In a recent article on God’s Politics, Diane Butler Bass wrote this:
As we recited the baptism liturgy, I was struck by the final promise. The minister asks, â€œWill you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?â€ The parents (or the candidates in the case of adult baptism) respond, â€œI will, with Godâ€™s help.â€
Christian tradition connects justice and peace with the practice of respecting the dignity of every person. The idea that every creature is dignified, related to God, formed in love, and connected to the whole of the universe forms the center point of Christian theology and ethics. Respect for each person in the web of creation supports the work of justice and peacemaking. Without a profound spirituality of human dignity, practices of justice and peacemaking may slide into the realm of power politics. The baptism liturgy strongly implies that without respect for human dignity, there exists no motive to strive for Godâ€™s justice and peace.
Reading this I realize how short we fall short of this particularly in the evangelical tradition. So much of the time we look at people as “us” and “them.” And until “they” join “us” they are somehow less than human, and God does not love them as much as God loves us. We may never say it that bluntly, but that is how we live and act. But the Bible teaches that God made every human being in God’s image, and for that reason alone every person is worthy of respect and dignity.
This is most clearly seen in the book of Jonah where God sends the Jew Jonah to the pagan Assyrians (the Nazis of the ancient world) and tells him “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me” (1:1). Jonah does not want to go and preach at Ninevah because “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2). He tried to run away to Tarshish, but a storm and a big fish brought him back, and he went to Ninevah. He proclaimed that God would destroy the city in three days. And Ninevah repents; God does not destroy the city. Jonah’s response to God’s saving work is “O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (v. 2).
The tale of Jonah is one of the Bible’s literary gems. Marked by symmetry, balance, word-play, irony, and surprise, the book purports to teach Jonah (and all readers) about the problem of gracious acceptance for one’s own people (“Deliverance is from the LORD,” Jonah says in 2:9) while churlishly resenting similar treatment for others (see 4:1-5) (The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 1297).
What do we do with this God who insists on loving people who do not acknowledge this God, let alone serving God? What do we do with a God who insists we take care of the marginalized: the homeless, drug addicts, whores in order to be like God (remember who Jesus hung out with)? What do we do with this God who loves our enemies and insists that we do the same? These are the questions Jonah asks us, and like Jonah we are left to contend with the God who loves and reaches out to all human beings, no matter how corrupted or sinful we are.
The Christian Bible, tradition, and liturgy all proclaim that everyone is made in the image of God and worthy respect and dignity. Do our lives and words reflect what we claim to believe?