A Faith Basis for 60 Years of Human Rights Work by Churches


[1] I want to thank you for this opportunity to be with you again and to address the question of “The Faith Basis for 60 Years of Human Rights Work by Churches” during this consultation to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights.[1]

[2] The international order has substantially changed since 1948, posing some important questions and challenges for churches and their work to protect human rights. I welcome this chance to think about these together with such an experienced group.

[3] About fifteen years ago, I was part of a study tour to El Salvador and Guatemala. One day we met with the director of one of the human rights organizations in El Salvador. He generously gave us a briefing on the situation in El Salvador, some of the optimistic developments and some of the areas of continuing concern with the government, and then he went on to tell a bit of his story, how he had been followed and eventually detained by the Treasury Police. At one point, a woman in our delegation said “That’s how I know you!” She had actively responded to the Inter-Church Coalition for Human Rights in Latin America’s “Urgent Action” bulletins. Things could have gone very badly for this man but literally thousands of telegrams and faxes were sent to the Government of El Salvador calling for his release. And there they were – a man and a woman from different worlds who had never met yet knew each other. It is a bit of a parable for the human rights work of the churches capturing some of the essential elements of why we do what we do as churches.

[4] I have been asked to speak about the “faith basis” or “theological basis” for human rights work by churches.[2] I plan to make the argument that while human rights are often seen as a result of the Enlightenment and its reliance on reason, reason is also important to thinking Christian believers and as such assures them a role in the articulation, promotion and defense of human rights. Reason has been and is important as a way to know God at work in the world; reconciling and creating an alternative future, the Reign of God. Central to this thinking faith is the widespread belief, particularly by Christians, that to be human does require respect from others because of our inherent dignity as humans. While there are various authoritative ways by which we make the claims of “human dignity”, together they are useful in evaluating our assertions about human rights. Lastly, I will then discuss the ways our theological assertions in particular have evolved and converged in the last sixty years and then make some observations on what we may have learned for the future.

Does Faith Have a Contribution to Human Rights Culture After the Enlightenment?

[5] The relatively recent emphasis on human rights in international law traces it roots to the Reformation and to the Enlightenment. The catastrophe of religious conflicts and wars of the post-Reformation period required protections for religious tolerance and ultimately, civil liberties. Given the churches reluctance to adopt the language “human rights” of the Enlightenment writers, preferring instead to speak about human responsibilities or duties, some have concluded that matters of faith were inconsistent with evidentiary methods of discovering knowledge.

[6] More recently I suspect this misconception has been exacerbated by the arrival of a form of global “evangelical” Christianity which seems to place such a limited value on reason, education, and scholarship in articulating the faith. The wider social assumption has been what Stephen Carter calls a “Culture of Disbelief” where “. . . religion is like building model airplanes, just another hobby: something quiet, something private, something trivial – and not really a fit activity for intelligent, public-spirited adults. “[3]

[7] To the contrary I would like to suggest there is a more accurate view which asserts that in spite of its’ failings of which there have been many and recognizing the religious vulnerability of some Christians to suspend rationality, Christianity is really a thinking faith. Such an approach to reason did not simply reflect Enlightenment categories of reason but understood reason as Luther did as a means to illumine the faith and understand the world God made. For example sociologist Rodney Stark has argued that the view of faith as fundamentally irrational is a serious misreading of Christianity. Stark in arguing against Max Weber’s thesis on the “spirit of capitalism” as a Reformation innovation, makes a somewhat convincing case that the “. . . Christian commitment to reason and progress wasn’t all talk; soon after the fall of Rome, it encouraged an era of extraordinary invention and innovation.”[4] Stark argues that within God’s redemptive narrative moving ultimately toward the Reign of God, reason is a vital tool for encountering and knowing how God is present in the world. In Stark’s view, intellectual theological curiosity employing reason makes the liberal notion of “progress” possible.[5]

[8] As part of his case, Stark asserts that Christianity was forward looking; anticipating the Reign of God. As result, churches did have a high regard for what it means to be human relative to the times. For example, the Church was instrumental in bringing an end to medieval slavery; particularly in extending the sacraments to slaves and recognizing that they had “souls.” Stark concludes that “…only Christianity has devoted serious and sustained attention to human rights, as opposed to human duties.”[6] While Stark’s view may be controversial, it does remind us of the long history of the churches’ albeit imperfect witness to human dignity that precedes that last sixty years.

