Response to Pfrimmer — “The Faith Basis for 60 Years of Human Rights Work by Churches”

[1] As my colleague, Peter Prove, who heads The Lutheran World Federation’s Office for International Affairs and Human Rights could not be with us due to pressing matters in Geneva, it is my good fortune once again to share some time with my other good colleague and friend, Dr. David Pfrimmer. We have collaborated on a number of occasions in the past, to discuss the churches and internationally recognized human rights as well as issues related globalization, and so it is again another wonderful opportunity to share our views together.

[2] My task is, on the one hand, easy and, on the other, difficult because Dr. Pfrimmer and I share many of the same perspectives. Central to these is the view that a Christian perspective on human rights starts from the preceding theological premise that human dignity is our starting point for any discussion of human rights in the church. We are all created in the image of God (“imago dei”) and therefore have inherent dignity. This notion — theologically and chronologically — comes first and upon this basis do we build, among other things, the human construction of rights which emanated, for the most part, from both the Reformation and the Enlightenment. And, of course, it is the Enlightenment that established the “secular” foundation for the contemporary codification of human rights. But, as David also helpfully pointed out, in addition to inherent dignity, God gave us reason as an additional tool to further God’s vision for a better society and, therefore, God’s action in the world.

[3] Another building block, as David recalls for us, in citing Dr. Foster McCurley, is the notion that these international human rights standards codified in declarations and conventions can be understood as the threshold below which the image of the divine is violated and disrespected. This is very helpful in one of the main tasks we see following this consultation of re-energizing the church’s embrace of human rights from a theological standpoint and re-introducing our members to the idea that human rights standards – expressed in secular contexts and language – for us emanate from a theological affirmation.

[4] I also appreciate David’s recalling for us the work of several Lutherans on behalf of human rights, most notably, Dr. O. Fred Nolde, the Philadelphia Seminary professor who worked with Eleanor Roosevelt and others in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, in particular, its Article 18 on freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Nolde was the person primarily responsible for the World Council of Churches’ 1948 declaration in Amsterdam on religious liberty. David mentions Canon John Nurser’s “For All Peoples and All Nations”, an account of Nolde’s life and work on human rights and I commend it to you as fascinating reading. David mentions Erich Weingartner, his compatriot, and to which I would add several others such as our Office’s first and second directors, Edward May and Ralston Deffenbaugh, Jørgen Lissner of the LWF Geneva staff in the 1970s, Bishop Kleopas Dumeni of Namibia, Dean Simon Farisani of South Africa, the Rev. Paul Boe and Dr. Will Herzfeld of the U.S., Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro of Kenya and Bishop Medardo Gomez of El Salvador. I discussed many of these contributors in an October 2007 lecture at Philadelphia Seminary on the recent past participation of Lutherans in human rights work but am omitting it here. In mid-2008 Christian Albers, then an intern at the Lutheran Office for World Community, created a web site which consists of interviews of several of these and other Christian leaders in human rights work.

[5] (It is important to mention here another aspect of U.S. Lutheran support for human rights. We must not forget that two of the ELCA’s predecessor church bodies adopted social statements on human rights. In 1972 the American Lutheran Church adopted a social statement entitled, “Peace, Justice and Human Rights”. And thirty years ago – in 1978 – the Lutheran Church in America adopted the social statement “Human Rights: Doing Justice in God’s World.” It is important to recognize that these statements guide the ELCA and inform its work but only act as policy when sufficient agreement exists and the ELCA has not adopted another statement on the same subject. However, social statements of predecessor church bodies do not constitute ELCA policy, as they have not been voted on by a Churchwide Assembly.)

[6] As Dr. Pfrimmer also makes clear, the churches have supported the indivisibility of human rights, namely that preserving and protecting civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights cannot be split. To this I would add that we ought not to divide them because in so many of the most serious cases of grave violations both groups of rights have been denied. Think of apartheid in southern Africa or the civil wars in Central America. Or illegitimate debt racked up by dictatorships in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Argentina or the Philippines. The economic and social devastation was almost always accompanied by repression and militarization and vice versa. And, while we are looking overseas, let us not forget the systematic violations against people of color in the United States whether under slavery, by displacement onto reservations or more recently, detention without charges.

[7] David has raised a current issue which Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson has as well: the use of fear to effectively trump any and all rights when deemed necessary. How can we, as people of hope rooted in the Gospel, make the message of hope heard and affirmed when the dominant paradigm tries to drown out fairly effectively this different worldview? How can the church have Walter Wink’s call, which David mentions, to unmask, name and engage the principalities and powers be as well heard in our society as the hate and fear-mongers of talk radio and TV?

[8] Before concluding I want to affirm the seven learnings that David identified:

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

2) The churches need to understand human rights work as an expression of the churches’ public theology.

3) The human rights work of the churches needs to include a dialogue of cultures and faiths. At UN headquarters we participate in the nongovernmental organization committees on human rights and on freedom of religion or belief. We also have joined various discussions on intercultural and interfaith dialogue that have taken on a new currency in the past few years.

4) The churches will need to build partnerships with civil society actors. The ELCA advocacy staff does this extensively in their various venues, Washington, New York, with corporations and in state capitals.

5) The human rights work of the churches will need to recognize non-state and non-institutional actors. While more needs to be done, The Lutheran World Federation lived out this principle when it brokered peace talks in the 1980s between the Guatemalan insurgency movement and the Guatemalan government.

6) The churches will need to encourage, train and maintain the technical and analytical expertise to ensure responsible participation. The Lutheran World Federation and the Lutheran Office for World Community have begun systematic monitoring of the compliance of governments with their human rights treaty obligations in collaboration with LWF member churches and LWF field offices.

7) The churches need a new humility and repentance to continue their human rights work. At the time of the 5-year review of the Beijing World Conference on Women, church representatives in New York engaged in a critique of the role of religion and culture influenced by religion in exacerbating or contributing to violence against women. The critique acknowledged the negative role of religion but also noted the positive role that religious leaders have been playing in speaking out against such violence and in calling for its perpetrators to be brought to justice.

[9] To these seven, I’d like to add or re-frame an idea — which David mentions many times — but do it out of my own experience working at the Lutheran Office for World Community. Indeed, the concept of “human dignity” which we affirm as a matter of faith is one which easily can be affirmed in discussions at the United Nations. Specifically, we have found out that “human dignity” speaks clearly as a concept in the language of intergovernmental discussions. Often I say that one of our office’s tasks is to translate the faith language into more secular “values language” for our message to be heard. Wonderfully, human dignity needs no such translation.


“Human Rights: Doing Justice in God’s World: A Social Statement of the Lutheran Church in America” (1978). Online at:

Nurser, John S., For All Peoples and All Nations: The Ecumenical Church and Human Rights, Foreword by David Little, $54.95 Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC 240 pages, February 2005, ISBN: 9781589010390

“Peace, Justice, and Human Rights, A Statement of The American Lutheran Church” (1972). Online at: