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Human dignity is the foundation of all the rights and duties that human beings have towards one another. 

But since there are very different conceptions of those rights and duties, very different conceptions of human dignity have also been proposed.  Here is a famous one: 

What a piece of work is a man!  How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and desirable!  In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!  The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. 

And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?  Man delights not me.  No, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. 

                                                                                              Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2


The term or name human dignity was coined by Cicero,[1] building on suggestions of Plato and the Stoic philosophers. It was a quality that occurred only in the human species, genus humanum.  But he was unsure of its proper extension, or how widely it applied; for example, whether it included women. Since Cicero the term has been used in a wide variety of meanings and shades of meaning. 

But the idea of human dignity has been developed and made effective in people's lives, without any special name or term for it, in the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition, and principally, as we shall see,  in the Christian tradition. As understood there, it has been what neither Cicero nor his philosophers could make it: genuinely universal, applying to every human being without exception. 

Some contemporary authors wish to expunge religion from consideration and confine the discussion of our worth as human beings within the limits of a purely secular philosophy. Thus George Kateb, author of a recent book, holds that "we are not in the eye of any divinity" and  "there is no arbiter or sponsor," but "Jewish theism and Christian theism invent deities to provide a standard that is supposedly not humanly devised,"   and introducing religion into the discussion would mean "having to lie to people to persuade them of the truth of their dignity." He concedes, however, that  he has no certitude to offer, and can be nothing more than tentative.  The victims of the Gulag and Ausschwitz may be open to other views. 


Part I 

I   The Judaeo-Christian Tradition


 The Jewish Preparation 


The idea of human dignity is adumbrated or foreshadowed rather than explicitly developed in the Old Testament or Jewish Bible. A foundation is provided for it rather than the idea itself. There are only two clear  passages.  

From its written beginnings, the Jewish tradition believed in the existence of a single God, who brought the world into existence and sustains it by his transcendent power. It understood man in terms of that origin, not only as a being made by God, but one that in some unspecified way resembled God. For the rest, in the Jewish tradition the idea of a universal human dignity has received little development because it has always been in tension with the emphasis on the particularity and uniqueness of Jewish identity. This tension remains a problem for Jewish consciousness to this day.

Genesis 1

 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.    And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds." And it was so.  And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the cattle according to their kinds, and everything that creeps upon the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.  Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."  So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.  And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."   And it was so.  And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.

What does it mean, that man is made in the image of God?  How does man resemble God?  Nothing in this passage implies that God has a body. It cannot be a matter of physical appearance. Where then,  exactly, is the similarity?  Up to this point in the narrative, the only qualities attributed explicitly to God are those of making or  creating and "speaking." God has created the heavens and the earth, light, the waters above and below the firmament or dome of the heavens, the sun and the moon, and living creatures, the plants and animals. Over the waters sweeps the Spirit of God, in Hebrew ruach elohim, ( or “ a mighty wind " as some translators prefer, though it is not entirely clear why the writer would mention a wind at this point since it does not seem to contribute to the story.)  How has he made these things? By "speaking." That is, by thinking and willing. His speaking is a willing. "Let there be light." It is not a mere velleity or ineffective wishing but an effective willing, a willing which is itself a making. God is evidently envisaged here not as a mere impersonal force of nature like gravity, but a personal being, a "he," and he is acting for a considered purpose. "Let there be lights to separate day from night." The Hebrew text initially uses "elohim," which grammatically is a plural, but it is plainly a figure of speech, of the order of a "royal plural," for it is immediately replaced by a singular, "el". Lastly God judges. "God saw what he had made and it was very good."

Presumably, then, man is made to resemble God at least in this way, as a maker or creator, and one who has the power of speaking, thinking and willing,  in some measure a participant in or continuer of the divine labor. Of course it will not take man long to discover that the resemblance has its limitations. He cannot create anything out of nothing, but must use pre-existent materials that have already been created by God.


