MercatorNet stands for reframing ethical and policy debates in terms of human dignity, not dollars and cents or political calculation. We place the person at the centre of media debates about popular culture, the family, sexuality, bioethics, religion and law. We don’t want to be trapped on one or the other side of the culture wars, but if you want a label, try “dignitarian”.
Every year we highlight a handful of figures in the news who have lived these ideals. Among the hundreds of people whose names have crossed our desks, a few have stood out for their commitment to human dignity in 2015. At no small cost to themselves, they have stood up for unpopular causes or risked their lives to do what is right.
Here are seven nominees for “Dignitarian of the Year”. Many others are equally worthy. But we want to highlight the pressing need for people like them, people with conviction, courage and compassion.
On Friday we shall announce this year’s award.
Antonis Deligiorgis: rescuing refugees
Antonis Deligiorgis only appeared on the front page of the world’s newspapers once, in April this year, and it’s unlikely that he will ever do so again. He is a 34-year-old Army Sergeant stationed on the island of Rhodes, just off the Turkish coast. He had stopped at a seaside café for a coffee with his wife when a boat laden with 93 refugees from Syria and Eritrea hit rocks in front of them. It sank almost immediately.
Deligiorgis stripped off his shirt and shoes and waded into the water. Single-handedly he pulled 20 of the floundering people to safety in the heavy surf. One was a pregnant woman who named her child after him. Another was a young woman whom he slung over his shoulder. That was the picture which went around the world. “I’m a human being; I’m here to help people,” he told the BBC.
Deligiorgis represents the thousands of people who have welcomed and helped the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have stumbled into Europe this year. Politically, the flood of humanity is a deeply contentious issue. But the refugees, often exhausted, hungry, cold and sick, are human beings. The generosity shown by him and many others is a heart-warming affirmation of human dignity.
Helen M. Alvaré: Women Speak for Themselves
If you are a woman and are sick of reading headlines about what “women want” over stories full of things you do not want, Helen M. Alvare is the doctor you need. A professor at George Mason Law School, she is also a champion of women who want to speak for themselves on headline issues.
In the United States the Obama Administration has made contraception one of these by making full coverage of contraception compulsory in health insurance plans (the contraceptive mandate). Any employer who opposes this mandate on conscience grounds – be they a hobby store or the Little Sisters of the Poor — is waging a “war on women” according to the administration and its supporters.
Dr Alvare, a teacher, writer, public speaker and member of several consultative bodies, knows a lot of women, and hears from even more. They have told her, “This imposition is outrageous. It does not represent us.” So, with fellow lawyer Kim Daniels in 2012 she launched the movement Women Speak for Themselves with an open letter which today has over 41,000 signatories from all over the US and various political and religious backgrounds.
Between them these women have produced hundreds of letters to the media, dozens of published editorials, town hall meetings, letters and meetings with congressional representatives, social media postings, and the occasional protest, all in support of women and religious freedom. Last year they filed an amicus curiae brief in the Supreme Court case over Hobby Lobby.
Thanks to Dr Alvare’s leadership and expertise tens of thousands of American women have asserted their idea of dignity and the dignity of the individual conscience.
Khaled al-Asaad: martyred archaeologist
The thugs of the Islamic State have murdered thousands of people for petty crimes, for being Christian or for holding anything other than their own sectarian beliefs, for being women, for just about anything. Khaled al-Asaad died to protect Syria’s history.
For 40 years the father of 11 was head of antiquities in Palmyra, ancient trading centre with extensive Greek and Roman ruins which is a UNESCO world heritage site. In May troops of the Islamic State approached the town and al-Asaad helped to evacuate treasures from the Palmyra museum. But the 81-year-old refused to leave his home town and was arrested as soon as ISIS arrived. It was reported that he was tortured to reveal where more antiquities were hidden, but he refused. On August 18 he was beheaded in front of a crowd and his body was hung from a traffic light.
Archaeologists around the world were shocked and the flags of all Italian museums flew at half-mast in his honour. At a time when extremists, both in Western democracies and in he Middle East, are trying to erase history in the name of political correctness or religion. people like Khaled al-Asaad bear witness to the nobility of defending humanity’s cultural heritage.
Brittany and Brendon Buell, and Baby Jaxon Strong
In the spring of 2013 Brittany and Brandon Buell of Tavares, Florida, were just another couple excited to be expecting their first baby. Then they got the results of Brittany’s 17-week scan and discovered there was something seriously wrong with the baby’s development – a neural tube defect diagnosed some time after birth as microhydranencephaly.
