Human Rights and Jesus’ Vision
With the power of Holy Spirit, Jesus the son of God lived his earthly phase of life in order to redeem the society from spiritual poverty which deprived people from exercising human rights.
As I am writing this article, I can hear the News channels reporting the latest verdict by Supreme Court of India on the rights of the lepers, clearly prohibiting discriminatory attitude towards those suffering from the disease, and spelling out their lawful rights to education, medical treatment, movement, family life etc.
Less than a week ago, the same apex body of the legal system in India sent shock waves to society by a historical judgment decriminalizing homosexuality and granting freedom and equality to LGBTQ. This accruing of rights in human life and conduct has been happening all over the world especially after the universal declaration of Human Rights by United Nations Organisation on 10 December 1948.
This does not mean that all Human Rights emerged as a serious concern only at the UN meeting at Paris in 1948. As early as in 1776, the strongest assertion of human rights in world history was made in the Declaration of American Independence: “....all men are created equal;...they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights;..among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.
It is an irony of history that as more and more social institutions are established, the denials of human rights are also mounting. The apparent guardians of human rights and security – religion, marriage, family, government, educational institutions, work place, and public transport – have become sites of violation of these rights. As though, however great a mission is, its institutionalisation will be detrimental to the human side of individuals.
It is unfortunate that modern society has become the arena of blatant violation of human rights, in spite of its proud achievements vis-a-vis education, enlightenment, ever increasing modes of communication, advancement in science and technology, trade unions, women’s liberation movements etc. Today wherever and whenever there is an infringement of the right to live with equality, liberty and dignity Human Rights is cited as the most relevant source of reference and weapon of defence.
Why is it that as awareness of human rights is gaining momentum, its violation is also rising up like a corollary? Consequent to this pervasive attempt to defeat or bypass human rights, governments and judiciary all over the world are forced to create new laws and rules for the protection of human rights specifying each category of rights in the context of each denial. Can law and rules alone ensure human rights? It is when we answer this question that the Christian approach to Human rights becomes relevant.
Jesus Christ is the greatest spokesman and activist of Human Rights in human history. He called it love, both at the giving and receiving end. He did not limit it to Israel or to the Jews. “Love your neighbour, as you love yourself” is the second most important commandment, second only to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mathew 22:36-40). That was the first universal declaration of Human Rights. An alert call to the humanity to consider each individual’s rights and responsibilities on a par with those of the other. Jesus ushered in a new paradigm in the maintenance of relationships. A new philosophy that ensured one’s right to live with liberty and dignity, facilitating the same for others.
It is significant that in the Preamble to U.N.Charter (1945), “ living with one another as good neighbours” was stated as the means “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person.” The genesis of UN declaration of Human Rights lay in the need to identify those segments of Humanity who were denied these rights and to ensure their realisation of the same.
Jesus was born to search these marginalised people and make them ‘catchers of men’ and messengers of human rights. He found such people scattered in different areas of human experiences - neglected people who were chronically sick, mentally ill due to evil forces, people whose inner as well as outer eyes were blocked, women who were subjected to suffering and abuse, poor fisher folks who were fast losing dignity and hope to live..... These were all cases of denial of human rights, because of social bias or indifference. With the power of Holy Spirit, Jesus the son of God lived his earthly phase of life in order to redeem the society from spiritual poverty which deprived people from exercising human rights.
He was the messiah and saviour sent by the Heavenly Father to lift humanity to the heights of human rights. Love - unconditional love - that forgives the sinner/enemy is his mandate and judiciary. It is the Constitution framed in the Kingdom of God where “God’s home is with the mankind” (Revelaton 21:1) and where everybody is his “brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9) It is the covenant that replaced the law – “ an eye for eye, and a tooth for a tooth”(Mathew 5:38).
Christian love is synonymous with Human Rights which in modern times lent itself to elaboration and logical nuancing so that it can resist its denial through legal defence. Human right is rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion or any other status. It includes the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more.
All are born with equal and inalienable rights and fundamental freedoms. Human Rights ensure basic freedom and protection for everyone, just like Christian love. Human Rights, as a mandate and assurance of the dignity and freedom of man, become implementable and inevitable in the dynamism of Christian love. Other oriented spirituality is the essence of Christianity. It is the most powerful tool for the realization of human rights.
This is a liberative spirituality, very different from contemplative spirituality that does not question any injustice in society. Christ’s mission was the immediate liberation of the already marginalised. All ages have created obstruction to human rights in different ways. Each era is also marked by triumphant milestones in the battle against such violations.
American war of independence and the consequent assertion of liberty; French revolution that confirmed the vulnerability of all power structures that stand in the way of liberty, fraternity and equality; Russian revolution that proclaimed egalitarianism and the rights of the proletariat; Mandela’s war and victory against apartheid in Africa etc were all socio-political upsurges against the denial of human rights, as much as ideological landmarks in the history of growth of human rights.
Writers have been the most sensitive spokespersons of human rights. Shakespearian sensibility was an amazing mix of conformity and resistance – discrete conformity to powers that be and resistance to their unjust practices. His personality was a curious combination of cleverness, wit and kindness.
As an artist, he was extremely careful to keep the Queen of England – eccentric as she was – in good humour and obtain her favours. At the same time, he used his dramatic talents and ideological conviction to express his favour for the marginalised and the subaltern. He ensured that the “quality of mercy was not strained”, but “dropeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” When certain forces obstructed the way of love and dignity, he unhesitatingly exposed them, holding high the value of human rights. Shylock’s emotional outburst in Merchant of Venice,“ Hath not a Jew eyes....And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?” is an eloquent discourse on universal human equality.
Wordsworth who was fascinated by the ideals of French revolution sang out in ecstasy, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!”
These are challenging times for human rights. Moral values are falling; material success and survival supersede concern for the freedom and dignity of fellow beings. Institutionalization and consequent monetary motives have crippled the spiritual authority of religions. Now, more than ever, Christian philosophy of other regarding love has become relevant and powerful in ensuring human rights.
The world has witnessed several revolutions for acquiring freedom and human dignity. The first quarter of the twenty first century is in need of an urgent spiritual revolution for the actualization of the Declaration of Human Rights - a transformative revolution that will make everyone proud of being a human being as much as a fellow human being. How long can “good fences make good neighbours”? (Robert Frost: “Mending Wall) Good Samaritans discover neighbours in the wall-less open, on the road. In Christocentric faith, being a true neighbour is being a committed votary of Human Rights.
(Dr.Jancy James was the Vice Chancellor of Mahathma Gandhi University, Kottayam (2004-2008) & Founder Vice Chancellor of the Central University of Kerala (2009-2014). She served on the faculty of Institute of English, Kerala University from 1981 to 2004 and was the founder Director of the Centre for Comparative Literature (1992-2004). Dr. Jancy was the first Lady Vice Chancellor of the state of Kerala and was the recipient of M V Pylee Award for the best academician (2014).)