In today’s day and age, self-identifying as a Bible-believing Christian can earn accusations of bigotry, anti-equality, anti-freedom, or just simply ‘hate,’ without so much as an argument taking place. In an age of “national dialogues,” important social discussions take place entirely online while venerable institutions are forced into protectionist stances of image-control and brand management. Big ideas are lost in the fray and minority voices, ironically, get shouted down.
After doing my undergraduate studies at a small liberal arts college, spending graduate school at a big state campus illuminated the power of groupthink and image-propagation. Despite the advantages of promoting self-esteem in public education being debunked by the New York Times in 2002, the education establishment has only taken it further with messages of self-love: “You deserve it,” “Own it,” or “Treat yo’self!”
Yet getting beyond the personal to the topical debates, such messages quickly lose definition and become focused on what not to be versus what to be. On the university campus this can be characterized by the ubiquitous “Stop Hate” posters on walls and in demonstrations.
Finding Positivity in a Negative Age
With a growing negativity towards anything that reeks of institutionalism, self-discipline, or organized religion, Christians find themselves on the defensive. Some try to fight back through Twitter, blogs, and other popular media. Others focus on supposedly universal ideas of justice, concern for the poor, or abuse of power through actions as well as words.
While not inherently counter-productive, these approaches can fail to acknowledge gaps in worldview that inform definitions of key terms like justice and equality. Lacking are vocabulary discussions which ask probing questions about the roots and implications of age-old words like freedom, love, and dignity. Such words are not only elements of the social discourse, they can be economic as well.
Let’s take one such word, dignity, and explore how its use can be a tool in the social and economic spheres.
In a recent blog post, Dr. Anne Bradley of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics notes the roots of minimum wage policy in the United States in the era of eugenics, debunking the idea that it was meant to promote justice for the poor. She discusses how poor suffer when an elevated minimum wage cuts their opportunities for employment. More importantly, she writes that implementation of a minimum wage does not account for a person’s dignity.
Defining dignity is not easy, but Bradley gives us a clue: “We must remember God’s original intent [for humans]. He has designed his world to work for his good and our role in it is to bring about greater levels of flourishing.” In other words, wage alone cannot account for flourishing.
How can we bring this up in a worldview-oriented discussion? By asking about a neighbor’s notions of self-worth, we can reveal the source of our neighbor’s dignity. At some level, an internal or external giver of value must be accounted for. A completely internal cycle of worth-giving might strike even the most avowed narcissist as difficult to defend.
Once one agrees that the dignity of human life is bestowed from an external power, and even without this agreement, action can begin. No matter what social circles one runs in, there are those who lack a sense of dignity in themselves or others.
To take an example, let us return to the theme of poverty and the minimum wage: a Christian employer can go out of the way to insure employees’ welfare by humbly being last in line to receive a check at the end of the month should there be an income shortfall.
As an employee, a Christian can find out which of his or her fellow employees are struggling to make ends meet at their salary level and offer to carpool or take the coworker out to lunch.
As a volunteer or humanitarian, the Christian can assist educational ventures (formal or informal) which help poorly-educated youth establish themselves in their own careers.
By being other-oriented, we break the trend of self-love in today’s culture. By examining and sharing our motives, we can bring positive examples of the Christian walk into a society in desperate need of them.