Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Independence Day And Human Dignity

By FATHER WILLIAM J. BYRON,SJ; CNS | Published July 1, 2004

Some of us can remember dealing with the childhood challenge of distinguishing “independents” from “independence.” Having worked that issue through in homework assignments, we came each summer to the annual Fourth of July observance ready to celebrate our independence as independent citizens of “the greatest country in the world.”

Being independent is the goal of every human person; enjoying independence is the hope of virtually every nation. But it is important to remember that all humans are, in fact, dependent. We depend on God for existence. We depend on others for the protection of life and provision of love. Dependency is part of the human condition.

So when we independents celebrate our independence, we have to remember our constant dependence on God and others, and our duty to live accordingly.

Sadly, as we all know, some people are forced to surrender their independence as a consequence of crimes committed. We call them “criminals.” We take away their freedom, but we cannot (and should never want to) take away their dignity. Imprisonment happens in both war and peace. Whenever it happens, the captive retains possession of his or her fundamental human dignity.

We know that all of us are free to use our freedom badly. There are times when we break away from God, and there are occasions when we violate the dignity of others, as happened this past year in Iraq.

Independence Day 2004 in the United States will be observed under a cloud. The abuse, by a handful of Americans, of captives in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq is, for all of us, a national disgrace. What happened there is outrageous and unjust, it is sinful and criminal. As a result, our July 4 observance this year should include national prayer for forgiveness.

Underlying the independence that we cherish in America is the principle of human dignity. This is a foundational principle of all ethical systems; it is the bedrock principle of Catholic social teaching. The scandal of Abu Ghraib is just one more sign of the growing disregard for human dignity that is happening in American life.

Yes, the vast majority of men and women in the military are principled persons who are respectful of the rights and dignity of others. Yes, outrageous assaults on human dignity happened under the rule of Saddam Hussein and would still be happening if he were in power. Yes, we should have fun on July 4 as we celebrate our independence and remember with gratitude the revolutionaries who brought it about.

But we cannot forget Abu Ghraib. Nor can we escape our obligation to repent the sinful assaults on human dignity by Americans in Iraq as well as in places much closer to home.

Look at our own prisons, hospitals, workplaces, schools and inner-city neighborhoods. Look at our entertainment, advertisements, films, popular art and music. There is much there to be admired, but there is also evidence that respect for human dignity is on the wane.

What can we do about this?

Prayer and penance will help. So will a conscious effort to associate the idea of independence with human dignity. Where human dignity is violated, human independence is diminished.

If we permit respect for human dignity to continue to erode in America, we will have progressively less to celebrate on future Independence Days.