy would tell us that, whatever we do, we must respect the dignity of every human person. If we don’t, we are no better than the persecutors who came before us.

Martin Luther King understood this. “An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” He mobilized an entire movement, battling a violent culture of racism non-violently, without ever reducing himself to the level of those he opposed. Many —  of all races —  have retained that spirit, but their attempts at peaceful protest have in many places been co-opted by others —  again, of all races —  with more violent intent.

We all, as Christians, have a duty to fight injustice wherever we see it. But, as we do it, we need to constantly examine our consciences. Are we, as individuals and as a nation, respecting the dignity of every human person? For instance, wherever there is a culture or subculture of disrespect for any human life in our police departments or any of our institutions, that evil needs to be rooted out. But that is very different from a social culture which views all police officers —  or all anybody —  as evil.

My point here is simple: without Christ, without the “scandal of the value of every human life,” the natural human temptation is to value some lives more than others. And we cannot do that. The only truly loving, compassionate way to live —  or to govern —  is to see every human person as unique, unrepeatable, and infinitely loved by God, and to act accordingly. One look at our past tells us that we never really got that right. But as we lose our Christian bearings, we risk slipping even further into group-think and balkanization. And that is always wrong, and it will never fix our problems.

It only leads to lynching. And bloodshed in the streets. And the gas chamber.

Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020