Psalm 8

 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.

 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have established; 

what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?  

Yet you have made him a little less than God, and crown him with glory and honor.  

You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; You have  put all things under his feet, 

 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,  the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the sea.  

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!


What does it mean, that men have been made "a little less than God" ?

The passage suggests that this statement  is a figure of speech, a rhetorical exaggeration, that in actuality the dignity of man is relative. In comparison with God who made the universe, we are little.   What is man that you are mindful of him?  Why does God even bother about man?

But in comparison with the other beings in the world, we have "glory and honor" because God has placed us in charge of them. Despite the Peter Singers of this world, who never speak of human dignity. For the philosophy of utilitarianism has no  room for any idea of dignity.[2]

And neglect has been in general the fate of this idea in the Jewish tradition. As in the Muslim tradition. I say it with regret. The political conflict between the two traditions in the Middle East would be resolved, of course, if they were both to find their way to a full acceptance of universal human dignity.


The Christian Fulfillment

The following passages are very familiar to many people.  But even if you read them ten thousand times they can still speak to your soul.


The Good Samaritan  Luke 10, 29

 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

The lawyer's initial question was not an innocent one, but had an agenda behind it: his aim was to put Jesus on the spot, "to test Jesus." So Jesus has given him a short answer, as if to say, You already know the answer to your question!  This leaves the lawyer looking just a little foolish in front of the audience. So to regain his dignity, "to justify himself" he asks another question.

 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ 

Now this is still  a hostile question, but it is also a good question, which opens a gate, so Jesus treats him more generously, and gives him a fuller answer, that will greatly expand his horizons,  more than he anticipates, and if he accepts it, his heart. 

Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 

  Now the lawyer has received more than he bargained for. He sees he must give an answer that is  nothing less than revolutionary, and will take him into uncharted waters,  perhaps for the rest of his life,  maybe even leading to his being ostracized and thrown out of his profession.

The Samaritans were not a friendly people, but were hostile. They were a remnant from the time, several centuries before, when the land of Israel had been divided into a Northern and a Southern kingdom, which were at war with one another. In the year 6 -- when Christ was still a child -- a group of Samaritans had invaded the temple in Jerusalem and desecrated it by spreading human bones within the porches and sanctuary during Passover. It was not uncommon for Samaritans to show hostility toward Jews from the North traveling through Samaria on the way to Jerusalem for various feasts, and Jesus and his disciples experienced this.

Luke tells us:  When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him, but the people would not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord do you want us to bid fire to come down from heaven and consume them? But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village. (Lk 9, 51 ff)

In the year 52, so, several years after Christ's death,  Samaritans massacred a group of Galilean pilgrims at En-gannim. 

 But the lawyer  now accepts the challenge, the grace, and opens his heart to the humanity of the hated enemy. He replies, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ The lawyer is no longer trying to win the debate now, but has come over to Jesus' side.

 Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’


The Samaritan Woman   John  4.


Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’— although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)

But she is taken aback. She had not expected Jesus, visibly a Jew,  to speak to her.   A truly religious Jew would not speak to her.  His request puts her in  a difficult position. It asks her to compromise herself as a Samaritan. She does not accept it without more ado. She demands an explanation. The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’

Again, we encounter the Samaritans. But this time, not merely in a parable, but in historical reality; as it were, flesh and blood. 

Luke explains her negative reaction to  his readers, who were probably at first in Syria and may not have been very familiar with the Samaritans:  (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)  Not even a cup of cold water, it is clear.

Although her reaction was negative, she has not rejected his request, but she has asked him a question, which opens a way for him.   Jesus responds to her immediately.

Throughout the conversation, Jesus does not force anything on her, but takes her negative responses and turns them in a positive direction, to the next step.

Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’

Once again, her reaction is negative. But she is evidently a woman of spirit, and also intelligent. Living water could mean simply fresh spring water. But she senses that more is somehow meant. Although her reaction is negative, she again does not close the discussion off,  but asks him another question. And then a further question.

