Inherent Worth and Clarence Thomas by Karen G. Johnston
Karen G. Johnston is a Candidate for the Unitarian Universalist Ministry. She lives in Western Massachusetts.
So, I think this may bring the reign of plagues down upon me, by both a progressive, justice-seeking god and my colleagues, but I think I may be coming to the defense of Clarence Thomas.
In his odious dissent to marriage equality granted by the United States Supreme Court -- SCOTUS -- Supreme Court Justice Thomas wrote this:
"The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away."
My social media feeds are awash with outrage at this statement, as are other progressive opining sources. For some of these folks, it is as if Clarence Thomas were evil incarnate. Certainly, for progressive-minded folk, Thomas does not offer up much to love or with which to find resonance.
That said, I think I agree with this statement -- even as I must vehemently and without a shade of doubt express my disdain and disgust for his steadfast resistance to acknowledging full humanity of so many people, especially the marginalized and oppressed, while siding with the powerful.
Weird, huh? I'm finding it hard to believe that I am writing this myself. But stay with me.
There is this thing called "the inherent worth and dignity" of every human being, which Unitarian Universalism affirms. It is central to our faith.
If there is inherent dignity, I think this means that there are other kinds of dignity. In fact, since inherent dignity is intangible and invisible, there must be other kinds of dignity that allow us insight into this elemental version.
I think of inherent dignity as the core and around this core, or center, there are the visible or knowable expressions of human dignity. These are kinds of dignity that are earned or assigned. These are socially constructed and culturally determined. They are malleable, rather than innate and unassailable.
For instance, off the top of my head (and I am sure that my college thesis advisor, an ethicist, could come up with a longer list in a shorter time) I offer this non-exhaustive list: social dignity, psychological dignity, spiritual dignity, physical dignity. These dignities are related to inherent dignity -- in fact, they gain their power from inherent dignity, but are distinct from it as well.
These are the ones that oppression can assail. And does so on a regular basis.
Inherency, at its elemental core, is beyond our human creation and beyond our human destruction. This is what makes it inherent. It cannot be taken away or denied based on the whims of history or culture or bias or belief. Especially our Universalist theology tells us that even immoral action cannot take this inherent dignity away from the very perpetrator of the immorality. It is one of the most vexing, and spiritually rigorous, aspects of Unitarian Universalism.
Following this logic, my faith says that though slavery did attempt to damage the social dignity of those enslaved; though it attempted (and tragically succeeded in some cases) to damage the psychological and physical integrity through trauma and torture, doing so in ways that left a legacy engrained in our society's systems and that shadows our relations with one another; it did not touch the inherent worth and dignity of the enslaved. It did not and could not. Whatever aspect of dignity that slavery was able to damage, destroy, or distort, it would not have been the inherent (elemental) part. It is, by definition, not possible.
Nor is it politically or theologically or liberatively expedient for us to claim it did. Without that core of inherent dignity, the power of resilience in the face of oppression is weakened and undermined. Sometimes, in order to properly describe how heinous something is, we can overstate its power to destroy, thus removing the capacity for resilience, for endurance, and resistance. While it is necessary that we name the ways in which evil institutions such as slavery, such as mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow impact social or psychological or physical dignity, it strikes me as seriously dangerous for us to cede that any human-created evil can erase inherent dignity.
Since inherent dignity is not visible and defies most human attempts at reliable measurement, the way that we affirm it is to ensure the other forms of human dignity -- those malleable ones that systems and individuals can erode or erase -- are protected. And this is where I, and likely most if not all Unitarian Universalists, part ways with Justice Thomas.
Because our faith asks us not only to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, it calls us to action to protect those other socially constructed ones.
So I want to amend Thomas' statement: "The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away." Instead, I offer this
The government cannot bestow inherent dignity and it cannot take it away. But it damn well better bestow social dignity and protect physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual dignity through its laws.
May it be so.