After years of economic growth and welfare, revolutionary changes in means of communication, we are confronted with the global financial crisis. While governments and the European Union are trying to their best to save the economies by transferring large sums of money to emergency funds, the production is decreasing, the unemployment is rising, the salaries and governmental subventions are decreasing and the poverty in Europe is increasing significantly. With this article, the author is looking if human dignity as a base for Christian Social and Christian Democratic teachings could give an answer to the nowadays challenges and how the basic values of human dignity can be reintroduced as an answer on the nowadays challenges.
By Leo van Doesburg (Regional Representative East Europe and Officer Networking & Relations of the European Christian Political Movement)
Edited by Auke Minnema
Right after the Second World War, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was established. After periods of conflicts and wars, a new era should start. A time of peace and stability where we should create a new economic community, “the basis for a broader and deeper community among peoples long divided by bloody conflicts and to lay the foundations for institutions which will give directions to a destiny henceforward shared.” To reach this target, France, Germany, Italy, Benelux (Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg) signed the Treaty to establish the ECSC and a “High Authority” in order to create and safeguard the new common market for Coal and Steel. This was not only seen as the foundation for the (nowadays) European Union, but also as a base of a new era focused on establishing an economic community “to preserve and strengthen peace and liberty, and calling upon the other people of Europe who share their ideal to join in their efforts.” Many of these ideals are realized. We are living in a global economic (European) community. In West Europe, there was peace and stability for more than half a century and borders were (even physically) taken away. After the fall of the communism also many East European countries joined the Union, hoping for the same stability and growth of economy and welfare and to join this ‘economic community’.
Critics to free market and capitalism
However, there are also critics to the focus on economic growth, free market and capitalism. Some people (mainly from the right part of the political spectrum) say that market forces destabilize the society, that they undermine the tradition and that they can corrupt culture. You see this especially in the East European countries that since 2004 have integrated in the European Union, or who will integrate soon. Aggressive lobby for liberal values from certain Western countries give the impression that economic integration also automatically means to give up certain (mainly Christian) traditional values. Other people (mainly from the left) believe that market forces oppress and alienate man, turning him into nothing more than a commodity that gets bought and sold on the open market.
These critics became very actual due to the effects of the financial crisis. Most of the people do not understand why the salaries are decreased, people are fired and governmental subventions are decreased; while governments spend a lot of money to save the banks in order to protect their economies. A big scandal recently appeared when certain financial institutions after they were financially saved by a government, paid a large sum of money as a bonus to their directors.
There is however one issue that both left and right have in common in their critics. “Each side of the spectrum voices important concerns that may be reduced to one much simpler: the fear that market forces treat people as objects, not as persons”. A central component of Christian Democratic teaching is however to “avoid objectifying man, how best to maintain a social order that retains both the dignity and the liberty of each individual, so that they may have the opportunity to develop their own accord following the footsteps of Christ.” If you take this into consideration then it is good to look carefully to these problems.
To find answers to the challenges of these times, we will look first to the question if there is a relation between the Christian values and the development of the free market and capitalism. After this we will look to human dignity as a base for the development of Christian Democracy and the historical development. The article will finish with the practical application of human dignity as basis for Christian Social and Democratic teachings on the nowadays challenges.
Christian heritage is the base of the success of the West
The most well-known sociologist of economics who investigated the relation between “religious convictions” and “economic systems” was Max Weber. He examined the interplay of religion and economics among many books in the history of various cultures. Weber suggest that Judeo-Christianity (in one of its forms) expectations in ways favorable is to economic development.
Although these conclusions have been debated for a longer time, it seems that recently the Chinese intellectuals came with the same conclusion: that the Christian heritage has made the West (economically) so successful. Former editor of the Sunday Telegraph Dominic Lawson carries a quote from a member of the Chinese academy of Social Sciences. He said: “One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. (…) We have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have doubt about this” . It is interesting that this is quoted by a representative of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences which is atheistic and actually is used a lot of time by the Chinese communistic government to persecute Christians. Lawson mentions in his review also the city of Wenzhou which is rated as the most entrepreneurial city in the country and has 1,400 churches. The first careful conclusion is that there might be a connection between the Christian moral fundament that made the emergence of capitalism possible. But what is this Christian moral fundament? Do we find this back in the Christian description of human dignity?