[9] Far from being prone only to superstition and myth, if my analysis is even somewhat accurate, a thinking faith, based upon an understanding of what it means to be human did and does have an important contribution among other views to make in articulating, promoting and defending human rights. Clearly churches have not always taken a progressive stand on human rights issues, particularly as they impact women, people of colour, gay and lesbian people and others. However, a Christian understanding of what it means to be human can provide an understanding of human dignity that can inform foundationally and dare I add, enrich the more modern idea of human rights. A faith-based approach to human rights is both possible and I would suggest necessary in the global encounter and dialogue of faiths and cultures today.

Human Dignity as a Faith Basis for Human Rights

[10] If faith does indeed have a post-Enlightenment contribution in the area of human rights, then the theological gravity tends to draw it toward the importance of the “the human” or human dignity. Human dignity is a difficult concept to neatly summarize. It does involve at least three dimensions- identity, agency, and transcendence. We need to have a sense of who we are in our encounters with others and ourselves. We need to be able to contribute through work and service to others. We also need to be able to see beyond our immediate experience. These are some of the elements of what it means to be human and what is necessary for human dignity.

[11] Within the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, there is the persistent affirmation of the dignity of the human being as a person in community. For example, Lutheran theologian Foster McCurley has pointed out that the God of Israel inverted the social order of ancient societies in liberating the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt. Rulers in those societies were believed to bear the image of a god and therefore people had no inherent value except as they served their rulers. In God’s new order, Israel’s rulers and governing authorities had a responsibility to serve and safeguard the well being of the people who were the image bearers. Human rights, as articulated in various international declarations and conventions, provide one threshold below which the image of the divine is violated and disrespected.[7]

[12] Jesus certainly continues with this message when he returns from the wilderness to Nazareth and Galilee to announce his public ministry,

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4:18-19)

[13] For churches, providing a fuller or “thicker” faith based understanding of the truly complex nature of the human dignity that in turn could be codified into human rights instruments has been a very necessary contribution. There is a growing interest in exploring how other faith traditions and organizations have made a similar contribution. Western institutions are infused with Christian values and ideas, human dignity and equality among them.[8] Churches did take a leading role in the ethical values and imperatives for the social and political architecture that allows for the possibility of a human rights culture today.

Sources of Theological Authourity

[14] While there may be a general consensus that “human dignity” is central to the churches’ involvement in the defense of human rights, it is important to observe that various faith traditions do arrive at this conclusion differently based upon their understanding of the authourity on which an assertion of what minimal requisites are needed for “human dignity.” Understanding the different theological sources of authourity can help to explain the different nuances involved as well as the potential sources of agreement or disagreement in what is meant by “human rights.”

[15] In 1977, Wolfgang Huber and Heins Eduard Tödt laid out five different approaches for understanding the theological basis for human rights.[9] The first approach, what I refer to as the Divine Command approach, is a deductive one based upon theological axioms that argues human rights are justified “from above” in God’s claim upon people and supports the view that human rights are thereby “universal.”[10] Their second approach is what I refer to as the Natural Law approach. It is founded upon “human reason” and the assertion that people are created in the “image of God.” It maintains that “human rights (are a responsibility) that can be, therefore, required of every state, whatever its ideological complexion.”[11] The third approach is what I refer to as the Social Covenant approach. It argues seemingly against a theological justification but suggests that human rights are part of the natural “ethos of a human world society.”[12] A fourth approach is what I refer to as the Liberal approach. It is based not strictly speaking on theology or philosophy, but rather upon the idea of human freedom which is unconditional and finds theological warrant in the doctrine of justification by grace. This approach provides “. . . criteria for the operation of government, since the state needs to be reminded of its responsibilities as guarantor of the freedom of the individual.”[13] Their fifth approach is what I refer to as a Justice Approach. The “… basis is found in the existence of an analogy between the justice established by God and the legal status which human beings possess or accord to each other in their mutual relationships.” This approach holds up the idea of transformative justice while at the same time not claiming any exclusiveness to or limiting of the Gospel. With the emergence of liberation, feminist and eco-theology, this justice approach with its contextual emphasis has played a predominant role in ecumenical circles and more specifically within the LWF since the Assembly in Evian in 1970.