 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 

Now there is a real question. Who are you?   In reply, Jesus moves the discussion to a higher plane altogether, nothing less than the "eternal," the sphere of God himself. 

 Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,  but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’

This is now essentially the whole of his gospel in a nutshell. It is comparable to his other "I am" sayings. "I am the Bread of Life, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Resurrection and the Life, I am the Light of the World."

Her response is almost everything he could desire. She answers eagerly.

The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’ She keeps up the pretense that the water Jesus is speaking of is physical water, but she already knows more is meant.

But there is one more step:  a personal challenge to her. As he had said to the lawyer: Go thou and do likewise! 

 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’

 The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Again, she answers in the negative, but Jesus accepts that and turns it. He said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”;   for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ 

 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.

Again, a negative, fighting  answer, but Jesus accepts it and turns it.

 Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 

The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ 

' Now, for the first time, a positive answer. This leads to the climax:  Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.

 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.

This is the true explanation of the whole incident. On the surface it appears to be purely a chance encounter.  But from the beginning Jesus had seen this particular harvest, though out of the way and to human vision unlikely, was ripe.

 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” 

This is a very gracious statement. Jesus is the sower. The reapers are both the woman and the disciples. He associates them with himself in the labor. It is clear enough that the woman is "gathering fruit for eternal life." As for the disciples, they did their part just by accepting his actions and hers, and by not asking foolish questions, as well as by going for the food.  He and they will now "rejoice together" in the outcome of his visit.

 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.’

 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’

Not only the human equality of Jews and Samaritans is contained in this story, but also that of men and women.


The Washing of Feet  John 13


Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’

This is a mysterious statement,, "Unless Christ washes them, they have no share with him"  How can that be?  Perhaps the meaning is, the initiative comes from Christ. He has chosen them.

Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’

 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfil the scripture, “The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.” I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.’


Christianity is concerned above all about the heart. For that, the power of action is unique. Jesus' action in washing the feet of his apostles speaks more powerfully than any sermon. But he does not merely do the action. He also explains it in words. Do you know what I have done to you? No, even though it was done to them,  they don't know what he has done!  I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. And as a result  his action has consequences for them. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. His action sets a standard for them. And the standard applies, not to their actions in regard to himself, who has washed them, but towards one another. Their relations with one another are not something separate, but part of their relationship with him.


You are of more value than many sparrows.  Luke 6


 ‘I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. 5But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!  Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.  But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.


Matthew 6



Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 


In the world of utilitarianism, everything has a price. So human existence has a price, depending only on its utility. But its utility is something outside itself, resulting from the circumstances around it, not something intrinsic to itself.  Your value lies only in my view of you. But Christ's perspective is very different.


Children   Matthew 18

The disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

Calling a child to him, he put him in the midst of them, 
and said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 
Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 
"Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;

but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. 
"See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.
So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. 


What does it mean, that children "have angels" ? 

And that these angels "behold the face of God"?

At the least, these statements imply that children have a dignity which is recognized by God.


Peter and Cornelius  Acts 10

In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, ‘Cornelius.’ He stared at him in terror and said, ‘What is it, Lord?’ He answered, ‘Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.’ When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.

 About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

The Books of the Old Testament record how God gave the Jewish people a distinct identity and special dignity as his own people, bringing them out of Egypt into the desert of Sinai,  where he instituted the distinction between clean and unclean foods to keep them separate from the Gentiles.


This then is the law concerning beast and bird, every living creature that swims in the water and every living creature that teems on the land. It is to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and living creatures that may not be eaten.

                                                                                        (Leviticus 11)

The existence of the Jewish people, with its distinct identity purposefully built up over a period of a thousand years,  provided God with a nation already familiar with him, capable of understanding him and welcoming his message when he stepped in human form onto his planet, so that he would not arrive among uncomprehending strangers, but would have a base or springboard for his mission to the human race. But  in the event, very few even recognized him. Instead, most rejected him as if he were a criminal, morally evil, in a tragedy which exceeds anything written by Shakespeare. Now their special role is withdrawn and they are subsumed into the common human dignity, which from now on occupies the center of the stage.


