Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

October 28, 2007

“Inherent Worth and Dignity”

Part of a series dealing with the Seven Principles
of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Rev. Catherine Torpey

In her column in the Open Line this month, Kelly Murphy Mason discussed the origins of Halloween—the celebration of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. All Souls Day being the more liberal celebration than All Saints Day. All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day, on November 1, is for honoring those who are known as saints. The next day, All Souls Day, is for honoring those dearly departed who might not have quite made it to sainthood. All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, was the night when the demons, ghosts, goblins and witches came out in force.

So, this time of year is a time to remember and celebrate those who have died; a time to acknowledge both those who have lived saintly lives and the vast majority of us who have not been so very saintly.

It’s an appropriate time of the year, therefore, in which to ponder the first of the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association: the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

UU minister Anne Treadwell pointed out that

There's no challenge or moral stretch involved in acknowledging that our favourite people are worthwhile, but there's a big challenge in recognizing the worth of people who we may find anything from mildly unattractive to morally repulsive. The stronger the repulsion, the greater the spiritual stretch! And that's where this principle stops being a platitude and becomes a difficult and essential platform of our faith. Where's the worth and dignity of [a sadistic murderer or rapist]? [Where’s the worth and dignity of a cruel dictator of a nation]? [of] the newborn baby born with literally no brain? Your abusive spouse? The drunk driver who kills a child? Your worst enemy? According to this principle, if they're persons, they have inherent worth and dignity which we, as a U.U. congregation, have covenanted to affirm and promote.

Last night, the Social Action Committee showed a film about torture called “Ghosts of Abu Graib.” It is a very powerful film made by Rory Kennedy, the youngest daughter of former attorney general Robert F. Kennedy. It details the torture that was committed at Abu Graib, focusing on the young men and women who were convicted of the abuse, and how they found themselves caught in a situation where they were at first horrified by what they saw, and then quickly participated in it because it was expected of them. Those young men and women, whose accounts form the bulk of the film, appear to be intelligent, thoughtful, decent people, and yet they became torturers.

Torture happens in an atmosphere where it is not believed that human beings have inherent worth and dignity.

The young men and women who were convicted of engaging in prisoner abuse did not make attempts to defend their actions in the film, but in describing what that they had perpetrated, they would often mention how angry they felt at the prisoners; how these were the worst of the worst; these prisoners were killers of Americans, the scum of the earth. And they believed this because it was what they were told about this group of men. They were encouraged to loathe these prisoners as beneath contempt. This attitude toward fellow human beings would have been bad enough if the prisoners had, in fact, been guilty of anything. But, in the end, not a single one of the prisoners that our military tortured at Abu Graib were found to have committed any crime.

For me, having been raised Christian, the notion of the inherent worth and dignity of each person grows out of the biblical story that human beings were created in the image of God. While the original author of the story, so many centuries ago, might have thought of the image of God in a literal way—that writer might have been thinking that the image of God meant that, like God, we have two legs and two arms and we walk upright—even though the original author might have meant the word “image” in this literal way, he or she was really pointing to something much deeper, much more subtle and slightly indefinable. It is an elusive thing: the image of God. But it communicates that each of us has something of the divine within us. Each of us has an ultimate worth that cannot be diminished no matter what we do and no matter what happens to us.

I believe that this principle of inherent worth and dignity is the most important of all ethical and religious beliefs, and I’ve been frustrated and disappointed by how often I hear the question asked—even by Unitarian Universalist ministers—about whether there aren’t some people who cannot be viewed as having inherent worth and dignity. They point to people who have caused many deaths and overseen torture, either on a grand scale as heads of state—such as Hitler or Saddam Hussein—or on the scale of a mass murderer or serial rapist—someone like Jeffrey Dahmer. Where is the worth or dignity of persons such as these, they ask?

I have to admit to being appalled at the question. I am saddened and frustrated that there are so many people who do not see that the very idea of inherent worth and dignity is that it exists in a realm, on a level, that is separate from the usefulness of a person or the honorableness of their lives.

It may be that a person has behaved without any sense of dignity and yet we can still affirm that their basic human dignity is undiminished. It may be that some people are not useful, not productive members of society; some people are downright harmful to society. But even someone who has a negative effect on society through his or her actions still has inherent worth and dignity.

It is an article of faith for me that, no matter what, we each have the potential for good, for wholeness. We each are ultimately lovable—in the way a parent loves a child, even if that child behaves badly; even if that child behaves horribly.

When I taught morality in the Catholic high school, we used to discuss the death penalty. At the beginning of the unit on the death penalty, most of the girls were all for it. They felt that certain people deserved to die for the crimes they’d committed. Most who were against the death penalty said that they were against it because they’d rather have the person suffer in prison than to die and have their suffering end. The Catholic church is against the death penalty and I found that the quickest way to help the students begin to understand why their church said the death penalty was wrong was to ask them to imagine that their mother, or their father, or their sister or brother had committed the heinous act for which they thought some theoretical person should be killed, or should be made miserable year after year by “rotting” in prison. If someone you deeply loved had committed this crime, how would you want that person to be treated?

The question tended to shock their sensibilities—they described it as creepy to imagine—but it had the intended effect. In that circumstance, they would want the person they loved to be stopped in their behavior, and to face the consequences, but not to be mocked, abused, or killed. If the perpetrator was a loved one, they would want all of the consequences to be for the sake of protecting society and making the guilty party to face up to what they had done—but the punishment should not go past that legitimate aim.

“Inherent worth and dignity” is a phrase that is not officially defined for us. Like all good covenants, the covenant of the Unitarian Universalist Association seeks to lay out the broad principles on which we come together as a group of congregations. And so, when our congregation promises to other congregations that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, it is up to all of us to continually consider exactly what it is we as a congregation have promised. What I believe that it means, most basically, to honor human worth and dignity is to expect that each person will be treated the way that you would treat someone you deeply loved.