[16] More recently Richard Amesbury and George Newlands have identified three philosophical approaches that are found within various faith based approaches and offer a fourth alternative.[14] Their first approach, moral objectivism puts forth the view that the moral assertion of human rights comes from beyond the individual or community and is quite independent of one’s personal views or commitments. Their second approach is identified as moral relativism whereby “what is right and wrong differs from one culture (or even individual) to another.” The third approach is moral constructivism which regards “morality as a human construct … (where) the validity of a candidate moral norm depends upon its universal acceptability.” Each approach has advantages and inherent problems. Amesbury and Newlands argue for a fourth possibility in what they call a “situated universalism” whereby “universal validity can be affirmed from within particular contexts of justification.” They believe that such an approach can overcome the specific problems with the previous three approaches.[15]

[17] What should be clear from these two typologies is that no one articulation of an authoritative source for asserting human dignity may be possible or even desirable. Recognizing theological diversity may, however, be a strength in developing a broader understanding among faith groups, a more authentic theological framework, and in turn a durable faith based approach to human rights. Various traditions may be useful for a more sophisticated and appropriately nuanced approach to building with other sectors, a durable “human rights culture.” The test of such an approach may be in the experience of the struggle to build such an international human rights culture. I now turn my attention to a consideration of the experience of the churches in just such a task during the past sixty years.

What Has Been The Theological Convergence since WWII?

[18] In the last sixty years, I would suggest there has been an evolution in the conceptualization of human rights within the churches. Broadly speaking there have been three eras in this development each posing its own unique questions to human rights defenders; the post-war response to “building the peace,” the post-colonial response to opposing oppression and documenting violations, and responding to economic globalization with strategies to hold governments, international institutions, and even international corporations accountable. Though not part of this consideration, I would add that these responses to human rights were part of wider international work by churches and international ecumenical organizations for economic and ecological justice which should not be overlooked. Let me turn now to consider briefly each of these eras and their implications for a theological contribution to human rights.

The Post War Era

[19] The twentieth century was by many accounts the deadliest in human history where wars alone have been estimated to have killed 170 million people. The “Great Depression” was followed by World War II, the “Shoah” (Holocaust), Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the devastation of Europe and many other regions of the world. This experience was a shock to the liberal optimism which preceded these events. Leaders from all sectors understood that another war could not be “won.” Church leaders were not prepared to leave this project of building a just and lasting peace to governments alone but they understood themselves as collaborators in the creation of this new world.[16]

[20] During this time various ecumenical organizations were created including the World Council of Churches (1948), the Lutheran World Federation (1947), that National Council of Churches USA (1950) and the Canadian Council of Churches (1944). Accompanying these organizational negotiations was extensive research, analysis and dialogue with other leaders to assess what was needed globally and regionally. One important result was as Erich Weingartner, former Executive Secretary in the Commission of Churches on International Affairs for the World Council of Churches observed, that “The WCC’s inaugural assembly in Amsterdam (1948) issued a declaration on religious liberty and underlined the importance of the churches’ work for human rights.”[17]

[21] This led a small ecumenical group of leaders to undertake various initiatives to develop safeguards for human dignity. Among these was Dr. Otto Frederick Nolde, Dean and Professor of Christian Education at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Nolde was a driving force in the Federal Council of Churches and for twenty-two years was the Director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) at United Nations headquarters in New York. During the creation of the United Nations, Nolde’s,

