“Rights, Recognition, and the Body of Christ” – Rowan Williams – The 2018 Payton Lectures

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 second lecture.


Payton Lectures
Theology and Human Rights: Tension or Convergence
“Rights, Recognition, and the Body of Christ” (Lecture)
The Right Reverend Rowan Williams

 

What is owed to human beings in light of their humanity?

  • Humanity’s existence is a free gift
  • “Healing” is a matter of gratuitous generosity
  • The matter of indebtedness works only one way, God owes us nothing, one might say
  • God’s creation may be gratuitous, yet it arises out of God’s eternal wisdom.

When God shows love and mercy to human beings, it is for God’s sake, not merely theirs. God honors his own fidelity and consistency in showing them compassion. God acts to uphold the divine pledge. God we might say, honors God, gives himself what is owed to God by forgiving humans. Christianity recognizes this gift – Christ alone gives God what is God’s due.

God is bound to the human creation because God is bound to God. This is the basis for the entire scriptural doctrine of justice.

The flow of life from God to creation, is in full harmony with the flow of life in divinity itself.

A theological approach to rights may begin with what creation itself entails. It will be filled out further with our understanding of Christ.

Rights language in a religious language is part of the “sacred.” The recognition of the other as a creature, that is the primitive generator of any theologically generated notion of “ius.” Recognition is a cultural skill/habit. Mere legal understanding will deliver less than a cultural recognition of some other’s rights. Twofold relation: X to the creator, and X to the other creatures in a network of relations.

The ground of rights is the presence of the body itself – as an irreducible inalienable place by which we make sense. It is a unique point of orientation which shapes our construction of meaning. The body is a place of orientation, the place from which we start making sense.

If the capacity for self-presentation is present, then respecting a human agent is respecting that capacity.

AQ: Why care about fairness? B/c distribution of goods is how we help others be who they were created to be.

Worthiness, is not a finite quality of a finite achievement.

Worthiness rests of the raw fact of being a bodily presence in a system of activity depending on the integrity and cooperation of all other finite presences.

Christ’s gift to the Father is the only finite gift given to God which matches what God actually deserves.

The justice of Christ’s self-offering is in its effect of renewing humanity in God.

The worshiping church is a community of justice because it worships what alone deserves to be worshipped. This act of just worship secures justice in the community, because all are giving God, God’s right.

When we are restored to God in worship we are able to serve one another rather than ourselves. This is our ultimate right. This is the liberty to be what we were made to be.

Our right is to freely honor the right of our neighbor.

A just social order doesn’t prescribe in advance what each agent gets to exercise. This is discovered in the living out of life in a community.

Justice is anchored in God acting for God’s sake.

The language of rights was learned and refined over a long period. It took time to learn how to talk about rights. Even when that language is dominated by rationalism (i.e. Locke), even w/ the myth of the self as a consumer, it has the ability to be a critique of power.

God honors God by honoring what is not God. What is not God carries the meaning and words of God, especially in the Word made Flesh. Our alignment with honoring God involves a challenge to our own conception of power, and calls us to reimagine power in the divine image.

Rethinking power as the ability to share/restore – allows us to situate rights language in a framework which is not fundamentally oppositional.

Law alone doesn’t prompt urgency when human rights are violated. But violation is a very strong word. If Millbank is right, then it relates to the sacredness of others.

The frustration of someone else’s right is a loss to the entire social ecology, and thus a loss for me.

Get your prisons wrong and you are probably getting everything wrong.

Rights are relational. Damage to one part is a damage to the entire system.

We shouldn’t conclude that modern discourse is completely disconnected from medieval discourse. The problematic elements arrives in stages: atomization, implicitly conditionality, and the property language that comes with it. But the idea of incommunicable or inalienable rights isn’t a byproduct of “property” type rights. It goes back to the middle ages.

God gives God what is due to God in creation and supremely in the life and death of Jesus Christ. To be in Christ is to be a sharer in this iustitia. To bear the image of God and to have it resorted in Christ is to be a sharer of God honoring God in and through creation.

 

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