Despite being warned that their baby might not survive pregnancy, or could die at birth, or survive but with profound disabilities, the Buell’s rejected the “option” of abortion. They did not want to “play God” with the child they had been given, but to “give him a fighting chance.”
Born by caesarean on August 27, 2013, Jaxon, dubbed “Strong” by his parents, has vindicated their faith and love by showing a fighting spirit that has amazed doctors. Despite the fact that much of his brain and skull are missing, Jaxon is very much his mom and dad’s little boy and has charmed the hundreds of thousands of people who follow his development on Facebook.
Brittany and Brendon are everyday heroes of parental love and human dignity. As we said back in October, “Let’s stop judging people by their mental and physical constitutions and accept every human being as an equal member of the human family.” The Buells have shown us how positive and inspirational that approach to life can be.
Kim Davis: taking a stand
At least in 2015 Kim Davis was the most famous Kentuckian since Jim Bowie. As the elected country clerk of Rowan County, she issues marriage licenses which require her signature. After the US Supreme Court decision legalising same-sex marriage, she refused to sign them. “I can’t put my name on a license that doesn’t represent what God ordained marriage to be,” she told the media. “So you have millions of Christians who object this whole same-sex marriage issue. Are their rights invalid? Are their rights not worth anything? It’s a valid point and it’s a fight worth fighting for.”
The courts ruled that she had to sign them, she refused – and ended up in jail for six days. Worse than jail, perhaps, was the ridicule and scorn heaped upon her by pundits across the country
Before the facts about the paperwork became clear, MercatorNet thought that Ms Davis was simply being inflexible. But she was right to follow her conscience. There is no more important issue than the future of marriage because marriage is the future of our children. Kim Davis was a bit player in a huge drama but she played it well.
Eva Kor: Holocaust survivor and forgiver of Nazis
In April this year a moving scene was played out in a German courtroom: 81-year-old Holocaust survivor Eva Kor, who had come to testify in the trial of 93-year-old former Nazi Oskar Groening, offered him her hand. He took it, drew her close and kissed her on the cheek. She told him: “I appreciate the fact that you are willing to come here and face us.” Groening had been a functionary at Auschwitz, the death camp where Eva and her twin sister Miriam, 10 years old, were subjected to medical experimentation by the notorious Dr Josef Mengele. He has accepted his moral complicity in all that went on there.
What human virtue is more difficult than forgiveness? And what modern injustice more unforgivable than the Holocaust with all its cruelty? Yet Eva, a Romanian-born Jew, has lived to forgive even Dr Mengele, as a 2005 film records. In fact, her decision to forgive the Nazis goes back even further. In 1995, at Auschwitz, on the 50th anniversary of its liberation, she amazed the world and shocked some survivors of the Holocaust by reading a confession of guilt from Dr Hans Münch, one of Mengele’s assistants, and then declaring: “In my own name, I forgive all Nazis.”
A number of Auschwitz survivors have done their best to avoid her. “The pain and anger is just too deep. Can one really forgive pure evil? By doing so, does one not exonerate the murderers and torturers who ran the camps?” But Eva has persevered on the path of forgiveness, one of the greatest manifestations of human dignity. As she has said, in her matter-of-fact way, “The best thing about the remedy of forgiveness is that there are no side effects. And everybody can afford it.”
The Martyrs of Sirte: dying for their faith
The Twenty-One Martyrs of Sirte sounds like the commemoration of deaths in the great Diocletian persecution of the early 4th Century – so fierce that the Coptic Orthodox church uses the year 284AD as the beginning of its calendar. However, the Twenty-One died on February 15 this year at the hands of a Libyan affiliate of the Islamic State.
Twenty of them were poor Egyptian construction workers. One was a man from Ghana, Matthew Ayariga. Their captors dressed them in orange jumpsuits, brought them to a Mediterranean beach, lined them up on the sand, and beheaded them. Why? Because they were “people of the cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian Church”. ISIS made a terrifying video of the event.
Details of the event are sketchy, but the basic facts are beyond dispute: 21 inoffensive men accepted death rather than betray their Christian faith. Martyrs are not shadowy figures in the distant past. Many Christians have died at the hands of ISIS; hundred of thousands have fled their ancestral homes. The Twenty-One represent the noblest act of the human spirit: to die for the truth.