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The First Principle

We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

In Our Seven Principles in Story and Verse (Skinner House Books, 1997), Ken Collier writes, "Consider then the first of these Principles: that we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It does not say the inherent worth and dignity of people with whom we happen to agree or whom we like. It says every person. It does not say the inherent worth and dignity of like-minded people, or people who are willing to enter into rational, civilized discourse with us. It does not say people with whom we may disagree, but who are as honorable and as genuine in their beliefs as we are in ours. It says every person. We are also called to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of people whom we thoroughly dislike, people whom we find obnoxious, obstreperous, overbearing, and frightening; people whom we find abhorrent and whose beliefs and behavior we find disgusting; even people who would deny, silence or destroy us. This principle calls on us to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and it does not admit exceptions."

Reflection Questions

  • Have you ever had to support, teach, coach, guide, follow, share cubicle space near or live next door to someone you've found to be "obnoxious, obstreperous, overbearing...frightening"? How did you respond?
  • What helped?
  • What got in the way of your best intentions?
  • What gives you the moral strength to allow "no exceptions" to this first principle?

The concept of "inherent worth and dignity" has a long history in Jewish and Christian theology, going back to "Imago Dei", the concept that each individual is created in the image of God. More recently, religious humanists such as the Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz have observed that there is no such thing as inherent worth other than what human beings agree there is. Our job, humanists say, is to courageously and unflinchingly defend the advances made in the area of human rights so that we "help to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice."

  • Where do you believe inherent worth comes from?
  • What does your belief compel you to do about this?
  • What organizations do you support that are engaged in this work?
  • How do you keep yourself going? What keeps you from burning out?

Spiritual Practices

If you'd like to increase your moral capacity around this, there are a number of spiritual qualities, such as forgiveness, understanding, respect, humility, forbearance and kindness that each of us can cultivate. Engaging in a spiritual practice enables us to cultivate these qualities in ourselves, and also to respond with compassion and respect to people who are slightly, or perhaps very different from us. A spiritual practice creates a capacity in us that enables us to make a significant contribution to our family and community, even helping "to bend the moral arc of the universe...". A spiritual practice can help us be more centered, grounded and effective, and can help our families and communities become more peaceful, fair places.

In his book, The Energy of Prayer (Paralax Press, Berkeley, 2006), Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, offers a meditation practice of that begins with breathing and smiling as a way to center ourselves in the present and find compassion for ourselves. The practice progresses gradually until we are able to deeply see reality from another person's perspective, especially those people who have harmed us. When we are able to take care of ourselves, and stay responsively in relationship with others, we become powerful activists for peace.

An ancient Christian prayer practice invites us to meditate on a word or phrase as we slowly breathe. If you'd like to try this, find a quiet spot in which to sit for five or ten minutes. While slowing breathing in for a count of four, contemplate a phrase such as, "inherent worth." While exhaling to a count of four, contemplate words such as, "every person." If your mind wanders during your breathing time, gently bring it back to just these words. After your sitting time is finished, take another ten minutes to journal about whatever comes to mind. You can gradually lengthen your time of prayer over the course of a couple weeks, but it's best to begin with a briefer time.

Children's Version of the First Principle

We believe each and every person is important

An ancient story from the Christian tradition tells us when Jesus was asked which of all the laws of Torah was most important, he responded, "love God and love our neighbor." When asked, "So then, who is our neighbor?" Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan.

Parents: Begin a discussion by telling the story (Luke 10:25-37) —or ask your children to tell the story.

Questions for preschool age children

  • Who is your friend?
  • What do you like about him or her?

Parents: let your children know what behavior you expect of them. Children can think better within guidelines than in a vast, empty field of possibility. Before you convey to your kids what you believe about such things as differences, you may first have to do some inner searching.

Questions for older children

  • Have you ever reached out to a new kid at school? If yes, why? If not, why not? What's hard about reaching out? Who or what stops you?
  • How would you want to be treated if you were in the same situation?
  • How can you look to find the good in this situation? What could you do to act on that?
  • What would help you feel strong in this kind of situation?

Parents: let your children know what behavior you expect of them. Children can think better within guidelines than in a vast, empty field of possibility. Before you convey to your kids what you believe about such things as differences, you may first have to do some inner searching.

Questions for Teens

Teens are beginning to develop the ability to wrestle with more complex areas of moral life. They might be ready for conversations about how we live our first principle when we deal with people who have committed a crime. This principle is actually the basis for human and civil rights.

  • Does regard for someone's inherent worth and dignity require that we tolerate all their behaviors?
  • How does this playing out in family relationships?
  •  How does it show up at school? In the world?
  • Where do you find the strength to follow through on your beliefs?

Parents: if you say grace before meals or bedtime prayers, this can be a time for lifting up and giving thanks for the goodness of differences, as well as a time to ask for help or offer a positive intention to deal with the issues that differences also sometimes bring us. Voicing the intention to act on behalf of goodness, love, peace and wholeness is a very powerful thing for both humanists and theists to do.

Resources

The Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance has excellent resources for all ages for understanding and appreciating difference, including reflection questions for exploring the roots of bias and prejudice. In particular, search for the articles called “How do parents’ own biases impact their children ?” and “A Reflection Exercise”. This resource is useful for all adults, not just parents.