“ . . personal vision of the task and his particular talents were necessary for the successful inclusion of a mandatory Commission on Human Rights in Article 68 on the UN Charter in 1945, the foundation of the Churches’ Commission on International Affairs (CCIA) in 1946, and to the drafting and defense of, in particular, Article 18 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.”[18]

[22] The issue of religious liberty and freedom of conscience were vitally necessary to avoid the failures of the past and engage in building peace for the future. From this experience, the churches began to articulate a much wider understanding of human rights. As Eric Weingartner suggests, “For 40 years the WCC continued to sharpen its concern, highlighting particular violations, e.g. racism (1968), torture (1977), and extra-judicial executions (1982).”[19] Developing a more complex and socially useful understanding human dignity in the full realization of the human potential for sin and evil, became a governing theological paradigm.

The Post Colonial Era

[23] The second era of the churches’ work on human rights responded to the post-colonial and cold war realities. The “Golden Age of Growth” from the end of the war to the 1970s was the largest economic boom in human history. Western economies grew by 5%/year, doubling every 5 years. In the global south, 75% of people living in former colonies were being given their “independence.” There was great hope as poor countries embarked on the road to “development”. But by the 1980s nations were beginning to revert to some of their old ways. The great fears and anxieties generated by the “cold war,” by the narrow economic interests of transnational corporations, and by historic rivalries, led to national and regional conflicts in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

[24] In the midst of these conflicts and because of their historic partnerships beyond national borders, churches became painfully aware of the gross and systematic violations of human rights being perpetrated often by governments allied with northern democratic countries. The universality of human rights was probably most characterized by the almost universal degree to which they were violated. There was also a continuing concern for the rights of people within the Eastern Bloc, some of whom like the Baltic countries, had been occupied since the Second World War. The optimism of the immediate post war period was gone. So too was the churches’ privileged voice in public affairs as western societies in particular were experiencing secularization.

[25] During this period, churches as well as non-governmental organizations, assumed the mantle of an international conscience within the global human family. Because of the churches’ historic ties to countries where they had mission partners and often because of their resettlement work with refugees, churches heard and began to document the horrendous testimony of the victims and their communities. As Erich Weingartner has observed of this period, “The right to be engaged in the struggle for justice and human dignity has itself become a component of religious liberty.”[20]

[26] Of significance to our consideration was the way in which human rights protection became a part of the churches work to press for freedom from oppressive government, self-determination for emerging nations, and liberation from the structures of bondage. Probably one of the most significant developments was the way in which the victims of human rights violations took action on behalf of their own liberation. Most notable among the struggles during this time was the struggle against in South Africa and in Namibia where the various church bodies wrestled with the question of “status confessionis” with respect to the Apartheid government in South Africa.

[27] If in the immediate post-war period churches had the power to participate in shaping the new international order, by the late 1970s they were experiencing the beginning of their disestablishment in Europe and North America. If churches had become increasingly marginalized institutions in the global North and assumed a role as conscience, in the global south many were actively engaged in resistance and liberation. The extensive partnerships north and south enabled the effective use of various “Urgent Action Networks,” collaborative public statements and strong denunciations of human rights abuses. Solidarity, accompaniment and empowerment were important supportive theological concepts to these human rights initiatives.

The Post Globalization Era

[28] With the emergence of globalization, churches emphasized another dimension of their concern for human rights. In the early 1980s, the combination of technology and large pools of capital enabled the rapid and intensive integration of the global economy and the standardization of global economic policy around what has been called the “Washington Consensus.” This led to what has been called “globalization.” While churches had long been concerned about hunger, poverty and economic justice, globalization brought to the forefront a renewed interest in “economic, social, and cultural rights,” which had been part of the churches’ wider struggle.

