Human Rights and Family

[1] This double issue of JLE focuses on both human rights and family. The set of articles on human rights was occasioned by observance of the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The set of articles on family is occasioned by the discussion of family in the first draft of the proposed ELCA social statement, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust which will be released in its second draft to the church and public this month. John Stumme, the founder of this journal, also provides a remembrance of the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of FIRST THINGS.

Sixty Years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

[2] “Sixty Years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” was the focus of the ELCA Consultation on Human Rights, held October 30-31, 2008, in Chicago, Illinois. The consultation was held by the ELCA’s Inter-unit Task Force for the Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence. The purposes of the consultation were to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration by the U.N. General Assembly on December 10, 1948, and to use this celebration to encourage the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to continued and deepened involvement defending human rights. We are pleased to share some of the work of this consultation with readers of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.

[3] The consultation brought together members of the Inter-unit Task Force for the Decade, ELCA partners in ministry such as the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the Lutheran World Federation, ecumenical partners, human rights advocates and lawyers, ELCA staff, academic theologians, and others. They met to celebrate the Universal Declaration’s sixty years, to reflect on human rights challenges to our various ministries and missions, and to suggest some possible ways in which the ELCA could address human rights in the future.

[4] The Inter-unit Task Force on the Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence called this consultation because it was aware of the close connection between violations of human rights and the presence of violence in the world. The consultation was made possible by a generous churchwide grant funded by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. The task force itself had been called into being action of the ELCA Church Council after an ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 1999 approved the church’s participation in the U.N. Decade for a Culture of Nonviolence. Reducing or ending international and domestic violence and creating sustainable conditions of peace will require increased attention to, and defense of, human rights. The ELCA’s own social statement, “For Peace in God’s World,” (adopted in 1995) (see recognized this link when it included a section on human rights which cites the Universal Declaration, and called for the church’s constant involvement in peacemaking.

[5] This issue of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics brings together papers from presentations given at the consultation. These presentations were an interesting mix of theological reflection about human rights and the work of the church, practical reflection about how that work is carried on both here and in Africa, and case studies of particular areas of concern about human rights, such as corporate social responsibility, U.S. exceptionalism, immigration law, property and economic rights, and climate change. The participants in the consultation also discussed a number of steps the ELCA could take to enhance its own involvement in human rights. These are included in a report on the consultation prepared by Emily Davila that accompanies the papers.

[6] A preview of the articles. David Pfrimmer gives a reasoned theological argument for why churches should be involved in human rights work. He is responded to by Dennis Frado. Emily Davila discusses the importance of a human rights-based approach to churches’ advocacy work in public life, specifically to economic and social development in less-developed countries, addressing conditions of poverty as a way to affirm people’s economic and social rights, and supporting national and regional human rights groups. She also discusses the need for a human rights movement in the 21st century. Margaret Obaga discusses the Akinamama model developed by the women’s desk of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya for empowering its women and helping them to claim and exercise their human rights.

[7] A set of case studies of human rights is also presented. Nancy Arnison discusses the complexities and vulnerabilities of the frequent claims by the United States that it be excepted from international human rights norms and conventions, even when it signs and commits itself to such conventions. She discusses two cases—the International Criminal Court and the Convention Against Torture—and offers some theological reflection on U.S. exceptionalism. Mary Meg McCarthy addresses human rights and immigration in the United States in light of Constitutional and international human rights principles. Jim Martin-Schramm discusses the complex human rights issues raised by the likely consequences of climate change, implications of which we have yet to seriously address. Ronald Duty writes about the relation between the right to property and related economic rights of the Universal Declaration, on the one hand, and the explanations of the seventh commandment and the fourth peti tion of the Lord’s Prayer in Luther’s catechisms in the Lutheran Confessions, on the other. He argues that there is a theological basis for grounding advocacy and defense of human rights in Luther’s thought and the Lutheran Confessions.

[8] Finally, Michael Reid Trice addresses the theme, “Cruelty in the Mind of God.” Although this paper was not given at the human rights consultation but rather at a World Council of Churches Consultation on “Cruelty—The Ugly Face of Violence” in 2006 at Crêt Bérard, Switzerland, it is relevant to a discussion of human rights because cruelty or violence are commonly involved in violations of such rights. Trice explores the nature of cruelty, shows its relevance to the case of the biblical figure Job, and relates it to institutional cruelty as a “death zone,” which is the locus of many violations of human rights. No doubt, many such violations are not only experienced as unjust but also as cruel.


[9] Martha Ellen Stortz responds to the first draft of Human Sexuality: Gift and Task with appreciation for its seeing family through the lens of the Second Article of the creeds, for its emphasis on trust, and for its treatment of family in larger a social context. Jane Strohl looks at the statement through the lens of Luther’s thought about marriage as a vocation. And Brad Kierkegaard, on the other hand, looks at family through the lens of the New Testament periods and of Roman culture from whence our contemporary reality of families sprang, and offers some concluding theologically informed thoughts on family.

Richard John Neuhaus

[10] Finally, John Stumme reflects on the significance of former Lutheran pastor, Richard John Neuhaus for American public and religious life. Calling Neuhaus “arguably the most significant and most interesting public theologian who has come out of Lutheranism in America,” Stumme notes his complex and controversial relationship with Lutheranism. Stumme lifts up four notable things about Neuhaus: his provocatively influential way of combining the roles of pastor, activist, and public intellectual; his life and thought as a lens through which one may reflect on the events of the last forty years; the influence on him of Paul’s two ages, Augustine’s two cities, and Luther’s two kingdoms; and the christocentric focus of his understanding of God.

Ron Duty,

Issue editor

Ronald W. Duty

Ronald W. Duty is the former Assistant Director for Studies in Church in Society at the ELCA, and is now a private scholar.