Our dignity is grounded upon Jesus becoming one of us
7 MINUTE READ
What is it about poo?
I was working as a surgical assistant for an orthopaedic surgeon at a joint replacement operation. When the operation was over and as the patient was waking up, the patient was covered in poo. She must have soiled herself when she was under general anaesthetic.
At that stage, the surgeon jokingly yelled out, “We have a Code Brown!”
The whole room—doctors, nurses—screamed, “Eeew!”
It was a moment for a few laughs and giggles. Then, we all looked at each other. The laughing stopped. Who was going to clean up the poo? None of us wanted to be the one cleaning up.
Now, this is when the pecking order in the operating room becomes obvious. The surgeon, at the top of the pecking order, will never be the one to clean up the poo. This job is too degrading. This lowly job goes to the person at the bottom of the pecking order. The least important person in the room—ME!—cleans up the poo.
But really, what is it about poo?
We are trained healthcare professionals. We’ve seen things no one else gets to see: blood, brains, bile. We’ve done things that no one else gets to do: burr holes, intubations, chest tubes. We’ve handled things that no one else gets to touch: cadavers, kidneys, livers. We are desensitized to generally everything. Everything, except poo. There is still a “yuck factor” when it comes to poo.
That’s why we use clumsy, comical and sanitized words to describe poo: opening your bowels, bowel motion, defaecation. We just can’t bring ourselves to say the word, “poo”.
“We’ve handled things that no one else gets to touch: cadavers, kidneys, livers. We are desensitized to generally everything. Everything, except poo.”
It’s not just doctors and nurses. Everyone finds poo disgusting. For example, when we travelled Japan, we discovered that the toilets there played music. The music was to cover up the sound of you doing a poo. It’s not just the sight and smell of poo that’s disturbing. It’s also the sound!
By now, we all agree, poo is disgusting, disturbing and degrading, right?
Here’s the thing. When Jesus Christ came to us as a human, he didn’t just come to us as a human. He came to us as a baby. A baby covered in poo.
Jesus could have come to us as a fully-grown adult. Walking. Talking. Continent.
But, the Son of God, at the top of the pecking order, came to us as a baby. Not Walking. Not Talking. Not continent … covered in poo. In this way, Jesus affirms our human condition. All humans have dignity, no matter what stage or state of life we find ourselves in. Each and every human person, from the greatest to the least, is a person of infinite dignity. This has huge repercussions for all of life.
Human dignity is the basis of what we do and think. It’s why we treat humans differently from a donkey, dolphin, or dog. It’s why we say humans are the good guys and the coronavirus is the bad guy. It’s why we say George Floyd did not deserve to die the way he did. It’s why we march for justice and cry out, “Black Lives Matter” and “#MeToo.” It’s why we champion the cause of the weak, the marginalised and the oppressed. It’s why we give aid to refugees, orphans and the homeless.
“Human dignity is the basis of what we do and think. It’s why we treat humans differently from a donkey, dolphin, or dog.”
So, where do we get this human dignity from? If it wasn’t for Jesus, it’s hard to pin down a basis for it.
If we say a human is dignified because of what we can do, such as write, talk, communicate and think, then this is an achievement view of personhood.1,2 We become human doers rather than human beings. Suddenly our dignity becomes precarious. It’s only as good as what we can do. And what happens when we can’t do these things? Like when we’re babies, or we have disabilities, or a brain injury, or coming to the end of our life? Why should I champion the cause of the jobless or the wheelchair-bound? Why do I seek to protect the vulnerable, those in nursing homes, hospitals, or detention centres? We need something more than our achievements as our basis for human dignity.
Or, if we say a human is dignified because of who we are; for example, a mother, daughter, Australian, then this is an acquirement view of personhood.1,2 Our status is conferred upon us by our identity, our tribe and our relationships. Our dignity here is also precarious. It’s only as good as my tribe or relationships. But what happens when we don’t have these things? Like when we’re single, divorced, shunned, cancelled, or shamed? If dignity is about acquirement, why should I champion the cause of the refugee, orphan, or homeless person? We need something more than our identity as the basis for human dignity.
Finally, if we say a human is dignified because of human rights; for example, every human has inherent rights to education, health and justice, then this is a conferred view of personhood1,2. We are appealing to conventions such as the United Nations Charter. But here our dignity is just as precarious. It’s only as good as those who agree to the convention. After all, what is a human right? What does it look like? Can you show me a molecule of human rights? In the end, it’s an arbitrary social construct. Some say, it’s a Western construct. Worse, there are others who say that it’s another form of Western cultural imperialism forced upon the rest of the world.
So where do we go from here? We go back to Jesus Christ. We go back to the Son of God, who came to us as a baby. Not a genius baby. No. Jesus came to us as a baby who cannot talk, could not talk, could not walk, and could not hold in his poo. The incarnation of Jesus is the basis of human dignity. And the incarnation of Jesus as a baby covered in poo is the basis of the dignity of every human—regardless of what they can or cannot do.
Now, for a long time, my wife and I decided not to have any children. People asked me why? One of my answers, which was only half a joke, was, “I don’t want to change their nappies.” People usually replied, “Oh, but it’s different when it’s your own child.”
My response was, “How can it be any different? Poo is poo. No matter whose poo it is.”
However, when we had our first child, I realised how wrong I was. Because it was different! Not only because the baby was my child. But because a baby is supposed to be covered in poo. There is nothing degrading, disturbing, or disgusting about it.
Back in the days when I changed the pooey nappies for my children, I used to joke with them, “Now just remember kiddo, one day you’ll be doing this for me.”
Of course, I meant it as a joke. Except that it’s probably going to be true.
Many of us will end life with Alzheimer’s, crawling, babbling and incontinent. Having played rugby most of my life and suffered countless concussions, I know that this is how I will be living the final stages of my life. That’s OK. There’s nothing undignified about it. Jesus came to us as a baby. Jesus began his life on earth the same way that I’m going to finish my life on earth. If it’s OK for the Son of God, it’s going to be OK for me.
My grandmother ended her life with Alzheimer’s, not being able to talk. My grandfather ended his life in a nursing home bed, not being able to walk. And I? I will probably end my life in nappies covered in poo. That’s OK. There’s nothing undignified about this.
“There is something supremely dignified about each and every human being. No matter what stage or state of life we find ourselves in.”
It’s quite the opposite. There is something supremely dignified about each and every human being. No matter what stage or state of life we find ourselves in. No matter what we can or cannot do.
Our dignity is ultimately based not on our achievements, acquirements, or arbitrary social conventions. Our dignity is grounded upon Jesus Christ, the Son of God, becoming one of us. Covered. In. Poo.
Dr Sam Chan Dr Sam Chan is a cultural analyst and public speaker for City Bible Forum. Author of How to Talk About Jesus - Without Being That Guy (Outreach Magazine’s Resource of the Year 2021) and Evangelism in a Skeptical World (Christianity Today’s 2019 Book Award). Blogger at espressotheology.com. Karaoke buddy. Follow him on Twitter@drsamchan
- Beckwith F. J. Do the RIght Thing: Readings in Applied Ethics and Social Philosophy. USA: Wadsworth, 2001.
- Rae S. B. Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics. 4th Edition. USA: Zondervan, 2018.