Adventists and human dignity
"In promoting religious freedom, family life, health, mutual assistance, and meeting crying human need, Seventh-day Adventists affirm the dignity of the human person created in the image of God." 1 -- From the statement issued by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists on November 17, 1998 in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Why do we as a church believe and proclaim the dignity of every human being? Why is the right of every human person--the right to equality, health, freedom, personal and vocational opportunities, speech, and worship--regardless of race, religion, nationality, language, color or tribe, so crucial to the vision and mission of the church? The answer is simple. Our mandate for human dignity does not arise from politics or education or sociology or psychology. It is rooted in our faith-commitment to our Creator God.
As such, when we speak of human dignity, we must begin with the God-human relationship and comprehend its deep theological and relational implications. Such a consideration takes in the reality of Creation, the cross, the Holy Spirit, the moral law, and discipleship.
Creation and human dignity
The Adventist concept of human dignity finds its roots in the very mind of God, when God in His infinite wisdom made humankind as the crown of His creation process: When God said, "'Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness," (Genesis 1:26), 2 He was sharing something of His uniqueness with human beings. Human beings are not mere creatures. Their place in creation is absolutely unique. To them was given dominion "'over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'" To them was given the power to think, to choose, to be creative, to be partners with God in fellowship and stewardship.
All other creatures are also "living things," but humans are to reflect God's image and be doers of His will. Adam received a mission: to be God's manager on Planet Earth. The difference between the biblical concept and the ancient traditions or the theory of evolution is vast. We are not the accidental product of a long, convoluted evolutionary process or the arbitrary action of a lunatic divinity. We are the fruit of God's love and part of His universal design. We are called to be the main actors in an extraordinary destiny. Therefore, when we deal with human beings, we are dealing with their Maker. It is that divine kinship that is at the root of Adventist concept of human dignity.
The cross and human dignity
A second factor that reinforces the theological anchor of human dignity, as Adventists hold, is that God did not abandon the human race to death and destruction, even after they rebelled against His will. When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, they revolted against God's declared will, and deserved to die. But God chose to meet sin in a different way. Rebellious though they may be, Adam and Eve and their descendants were still His creation, and God chose to meet rebellion with redemption, death with life, hatred with love. "'For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life'" (John 3:16). However sinful we are, however far we may have wandered away, we are still God's precious possession. He has endowed us with certain dignity. Although it is Satan's studied purpose to destroy this dignity through sin and its many deceptive ways, God through His Son Jesus has revealed how precious we are in His sight. So much so, Jesus died for our sins on the cross. Thus the cross becomes the enduring affirmation that every human being is a person of immense worth and dignity. Indeed, Jesus has so identified Himself with humanity that what we do to a person is equivalent to what we do to Him. "'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me'" (Mattew 25:40). Therefore, every time someone is abused, tortured, or humiliated, Christ is affected. The creature of God, the object of Christ's redemption, should never be treated like an ordinary object to be used, but like an irreplaceable jewel.
Human dignity and being the temple of the Holy Spirit
If God's creative and redemptive acts provide the foundation for our concept of human dignity, that conception is further enhanced to new heights by the biblical proclamation that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. "Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are." (1 Corinthians 3:16, 17). And again, "Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price" (6:19, 20).
To say that we are God's temple and that our bodies are the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit is to attribute the highest possible dignity to the human person. Even a non-believer would not dare think of committing an act of sacrilege against a place of worship. How, then, can we be abusive of fellow human beings, created in God's image and potential temples of the Holy Spirit? No one is too small, too poor, too unworthy as to be treated with disrespect. That's not all. Our doctrine of human dignity goes to the extent of requiring of us to treat our minds and bodies with utmost care, and not let them be subject to abuse or ill treatment of any kind. Thus the Adventist call to human dignity proceeds from our attitude to our own self to embrace the whole humanity on a global scale.
Human dignity and God's commandments
The Ten Commandments may be called the first charter of human rights. A violation of one of them directly affects the quality of life, peace, and dignity. Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments in a few words: "'"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with your soul, and with all your mind.... You shall love your neighbor as yourself"'" (Mattew 22:37). The first four commandments deal with our allegiance to God, who is the source of our rights. The last six commandments define our relationship with each other as human beings. While God remains the supreme reference point and definer of our attitude toward others, it is in the specifics of the second part of the moral law that we have our human relations codified. Can you imagine someone having his or her moral compass shaped by the Ten Commandments lie against, murder, or show contempt and disrespect toward his or her fellow humans? This conceptual relationship between the moral law and human dignity was further amplified by Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount. One example will suffice: Jesus defined murder not simply as the act of taking one's life, but even the act of contempt and calling a fellow human being a fool (see Matthew 5:21,22). Hence the Adventist emphasis on the moral law and the embodiment of pure and unlimited love it calls for constitute a firm and unshakeable ground for our advocacy on human right and dignity.
