Rights and wrongs


Last night, we had Reuben Brigety speak at a young adult gathering about human rights. I’ve heard him on several occasions, and he’s always fascinating. What stuck with me from last night was the power of words.

Reuben spoke of Eleanor Roosevelt who brought the Declaration of Human Rights before the United Nations in the 40s, and how the force of those paragraphs began to create a society with certain norms. While nation states used to rely on their sovereignty and claim that the rest of the world could not have any say in what they were doing to their own people, we think differently now. Because we believe in basic human rights, we are vigilant even when there’s no warfare with an external power.

This is an important moment in history. Now that a generation has grown up in this society, those words have held back the most brutal military regimes. Around the globe, forces have been kept in check because we have a sense of these basic human rights. Reuben began to list the things that happened in World War II that could not happen now.

It reminded me of the Burmese monks. Last semester, we had a schoolteacher who worked with unions in Burma talk about the brutalities there. He said that things have changed because of cell phone cameras. Now, we have photos of monks being beaten. With these images in hand, the world was quickly informed of the atrocities.

Reuben told us of groups who are trying to stop genocide by sending cell phones to people in the region, so that horrific acts can be documented and brought to the light of day. And even though certain governments constantly shut down the technologies, there are always new ways to preserve and distribute information.

And so these two things have converged: the broad social norms upholding human rights and technology.

As pastors and church leaders, I realized–once again–the importance of our place in society. We are people of the Word. We are women and men who know how a word can create a new reality, can shape the norms, and can form a cultural ethos in our generation. And so I asked (on behalf of the church leaders), what we could do to strengthen human rights. Reuben said three things:

(1) We could preach about it. In this important moment, it is vital for us to become informed and begin speaking out. We know that churches have been in the forefront of our civil right movements. Right now, in our country, the religious campaign against torture is growing stronger and stronger. This is an important time to get involved and lift our voices in the best way we know how.

(2) We can rethink our just war theories. Some of our basic theories of just war are derivatives from Augustine and Aquinas. But we need to keep thinking about them and reforming them. In this new day of advanced weaponry and complicated warfare, we can keep shining a theological light on our military strategies, and sorting out what is just.

(3) We can support human rights organizations. At this vital moment, we can give money, and we can encourage people to pursue careers in human rights. “We live in a time and place where a person can make a living saving the world,” Reuben said.

To which I say, thanks be to God.

the photo, by KCIvey, is of last month’s the Guantanamo prison protests in D.C.

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