Equal Dignity

Equal Dignity

Dr. Gilbert Meilaender

Senior Research Professor
Valparaiso University

Gilbert Meilaender

In the traditional ceremony for the burial of a Hapsburg emperor in Austria, the corpse is carried to the door of an abbey with a chamberlain leading the procession. The chamberlain knocks at the abbey door. A friar opens a window and asks, “Who knocks?”

The chamberlain answers, “The Emperor.”

“I know no one of that name,” the friar responds. The chamberlain knocks a second time. “Who knocks?”

This time the chamberlain replies with a name, “the Emperor Francis Joseph.”

And the friar says, “We do not know him.”

Yet a third time the chamberlain knocks and is asked the same question. This time his answer is, “Brother Francis.”

Then the door opens to receive the dead body—a human being neither more nor less precious than the rest of us, our equal in dignity.

Of course, we neither can nor should deny that we often use the language of dignity in comparative terms. Some people seem to realize important human capacities more fully than do others; they display humanity at its fullest and its best. Others have at most a kind of basic humanity, falling short of the full development of human possibilities—what one scholar has called “an anthropological minor league.” And we know, of course, that some of us may so lack or lose the most characteristic human capacities as to seem to have lost human dignity almost entirely.

All true. That is one way, a comparative way, in which we do use the language of dignity. But it is not the only way—not the way that the Austrian burial custom had in mind, and certainly not the only way Christians should speak of dignity. “Eternity never counts,” Kierkegaard wrote. That is, because we are all equally near (or far) from God, all other distinctions are radically relativized, and we can even say, as Kierkegaard does, “all comparison injures.”

This should remind us of the way Christians have used the language of “neighbor.” The neighbor is anyone and everyone who crosses our path, for each is made by God and destined for God. And so, Kierkegaard writes in one of his characteristically striking sentences, “If you save a person’s life in the dark, thinking that it is your friend—but it was the neighbor—this is no mistake.” Not, at any rate, if we take seriously our equal dignity in relation to God.