“In ourselves are the elements of the Divinity. God, then, does not sustain a figurative resemblance to [humankind]. It is the resemblance of a parent to a child, the likeness of a kindred nature.”
—William Ellery Channing (1828)
In family systems theory, there’s a concept called “the identified patient,” where the thing you think you’re talking about is a manifestation of a deeper issue. When congregants ask me whether Donald Trump has inherent worth and dignity, for example, I think there’s a bigger question at work: Can I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person when some people are intentionally cruel, and seem to derive great pleasure in the harm they cause?
When Channing helped theologically define American Unitarianism in the early 1800s, it was in sharp contrast to the Calvinist theology that dominated New England. Human nature, he argued, isn’t primarily sinful. If we’re “in the image of God,” then our core nature is holy. Sacred. Worthy. And he took the Biblical idea of our being “children of God” literally: our souls are literally made of the same “stuff” as God; we bear “the likeness of a kindred nature.”
Or to put it another way: you and everyone else on the planet are worthy by nature: you didn’t earn your worth, and you can’t lose it. Because you exist. Period. That’s what “inherent” means.
I want to believe what Channing preached. I find it liberating—healing, even. With all the messages telling me I have to earn my worth, that I’m not good enough, our claim of inherent worth has given me back my humanity again and again.
And it’s challenging—especially when I think of torturers and murderers, those who lead pogroms—but I defiantly do it anyway. To me, it’s about action more than beliefs: behaving as though. I get to choose whether or not I treat people as if they have value. I can choose to reject the lie that some people’s lives are more important than others—if for no other reason than to preserve my own dignity.
In a world where so many are dehumanized, where so many want to dehumanize me and those I love, I will be different. I won’t let them make me into their image. I aspire to conform to a higher image.
O Inner God, O Defiant Spark within Myself, still there even though at times everything tries to convince me to deny you; I feel crushed by the weight of all the cruelty and chaos in my world. Remind me there is more to me, to us, than this. May I stop being shaped by the mold of those who dehumanize. Free me, that I might grow instead into the likeness of Love beyond belief.