People Are So Much More than their Circumstances
by Lisa Stiller
I recently had the awesome opportunity to attend the Religious Education Congress, an annual gathering of about 40,000 Catholics that come from all over the country and descend upon Anaheim, California. The event has grown from a conference aimed at religious education instructors to one that has something for everyone – social justice, meditation, spiritual practice, theology, and dance and song.
It was at this conference last month that my commitment to Catholic Social Teaching (CST) really became more than just an abstract “respecting the dignity of all people”- something that sounds good, something that feels good. I am a convert to Catholicism; one of its main attractions was CST, which its adherents call the church’s best kept secret.
CST’s core teaching is about the inherent dignity of the human person and his/her right to life, at all stages, from conception to natural death. In support of this, it teaches us that every person, on the basis of being a human being made in the image of God, is entitled to certain basic “goods,” which work to uphold his/her dignity and to support the “right to life.” These include food, health care, housing, employment, fair pay, clean water, etc.
Therefore, the providing for the “common good,” for the well-being of all (especially the poor and vulnerable) is also at the heart of CST; politically, policies that support the provision of those things that contribute to providing human dignity. Similarly, policies that promote peace and a chance for all to participate in the community also support the inherent dignity of the human person and the right to life.
So, intellectually and even intuitively, this all makes perfect sense. I did my RCIA (Rite of Catholic Initiation for Adults, the one to two years of classes and masses that adults have to go through to become Catholic) 20 years ago at that rare church in Las Vegas with a priest who lived and breathed social justice. CST was at the center of most of our weekly discussions. But last month, the teachings took on real meat, real meaning. It took three speakers to open my eyes to the true meaning of the truths behind the social teachings of the church.
I’ve heard Sr. Helen Prejean speak many times; she is an incredibly human, compassionate, and dedicated person. At the same time, amid her talks about horrible crimes, horrible conditions that death row and all prisoners endure, horrible court procedures that condemn innocent people to death, she manages to inject humor. Stories she has told before all come out sounding different each time she tells them. At the end of her talk at the Anaheim conference, after recounting stories about death row inmates that she has walked the journey with, including details about their crimes, St. Helen reminded us that despite their crimes, these were still “children of God.” As such, each had inherent human dignity.
She asked, “Where is the dignity in the death of Patrick?” This is the death row inmate who Dead Man Walking is based on. Even those who have “committed a horrible act should not have their dignity taken from them.” We concentrate on the crime of the death row defendant, making it easier to “put a monster to death” than a human being. It is this defining of a person by his/her crime, the dehumanization of those incarcerated, that allows us to turn our back to the humanity of the imprisoned. These people are more than their crimes, Prejean said. And they want to be seen as more than their crime.
Fr. Greg Boyle spoke at a workshop on his work with gang members, and how he is able to see the humanity in each. He told us how the young men and women he works with are so much more than their past. “I don’t believe that people are their worst mistakes,” said Javier Stauring, a former gang member who is now working to create peace in areas dominated by gangs. He encouraged listeners to “be there for someone going through a challenge,” to look beyond their crime, their addiction, their appearance, and give them “space to tell the stories of their pain.” In other words, to speak of who they really are.
Quoting from Desmond Tutu, Boyle added that there are “monstrous acts, not monsters.” “There are no evil doers – only human beings who carry more than the rest of us.”
Sister Kathleen Bryant, who works with women who have been trafficked, also reminded her audience that sex trafficked survivors want desperately to be seen as more than sex trafficking victims. Two survivors told stories of how they fell victim to sex traffickers, how long it took for them to make it out, how people never saw or heard them, and how they suffered the bias and rejection common to many sex trafficked survivors. They were “unseen,” and when they finally got out, struggled for acceptance as someone other than how their past defined them. Even in the church. “Survivors are more than survivors,” said one.
Walking out of that last session, I realized that although I had just heard three different stories, they could have all been speaking with one voice. Catholic Social Teaching centers on the dignity of the individual, the inherent dignity of the individual. Human dignity remains intact in spite of people’s decisions, actions, the tragedies they fall victim to. It transcends them.
I thought about how easy it is to assign a person an adjective, as opposed to assigning their actions an adjective. To protect that human dignity, to assure it, the church calls for us to advocate for the common good – especially for the poor and vulnerable. Sr. Helen and Fr. Boyle reminded us that the Gospels preach care for the poor and the oppressed, and that Pope Francis has taken up that call. I thought of how the “victims” or “survivors” of incarceration, gangs, sex trafficking all called for the same things: education, jobs, a way out of the poverty that worked to such them back into the streets. Those things that we are called to advocate for, as they are essential to human dignity.
Seeing the human person, not the crime, the action, the victim. People are so much more than their circumstances. And I realized that if I can do the hard work of seeing this in people, than it follows that all people, no matter what they have done or where they have been, have the same right to life that human dignity dictates. From conception to natural death.
Gives some more depth, and new insight, into what the Consistent Life Ethic is all about.