Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Missing Elements of Human Rights: A Theological Opportunity?

I've posted a fair bit about human rights and human responsibility, but generally only to be critical. I have yet to try to construct anything useful. Roman Catholic Theologian Anthony Kelly makes the same critique but with reference to some interesting and little know data:

While it is true that the terrible toll of the victims of totalitarian regimes have pricked the conscience of the international community, that conscience has not been uniformly reformed. The moral revolution that was hoped for has been frustrated in innumerable instances. One example is the prevalence of a spurious language of victimhood. Claiming “victim status” has now become a familiar manipulative technique in politics. A contributing factor in this distortion is the missing element in the UNDHR itself. As it framers admitted, there was no accompanying declaration of responsibilities—on the part of persons, groups or institutions—to assume the duty of implementing the basic rights in question. Another document was promised, but never appeared. With no reasoned grounding of universal human rights in universal responsibility, rights-language can be simply taken over by a consumerist culture. If that is the case, the appeal to rights is no more than a political machination, a useful rhetoric for the exercise of power. It balloons out into an uncontrolled assertion of rights, individual or corporate, against others, without any commitment to the common good and of responsibility for the truly powerless. And so it happens that the originally noble conception of human rights for all is trivialised, liable to exploitation by the politically adept few. Shared responsibility for the most vulnerable and powerless is thus compromised. A study by L. C. Keith sought to assess how much belonging to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights affected the promotion of human rights. [Journal for Peace Research 36, no. 1 (1999): 95-118] After examining a hundred and seventy eight countries over an eighteen-year period, his conclusions were not optimistic: observable impact was minimal.
He sees this lacuna as an opportunity for constructive theological work:

The very gap in the UNDHR Declaration and the current confusion as to what constitutes the basis of human rights is an open door for Christian theology, inviting it to recover a distinctive voice. The message would be something like this: Jesus’ rising from the dead undermines the history of mutual blaming and victimisation. For he freely exposed himself to the violence of cultural forces in order to disrupt, once and for all, the old world order based on the victimisation of others. His resurrection is not a new thought, but an interuptive and communicative event. It has its effect in a human community transformed into the image of the self-giving love of God. Jesus is glorified, not so as to glorify the role of the victim, but to unmask the victimising dynamics latent in all societies. The resurrection of this victim has a disturbing but liberating effect in the human community. It demands to be taken as the decisive influence in human relationships, the inexhaustible inspiration of responsibility for those victimised by suffering and oppression. Those who have suffered (victims, martyrs), and those who have caused such suffering (the enemy), are alike enfolded in the originary compassion and forgiveness embodied in the risen One.
Extracts from the article "The Resurrection and Moral Theology".

I think Kelly is working here in the direction that Jurgen Moltmann has already taken, and I'm surprised not to see Moltmann referenced in the article (he has been heavily involved in the ecumenical movement.) The themes of hope and the resurrection' s contradiction of death and violence are Moltmann's bread and butter.

The real concern I have is that while such thinking provides an ethic for the Christian it is is not easily applicable to the political sphere where most people live in ignorance of the resurrection of Christ and its implications. Moltmann has been saying this sort of stuff for decades and many Christians have taken notice, but it has had little or no effect on such organisations as the UN because the logic on which it is founded is peculiarly Christian. I have to be honest, in my old age I think I am becoming a Niebuhrian Christian Realist. I don't like it, I especially don't like how close it seems to bring me to being a Lutheran "two kingdoms" kind of thinker, but it is better than classical just war theory (although this guy doesn't think so) because it refuses to relativise the teaching of Christ .

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