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DISCOVERING YOUR OWN DIGNITY

My Favourite Scripture Passages

Psalm 8
17th April 2005

The Government appointed a select committee to examine the issues of juvenile justice, our prisons and correctional facilities, our methods of treatment of offenders and so on. I chair that important Inquiry. At each hearing, we have heard from distinguished people, and we have taken evidence from offenders in our maximum-security institutions. This week I was impressed by Professor Robert White, Head of the School of Sociology and Social Work at Tasmania University.

He said in part: “We have to live with those we punish. At some stage these people will come back into our communities. What we do now has to project into the future. Justice can go three ways. Justice can be something done to you, which is basically a punishment, it is about containment, about retribution or vengeance for the act that the person has done. But that treats the offender as passive. Justice can be something done for you. Again, the offender is treated passively: “We have a drug and alcohol program, we will provide you with therapy or with remedial education.” This still treats the offender as passive. The third approach to justice is that justice should be something done by you. That implies that offenders have obligations that they have to carry through as part of the doing of justice. This is about reparation. We need to make people active in the process of repairing the harm that they have caused. I like to see victim input into the imprisonment process so that offenders realise the kind of harm that they have done. If we are to go beyond containment of offenders, to go towards a change in the lives of these people-we need give those people a sense of redemption. Redemption does not come from a brutalising institution.

Redemption comes from the realisation that what they have done has harmed somebody else. Prisons fail. 60% of the people who are in our prisons have been there before. Those secure institutions that work the best have been those that have given people the most amount of personal responsibility. You must treat everybody with dignity and respect. It is all about dignity and respect.” Prisoners must discover their dignity. The prisoner is called by number, is deprived of personal significance and liberty. Prisoners are to be punished and rehabilitated, but if deprived of dignity, they will never change.

Homeless people need to discover their dignity. Two million Australians live below the poverty line. 80,000 live permanently in caravan parks, 90,000 live permanently on the streets of Australian cities, in derelict buildings, car bodies, trains, under bridges, in refuges, hostels and charity centres. Homeless people are human beings without homes. They are people who desperately need to re-discover their dignity, with a place to live. Aborigines need to discover their dignity. Kevin Gilbert, the Australian Aboriginal writer, wrote: “Psychologically the Aborigine is right down. If you don’t believe it go look in any country town at blacks walking along the streets. Note the sidelong, averted gaze, the exaggerated attempts at dignity, the overdone, affected bravado of Aborigines who know they are not accepted, who know they are outcasts and misfits in their own country. That is why the Aborigines who have come through the experience of being black in a white country with relatively little crippling, who have managed to retain their real personal dignity, are so strong on the racist theme.”

Moral failures cannot lift their heads before those who know of their misdeeds. They avert their eyes and live with shame. Long after they have paid for their failures people remember. Life can never be the same, unless they are remade within. They need a moral rehabilitation. In all of our rehabilitation work we seek to renew the person’s inner attitude towards himself or herself. The very word rehabilitation means “to reinvest with dignity”.

Dignity has to be restored before recovery is complete. Humanistic teaching can rob students of their innate sense of personal dignity. They are taught they are genetically determined over which they have no control; or environmentally conditioned as a result of social influence under which they have little choice; or they are economically determined the victims of dialectical materialism; or chemically determined by the electro-neurological processes beyond their control. They have no free choice; their dignity is shredded by humanism. I always treat widows with respect because many find after her husband’s death that people treat her as a non-person and old friendships disappear. Some retirees find his sense of purpose goes when he walks from his job. Each of these loses their sense of personal dignity. So do people given labels like pensioner, dole-bludger, teenager, western-suburbs dropout and with each label something of dignity is covered. The Australian poet, Arthur Bayldon, writing in the midst of the Depression in 1932 captured the essence in his line: “Let the word: Australian! dignify the lowliest man.” The Bible reveals the dignity of Jesus. He was a person of dignity always, who treated other people with dignity.

Under the greatest of provocation from abusing soldiers, a sneering Sanhedrin, a vicious High Priest, and an apathetic Roman Governor, Jesus kept his dignity while they lost theirs. Each time Jesus speaks with a homeless beggar, a painted prostitute, or a diseased leper, He leaves them with a new sense of worth and dignity. Jesus Himself did not cling to his prerogatives and privileges as the Son of God, but humbled himself and sat among us. Jesus sat with the least — the outcast, the beggar, and the leprous. As J.B.Phillips translates, “He stripped Himself of all privileges and rightful dignity by consenting to be a slave by nature and being born as mortal man. Having become man, he humbled himself to the extent of dying, and the death He died was the death of a common criminal.” Philippians 2:6–8

