Dignity—A Return to Camelot
or the foundation of Christian practice?
I subscribe to two theaters. I pay no attention to what’s playing. I go, take my seat, and watch whatever they offer.
I’ll read any genre, liberally mixing it up.
This week I was surprised to find the same theme jumped out in the theater I attended and the book I read. The play was August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. For two and one half hours, the actors portrayed people seeking dignity.
I had no idea what The Rowan Tree was about when I downloaded it. I like trees. The cover grabbed my eye. It was free on Kindle Unlimited.
I didn’t realize what the book was about until the last quarter of the book. The author, Robert Fuller, a mathematician and former president of Oberlin College, wrote the book to present his vision for leadership based on honoring the dignity of others. Dignitarianism.
Dignity is something we sometimes impose on others as we gloat in victory. Victors strive to impose dignity on losers as they demonstrate superiority. The Rowan Tree asks what might result if we thought about dignity before we conquer and as we negotiate.
We know dignity is desirable. But still we seek to use it as condescending victors.
The beginning and middle of the book explore interesting characters struggling with the changing moral perceptions of the post-1990 era. At first, the reader might think the book is about interracial families—or maybe about changing marriage customs or various international exchanges—but each of these themes is interrelated. At the end of the book Fuller states his theories clearly. His preaching is more thought-provoking than offensive. Putting dignity first in political, domestic and international negotiations might change the world climate.
The characters in The Rowan Tree are remarkable in that they are all privileged and civilized. They are kind to one another as they seek to find themselves in a changing world. The story is set 25 years later than Two Trains Running and takes us into the future. The racial divides are less rigid. The characters make mistakes. They disappoint one another. They make peace with unusual grace. They manage to put others first. It’s hard to find an antagonist!
Both works point out that honoring dignity is the most profound change agent. In Two Trains Running characters in a black neighborhood diner in 1969 seek personal dignity—while walking all over other characters. Each has a different role in the community. The levels of indignity vary in the beginning of the play. The oppressed waitress senses the Civil Rights Movement means little to her. A mentally challenged man was taken advantage of ten years before and can’t let go. An ex-con wants to avoid returning to jail but can’t find work. The most successful character, the undertaker, insists on dignity as he buries the members of the declining neighborhood.
Dignity. What a concept to consider during this election year as our future world leaders try to gain power and influence by humiliating one another! If this is how we treat colleagues with similar goals, how do we negotiate with those with fundamentally different ideas?
Church has its politics too.
Combine the messages of Two Trains Running and The Rowan Tree. Like it or not, acknowledge it or not, getting our own way is part of church life.
We preach a gospel of love but we are tempted to first carefully calculate what’s in it for us. We think about how we can keep what we have and calculate how we can get more. We protect our own dignity over that of others. This is often disguised as stewardship, legalistic dogma, tradition, church order, respect, authority—all kinds of things.
It is part of the placement of pastors, the distribution of resources, and the closing of churches. The end is often decided before negotiations begin. Sometimes the negotiations never begin. Dignity, imposed more than practiced, is often nothing but legitimizing bullying tactics. The fate of the congregation and its members are collateral damage.
Yet, the ideas of dignatarianism are rooted in Christianity. The leper, the prostitute, the centurion, the king are all equal in Christ’s eye.
Something to think about.
Afterthought: The rowan tree holds a special place in Celtic tradition.
When we silence ourselves long enough to listen to the rowan speak, we hear her message: “look deeper, see through the object before your eyes and you will encounter visions into the worlds beyond the one you physically know.”