Preserving the Dignity of All
In April, I delivered a brief sixty minute presentation on Catholic Social Teaching. After identifying what I believe CST to be, as well as a number of its themes, I concluded by giving voice to challenges which exist in contemporary conversations on the subject.
One challenge, I believe, surrounds the extent to which a person is willing to defend the dignity of victims of injustice without diminishing the dignity of those who perpetrate dignity-diminishing acts. After all, that which is “opposed to life itself,” which “violates the integrity of the human person,” and which “insults human dignity” — according to Gaudium et spes — does “more harm to those who practice [such acts] than those who suffer from the injury (Paragraph 27).”
In The Sunflower, author Simon Wiesenthal recounts being imprisoned in a concentration camp and, at one point, being taken from his work duty to the bedside of a dying member of the SS. The soldier sought to confess his crimes, and to be absolved by a Jewish person. Years after the event, Wiesenthal still wondered whether his own response had been the right one, and so he put down this question to others: What would you have done?
Of fifty three responses in the edition I read, one belongs to the Dalai Lama. His response is brief and begins with the words: “I believe one should forgive the person or persons who have committed atrocities against oneself and mankind.” Turning to the situation in Tibet, he notes how since the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949-50, more than 1.2 million Tibetans (that’s one fifth of the country’s population) have lost their lives due to massacre, execution, starvation and suicide. Despite this oppression, his people have sought, for four decades, to keep alive and preserve the Buddhist culture of non-violence and compassion.
The Dalai Lama relates an encounter occurring several years prior with a Tibetan monk who had served eighteen years in a Chinese prison. Having known this monk from his own days in Tibet, the Dalai Lama remembers last seeing him in 1959. Wondering what was the biggest threat or danger the man faced while in prison, the Dalai Lama identifies being “amazed by his answer. It was extraordinary and inspiring. I was expecting him to say something else; instead he said that what he feared most was losing his compassion for the Chinese.”
In the face of tragedy and atrocity one could become angry. Many have. One could label the Chinese as the enemy, and condemn them for their brutality. Although it would be easy to dismiss the Chinese as unworthy of further thought or consideration, to the Dalai Lama, that is not the Buddhist way.
I consider myself a tolerant person. When I perceive intolerance in some others, I often think of parable Jesus tells of the Pharisee and Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14). I see the person demonstrating intolerance as filling the sandals of the Pharisee and sometimes, ironically, I am thankful that I am not like “that intolerant person.” What does it mean to defend the dignity of victims of injustice without diminishing the dignity of those who perpetrate dignity-diminishing acts? For me it means recognizing the voice of a little Pharisee within me and telling him to “shush.” That’s hard work, but in those occasional moments when I succeed I hear another voice: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”