Dignity does not lie in robes or status, education or wealth. It lies not in what we are but in whose we are. Dignity may be earned by achievements and self-discipline. Dignity may be acquired by poise and behaviour. But the Bible teaches we have all been invested with dignity when God created us. Psalm 8, one of the favourite chapters of the Bible, proclaims the glory of God, and flowing from His glory to His creation is the dignity of man: “O Lord, our Lord, your greatness is seen in all the world. When I look at the sky which you have made, at the moon and the stars which you have set in their places what is man, that you think of him, mere man that you care for him? Yet you made him inferior only to yourself. You crowned Him with glory and honour. You appointed him ruler over all creation: sheep and cattle, and the wild animals too; the birds and the fish and the creatures in the seas. O Lord, our Lord, your greatness is seen in all the world”

Our dignity is within us and discovered when we realize that the great God of creation, created and cares for us, and in Christ has come to redeem us. The price of our redemption was the life of Jesus Himself. As Peter says, “For you know what was paid to set you free from the worthless manner of life handed down by your ancestors It was not something that can be destroyed such as silver or gold; it was the costly sacrifice of Christ. Through Him you believe in God and so your faith and hope are fixed in God.” 1 Peter 1:17–21 The death of Christ on your behalf invests you with new worth and personal dignity.

Wesley Mission provides accommodation for the homeless, cleanliness for the unclean, food for the hungry, care for the children without families and comfort for the dying. But we also speak about God and salvation through Jesus Christ, because they also need to discover their dignity and learn that God has invested them with an inner dignity as a child of the Creator, and that no earthly privation can remove their dignity unless they choose to reject it personally. Listen to this: Christ died for your sins! By His grace you can be saved through your faith. No one can take that from you. In Christ you are a new person. As Paul says: “No longer than do we judge anyone by human standards. Even if at one time we judge Christ according to human standards, we do so no longer. When anyone is joined to Christ he is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come. All this is done by God, who through Christ changed us from enemies into His friends and gave us the task of making others his friends also. Our message is that God was making all mankind His friends through Christ.

God did not keep an account of their sins but He has given us the message that tells how He makes them His friends. Here we are then, speaking for Christ, as though God Himself were making His appeal through us. We plead of Christ’s behalf: let God change you from enemies into His friends!” 2 Corinthians 5:17–20

People who work in downtown Sydney known a homeless who wears a motor cycle helmet and pushes a four wheeled pram containing locked trunks holding his belongings. He rarely bathes or changes his clothes. He becomes aggressive if people take his photograph or try to speak to him. He wants to just live in peace with himself. He is an immigrant, who scowls at people and becomes angry if anyone tries to help him. One bright day, he was sitting on a park bench outside the Supreme Court. Out of the Court at the end of a trial, came the Chief Justice of New South Wales, Sir Laurence Street. Sir Laurence Street looked at the old man on the park bench and stopped. He said, “Excuse me, do you mind if I also sit on this bench?” The derelict waved his hand to the Chief Justice indicating that he could sit down. Sir Laurence had just removed his full court regalia while the dirty old derelict was wearing the clothes he had worn all year. They sat together. Sir Laurence offered him a sandwich. He took it. Then the Chief Justice asked the old man about his life, his war experiences and how he lived on the city streets. The old man talked freely because he knew his visitor was treating him with respect and courtesy, as if he was a person of worth. It says much of the graciousness of our Chief Justice that he would sit there and speak to the old man. Two men together: one a dirty, smelling, derelict immigrant, possessing nothing other than what is in his pram.

The other, the Chief Justice, the son of Sir Kenneth Street, the former Chief Justice, grandson of a former Chief Justice, descendent of Sir Thomas Street who defied James 2 when he tried to dispense with an

Act of Parliament in 1686, and far off descendent of King Alfred the Great who saved England from the Danes between 849 and 899 A.D.. Two men together on a park bench, one unknown with an unpronounceable surname, the other known as “His Excellency, the Honourable Sir Laurence Whistler Street, Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, Knight of Grace of the Most Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem, Chief Justice of New South Wales, Lieutenant-Governor of New South Wales and Its Dependencies in the Commonwealth of Australia.” But two men together on a park bench. What they spoke about is no concern of ours, save that Chief Justice gave to the old man with the pram a sense of common manhood while they shared his sandwiches. The Chief Justice helped one of the lowliest inhabitants find a few minutes of self-esteem. He helped the old man discover his dignity!

Jesus Christ is Judge of all. One day we will all come before him, when he will pass judgement upon our sins. But now, because of God’s love and mercy, He steps down from the judgement bench, takes off his imperial robes, and sits beside us, offering some bread of life. He speaks, and His tone is accepting and understanding. We feel valued. At this moment he is not our judge, but our friend. He has helps us find our dignity. Accept His friendship now and feed on the Bread of Life.

REFERENCES

  • Kevin Gilbert, “Because a White Man Will Never Do It” . p35
  • Arthur Bayldon, “Collected Poems” p25

Gordon Moyes

 

Wesley Mission, Sydney.