Last month, I shared a summary of a Pacific Conference of Churches presentation on the Biblical basis for governance, based on the Sinai Covenant which was made between God and the Israelites. This particular process of covenant making highlighted three key principles - consultation, consent and participation - that would later became foundational principles of later forms of governance.th
The presentation also pointed out that from its inception, Biblical morality was a living protest against hierarchical societies that give some, but not all, dignity, power and freedom. Instead it insisted that if any individual is sacred, then every individual is, because each of us is made in the image of God.
On a recent trip, I packed some books to read while on the bus and plane. One of the books is titled “On Human Dignity,” by Jürgen Moltmann, a now 88 year-old German theologian and Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen, Germany. He is most noted as a proponent of his "theology of hope" and for his incorporation of insights from liberation theology and ecology into mainstream Trinitarian theology (theology that seeks to understand the Triune God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Although the book was written 30 years ago, it still resonates for Christians today.
In his introduction to the book, renown Wesleyan theologian M. Douglas Meeks writes that most churches in the world have come to the realisation that “their ministries of justice and peace have to be carried out in terms of human rights.” Moltmann himself points out that “as early as 1948 representatives of the World Council of Churches, which was formed in the same year, were collaborators on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” highlighting in particular the work on the Commission of the Churches for International Affairs (CCIA) in this process.
Meeks notes that there are deep ideological (system of beliefs, values, and ideas) disagreements over human rights:
“The so-called First World has developed the liberal ideology that asserts the right of the individual over against the state. The Second World has championed the Marxist-Leninist emphasis on the rights of society. And finally the Third World has averred (affirmed or declared) the rights of self-development and self-determination of a people’s future.”
While the fall of communism saw the collapse of the so-called “Second World” and then its amalgamation into the “First World”, these disagreements still exist. These disagreements seem to have spilled over into the Fiji context and lead to differing perspectives or views about what human rights are and what they mean for our society. For some human rights are championed from a pro-democracy position, others do so for freedom of expression and assembly. Some criticise human rights because they feel it is giving too much power to one group, promoting values and different to their cultural or structurally legitimised values.
Confusion and misunderstanding about human rights still exists 66 years after the Universal Declaration was made. In Fiji for example – the issue of equality and the emphasis on equal rights of women and men has been looked on with suspicion by those who feel or claim that it will erode family values, when in fact it is merely challenging their own prejudices. Some equate human rights with “gay rights”, blaming human rights for an ‘increase in homosexuality’ in Fiji. Some blame the article on freedom of religion with the secularisation of Fiji and the loss of-so called “Christian-values”. These reflect a naïve and shallow understanding of human rights and a narrow definition for the basis of all human rights – human dignity.
From a Christian biblical perspective, Meeks writes that human dignity is grounded in God’s claim to the creation – God’s claim on human beings. As such human rights “spring from human dignity and not vice versa.” He adds, “Human dignity, however, requires human rights for its embodiment, protection and full flowering. Human rights are the concrete, indefeasible claim of human dignity. Without human rights, human dignity cannot be historically realised in action.”
Moltmann’s view is that human dignity is based in God’s redeeming history with the world. Human rights reflect what God is doing and requiring to meet basic human needs, to free human beings from their idolatry (all tyrannies of political and economic domination as well as religious or cultural systems that distort life and prevent one from responsibly giving one’s own life to others just as God has given God’s life away in the cross of Jesus Christ), and to bring human beings into communal relationships, including relationships to past and future generations through family, in communities and in associations. The freedom that comes with human dignity includes “freedom from whole cultural, social and religious systems of coercion, that is, a freedom to live defenselessly.”
As I reflect on the desecration of the Nadi Arya Samaj Primary School over Easter, the heated debate on Media Freedom last weekend and the upcoming International Family Day (May 15) and International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (May 17) as well as the AIDS Candlelight Memorial Day (May 18), the words of Moltmann echo:
“So the dignity of human beings consists in this, that they are human and should be human. Their existence is a gift and task simultaneously. It presents them with the task of actualizing themselves, their essence and thus coming into their truth… But the question is, Which self is meant? If one’s self is his or her essence as human, then self-actualization has nothing to do with egoism but is one side of the biblical commandment of love: Love your neighbour as yourself.’… The laying claim to one’s own rights does not require justifications through love in the sense, more or less, that one really only wants to be there for others, but it is itself a part of the commandment of love.”
Human dignity, and by extension, the rights which protect them are then based in love, God’s love for us, our acceptance of being worthy of that love and our love for ourselves, and our love for each other – regardless of who or what that other is like.
“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”