16 October 2013

Human rights

. . . are rights that all of us have fully and equally because we were made in God's image (Genesis 1:26-27 with no exceptions!). Why then have we humans expended so much energy on objectifying and diminishing each other?

To me, the answer is fairly simple: all sentimentality aside, we're also animals. We're herd animals, territorial to excess, subject to all the instinctive mechanisms used by complex animals to gain power, preserve the pack, and, less importantly, to survive individually.

Having been gifted with logic, creativity, insight, and language, we too often end up using those capacities in the service of those instincts rather than to enlarge our hearts and consciences to include the rest of creation. We have so many fancy ways of rationalizing this behavior--from ideology to theology to politics--that we forget our animalness. We forget the primordial human task to engage our minds in the amazing challenge of being fellow-creatures in God's creation, and instead build our arrogant towers of Babel, fitting them with the latest in weaponry and one-way megaphones.

It was today's "Blog Action Day" in honor of human rights that led me down this meditation. By a nice coincidence, I noticed Lonnie Valentine's article, "When might we be called to resist the demands of the state?" Lonnie considers how Friends of John Woolman's time balanced the Romans 13 understanding of authority with the righteousness that God demands from authority. To me, the outcome is similar to the way I've balanced the tax coin question: what is God's and what is Caesar's, and, crucially, who decides, God or Caesar? (See my arguments about the role of government here.)

I still believe what I said in 2004: "Once I became a Christian and acknowledged the Lordship of the Prince of Peace, all other loyalties and psychological constructs (countries, boundaries, national mythologies, ideologies) became secondary. This doesn't trump social obligations; after all, I could deceive myself into thinking Jesus doesn't want me to do things that coincidentally are inconvenient or costly. Nevertheless it strengthens my personal obligation to question all imperatives, no matter how urgently pressed, if they seem to contradict Jesus." For the sake of a common stewardship and a proper degree of modesty about how often I should rock the boat, I might bow to social obligations 99% of the time, but I should never do so automatically.

The contenders for the twentieth century's very worst "Enemies of the People"--Stalin, Hitler, and their like--certainly ruined any interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 that would serve the interests of tyrants. But we don't require such extreme concentrations of power to apply the Woolman/Churchman test that Lonnie Valentine describes in the case of military taxation. The struggle to withhold war taxes (in the USA, for example) continues to this day. Friends (though not enough of us) and other believers were also prepared to break the laws protecting slavery and then segregation. In recent decades, some of us have cut fences and entered military bases to hold meetings for worship in the very shadows of nuclear weapons. These tiny groups of prophets have honored the proclamation that God's righteousness applies to authority as well as citizen, and that you and I are competent to participate in this crucial discernment.

It's probably easiest for us to see unrighteousness in other people's authorities and governments, but we've always had prophets who see past these categories. I remember hearing Catholic pacifist Philip Berrigan visiting Carleton University when I was a Soviet Studies major there, back in February 1975. (Later that same year, I made my first visit to Russia.) Berrigan, who had been released from U.S. federal prison a couple of years earlier, after serving his sentence for draft card destruction, was appearing at our university on behalf of an apparently completely different cause--freedom for Ukrainian dissident Valentyn Moroz, then serving the second of two sentences for "anti-Soviet agitation." But wherever authority acts outside of God's righteousness, whether in North America or in Russia, Berrigan believed that nonviolent activists must be prepared to get in trouble.

I bring these thoughts to a close with a reluctant dedication--reluctant because I don't want to feed into any established patterns of comparing Russia to other countries. We're all human beings, all created in God's image. In any case, I'm dedicating these meditations on human rights to Mikhail Kosenko, whose recent conviction on charges of participating in the May 2012 disturbances at Bolotskaya Ploshchad was capped with a disturbing sentence: compulsory treatment at a psychiatric hospital. Amnesty International expressed its distress at this outcome, reminiscent of Soviet-era practices. Interestingly, those of us who followed the trial in Russian media had been amazed at the testimony of the police officer who was allegedly struck by Kosenko. That policeman said he didn't recognize the defendant and hoped that he would not be convicted!

I took some comfort from this Open Democracy article, arguing that despite the blatant error of the sentence, the situation for Kosenko is still not as bad as the Soviet comparison might suggest. Whatever the truth about this sentence and its impact on Mikhail Kosenko, the fact that a case is complex doesn't excuse us from exercising discernment and considering how the people of God are called to respond.

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