And this brings me back to the question of torture, because it is a specific instance of what happens when, out of our outrage, we decide that an individual or group of individuals no longer has worth and dignity.

The reason torture happened at Abu Graib, and, I fear, may be happening still at the US detention center in Guantanamo Bay, is because there exists a mentality among too many people in the military and the administration and indeed in the public that the atrocious acts of terrorism in the US and all over the world have rendered the perpetrators unworthy of dignified treatment. The former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez had certainly been one of the top administration officials who created the atmosphere in which the young men and young women who were guards at Abu Graib found themselves. Mr. Gonzalez had famously advocated interrogation techniques that had long been considered way out of the bounds of what was allowable. The Senate is now considering the appointment of his replacement with a man named Michael Mukasey. I am troubled by the testimony given by Judge Mukasey to the Senate Judiciary Committee because of his statement (and I quote) that “what [the] experience has been with … enemies we fought in the past may very well be far different from the experience that we're having with unlawful combatants we face now. It's a very different kind of person.”

Given the egregious abuses documented in the film The Ghosts of Abu Graib, Judge Mukasey’s sentence, “It’s a very different kind of person,” already sets the stage to continue to view the detainees in US custody as not worthy of dignified treatment. Yes, he is implying, in former conflicts we had people who had worth and dignity and they deserved to be treated humanely; but these people do not.

Torture is not only beneath the dignity of those who are being mistreated; it is beneath our dignity as human beings and as Americans.

To say that we affirm the worth and dignity of every person is to make a statement as much about ourselves as about the people with whom we are dealing. David P. Gushee, a professor of moral philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, wrote an article in the magazine Christianity Today entitled “Five Reasons Why Torture is Wrong (and Why There Should Be No Exceptions).” One of his five points was that torture dehumanizes the torturer. Gushee explains that

What may be intended as carefully calibrated interrogation techniques could easily tempt implementers toward sadism—the infliction of pain for the sheer fun of it, especially in the heat of military conflict, in a climate of fear and loathing of the enemy, and in the context of an endless war on terror. How many of us could be trusted to draw the line consistently between the permitted "grabbing, poking, and pushing" and the banned "punching, slapping, and kicking"? How much self-control can we reasonably expect people to exercise? Once the line has been crossed to torture, as Michael Ignatieff claims, it "inflicts irremediable harm on both the torturer and the prisoner."

Frederick Douglass commented famously on how holding a slave slowly ruined the character of the woman who owned him. Martin Luther King Jr. frequently said that the greatest victims of segregation were the white people whose souls were deformed by their own hatred. And Alexander Solzhenitsyn, reflecting on the Soviet gulag, said, "Our torturers have been punished most horribly of all: They are turning into swine; they are departing downward from humanity."

If you have any doubt that this is so, I urge you to watch the film Ghosts of Abu Graib. The other four reasons why Professor Gushee contends that torture is wrong are that, of course, torture violates the dignity of the human being who is being abused; also that torture mistreats the vulnerable and therefore violates the demands of justice; that to authorize torture is to trust government too much and, finally, that torture erodes the character of the nation that tortures.

A July 11, 2005, Time magazine cover story stated that, "In the war on terrorism, the personal dignity of a fanatic trained for mass murder may be an inevitable casualty." If we are to live up to our covenant with other UU congregations, then we must affirm and promote the view that under no circumstances may human dignity be diminished.

It has always been a source of puzzlement to me that many people believe that if we uphold the worth and dignity even of criminals and terrorists that somehow that means we are excusing their behavior, letting them get away with acts that are unforgivable. But honoring the dignity of a person does not mean allowing them to get away with murder or with anything else. In fact, dignity requires precisely that we be held to higher standards, not lower ones. To treat a terrorist with dignity requires that you both decline to abuse that person and that you restrain that person from committing unacceptable acts. The irony is that those who wish to degrade their enemies tend to foster the very behavior they claim to abhor.

So, for instance, when we see how the innocent men held at Abu Graib prison were treated, we can understand why many of them may have left that situation and chosen to begin to inflict harm on Americans. Given the manner in which they were treated by us, it would take great spiritual and moral strength on their parts not to hate us, not to try to harm us for what had been done to them, and often to members of their families as well.
Long ago, German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote about the perennial human tendency to find exceptions to moral rules when the rules bind a bit too tightly on us:
$Hence there arises a natural … disposition to argue against these strict laws of duty and to question their validity, or at least their purity and strictness, and, if possible, to make them more accordant with our wishes and inclinations, that is to say, to corrupt them at their very source, and to entirely destroy their worth.

Deep below the understanding of the inherent worth and dignity of every person is the basic truth that each one of us, deep inside ourselves, is in our essence a soul longing for connection to others, longing for meaning, longing for abundant life. In the words of our first reading by Gordon McKeeman:

Lonely, I desire companions
Naked, I long for defenders.
Lost, I want to find. . . to be found.
Will I touch strangers
Or enemies
Or nothing?

… I stretch forth my hand
Knowing not what I shall touch. . . But hoping. . .


David P. Gushee “Five Reasons Why Torture is Wrong (and Why There Should Be No Exceptions)” Christianity Today, February 1, 2006.

"Inherent Worth and Dignity" sermon delivered by Anne Treadwell on Sunday, October 1, 2000.

HBO Film Ghosts of Abu Graib by Rory Kennedy (available from the National Religious Campaign Against Torture).

Immanuel Kant Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals

“Contact” by Gordon B. McKeeman