Human Dignity as base for capitalism?
Indeed, Weber’s work suggests an important angle of vision for approaching the topic of human dignity. His hypothesis was that Judeo-Christianity shaped human expectations in ways favorable to economic development. Professor Randall Collins (Sociologist, University of Pennsylvania), showed already how from about 1100 to 1350 A.D. the international system of Catholic monasteries put in place several important characteristics of a capitalist economy: an explosion of economically useful inventions, the rule of law, and a rationalized system of responsibilities, although economic achievements were not the main end of the monastic life. It is interesting how the monasteries and deaconates also contributed largely in the development and distribution of health care. They took seriously care of the dignity of the poor, the sick, the orphans and widows and offered those help, assistance. They also founded care and hospitals. Thanks to the conventuals the swamps in North Western Europe were cultivated and agriculture was developed. The era of the Reformation brought the consciousness of the personal responsibility and individual relationship to God, based on His Grace by applying the principles of the Holy Scriptures in the daily life of the believer under the attention. Martin Luther taught that labor, including manual labor was a noble calling, and that a person should apply himself and herself to that calling with a sense of worship for God. Therefore ‘work’ is seeing as a ‘calling’ or as a ‘vocation’. Work was therefore seen not as something inferior as the ancient philosophers believed, but a calling from God: to use our talents, to be creative and inventive. Work is using science in order to investigate God’s Creation in the honor of God and in this way to “build the Kingdom of God”. At the other hand, the love for money was seen as “greed” and as a substitute for God. Even nowadays it has a special name: “the Mammon”. In His famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his listeners to not “lay up treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven”. The call to creativity and inventiveness accounts for the dynamism of Jewish and Christian civilization, including economic dynamism. This was based on the fact that we are created in the image and likeness of God, our Creator. “The Lord God took Adam and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to take care of it” and brought all the beasts of the fields and the birds in the air to Adam “to see what he would name them and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name”.
In The Netherlands for example, the growth of entrepreneurship, saving money and not to waste money is still seen by many as a “Calvinistic” character. The renowned Christian theologian John Stott defines work as “the expenditure of energy in the service of others (mental or manual or both) which brings fulfillment to the worker, benefit for the community and the glory of God.” The fact that we are created in the image and likeness of our Creator and that work is therefore a “vocation” or a “calling” indeed gives openness for creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship but also that negatively is seen to “greediness” and “collecting treasures on earth”.
Human Dignity in the Enlightenment age
In the time of Enlightenment reason was advocated as the primary source for legitimacy and authority, also called ‘the Age of Reason’. The Enlightenment basically was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, morals, and a strong belief in rationality and science. Intellectual partisans of the Enlightenment were successful in pushing aside religious people by changing the rules to “Religion within the bounds of reason alone”. Among the key figures of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was probably the one who most clearly spoke to the concept of Human Dignity. He formulated Human Dignity as follows: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only”. In Kant’s formulation, this is a duty, a good to be pursued. This in contrast to the Judeo-Christian teaching “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” and “this commandment have we from Him, that He who love God, loves His neighbor”. However, hundreds millions of people in Europe died by violence by seeing people as means. In that century, the words Human Dignity has often sounded empty.
