St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians that every person is God’s work of art and has dignity by virtue of being created in Christ Jesus.
Kenyan author, Margaret Ogola, tells us that unless we recognise that no individual can be replaced and has dignity by virtue of simply being conceived human, we cannot begin to talk about human rights.
The Universal Declaration on Human Rights popularised the use of the word dignity in the human rights discourse, but while it has played a pivotal role in the development of human rights, it contributes little to how they are interpreted.
In fact, the inability to concisely describe human dignity can allow for insidious interpretation.
In his first State of the Nation Address as president of The Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte spelled out clearly that human rights would not be allowed to stand in the way of what he sees as the wellbeing of the nation.
In effect, the president was telling his people that human rights would be replaced by privileges he attributes to them.
South African rights advocate, Christina Engela, asks, “Is human dignity and human life so cheap that the rights protecting it can be traded away to appease the appetite for intimidation and prejudice of a vicious and self-centred group—for whatever reason…?”
In much of Asia today the answer seems to be yes, as more and more the welfare of people is being placed at the service of ideology or, more commonly, the commodity trade.
But populations can become desensitised to the dignity of the person and unconsciously adopt the values of the tyrant. So how can the dignity in God’s work of art be kept in focus?
In this context, an advertisement promoting garden cemeteries by the Department of Food and Hygiene displayed at some bus stops around Hong Kong seems pretty harmless.
It proclaims scattering the ashes around a designated park as an environmentally friendly alternative to cemeteries or mausoleums, but more interestingly invites people to join the boundless and the free.
While the logic of this invitation is not immediately obvious, it rings of the manipulating image of the cowboy, cigarette in hand, riding off into the setting sun to the music of The Magnificent Seven, leaving a strong image of freedom while screening the reality.
An equally harmless looking document from the Vatican defending the Christian practice of burial or keeping ashes together was published last year. Within its stodgy wording it reinforces the belief that life is changed not ended, and promotes the designated resting place as an important part of keeping the dignity of the human person in focus.
While the government is hardly being tyrannical, we should question its claim to the high moral claim of protecting the environment—a moot point at best—as well as the come on to be boundless and free.
It may be well intentioned, but human dignity is not something suddenly removed, it is eroded over time and in a world where human rights are receiving less and less recognition, anything that chisels at the appreciation of the dignity of the person is at least a worry, as eventually rights can become something only to be bargained for.
Let’s be alert to small things and protect them while we can. JiM