Matthew 5: 38-48
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Stop and Frisk by Claudia Rankine from “Citizen, An American Lyric”
I knew whatever was in front of me was happening and then the police vehicle came to a scorching halt in front of me like they were setting up a blockade. Everywhere are flashes, a siren sounding and a stretched-out roar. Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. Then I just knew.
And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.
I left my client’s house knowing I would be pulled over. I just knew. I opened my briefcase on the passenger seat, just so they could see. Yes officer rolled around on my tongue.
Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. I must have been speeding. No, you weren’t speeding. I wasn’t speeding? You didn’t do anything wrong. Then why are you pulling me over? Why am I pulled over? Put your hands where they can be seen. Put your hands in the air. Put your hands up.
Then you are stretched out on the hood. Then cuffed.
Each time it begins in the same way. Flashes, a siren, the stretched-out roar --
Maybe because home was a hood the officer could not afford, not that a reason was needed, I was pulled out of my vehicle a block from my door, handcuffed and pushed into the police vehicle’s backseat, the officer’s knee pressing into my collarbone, the officer’s warm breath vacating a face creased into the smile of its own private joke.
Go ahead hit me you (expletive) fled my lips and the officer did not need to hit me, the officer did not need anything from me except the look on my face on the drive across town. You can’t drive yourself sane. You are not insane. Our motion is wearing you out. You are not the guy.
This is what it looks like, You know this is wrong. You need to close your mouth now. Why are you talking if you haven’t done anything wrong?
The charge the officer decided on was exhibition of speed. I was told, after the fingerprinting, to stand naked. I stood naked, It was only then I was instructed to dress, to leave, to walk all those miles back home.
And still you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.
I can’t speak for people of color in this country because I am a privileged white person. I’ve been pulled over by police, but it was because of a traffic violation. So I’ve let Claudia Rankin speak through one of her prose poems from her acclaimed book “Citizen, An American Lyric.” It’s impossible to know what it feels like to live in another person’s skin. It’s impossible for me to know what it feels like to have your dignity insulted just because of the color of your skin.
Last month, Zahra, a young American grad student of Pakistani decent, was traveling on the T between the Prudential and Copley train stations on her way to her internship. Aside from the color of her skin, she was not wearing a hijab or clothing that would identify her faith. She was carrying a black laptop bag.
A man who seemed a “little off” kept staring at her, which made her a bit uncomfortable. Immediately after the loud speaker declared “Next Stop Copley,” the man yelled, “She has a bomb in there! Copley is next! That’s the best place for them to do an attack! Women are doing it now too, don’t you see the news?”
This young 5’2” woman immediately found herself surrounded by five men who demanded to see her ID and what was in her bag. She showed them her Harvard ID and her laptop. They nodded, walked away and sat back down - no apology. She asked the shouting man for an apology. He ignored her. No one in that crowded train stood up for her. Instead they sat in silence as her dignity was violated.
Donna Hicks, in her compelling book entitled “Dignity” states that “at the core of our being human is our desire for dignity. It is our birth right.” Our Christian faith tells us we are made in the image of God. God has given each of us our inherent worth and value, and no one can take that from you, unless you allow them to.
I heard Donna Hicks speak at a workshop for religious leaders on dignity and racial justice last November at Hebrew College. It was sponsored by CMM, our downstairs neighbor. I immediately bought her book and highly recommend it. She inspired me. I am drawing from her wisdom and expertise this morning.
She spoke of Nelson Mandela. In his book “Long Journey Home” he tells how the prison guards tried to strip him of his dignity. He said no one could strip that from him. This is how he survived all those years of abuse in prison. Hicks calls it his “Mandela Consciousness.”
Not only did he retain his own dignity, he was able to see it in those guards, and that is how he was able to forgive them, and after his release, was able to lead his nation through the process of forgiveness and reconciliation to peace.
Hicks says “Dignity is about three things: connection to our own dignity, connection to others’, and connection to God.” Mandela had all three. So did Jesus, He knew at his core, even hanging on the cross, his dignity was intact. He was able to forgive. He was still connected to God and those around him. He reached out to those he loved, and those who abused him.
“You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…”
This doesn’t mean you condone the evil actions of others. Dignity is not the same as respect. You must earn respect. But, like Jesus, you are able to look beyond the deed, to see that spark of God imprinted in the others’ soul that is still inherent in that person.This is how reconciliation and peace are achieved.