[29] During the 1970s churches along with others were engaged in the ‘development debate’ about a “new international economic order.” Churches put forward the view that this new global economy had to be” just, participatory and sustainable.” There were numerous international initiatives by churches. For example, in 1972 Canadian churches sent representatives to monitor the third United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).[21] This was the beginning of an ecumenical coalescing of Canadian churches to address economic policy through such organizations as GATT-Fly, the Ecumenical Coalition for Economic Justice and more recently, Kairos-CEJI. Along with churches internationally, these organizations have addressed such issues as the international debt bondage, structural adjustment, trade policy, the militarization of economies, corporate social responsibility, gender equality and economic migration. One of the results of this work was the Jubilee Campaign in 1999-2000 which received signatures on a debt cancellation petition from 17 million people globally and 650,000 Canadians and thus effectively put the issue of debt cancellation on the agenda for leader’s meetings of the G-8 nations.

[30] In the face of economic globalization, there has been yet another stage in the evolution in our thinking about human rights. Latin American churches have taken the lead in raising the question of the right of nations to refuse to pay illegitimate or odious debts incurred by unelected military regimes and dictatorial governments. In 1986 the UN adopted a resolution endorsing the “Right to Development” as a way to re-establish a more integrated approach to human rights.[22] More recently Canadian Senator Douglas Roche has suggested establishing a UN backed “Right to Peace.”[23] In the face of the broader economic challenge of economic globalization, these efforts have been undertaken to use the language of “human rights” to resist the expansive claims of unrestricted market activity.

[31] Since September 11, 2001, human rights work has entered another phase. The “War on Terror” has dramatically altered the international landscape. Politics and diplomacy has been replaced by the militarization of international relations and resolution of disputes. LWF General Secretary Ishmael Noko has pointed to the problem this way,

“When United States President, George Bush declared war on terrorism without defining what terrorism is, “it opened opportunity for despotic leaders around the world to suppress political opponents under the banners of war against terrorism.”[24]

[32] The Canadian Council of Churches noted the specific concerns in their letter Prime Minister Jean Chrétien on September 21, 2001 in urging him to “. . . resist the growing pressures to permit increased invasion of privacy, reduced access to information, reduced immigration, reduced access to safe havens for refugees, increased military spending at the expense of social programs, and any number of other measures that would erode fundamental rights and freedoms, all in the name of combating terrorism.”[25] Sadly we know only too well how these expressed fears have become a cruel reality during the past seven years.

[33] Much more has and will be written about these turbulent times. For churches, when “national security” trumps any public discourse, due process is abandoned, and the conventions of international law set aside, theological questions about the use of “state power” naturally come to the fore and the central question in the face of such actions is, “Whose security is at stake?” Clearly terrorist criminal activity must be addressed and churches have been clear about this. However, states and societies must be attentive to the way their use of power may ironically make them more like the problem than a part of the solution. A vociferous defense of human rights in such circumstances may not just be useful but absolutely critical to the preservation of responsible governance.

[34] Similarly, in the face of the national security narrative, an alternative forward looking narrative may be crucial for the use of state power. One such emerging narrative has been the concept of “Human Security.” Human Security is a people-centred approach that measures actions by governments and others by the extent to which they make possible things that matter most to people, their families and communities and thereby lead to greater local, regional and global stability. Juan Somovia, former Ambassador to the United Nations and Chair of the World Summit on Social Development in 1995, expressed it well, “You cannot have secure nations full of insecure people.”[26]

[35] A theological approach to human rights in a climate of fear and based upon the doctrine of Human Security might best be described as an unmasking, a naming, and an engaging of the powers.[27] Already we are seeing emerging examples of this approach in the work done by churches to establish a ban of the use of landmines, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990), the UN Declaration on the Right to Development (1986), the Responsibility to Protect, the Framework Convention on Climate Change (Kyoto Protocol 2005) and a commitment for the U.N. Millennium Development Goals to mention but a few. Churches have also been involved in some 18 or more “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.” In Canada churches, especially those who had aboriginal Residential Schools, have be active in calling for a Commission and now that it is established, have played an important supportive role for its’ independent work. There are criticisms of the doctrine of Human Security. There are those who suggest that these two approaches – human rights and human security – are of necessity separate approaches. Nevertheless, a theological approach that takes seriously both human rights and human security may offer a fuller and enriched understanding of human dignity while providing more concrete applications that advance human rights and a more appropriate architecture for a human rights culture in the midst of our current turbulent reality.

