I stand out on the streets of Mexico. I’m tall; they’re short. I’m light-skinned; they’re dark. I speak with a strange accent — they see lots of German tourists in this little Zapotec town, so most people figure I must be German.
When I walk down the street and see someone approaching, their eyes are usually cast downward. Their face gives no hint of their thoughts.
But if I nod and smile and greet them with “Buenos dias,” the mask falls away. They lift their eyes and cheerfully return my smile and my greeting. The transformation is remarkable.
I’ve been thinking about the concept of dignity. The word comes to us from Latin and means “having intrinsic worth.”
Americans wrote the principle of human dignity into our Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal” and “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” In other words, humans have intrinsic worth.
We know, of course, that America hasn’t always lived up to that ideal. Slavery comes to mind, and the denial of the vote and basic civil rights to women and blacks.
Over the centuries following the Spanish conquest, Mexicans had it drilled into them that they are not intrinsically valuable. The Spanish were very class-conscious and created a race-based political hierarchy to keep people in their proper places. The gachupines were at the top — these were pure-blooded Spaniards who came to New Spain from Old Spain. Next were the criollos, children of gachupines unfortunate enough to have been born in Mexico. Then mestizos, children born of illegitimate relationships between Spanish men and Indian women. Lowest on the scale were the pure-blooded indios like the Zapotecs I pass on the street.
Everyone knew his proper place. How far you might rise was strictly limited by your racial heritage. Only gachupines served at the highest levels of government.
Which makes it all the more amazing that after winning independence from Spain and struggling to create a constitutional democracy, a man rose from Governor of Oaxaca to Supreme Court Justice to President of Mexico — Benito Juárez, a full-blooded Zapotec Indian and one of Mexico’s greatest presidents.
This long history of human oppression and class division — the absence of dignity — explains my interactions on the street. If I forget to greet someone, I’m implying that they are beneath me. If I greet them, it suggests that I see them as equals.
In America, as I said, we’re supposed to have settled the question of human dignity. But I sometimes wonder. We always address doctors and politicians by their titles. Is there something there that suggests they are intrinsically more valuable than the rest of us?
CEOs and movie-stars get red-carpet service at the best restaurants and hotels. Is it only because their credit cards have no limits? The intelligentsia of literature and art and philosophy receive fawning treatment in the New York Times. Is the message that these are the people we should all strive to be like?
Sperm banks are classifying their donors by IQ and idealized physical features, why? Because “average” is less worthy than “exceptional”?
There are millions of invisible men and women in America; we barely notice them, barely acknowledge their presence. I’m talking about the elderly man who hands out shopping carts at Wal-Mart, the teen-aged girl who takes orders at McDonalds, the dark-skinned foreigner behind the counter at the gas station, the waitress, the taxi driver, the guy who cuts your grass or parks your car or swipes your credit card at Barnes & Noble.
Every day we have brief encounters with dozens of anonymous men and women, and for the most part we treat them as if they are beneath us, as if they have no dignity, no intrinsic worth.
Why is that?
And how might we approach these people differently? What does the acknowledgment of dignity from one human being to another look like in actual practice?
Perhaps something like this?
Then they reached Jericho, and as Jesus and His disciples left town, a large crowd followed Him. A blind beggar named Bartimaeus (son of Timaeus) was sitting beside the road. When Bartimaeus heard that Jesus of Nazareth was nearby, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
“Be quiet!” many of the people yelled at him.
But he only shouted louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
When Jesus heard him, He stopped and said, “Tell him to come here.”
So they called the blind man. “Cheer up,” they said. “Come on, He’s calling you!”
Bartimaeus threw aside his coat, jumped up, and came to Jesus.
“What do you want Me to do for you?” Jesus asked.
“My rabbi, ” the blind man said, “I want to see!”
And Jesus said to him, “Go, for your faith has healed you.”
Instantly the man could see, and he followed Jesus down the road. — Mark 10:46-52, NLT
Photo credit: Wayne State University library