The term “Human Dignity”
The English word dignity is rooted in the Latin ‘Dignus’, “worthy of esteem and honor, due a certain respect, of weighty importance. Both Aristotle and Plato said that most humans are, by nature, slavish and suitable only to be slaves. Most do not have natures worthy of freedom and proper to free men. Therefore the term dignity was not used for all human beings, only for a few. In the middle Ages, dignity was embedded in the social position of the person. His dignity was directly in line with his relations to the other one in the total of predefined relations. The honor and dignity of a Knight for example was embedded in his loyalty to his liege and relatives; he would die for it. Thus there was no room for self-interpretation of his dignity as a human being (and the question is if the, people missed that in these times). However, it becomes clear that the ‘modernization’ of dignity has been a painful process that has been characterized by geographical, political, social and religious confrontations. In The Netherlands for example, the Republic of the Seven United Provinces asked for tolerance and freedom. People in Europe re-discovered that the Gospel asks for free commitment and not for slavish forced piety and the Enlightenment saw the realization that human dignity does not depend on accidental circumstances, but on a reasonableness coinciding with morality. The ‘discovery’ of other people ultimately underlined the view that every man, irrespective of skin color or culture, is entitled to dignity (although the general acceptance of it lasted several bloody centuries). ‘Dignity’ has gradually become the equivalent for ‘being human’ per se. To put it differently, ‘dignity’ became so directly associated with ‘humanity’ that both concepts became almost synonymous. Dignity supposes equality and equivalence (something is really human). On the other hand dignity for the modern man also has an inevitable connection with the concept of ‘individuality’ of each ‘individual’, with ‘being yourself’, with authenticity. The generalization of dignity resulted in particular in a claim to equal rights (‘our perfect right!’), individualization especially in the ideal –and/or destiny – of self-development (‘become who you are’). This resulted in the transition from ‘bread of mercy’ to ‘right’. People depend on the collective and no longer on the charity of the employer or the parish and of the charitable initiatives of ladies from the highest social circles. It is ‘their own right’. However, the question is to what extend this emphasis on formal equality really leads to a more humane society. We are now responsible for each other, but no longer to each other. Needs became rights. Although of course we do not want to go back to societies of poorhouses, it is still the question if we do not need more for being a dignified human and a humane society, than only equal rights. Even in the Enlightenment period, freedoms of the individual with ‘I can say what I think’ or ‘do what I want’ were not void. The individual human being itself was called to account for his duties and responsibilities, as a sensible, mature, moral and therefore free creature. Nowadays, we hardly experienced them as normative objectives, but chiefly as conditions for self-development, to do and not do whatever we seem proper. Freedom has to be defended, as well individual freedom. But what are the limits of the ‘individual freedom’? The ‘freedom to choose’? We are restricted in our self-development in numerous ways, not only by physical limitations (we cannot do everything at the same time), but also because of the fact that the appeal that individuals, communities and society make to us. In the modern idea, visiting a sick father could be seen as a limitation of the ‘self’. But even the brokenness of life plays a role in all this (how often do we not do the good that we want and do we do the evil that we do not want). Therefore there are questions and tensions about the limits of individual freedoms and individual rights. Does for example the right to choose for an abortion not conflict with the right of the unborn baby to live?
Catholic Social Thinking and Human Dignity
In the 18th and 19th century political changes and the industrialization brought many changes. There was a rapid urban growth, joblessness, and the destruction of the workers’ traditional organizations (such as the guilds) in the name of free competition. This provided some semblance of continuity and sense of security in the economic realm, but also family breakdown, poverty and other (social) problems. New solutions had to be found to secure the dignity of man that became more and more an empty word.
Pope Leo XIII was addressing the large social questions with a letter to the whole world in 1891: “the Rerum Novarum”, the Catholic vision of the ‘reconstruction of the social order’. This became known as the Catholic “middle-way”. He took Saint Thomas Aquinas as example to make a synthesis of faith and reason, grace and nature, Christianity and humanism. He established the idea that the church has a social doctrine. This flows from the fact that “man is being made in the image and likeness of his Creator”, that individuals should have a positive duty to change institutions etc. in an effort to uphold the dignity of man and that a theological ethic adequate to the “new things” of modern political and economic life should be developed. The Church took role as an overseer ensuring that the basic Christian values are applied to the realities of the modern world. Pope Leo XIII took the middle way between socialism and liberalism. He criticized the socialists (and upcoming communism) by saying that the man by nature has the right to possess property, the liberty to have an increasing stock and to save money for better conditions of life. Furthermore he criticized the socialism seeing everyone as equal because in his view it is harming the creativity of the human mind and the hard work. The difference with animals is that a human being is not living by the day, but is also increasing stock and work for the future. Last but not least, he was afraid that when the parent is setting aside and the government is taking it over, the State will exercise control over the family as basic cell in the society. Against the liberals he defends the dignity, the rights of every person, the obligations concerning his life, the roles in the society and that workers should not be seen as “capital”. The Human Dignity (as being created in the image and likeness of God) should have priority and should be embedded in certain rights, especially the protection of the right to found a family from “the cruelty of men of greed”.