What Have We Learned? Are There Directions for the Future?

[36] I have argued that faith does have a contribution to make and that “thinking” Christians in particular bring a helpful perspective to discussions regarding the advancement of human rights. A central and a shared contribution among Christians in particular and possibly other faiths is an understanding of “human dignity” in all its manifestations, good and bad. From a brief review of the past sixty years of the history of human rights work, I have suggested that churches have been deeply involved theologically in the evolution of a human rights framework. Firstly, following the horrific failure of the war by defining more generously the nature of religious freedom and liberty, then by standing in solidarity with and empowering emerging nations in the face of oppression and in pursuit of their liberation, and more recently in the wake of economic globalization by exposing, engaging and resisting the principalities and powers while at the same time articulating the more hopeful alternative narrative of human security. At this point I would like to offer some observations about what we might have learned and about what might be different concerning the kind of faith-based or theologically justifiable approach that might help to create what has been often referred to as an international human rights culture.

The churches work on human rights will be based more on orthopraxis (correct action) rather than orthodoxy (correct belief).

[37] It should be clear from the foregoing analysis that it would be difficult to come to one theological articulation to support all the work on human rights. Sometimes one has to act together in defense of human rights even when the theological rationales by respective traditions for that action are very different. The theological spectrum at the end of World War II was nowhere as diverse as we have in many countries today. Churches may need to adjust their comfort levels to accept orthopraxis as the basis for action. As the last sixty years has shown too, such an approach may in turn change a church’s theology in the process.

[38] The churches need to understand human rights work as an expression of the churches’ public theology. Human rights cannot be merely “an interest” for the churches but rather it is an expression of a public theology –diverse in its expressions – but a public theology nevertheless that affirms concretely how God in Christ is present in a hope filled way in the world.[28] Churches do have an expertise and a contribution to insure that human rights are respected.

[39] The human rights work of the churches needs to include a dialogue of cultures and faiths. While faith can play an important role in developing a human rights culture, for many in the wider public “religion is still the problem.” To address this more work needs to be done to explore how other faith traditions understand “human dignity” and how they support the advancement of human rights and on what terms. Gregory Baum has called for a “dialogue of cultures.” Post war ecumenism has pointed out how important developing a common public witness is in defense of human rights. Likewise today, Faith groups will need to include in their formal dialogues just such discussions if the necessary reciprocal understanding to enable joint work on human rights is to occur. More broadly, an understanding of the role that religion plays in various cultures and societies is absolutely essential to understanding public affairs. It will also be important in offering what are perceived by the wider public to be constructive contributions to building stronger and healthier communities.

[40] The churches will need to build partnerships with civil society actors. Following the war there was not near the number of international civil society organizations that there are today. It has been suggested that there are some 37,000 international non-governmental organizations alone. [29] Churches will need to re-visit their understanding of “diakonia” and what it means for their relationships with civil society organizations. Churches no longer can act in isolation or unilaterally to be effective. On a positive note, churches do have the strategic ability to bring together non-governmental actors because they have a concern for all people and their communities, not just a narrow set of self-interests such as religious freedom. Because of their global partnerships, churches can also help expand the awareness and analysis of particular situations where human rights are at risk.

[41] The human rights work of the churches will need to recognize non-state and non-institutional actors. Non-state actors which include intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, individuals, peoples, or multinational corporations are having an important impact on human rights. Paramilitary and “liberation”/”terrorist” organizations also complicate human rights work. Whereas governments were once the primary focus, today churches need to continue to develop effective ways to address the increasing and complicating role of these other players.[30] The traditional theological formulations of church-state relations will need to be re-conceptualized in the light of these new realities.

