The very first tenet of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, which was ratified a few years after World War 2, is "human dignity shall be inviolable." The horrors of the war undoubtedly propelled this line to the top of the list. The next line in the document asserts that the most fundamental role of all state authority is to respect and protect this dignity. There is something vital about human beings, then, called dignity, that is so important that it must be absolutely safeguarded. But what is it? The Basic Law does not give us an answer.
Similarly, a President's Council on Bioethics was commissioned in the United States in the early 2000's to study the concept of human dignity but never came to a consensus on what dignity is, only that it is important. Near the end of their tenure in 2008, they published a series of twenty essays to shed light on the significance of human dignity. While all of the articles are well-written by highly credentialed experts, they do not agree on where dignity comes from (source) or whether it is a fixed or variable attribute (relative to a standard).
Since dignity essentially means value or worth, it becomes an arbitrary concept without a source and a standard. And that is extremely dangerous, especially for the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized who are often treated as less valuable. The way we define and defend our understanding of dignity also has implications for who and how we serve. It is relatively easy to serve someone who reminds us of ourselves and whose faults are familiar. But as soon as we are confronted with the unfamiliar or the unacceptable we begin to withhold kindness and help. That is not how we Serve with Dignity.
It is unlikely that we will ever come to a absolute agreement on a single source or standard for human dignity but we should at least consider the biblical narrative as it arguably provides the most substantive defense the inherent worth of all human beings. The bible ascribes value to everyone from the beginning when God makes humans in his image (Genesis 1:27). This was a dramatic departure from other religious systems when it was introduced. People, all people, were like the creator of the universe and made for fellowship with God and one another. Everyone has a stamp of the divine and carries inestimable value with them.
As the story unfolds, it doesn't take long for people to break this fellowship with God and others to pursue selfish ambition and vain conceit. In spite of our rebellion, God does not abandon us. Initially he focuses on a particular people through whom to bless the peoples of the earth. In spite of tremendous conflict and opposition, he persists until the crown jewel of his plan to reconcile all things comes on the scene - Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus tears down the dividing wall of hostility once and for all time and paves the way for everyone to enjoy restored fellowship between each other and God.
Being created in the image of God is the source of our dignity and the reason we are to respect and care for everyone as we have opportunity. It means that our dignity is an inherent value, a gift from God that can neither be given nor taken away. It means when we look down upon or ignore people, especially those who cannot give us anything in return, we cast aspersion towards the God whose image they bear. While the sin that separates us from one another and God mars the image, vestiges remain.
God is not only the source of our dignity, he is also the standard bearer through the person of Jesus Christ as God in the flesh (Colossians 2:9). His incarnation affirms the value of humanity and his complete identification with the vulnerable (Matthew 25) supports the notion that everyone has dignity, regardless of their station. His sacrificial death was the capstone of a sinless life, the full payment for all sin for all time, and the reason God exalted him to the highest place (Phil. 2:9) as Lord. While we will never become Lord, we can imitate the standard of Jesus by trusting him and giving up something of ourselves (e.g. time, attention, money, status) in order to be of service to others.
We would do well to put our trust in Jesus, the source and standard of human dignity, the one who gave up his lofty position and "made himself nothing, taking on the nature of a servant" (Phil. 2:7). Jesus serves in order to save. We serve out of gratitude for what he has done and to point others to him. We serve to affirm that everyone matters to us and to God. We serve to alleviate suffering.
As we Serve with Dignity, we will learn to see everyone as worthy of our attention and humble service because no one has fallen outside Jesus' offer to save. If he is willing to save them, we should be willing to serve them.
Serving with Dignity is a powerful witness to a world that knows that people matter but struggles to describe why they matter. It is also a world that is struggling to affirm that everyone matters; regardless of what they believe or what they have done. Trusting in Christ as the source and standard of human dignity allows us to transcend differences and divisions and bring hope and healing to a hurting world.