 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.’ So Peter went down to the men and said, ‘I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?’ They answered, ‘Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.’ So Peter invited them in and gave them lodging.

The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him. The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshipped him. But Peter made him get up, saying, ‘Stand up; I am only a mortal.’ And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; and he said to them, ‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?’

 Cornelius replied, ‘Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. He said, “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.” Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.’

 Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’

 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.


Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’ 


Some other peoples around the globe have believed they possessed a special divine origin and dignity. Just such a belief in some nations played a role in bring on the Second World War.  But according to the Christian gospel, which they despised, all human beings have the same human dignity before God, as Peter discovered. 

Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.


Paul's Letter to Philemon

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker,

to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in your house:

 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 When I remember you  in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith towards the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we  may do for Christ. 7I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty,  yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus  I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 


Onesimus was a slave.  He had belonged to Philemon, who had been converted to Christianity by Paul, but he had run away. Somehow he had made his way to Paul in prison, and as a result of being with Paul had become a Christian. Now there was a dilemma. Roman law required runaway slaves to return or be returned forcibly to their masters. Paul could be punished for keeping him. And probably it would create strains in the relationship between Paul and Philemon if he did that. But it was inhumane to send him back. Paul sends him back, but asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus as a fellow-Christian,   as he would welcome Paul himselfNo longer as a slave, but "as more than a slave, a beloved brother," "if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account." 

Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful  both to you and to me.   I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.   I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel;   but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever,   no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

   So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.  If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.        I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.   Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ.   Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. 


The law is kept. But the personal relationships between the men are transformed.

The Christian transformation of the heart leads to a transformation of every institution, but a peaceful transformation, not a violent one. The institution may be left in place, but no longer counts.



James 2

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?  For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in,   and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’,    have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.  Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?   But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?   Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

  You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’  But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.   For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.   For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.  So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.   For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.

   What good is it, my brothers and sisters,   if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?  5If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,   and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

The Human Tongue



How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature,   and is itself set on fire by hell.    For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species,  but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 


The Letter to the Hebrews.



 God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere,
‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
   or mortals, that you care for them? 
You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
   you have crowned them with glory and honour, 

   subjecting all things under their feet.’
Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

As we saw, the Psalm expresses awe at the dignity God gave to human beings at their creation , making them "a little lower than God."  But now there is a new ground of human dignity: men have been incorporated into the divine family, being made the brothers of Christ, and children of God.  The Son of God has adopted us as his brothers and sisters, and since suffering is part of the human condition, he has taken that upon himself, to make reparation for our sins by the sacrifice of his life.



 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying,
‘I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
   in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.’ 
And again,
‘I will put my trust in him.’
And again,
‘Here am I and the children whom God has given me.’

 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. 

First Letter to John 2

A man may say, "I am in the light" but if he hates his brother, he is still in the dark. Only the man who loves his brother dwells in light: there is nothing to make him stumble. But the one who hates his brother is in darkness; he walks in the dark and has no idea where he is going.

It is by this that we know what love is: that Christ laid down his life for us. And we in our turn are bound to lay down our lives for our brothers. But if a man has enough to live on, and yet when he sees his brother in need shuts up his heart against him, how can it be said that the divine love dwells in him?


The concept of human dignity in the New Testament is universal. It holds good for all human beings without exception.

Historically this view can be found unequivocally only in the New Testament, and places influenced by it. 

Thomas Patrick Burke

[1] [1]  hominis praestantia...in natura excellentia et dignitas. ( De Officiis, I,30).

[2] Peter Singer is a Jewish philosopher who espouses both animal rights and the philosophy of utilitarianism, but not the existence of God.

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