[42] The churches will need to encourage, train and maintain the technical and analytical expertise to ensure responsible participation. In an increasingly complex world, churches will need to remain conversant in the political language and grammar of human rights. This requires training and competence to be part of these discussions. It also requires more than simplistic or rhetorical assertions about human rights. It does require a fuller analysis and the ability to utilize international networks. This was demonstrated very ably following the war in the lead up to the formation of the WCC. While the churches have established their credentials in the international arena, they will need to do more in the formation of theologically and politically articulate human rights advocates for the churches of the future.

[43] The churches need a new humility and repentance to continue their human rights work. Certainly the churches themselves have been the subject of criticism for their work on human rights. This criticism has ranged from the choice of focus countries to suggestions that the churches have been silent in some situations to allegations that church have been out rightly complicit. In response churches do need to publicly hold up the importance of their partnerships with local churches as determinative in developing their responses. However, legitimate criticism should be understood as helpful to improving the work of the churches and to the churches’ respect for human rights themselves. The human rights contribution of Christians will be unappreciated if the churches fail to recognize their own internal governance contradictions (such as blockages towards the advancement of women, the inclusion of marginalized people and occasional corruption), if they refuse to recognize their own role in colonial history (such as the legacy of Indian Residential Schools in Canada), or if they deny the fact that church leaders have themselves participated in human rights violations.

[44] There are no doubt additional observations that can be made concerning the future. During the past sixty years churches have made an important – dare I say critical – contribution to the advancement of human rights. However in light of the current practices by some of the most powerful regimes it may not seem the world has advanced the standards very far. Yet this should not blind us to what has been accomplished and how our theology and the church itself have been changed. All of which brings me back to the little parable at the beginning of our discussion where a North American visitor and a Salvadoran human rights director who have never met, know each other. In such a small instance within the church, such an encounter may embody in part the kind of peace that the post-war church leaders wanted to build – a truly new international world order where the cries of the victims of violence were not abandoned to silence, where those who had been tortured, oppressed and murdered were not forgotten, and where the hungry, the poor and the dispossessed had the hope of enough – if only because we see each other, if only because we hear each other, and if only because we know each other even though we have never met.


[1] In this paper I will use the term “faith basis,” “faith based,” and “theologically based” interchangeably. I realize that this is somewhat imprecise. However, the hope is that such language can leave the door open for further multi-faith conversations on these questions.

[2] I am aware of the various distinctions concerning human rights. The general definition I will use is that “…a human right is … a justified entitlement that any person may claim because of being human and that ought to be socially guaranteed. (and that) “Ensuring human rights requires institutions committed to their promotion and enforcement.” (See Robert O. Matthews and Cranford Pratt, “Concepts and Instruments” in Human Rights in Canadian Foreign Policy (Kingston and Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press,) p.4.) I am aware of the various tiers of human rights and the distinctions as well as some rights formulations that are emerging (e.g. rights of the child, right to development, right to peace etc.). But for the purposes of this discussion, human rights will serve as a general category that encompasses all human rights. I am also aware of the conversation regarding responsibilities which will remain outside the scope of this discussion although it is important. I am also mindful that I speak from a Christian perspective which from my experience having worked with others, I believe may find some resonance in other faith traditions.

[3] Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief, How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (Harper Collins Basic Books, New York, 1993) 22.

[4] Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason, How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House, New York, 2006) 35.

[5] The argument here is not to say that reason is the sole basis for a theological basis for human rights. For example, to avoid a “theology of glory”, a proper use of reason is needed. Lutheran theology would be quick to note that “reason” per se is not redemptive. This is why Martin Luther used strong language to describe “reason” (e.g. “a witch”, “a whore” etc.). Like most of the reformers reason was important to make sense of what we experienced in Creation. The proper use of reason was illumined by faith. (see Luther’s Concerning Christ’s Supper – From Part I (1528) Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Timothy Lull, ed., (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2005, p. 259) or Luther’s Work’s on Galatians (1535) Vol.26 p. 284 )

[6] Ibid., 35.