Human dignity: Implications for discipleship
For Seventh-day Adventists, human dignity must not remain a theoretical pie in the sky. To isolate our belief from our practice has been the persistent temptation of our religious life, and this is nowhere as real as in the arena of human relations. When God orders us to love Him with all our being and our neighbors as ourselves, He calls us back to the original aim of life as He intended. The core of life is good and proper relationship--both with God and with humans. The prophet Isaiah declares the inseparableness of the two: "'Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?'" (Isaiah 58:6, 7).
Religion, therefore, is more than a formal routine. It is more than nice phrases, beautiful prayers, great hymns, or rousing meetings in an elegant and comfortable church. It is not a catalogue of doctrines even through doctrines are important. It is real living! As James says, "Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). In other words, there can be no true religious experience without respect for human dignity.
This explains why Adventists from the very beginning of their history have committed themselves to uphold the worth of every human being. Right from the start, they took strong positions against all forms of social injustice. Ellen White wrote: "Slavery, the caste system, unjust racial prejudices, the oppression of the poor, the neglect of the unfortunate,--these all are set forth as unchristian and a serious menace to the well-being of the human race, and as evils which the church of Christ is appointed by her Lord to overthrow." 3 Again, "The Lord Jesus demands our acknowledgment of the rights of every man. Men's social rights, and their rights as Christians, are to be taken into consideration. All are to be treated with refinement and delicacy, as the sons and daughters of God." 4
As a result, our church has developed a ministry of restoration and respect for human dignity. Through a global system of churches, schools, hospitals, community services, and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, Adventists spread the message of care and concern for all humanity in 203 out of 208 countries recognized by the United Nations. Among Christian churches, we take a leadership role in promoting religious freedom for all. Through pen and voice, through mission and ministry, we not only raise but attempt to provide a meaningful answer to questions, such as: How do we defend and promote human rights? What should be done about discriminations in various forms in different countries? What do we relate to policies dealing with war and terror? What about systems and political structures that may affect the lives of people, create famine, refugees, concentration camps? How should we respond to the human tragedy of AIDS? What about child labor, slavery, and women's status?
We do not claim to have all the answers or effective solutions to all the problems. But to raise such questions and to work in cooperation with other agencies to promote human values is in itself a necessary task. We cannot afford to be silent when it comes to the violation of the human person in any form.
No room for silence
In 1998 Zdravko Plantak published a courageous book about our church and human rights. The title in itself is eloquent: The Silent Church. He wrote: "Adventists must become involved (in the world) because their God cares and wants them to care for each other. Identifying with Jesus means identifying with the poor, oppressed and those whose basic rights and freedoms are denied them. It is not enough to care for a person and have no concern about the laws that affect the life of that person in society." 5
The Adventist pioneers understood that perfectly. Ellen White may have promoted an improvement of the condition of the slaves, but she condemned slavery in no uncertain terms: "The institution of slavery ... permits man to exercise over his fellow man a power which God has never granted him, and which belongs alone to God." 6 She went further, condemning the policy of keeping slaves as "an insult to Jehovah." 7
James White wrote that the Christian "has really as much interest in this old world as any man. Here he must stay and act his part until the Prince of Peace shall come and reign." 8
This early vision of the pioneers that the Christian must go beyond the traditional welfare approach to problems of human worth and dignity was reflected in the 1865 General Conference resolution: "Resolved that in our judgment, the act of voting when exercised in behalf of justice, humanity, and right, is in itself blameless, and may be at some times highly proper; but that the casting of such crimes as intemperance, insurrection, and slavery, we regard as highly criminal in the sight of Heaven." 9
What this resolution called for was the promotion and defense of human dignity through "the act of voting" to change the law. However, the pioneers did set a limit: "But we would deprecate any participation in the spirit of party strife." 10
Human dignity: A core value
Thus to Adventists, human dignity is a core value. We should not support in one way or another a policy or attitude which denies dignity to any segment of humanity. As a church we should be prudent and wise when speaking officially, but being a silent church on vital issues is like being ashamed about Jesus our Saviour and God our Creator. As church members, we should not be part of any enterprise that transforms one made in God's image into a thing or an object. The issue is not only a question of consistency but also one of testimony. We should never forget that on Earth we are the ambassadors of the kingdom of God, and that we are the heralds of a new creation which restores and establishes forever human dignity. Then and only then "'your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard'" (Isaiah 58:8).
John Graz (Ph.D., Sorbonne University) is the director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and the Secretary General of the International Religious Liberty Association. His e-mail: email@example.com
Notes and references:
- Statements, Guidelines & Other Documents, 2nd. ed. (Silver Spring, Md.: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2000), pp. 44.
- All Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New King James Version.
- Ellen G. White, Life Sketches of Ellen G. White (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1943), p. 473.
- --------, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1948), vol. 1, p. 123.
- Zdravko Plantak, The Silent Church (New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1998), p. 48.
- Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1948), 1:358.
- Ibid., p. 31. See Douglas Morgan, Adventists and the American Republic (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2001), p. 31.
- James White quoted in Morgan, p. 34.
- "Report of the Third Annual Session of the General Conference," p. 197; quoted in Morgan, pp. 36, 37).