This year’s Payton Lectures are being given by the Right Reverend Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury – what follows are my notes from the responses given to the second lecture.
Theology and Human Rights: Tension or Convergence
“Rights, Recognition, and the Body of Christ” (Responses)
The Right Reverend Rowan Williams
Response #1: Sebastian Kim
Williams treatment of this subject leaves us much enriched with a sense of complexity of this topic. Thank you. What I appreciate most is twofold: 1) Having established his idea of the connection b/w secular and theological context, he touched on the biblical concepts. Atonement plays a big role. 2) Justice is a divine gift and not a human achievement. The worshipping church is a community of justice because it worships what alone deserves to be worshiped. Giving to God what is God’s right is accomplished in the life and death of Christ – all receive their rights because of God’s giving.
While I appreciate the theological insights I would like to raise some questions:
- Williams mentioned that the worshipping community is a community of justice. The doctrines of justice and rights should be discussed side by side, but as we learn from Scripture, the people of worship do not always act justly. It is too much to assume that the church is a divine community of justice. Knowing and doing justice do not often go hand in hand.
- Discussion of justice and rights should also include the difficulty of how to apply J&R between different groups. The concept of justice in the Hebrew bible is different from the philosophical aspect because it is not an abstract concept. In the bible it is taking care of the victims of unjust systems: minorities, the weak, the oppressed.
- Christian theology provides resources for the global discussion of human rights, however, I wonder whether his comments are to cautious and whether Xians should say that Xian theology embodies the notion of rights, not just b/c of the imago dei, but b/c it is grounded in being in Christ.
- Lastly, Christians played a significant role in the UDHR. Towards the end of WW2 Christian leaders raised concerns about HR. There was a consensus for a universal bill of rights. Christians in the west were actively involved in drafting this bill. By ensuring religious freedom, Christians provided an anchorage of HR discussion in the human dignity in the image of God.
The challenge before us is how do we repent of not giving God his due of justice. How do we boldly demonstrate and practice human rights from a Christian standpoint.
Response #2: Erin Dufault-Hunter
The eloquently articulated, Christian account he offers, provides ground for questioning the discussion of rights language. We must remember what brought about the UDHR – the horror of sin and darkness in the wake of WW2.
The problem w/ Williams defense of rights, is that such language cannot produce the kind of people who battle the demonic. How do I know? The history of my own country in the 40’s and 50’s. We saw ourselves as the civilized who fought the good fight in the war, yet our practices of justice were absent at home. The UDHR of human rights flounders, not just because the UN is a weak organization. It is not merely because the US flaunts the rights of others through enhanced interrogation techniques. HR falters because law cannot make the culture we need – it cannot inculcate virtues. Untethered from a robust story, it fails to shape us.
Williams lectures are an example of why Christians should receive the bodies of others, even enemies, as a gift.
The Civil Rights Movement resisted evil, not by making claims, instead it drew on our moral intuitions by shaming us into reform.
The CRM, was always first about poetry, about capturing our imaginations, about dreaming of a beloved community. It allowed us to dream of alternatives to violence. But the demonic recognized that imagination is stronger than law to enforce its end. Thus, the CRM failed because “law” does not provide us with the weapons to actively resist evil. We have used “rights” as a shield from having to do justice.
What then are we to do? We must take up Williams’ vision to our churches, foster an imagination, we must bathe ourselves in the beautiful trinitarian theology of gift.
Use human rights language – but do not forget the story of those rights – rights enfleshed in a community by God’s grace and gifts. We must not abandon our Trinitarian framing of them.
Rowan Williams’ Response
Both respondents have picked up the fact that words are not what we should be focused on. Its easy to use “rights” as a shield to make the discourse of human rights as something which is self-congratulatory, self-protective.
I hold to the use of rights discourse in the face of this, I don’t think however that rights language itself is formative. There are those contexts in the world where such vocabulary is necessary for resisting dehumanization. But what actually motivates us to become persons who enact these rights? That is indeed an issue about the kind of communities we are seeking to create. This is indeed an issue of imagination.
The law is good and holy and right, but it doesn’t actually do anything. That is what Paul seems to say.
Who’s not here and who’s not speaking? This should be a natural reflex in believing community.
Lord Acton: The foundation of all political liberty is religious liberty. – There is a territory where power just cannot go, that is the seed of recognition that political power is not final, not all controlling.
RW: If we are activists because we want to be effective we are discouraged. If we are activists because we want to witness we can carry on. If its just about bringing results, cynicism is around the culture. The opposite danger is utopianism.
EDH: One of my concerns about this generation’s activism, the danger, make sure you can say “come and see.” If you can’t sit at a table where people live in this reality, our activism belies a vacuous which is utterly dangerous to our souls.
RW: The focus on the sacredness of property, is a slightly modern one. We need a stronger sense of how states work with the grain of natural communities, with the grain of cooperative venture, so that we don’t simply see the characteristic modern standoff between individual and state.
EDH: The OT has some strong things to say about private property. This is quite applicable, especially when it deals when taking land. How do we reckon this with the OT’s concern that about giving land back. OT – God’s justice isn’t equality, but what happens when greed and consumption runs amok.
RH: On this Jubilee principle, as an Anglican, the Book of Common Prayer, in the earlier drafts, the exhortation to Holy Communion included an exhortation to unlawful withholding of the lands and good of others.
Q: What is our role as Christians against police brutality.
RH: As a foreigner, I see extraordinary tolerance of race-based violence by law enforcement. I find myself baffled by apparent non-concern by certain circles in this country. Law-enforcement is a public good which should not be franchised to interest groups.