Jesus invited people, shunned by others, into his inner circle, seeing beyond their exterior to their inner dignity. As he told his followers in the scripture reading this morning: God sees beyond our failings and “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” God doesn’t give up on us. Neither should we.
But it’s not easy. We are not Jesus. We are hard wired when we are threatened to flee or fight. It’s part of our DNA. But both of those responses break relationships. “A UCLA study showed that when dignity is violated it shows up in the same area of our brain as pain. It’s the oldest part of our brain. A wound to our dignity makes us feel diminished.”
It can trigger feelings of humiliation, rage, self-righteousness, and revenge. It’s worse than a physical injury because the harm is festering on the inside. And all of those wounds can stock pile until you get a war, or a divorce, or a riot.
We’ve all experienced wounds to our dignity at one time or another in our lives. We’ve all been excluded, misunderstood, treated unfairly or even dismissed. But not all of us have been “judged as inferior on the basis of an aspect of our identity that we can do nothing about.”
That is racism. That is what Jim Wallis calls in his new book “America’s Original Sin.” Its been a part of our DNA since our founders exterminated one race of people and enslaved another. And it just keeps rearing its ugly head in one form or another. We don’t like to admit it but we all have the capacity to be dignity violators.
We are social beings, us humans. We need one another. Scientists tell us that human connection is crucial for our survival. But each time we violate another’s dignity, we sever that connection, we alienate others and destroy relationships.
Hicks’ says “We have created an epidemic of indignity world wide - species wide and we need to do something about it if we are ever going to get at this root cause of human conflict.”
She has developed a dignity model which she teaches children as young as fourth grade, and uses with leaders in conflict situations across the globe. She summarizes it this way: “Demonstrate the care and attention for yourself and others that anything of value deserves … Don’t miss an opportunity to exert the power you have to remind others of who they are: invaluable, priceless and irreplaceable. Remind yourself too.”
She asks herself at the end of the day, “What have I done today to make others feel good?” Offering care and attention is at the heart of treating people with dignity. If someone on that train had come forward to help Zahra, it would have honored the dignity of both of them. What we diminish in others we diminish in ourselves.
Hicks has derived Ten Essential Elements of Dignity through her work facilitating dialogues between parties in conflict. They help us to understand how to honor the dignity of others. As I list them I’d like you to think about the African American man pulled over by the police on his way home and Zahra, the Pakistani woman on the train. How were these elements of dignity violated, and how could they have been honored?
- Acceptance of Identity: Approach people as neither inferior nor superior to you. Give others the freedom to express their authentic selves without fear of being negatively judged. Interact without prejudice or bias, accepting the ways in which race, religion, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation. age, and disability may be at the core of other people’s identity. Assume that others have integrity.
— whether they are in your family, community, organization, or nation.
3. Safety: Put people at ease at two levels: physically, so they feel safe
from bodily harm, and psychologically, so they feel safe from being
humiliated. Help them to feel free to speak without fear of retribution.
4. Acknowledgement: Give people your full attention by listening, hearing,
validating, and responding to their concerns, feelings, experiences.
5. Recognition: Validate others for their talents, hard work, thoughtfulness,
and help. Be generous with praise, and show appreciation and gratitude
for their contributions and ideas.
6. Fairness: Treat people justly, with equality, and in an even handed way
according to agreed-upon laws and rules. People feel that you have
honored their dignity when you treat them without discrimination or
7. Benefit of the Doubt: Treat people as trustworthy. Start with the premise
that others have good motives and are acting with integrity.
8. Understanding: Believe that what others think matters. Give them the
chance to explain and express their points of view. Actively listen in
order to understand them
9. Independence: Encourage people to act on their own behalf so that they
feel in control of their lives and experience a sense of hope and
10. Accountability: Take responsibility for your actions. If you have
violated the dignity of another person, apologize. Make a commitment
to change your hurtful behavior.
Pope Francis, in addressing the US Congress during his visit here told our legislators: “You are the face of its people, their representative. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. … You are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”
His words are not just for those in positions of political power, but for all of us, and especially those in communities of faith. He calls on us to participate “in the battle to eliminate new global forms of slavery born of grave injustices which can be overcome only through new policies and new forms of social consensus.”
It must start in each of our hearts, as we open them to honor the dignity of others: in our families, our workplace, our community and our world. If we could only do this, what a wonderful world it would be.
(Words in italics are from Donna Hicks’ lecture and book “Dignity’)