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‘The dignity of every human being’: The constitutive Baptismal Covenant

It’s not too much to say that the 1979 Book of Common Prayer’s Baptismal Covenant is (or at least was meant to be) a constitutive document. I rather like that word, constitutive. I had an office-mate in grad school who seemed to work it into every imaginable conversation (which always reminded me of an old Kids in the Hall sketch and the potential for obfuscating academic language).


At any rate, one doesn’t have to master French philosophy to understand that constitutive is an adjective implying an organizing principle: describing the Baptismal Covenant as constitutive means that it governs (or at least should govern) how we live as a body; it determines our culture. That does not, I hasten to add, exclude other texts/sources from having a constitutive status — canonical Scripture and the creeds being fairly obvious examples. The problem, though, is that the Baptismal Covenant is idiosyncratic, its liturgical use limited to the Episcopal Church in the United States, and therefore as a constitutive document it may pose problems for claims of catholicity, even among other Anglicans.

For this post, though, I would like to put those problems aside, assume that the text is constitutive (there’s that word again), and tease apart what I suspect is the favorite element of the covenant for many Episcopalians — the final question, and specifically the final part of the final question: Will you respect the dignity of every human being?

My thesis is simple: baptismal covenants of any stripe ought to place Christians in an alt-culture (another fun word floating around in our lexicon), and this final question in the Baptismal Covenant succeeds in a staggering and costly way. What does it really mean to say that we will respect the dignity of every human being?

On July 26, a man in Tokyo broke into a home for the disabled and murdered 19 human beings. Before heading out that night, he wrote a letter to the Japanese government outlining that this was for the best, that it was the ethical thing to do, citing the inability of the disabled to participate fully even in domestic work or social life.

It’s easy for us to dismiss him as a maniac, but hear “the logic”: the worth of human persons is defined by their ability to produce, what they contribute to the greater good, their strength. According to this view, human worth is not inherent or essential. In a similar way, reports are emerging that radical terrorists in the Middle East are murdering newborns with Down’s syndrome or other disabilities. Again, the perspective is that human worth — dignity — is measured by ability.

If we boil these stories down to the operative logic of the players, it appears that Western culture is not all that different: in the United States human worth is regularly determined by strength, charisma, intellect, productivity. Those who can’t feed themselves, can’t care for themselves, and certainly the unborn are liabilities; their dignity regularly comes under scrutiny. Even if we do provide for the elderly; even if we don’t abort the unborn child; even if we do offer shelters for gay and lesbian homeless teenagers; even if we don’t deport those with strange accents — simply having the option to do otherwise means that, functionally, the dignity of these human beings is in question. Our utilitarianism is simply less spectacular and more prosaic.

Buying into the Baptismal Covenant has a deeper cost, though, than allowing the stranger to live and work among us or funding crisis pregnancy centers that eliminate the crisis instead of the pregnancy. Those are the practical consequences. The deeper cost is our idolatry. Deep beneath this utilitarianism — whether spectacular or not — is the conviction that all our resources are our own.

The narrative runs like this: we earned those resources; we will do with them as we think best. And this includes our time, our energy, our money, even our love. This thinking operates out of fear and a sense of scarcity; we hoard “our” resources. Even though we pay lip service to God, he is not much more than a fairy tale, a bit of culture at best that really just reinforces nativism and tribalism. I think this partly explains the rash of zombie shows and movies: it comes down to who is worth that last bit of food and who needs to be cut loose for the good of the rest of the survivors. When one starts to see this, it becomes clear that idolatry is present. The false god is our strength, our abilities, our potency and potential.

When we say that we believe that every human being has dignity in fact we are laying on the altar the lie — the fairy tale — that we earned our resources by the sweat of our brow; we sacrifice the pretense of autonomy. When we say those words of the Baptismal Covenant we are in effect saying that our money, time, and energy have been given to us by God who not only exists but is sovereign.

The last question of the Baptismal Covenant is in fact related to the first question: Do you believe in God? And to make the point that I hope is already bubbling up in the mind of anyone who knows the narrative of Scripture, this is the same God who made humanity in his own image and likeness (Gen. 1:27), the same God who knew us in our mother’s womb when we didn’t even know ourselves (Jer. 1:5, Ps. 139:13). This is the same God who scatters the proud, exalts the meek, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:45-55). When we say we will respect the dignity of every human being we sacrifice the lie that we are gods. We lay down the myth that we are in charge rather than stewards of every cent, every morsel of bread, every breath God has lavished upon us since we emerged from the womb.

And all this is constitutive for those of us who say those radical words: We will respect the dignity of every human being.


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