Protestants and “the Social Problem and the Christian Religion
Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch theologian and politician, saw also the challenges of the industrial revolution by the late 1880s. He organized the first Christian Social Congress in the Netherlands, where he delivered a memorable speech, called the “Social Problem and the Christian Religion”, only months after Leo XIII had promulgated the Rerum Novarum. Kuyper argued that “religion is not one thing among many that autonomous people choose to do, but that it is rather the direction that human life takes as people give themselves over to the gripping power of either the true God”. This requires a total reaffirmation of one’s commitment to fellow man”. Similar to Leo’s call on individuals to the respect that their nature deserves to recognize their duties and to uphold their obligations to the poor as either their employee or employer, the implication Kuyper drew from his great truth and conveyed to his listeners was that all of life must be lived for God’s sake and from this comes our vocations and our responsibilities. Christians must not withdraw but must live with integrity and step forward to make distinctive contributions to the culture, the economy, political life, education, science, and the art of their day. All should be done in the service of God. Kuyper cited the French Revolution as the prime example of social reform when liberty in thought and action has been decoupled from truth and become distant from God. While the French revolution sees the authority based on free will, Kuyper sees that freedom and authority are bound together as being subject to the Creator and life on earth is part of an eternal existence (while the French revolution focused on temporary life). Kuyper expressed that the earth is a lost paradise and for that reason he calls us to humility and conversion. The French Revolution saw in the state of nature the criterion of what is normally human incited us to pride, and substituted the liberalizing of man’s spirit for the need of conversion. While Christianity focused on the love to others, the French Revolution was focused on egoism and passionate struggle for possessions. Finally he touched the real point that lies at the heart of the social problem, that Christian religion seeks personal human dignity in the social relationships of an organically integrated society. The French Revolution disturbed that organic tissue, broke those social bonds and left nothing but the monotonous, self-seeking individual asserting his own self-sufficiency. He founded therefore the Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP) that became the first party in The Netherlands based on (what would be later called) Christian Democracy. The government should respect and encourage the responsibility of all people and have the several sections of society do as much as possible on their own. The Christian Democracy choose the middle way between a (socialist) absolutism of the state in in which social life is authoritatively regulated and the liberal individualism in which the course of society is being left to the individual citizen. Man lives in a fundamental plurality of unique, specific relations and circles.
We saw that the basis for the Christian-Social and Christian Democratic thinking is found in the concept of human dignity that first appears in Genesis 1:26-30, where we read that God, our Creator created man and woman in His own image and likeness, setting them apart from the rest of the creation. Unlike other animals, man was given a rational intellect and a free will. He was made capable of knowing and loving his Creator and was appointed by Him as master of all earthly creatures that he might subdue them and use by using his gifts and talents for the community, the love of the other and respond-sibility towards God. At the other hand, we saw the influence of the Enlightenment that put the human being as a free individual and wanted to ban religion out of the public atmosphere. Based on the free individual the person may in all fairness decide what is the best for him and come to agreement on it with other free, autonomous, reasonable human beings, with whom he has agreed on a fictitious ‘social contract. The basic rules of such a social contract have been legally embedded in the constitutions and in the declarations on human rights. The 1948 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” mentions the ‘inherent dignity’ and thus ‘the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’. Even dictators, accused of crimes against humanity, who will be brought to justice before the international tribunals, enjoy these rights. We are thankful that these values have been formulated and that they appeal to individuals, cultures and people in a convincing way. Question only remains how far these freedoms go: the freedom of speech, freedom of religion? And what does equality mean exactly? Is equality the starting point or also an objective? By education? By leveling capital?
Therefore it is good to reintroduce the basic concept of Human Dignity. The recently established Human Dignity Institute introduced the “Universal Declaration for Human Dignity”. This declaration recognized the important role of the Christian Faith as basis for the “Imago Dei”. It focuses on the fact that the true nature of Man is that “he is not an animal, but a human being made in the image and likeness of God, his Creator” and “to which the moral sense testifies certain properties as being inalienable; indelible in every single human life from conception until natural death”. It gives the attention that these values are actually the base of the legal charters. Therefore Man’s Right should be recognized “as intrinsic to his being” (his ‘transcendent dignity’). It calls everyone (politicians, representatives of religious institutions and organizations and others) to recognize the source: that we ‘are created in the image and likeness of God, our Creator’. This is not only the base of the Christian Democratic thinking, but the base of the Western Civilization, a ‘historical collection of countries with strong identities formed and influenced through the Christian faith’.
This Article was published in ‘Sfera Politicii’ volume 157.
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