VALLEY FORGE, PA (ABNS 9/24/14)—The American Baptist Historical Society (ABHS) Board of Managers recently welcomed Dr. Beverly Mitchell to speak as a part of its annual series at the ABHS headquarters, on the Atlanta campus of Mercer University. Dr. Mitchell is Professor of historical theology at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC and is presently serving on the advisory committee for Holocaust Studies for Programs on ethics, religion and the Holocaust for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C.
It is clear that Dr. Mitchell takes a passionate stance on human rights interests as they relate to the minority, female, and socioeconomic disadvantaged demographics as evident by her publications Black Abolitionism, A Quest for Human Dignity and Plantations and Death Camps; Religion, Ideology, and Human Dignity.
She spoke on the value of human dignity and the meaning of defacement. In it, she utilized a theological approach in addressing the value of being human, articulating from a Christian perspective.
“Human dignity comes from our creation in the image of God as indicated in the book of Genesis.” She goes on to explain that such dignity, as marked by virtue and grace, warrants a level of respect that transcends ethnicity, culture, religion, education, and status. Therefore, it is our humanity that grants us all a level of dignity from birth until death.
However, Dr. Mitchell’s theological approach is not simply an ideology but also an elaborate study of international historical marginalization and methodical discrimination. The term “defacement” is one she used often.
Throughout her presentation, Dr. Mitchell spoke amid a backdrop of images depicting individuals whose dignity had been stripped from them. Images included the African slave with welts engraved into his skin, sick and starving Jewish prisoners fated behind the walls of Nazi concentration camps, the machete-scarred face of a Rwandan woman during the country’s mass genocide, and many more.
According to Dr. Mitchell, these people are representations of those whose dignity have been isolated. “I call them the defaced.” While these images were disturbing, they added to the logic of justifying how people fail to recognize the meaning of human dignity.
While she touched on various examples of defacement, Dr. Mitchell mostly elaborated on the experiences of Black slaves and Jewish prisoners of the Holocaust. She stated “The sin of defacement is most visible when one group in society deems another group is not fit to live.” Perhaps one of the most interesting concepts she presented was the unique shared experiences among most victims of dehumanization.
Such encounters include their designation as pariahs in society via a loss of access to basic privileges. Dr. Mitchell noted Plessy vs Ferguson in which “systematic social exclusion communicates the message of inferiority enforced by state sanctioned violence.”
She also noted the particular suffering of female victims as a unique experience of dehumanization. For instance, Black female slaves were subject to abuse and rape by their masters. Many bore children as a result, only to be separated at auctions. Jewish women were prone to invasive strip searches, and impending motherhood was an inevitable death warrant.
Dr. Mitchell explained “Once we no longer see one another as fellow human beings who share the same capacity, the easier it is to participate in the degradation of others.”
The value of her lesson on human dignity is found in the principle that everyone is linked together by a simple, yet glorious commonality called humanity, and we must reaffirm that commonality often.
Although everyone does not practice the same faith, there should be the shared notion that “what happens to you concerns me.”
Founded in 1853, the American Baptist Historical Society preserves and shares its collections documenting the influence Baptists have had on religious and civic life. Its six miles of shelving hold the archives of the national mission societies of the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., of which it is a part, the personal papers of prominent Baptist leaders, original church records, periodicals representing the world-wide Baptist press, national, state and associational published minutes from the vast array of Baptist denominations in the U.S., and books and pamphlets that are by, about, for and against Baptists. Researchers come from all over the world to from a multitude of disciplines, including American history, political science, anthropology and sociology. For more information about ABHS, including how to make a research appointment or to volunteer, visit our website at http://www.abhsarchives.org/.
American Baptist Churches is one of the most diverse Christian denominations today, with over 5,200 local congregations comprised of 1.3 million members, across the United States and Puerto Rico, all engaged in God’s mission around the world.