I’ve been thinking about dignity lately-well, I think about dignity all the time, I guess. When I work with survivors of abuse, I am very aware of how dignity can be stolen from people through insensitive acts. I looked up the definition and found most of it related to people in high office or elevated in some way above others. It talked about others recognizing an inner strength or nobility in someone. I remember when we attended an Ethiopian wedding reception and after most of the people had settled at tables, several of the Ethiopian women entered in their fine, traditional dress and they carried themselves with dignity. They were very noble looking women. They fit definition number one: “The presence of poise, self-control, and seriousness in one’s deportment to a degree that inspires respect.” It fits also with the definition of dignity I was looking for: number 4 on the list in the dictionary “self-esteem”.
So what does dignity have to do with today’s readings? We read about David and his grief over the loss of Saul and Jonathan. They were no longer his friends when they died but David offers them the dignity their positions in society afforded them-they were the king and the heir to the throne of Israel. And, he mourned the loss of their friendships and the opportunity to mend those relationships. Granted he had a lot to gain from their deaths but he mourned them just the same. They died with dignity-fighting in a battle and David reminds the Hebrew people of that.
Paul reminds us that Jesus gave up his dignity to become human and live among us. Then he reminds the Corinthians that they have the ability to offer money to fellow Christians so their dignity can be restored. “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” There is dignity in sharing what we have.
And, I think there is much about dignity in the Gospel story. This is in the town of Capernaum-there was a synagogue there and it was a large town. Most of the houses were made of basalt rock so the stones are black. The streets are narrow through much of the town so any size group walking together would be squeezed in tight. There is a house of good size for the time right next door to the synagogue. I wonder if it was the home of the synagogue leader. It had four or five rooms in it. I can imagine a crowd in those streets jostling their way to the leader’s home.
And, I think of this woman and how her dignity had been stolen from her by illness. First, many in her society believed illness was a result of sin. Second, bleeding of whatever variety would be suspect-blood was revered and avoided-animals were bled before butchering, sacrificial blood flowed down the temple steps on the Day of Atonement, and women were unclean during their menstrual flow. Blood was considered the very life of a human and this woman’s life was ebbing away. Third, the woman had been treated poorly by health professionals-she had spent all she had seeking a cure. Fourth, she was a woman.
I believe Jesus stopped to question who had touched him because he wanted to restore her dignity. He did not make her a man but he offered her the opportunity to tell her story and express her faith. He was not going to move forward until someone fessed up to touching him and being healed. It was a crazy question, “Who touched me?” It was like that Roseanne episode when the main character talked about her mother going through her room when she was a teenager, “You couldn’t tell what had been touched because clearly, everything had been touched.” And, that was what the disciples were talking about-clearly, everyone has touched you as we walk along these narrow streets. So, there was a reason for Jesus to stop and ask a silly question: “Who touched me?” Then he kept scanning the crowd looking for the person. Who had been intentional in touching him? Who had drawn the power from him and been healed?
I do think it was about restoring this woman’s dignity. The crowd would hear her story-the 12 years of illness, the doctors, the poverty, the hope that just touching Jesus’ garment would heal her and now the healing. Jesus honored her and restored her self-esteem/her dignity by listening to and hearing her story. Now she could live as any other woman-she could go to the synagogue, the marketplace and she could even travel to Jerusalem and go to the temple. Her health was restored and so was her dignity.
I also believe part of the reason Jesus cleared everyone out of Jairus’ house was to restore the dignity of the little girl. Now she was dead, all these people were gathering to look at her and do the things people do when someone dies: “Didn’t she look good in the coffin-they did such a good job-don’t you think?” Can you imagine coming back from death and having the room full of people wailing and carrying on and talking about burying you? Far better a few kind men and your parents who are happy to see you alive and well and walking around the room. There was also the practicality of the room being small. The house next door to the synagogue in Capernaum does have 4 or five rooms but, it is still small and the rooms are small. Even the group of five people would have been a crowd in the girl’s room.
There is a song we used to sing at Christian Student Fellowship at Purdue that had a line, “And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride,…” [They’ll Know We Are Christians by Peter Scholtes (1966-CCLI 652330)]. It is good work in the church and the world to guard and restore the dignity of others.
At the last Fresh Start gathering I attended, we were working on a conflict management unit and one of our members shared some work she had done on dignity with Donna Hicks who has been negotiating with groups who are in conflict for over 20 years. After 20 years of traveling the world and sitting at tables with all kinds of people trying to negotiate peace agreements, Donna had a revelation. She realized that the reason people would often leave perfectly logical agreements on the table and refuse to see how those agreements met everyone’s needs was because people came to the table feeling their dignity had been stolen from them. So, Donna developed some workshops around restoring dignity. And, it worked better than logical concessions on both sides. Just as Jesus stopped and insisted on hearing this woman’s story-her story of how her dignity had been stolen from her; people who are at such odds with one another that they need an outside negotiator, can learn to see one another as a fellow human being if they take time to listen to one another’s stories of stolen dignity. There is so much value in hearing another person’s story-in really listening and then being able to tell your own story of lost dignity. We all have them.
So, how can we here at St. Mark’s “guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride”? Donna Hicks has developed ten essential elements of dignity that I will have available after the service for those who would like to look at them. She also has a list of ten temptations to avoid so we can maintain our own dignities-this is a two-way street. What I would like us to think about is how we, through daily interactions, steal other peoples’ dignity by simply ignoring their needs and their voices. Jesus stood face-to-face with the healed woman as an equal and listened to her story-he restored her dignity and her place in the city of Capernaum.