[7] Dr. Foster McCurley presented an unpublished paper on human rights based on Genesis 1-10 to the Lutheran Church in America’s Conference of Bishops in Worchester, Massachusetts in 1984.

[8] It is important to remember that the churches have also been responsible for and accomplices to horrendous violations of human rights. These have been documented very ably elsewhere and are not the focus of the consideration in this paper. This analysis however is not meant to minimize those experiences.

[9] Wolfgang Huber and Heins Eduard Töft, Basic Theological Models for the Interpretation of Human Rights. in A Lutheran Reader in Human Rights Jørgen Lissner and Arne Sovik, eds. (LWF Report; Geneva, September 1978) 91.

[10] Ibid., 91.

[11] Ibid., 92-93.

[12] Ibid., 93.

[13] Ibid., 94.

[14] Richard Amesbury and George M. Newlands , Faith and Human Rights, Christianity and the Global Struggle for Human Dignity, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2008) 62ff..

[15] Ibid., 67

[16] John S. Nurser, For All Peoples and All Nations, (Georgetown University Press, Washington, D.C. 2005).

[17] Erich Weingartner, “Ecumenical Activities and Human Rights,” The Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2002) 550ff.

[18] Nurser, 5-6.

[19] Weingartner, “Ecumenical Activities and Human Rights.”

[20] Ibid.

[21] “Gatt-Fly and the Churches; Changing Public Policy” by Brian Ruttan in Justice as Mission, An Agenda for the Church, by Terry Brown and Christopher Lind, (Burlington, Ontario: Trinity Press, 1985) p.171ff.

[22] “The Right to Development as a Human Right,” Arjun Sengupta at http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/fxbcenter/FXBC_WP7–Sengupta.pdf.

[23] Douglas Roche, The Human Right to Peace (Ottawa: Novalis Press, 2003)

[24] “LWF General Secretary Ishmael Noko: Consequences of Globalization Have Affected Churches in “Very Specific Ways,” Marginalization A Challenge to the Church Nationally and Globally, (Lutheran World Information, Council Press Release No. 4, 10.09.2002) at http://www.lutheranworld.org/News/LWI/EN/1056.EN.html.

[25] Canadian Council of Churches Letter to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, September 21, 2001 following the events of September 11, 2001 in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania at http://www.ccc-cce.ca/english/justice/sept11.htm.

[26] He made this remark to the NGO gathering at the World Summit on Social Development in March 1995.

[27] Walter Wink has written a trilogy of volumes entitled Unmasking the Powers, Naming the Powers and Engaging the Powers, all published by Fortress Press (Minneapolis, MN) where he offers an analysis of the principalities and powers shaping the world today and how they may be exposed, engaged and resisted. Wink’s analysis is much broader than human rights per se but his approach has an important contribution to make to thinking about the future of this work.

[28] Jürgen Moltmann offers one description of public theology. “Its subject alone makes Christian theology a “theologia publica,’ a public theology. It gets involved in the public affairs of society. It thinks about what is of general concern in light of the hope in Christ for the kingdom of God. It becomes political in the name of the poor and marginalized in a given society. Remembrance of the crucified Christ makes it critical towards political religions and idolatries. It thinks critically about the religious and moral values of societies in which it exists, and presents its reflections as a reasoned position.” From Jürgen Moltmann, God for A Secular Society (London: SCM Press, 1999) p. 1 as referred to in William F. Storrar and Andrew Morton, Public Theology for the 21st Century (London: T&T Clark, 2004) p.1.

[29]Global Civil Society 2001, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) p. 4.

[30] Churches have addressed this effectively in the past. The rise of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) movement, which now plays a significant role in the investment community, had its origins in the work done by churches to address the role of corporations and banks in South Africa during the anti-apartheid struggle. So too churches have addressed the role of International Financial Institutions concerning the debt crisis particularly during the Jubilee Campaign and as trade agreements were being negotiated.


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David Pfrimmer

David Pfrimmer is Professor of Public Ethics and Co-director of the Centre for Public Ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary on the campus of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario and an International Fellow at the Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life at the University of Alberta.