Day after day, the screens of our electronic devices are filled with images and reports that are hard to view. Racial hatred bursting out in shouting matches and even violence. Distraught and exhausted refugees fleeing nations devastated by violence and war. Children as young as 11 or 12 being bought and sold for sex. These images can be dismaying or even paralyzing.
In his book, The Dignity Revolution, Daniel Darling offers an antidote. He presents readers with a vision of how to understand such scenes and take meaningful action in response. He argues that the answer lies in fully embracing the concept of human dignity, and he calls for us to join him in a revolution to protect the dignity of all humans in a comprehensive way:
Imagine, for a moment, if God’s people began to lead a new, quiet revolution whose foundation was a simple premise: every human being—no matter who they are, no matter where they are, no matter what they have done or have had done to them—possesses dignity, because every human is made in the image of God. By God’s grace, our churches would change, and our communities would change.
Darling’s book begins by considering some foundational questions: What does it mean to be human? In particular, what does it mean to be made in God’s image? As image bearers, why do we so often act to dehumanize others? What role does our sin nature play in all of this? How, as citizens of God’s kingdom, can we imitate our king and promote dignity in our world? The remainder of the book applies the foundational principles to a wide variety of issues, including race relations, abortion, euthanasia, criminal justice, health care, sex and marriage, use of technology, work and vocation, aging and death, and many more.
A Comprehensive Approach
As is apparent, Darling’s treatment of human dignity is wide-ranging. This is one of the book’s great strengths. For many years, evangelicals have proudly touted their pro-life credentials in opposing abortion and euthanasia. Darling applauds this but insists that we must affirm the dignity of all humans in every area of life.
Darling’s approach is comprehensive in two ways. First, as one can see from the list of topics above, he is not content to discuss dignity only in areas traditionally viewed as “life issues.” Second, he insists on making all the relevant connections between those topics. Take, for instance, his very thoughtful approach to end-of-life issues. As one would expect in a book about human dignity, Darling discusses euthanasia and the concept of “death with dignity.” But that provides a launching point to go much deeper into the way we view death—and our treatment of the elderly. He rightly notes that “when we prioritize youth and attractiveness and marginalize the elderly, we are communicating a message that is far different than the Christian gospel.” He goes on to discuss how we should approach illness and access to health care. In this and other chapters, Darling warns that we must not compartmentalize and apply dignity only to our pet topics.
Now, the breadth of the discussion at times leads to one of the book’s weaknesses. In an effort to be all-encompassing, Darling occasionally sacrifices needed depth. A good example of this comes in Chapter 6, titled “Frenemies.” In it, he leads readers through a dizzying range of topics related to our justice system, from racial disparity in sentencing to gun rights, retribution, restorative justice, prison conditions, the death penalty, immigration, and human trafficking. He offers interesting insights into all of these subjects, but for the most part, they don’t really get the in-depth treatment they deserve.
Darling promises to handle the hot-button issues of the day in a non-partisan way: “This book is not about right or left.” And he delivers. While it is apparent that Darling begins with some core convictions that have been traditionally labeled conservative, he works hard to rise above partisanship, and he urges readers to do the same. He regularly—and wisely—warns readers to guard against blind spots and to apply a consistent dignity-affirming approach to all issues. So, for example, while addressing something as polarizing as abortion, he urges us to “consider the ways in which economic structures and health-care policies might work against a culture of life and squeeze the poor or isolated into situations where abortion seems the only option.”
The Dignity Revolutiondisplays a helpful balance on many issues. So, for example, it affirms restorative justice without ignoring the biblical principle of just deserts in sentencing. It touts the benefits of capitalism while warning of its drawbacks, including how it “can often incentivize greed and leave many behind.”
Throughout the book, Darling refuses to let readers be comfortable with adopting the traditional beliefs of a particular group or political party. In an excellent foundational chapter on the kingdom of God, Darling reminds us that our identity as Christians is not American or Republican or Democrat. It is citizens of the kingdom of God. This has implications. First, it is the kingdom of God—and not any earthly tribe—from which we must take our values. Further, as we wait for the kingdom to come in its fullness, we are to imitate our king, caring for and elevating the most ignored and rejected people in society. As we do, we become “a powerful witness to the nature and reality of the kingdom of God.”
Remembering Our Fallenness
Knowing that the book takes on such a host of important and controversial issues, readers might be tempted to neglect the first three foundation-laying chapters and skip ahead to the more provocative discussions. They shouldn’t. The early chapters are among the richest in the book. Beyond exploring the implications of living as citizens of God’s kingdom, Darling lays out a compelling and thorough understanding of what it means—and why it matters—that we are made in God’s image. And he strongly roots our dignity in that image. While this may sound obvious to some, this is by no means a universally held view. For many, dignity is something that is earned or grasped. As Ron Highfield notes in his book God, Freedom, and Human Dignity, the prevailing view today is “the more self-sufficient and self-defining we are, the more dignity we have.”
How one defines dignity matters greatly when we consider, for example, the status of unborn children or adults with dementia. Do they have full dignity? Are they entitled to full rights as humans? People as influential as Princeton ethicist Peter Singer say “no,” arguing instead for a sliding scale of moral status that varies based on such attributes as cognitive ability, self-consciousness, self-awareness, and the capacity to suffer or enjoy life. The meaning and source of dignity are crucial.
Perhaps most importantly, The Dignity Revolution affirms human dignity without ignoring sin and human depravity. This is a critical insight, because Darling is not the only one today urging us to embrace the concept of human dignity. Movements for human rights regularly affirm human dignity, but often without an understanding of the depth of human fallenness. The result is a utopian attempt to create a world of universal respect and care merely by affirming more entitlements and establishing well-intentioned, but deeply flawed, international bodies.
One of the most recent examples was the UN General Assembly’s Declaration on the Right to Peace. The Declaration insists that each of us is entitled to enjoy “not only the absence of conflict,” but also “a positive, dynamic, participatory process where dialogue is encouraged,” where “conflicts are solved in a spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation,” and where “socio-economic development is assured.” This is a lovely aspiration for any society, of course, but hardly the sort of thing any government or international body could guarantee as a “right.” By affirming human dignity while also realizing we live in a fallen world, Darling avoids the futility of such a utopian quest.
Readers of a more activist disposition will occasionally wish that Darling had devoted more space to possible next steps. After all, the book is calling for a revolution. So while each chapter contains suggestions for how individuals and churches can apply the principles discussed, some discussions beg for more. For instance, in a compelling discussion of race, Darling notes how different many of our churches look from the multi-ethnic people from every tribe, language, and nation that God is gathering to himself. While Darling offers good insights about how to approach race, ideally, he would have included some concrete suggestions on how churches can become more multi-ethnic or at least partner with churches of a largely different race.
But overall, The Dignity Revolution is an excellent book. It offers a thoughtful, engaging, gospel-centered, and fresh approach to many challenging issues confronting us. I’m confident that believers who heed its message will be better equipped to help shape a world where God’s image is honored in all who possess it.
Jeffrey Brauch teaches at Regent University School of Law, where he directs the Center for Global Justice, Human Rights & the Rule of Law. He is the author of Flawed Perfection: What It Means to Be Human and Why It Matters for Culture, Politics, and Law (Lexham Press).