Justice: On Dignity



This post is the tenth in our series this month on the spiritual practices of activism
that are rooted in and enhance our faith lives.

Dignity—the quality of being worthy of honor and respect. -Merriam-Webster Online


We stood in the center of the Piazza Santissima Annunziata, in Florence, Italy, the square that sits a few short blocks from the Duomo. The local guide pointed across the square to a long, majestic, eight-columned building. “That,” she said, “is the Spedale degli Innocenti, which means the ‘Hospital of the Innocents.’ It is a prime example of Rennaisance.”

Piazza della Annunziata à Florence / Ospedale degli Innocenti de Brunelleschi

Our guide delved into the history of the building, informed us that in the fifteenth century, orphaned and vulnerable children were exploited and uncared for. “Unwanted babies,” she said, “were either pitched into the Arno River under the cover of night, or were otherwise left to the animals in the countryside. So, in 1419, the Florentine silk-guild commissioned the design of the hospital from renaissance architect, Filippo Brunnelleschi.” She claimed that the hospital was the first orphanage in Europe, and there, abandoned or orphaned children were equipped to rejoin society.

One asked how the orphanage received abandoned or relinquished children. “Ah,” she said, pointing her finger upward. “This is most interesting.”

There was a wheel attached to the outer wall of the orphanage, the “foundling wheel.” One half of the wheel was on the inside of the orphanage, and the other half protruded through the outer wall. There was a hole in the wall, which was only large enough for a baby. As it’s said, a Florentine mother who could no longer care for her baby could place the baby on the outer portion of the wheel, and spin him discretely into the orphanage. This kept the identity of the mother concealed, guarded her from the stigma of relinquishing her child. She looked at us, squinted for emphasis, and said, “this was about protecting the dignity of the mother, see.”


If the work of justice and mercy is worth it—and I believe it is—questions of dignity and mercy rise to the fore. Yes, there are vulnerable children to protect; there are human rights worth championing. But the ways in which we engage in social activism are important.

We are champions of dignity.

Those of us who adhere to the Christian faith follow the teachings of Jesus, who said, “[b]e merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) This, I think, is less of a pie-in-the-sky request, and more of a dignity demand. And the mercy, I think, is not just relegated to those who are the direct recipients of the justice-effort, but also to those well-acquainted with the plight of the recipient.

When you work with orphans and vulnerable children, consider the dignity of a relinquishing mother; protect her dignity and be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

When you consider bringing Christmas cheer to impoverished children in your community, remember the dignity of the parents and be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

When you raise your voices and fists for the plight of the oppressed, consider less the solving of perceived (or real) social-blights; consider more the humanity behind the ill and be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

This is, I think, a lodestar principal of justice and mercy work. Perhaps this is a given, a sort of “duh, Seth” moment. But let me suggest a sort of exercise. Grab a pen and scrap piece of paper (a journal is even better). Consider your particular efforts toward justice; consider your activism. Now, write the categories of each person affected by your work. For instance, within the context of orphan care, you might write the following: the child, the relinquishing mother, the child’s original community, and the adopting parent. Now, consider the following question—how do we extend mercy to each group while working for justice? How do we engage in the work bearing dignity?

You are the champions of dignity. Be merciful, as your Father is merciful.


Seth Haines is a prolific writer. In addition to the thoughts on his blog, he is the channel editor of A Deeper Church, which is a part of A Deeper Story. He is also a regular contributor at Tweetspeak Poetry, and currently working on a novel.

He is husband Amber Haines, also a writer, and the father of four boys. He enjoys good sentences, good music, good food, and good fly fishing.

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