Respect For Human Rights
Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report
“If I’m barely scratching out a living in East Tennessee, worried about having enough money to get my kids a decent education or to make the payments on a bigger house, what difference do these abuses taking place so far away make to me?” asked a talk show host on a National Public Radio station. It was an excellent question; and William F. Schultz, the director of Amnesty International and former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, responds to it in the July/August 2001 issue of UU World.
He says human rights campaigners are not well prepared to answer it.
Over the centuries, he says, human beings have devised different sets of standards by which to measure our obligations to one another. Almost 4,000 years ago the Babylonian king Hammurabi issued a set of laws to his people. It established fair wages, offered protection of property, and required charges to be proven at a trial. The Romans were probably the first to establish the concept of citizen’s rights, but the modern notion of rights derives from such seminal documents as the Magna Carta (1215), The English Bill of Rights (1689) , The U.S. Bill of Rights (1791), and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789). The problem with all these statements is that they applied to only one set of people, and given the presence of women and slaves, not even to all of that set, that is, not to all English, American or French people; although the French Declaration attempted to articulate rights that held for all humanity.
Remarkably, it took almost 4,000 years from the days of Hammurabi for the world to agree on a statement of rights that applied to everyone–even to one’s enemies!–simply because everybody is a human being. It took a world body (the United Nations), horrific carnage (the Holocaust of World War II), and an extraordinary woman (Eleanor Roosevelt), to carry it off; but in 1948 the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was a formidable achievement.
Still, the problem has been enforcing these rights. The only ones who have the power to enforce them, are the very powers–nation-states–that might be guilty of violating them.
What powers can be brought to bear to help bring about the implementation of the Universal Declaration? One that has been used is moral suasion, an appeal to a sense of decency and fair play. Another is the law. But these alone are not enough to win a major audience. “Compassion fatigue” has been a popular explanation for the apparent limits to people’s interest in foreign catastrophes. If the American public is to care about human rights violations around the world, Schultz believes, they must understand how these violations endanger their own interests. The validity of this assertion was brought home by the stunning impact of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which occurred shortly after his article was written.
When asked, before the attacks, whether what happens in Europe and Asia has any personal relevance, 55 percent of Americans said that events there have no impact on them. Such indifference was being reflected in the diminishing coverage U.S. media outlets were giving to international affairs. When asked by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations to describe what the United States should take as its most important foreign policy goals, only 39 percent of Americans named “Promoting and defending human rights in other countries.”
“The average American,” says Schultz, “is fuzzy about just how human rights violations affect the world around them…’Realism’ has largely dominated foreign policy thinking, and ‘realists have little truck with human rights.” Alan Tonelson, a “realist” of the Economic Strategy Institute says, “In the absence of such a rival [the Soviet Union], the state of human rights around the world does not have, and never has had, any demonstrable effect on U.S. national security.” George Kennan offers, “I would like to see our government gradually withdraw from its public advocacy of democracy and human rights.”
What realists fail to recognize is that, in far more cases than they allow, defending human rights is a prerequisite to protecting our national interest. Whether in war and peace, international trade, economic growth, the security of jobs, the state of our environment, the public health, the interdiction of drugs, or a host of other topics, there is a connection between Americans’ own interests and international human rights.
“By emphasizing morality to the exclusion of pragmatism,” argues Schultz, “we human rights advocates have allowed ourselves to be dismissed as idealists or ideologues, as either too mushy-headed in our thinking to be taken seriously or too rigid in our priorities to be trusted with power.” We have too often in the past twenty years ceded U.S. foreign policy to those in government and business who care the least about human rights.”
The commercialist argument, that the best way to ensure democracy and human rights is via economic growth, has caused endless debate, but businesses have traditionally seen human rights concerns to be inimical to theirs. “The truth is that not only can business be good for human rights, but human rights are good for business, and for labor,” declares Schultz. Does a democratic community of rights carry with is real, practical, bottom-line advantages for investors? The futures of many Americans are now entangled with international investments. More than $350 billion of our money is in mutual funds that invest overseas, at least $160 billion of our retirement funds are invested overseas, and more than $285 billion is invested in developing nations.
If the commercialist argument were accurate on its face, Singapore should be a human rights haven–also Malaysia, the past Indonesia of Suharto, apartheid-era South Africa, Pinochet’s Chile, or Nazi Germany, where at least 300 U.S. companies continued operations there even after the war had begun.
There is an even more fundamental reason why supporting human rights serves our national interest. Respect for human rights contributes mightily to political stability, and conducting business without stability is like playing Russian roulette… with all barrels loaded. Countries that abuse human rights are notoriously unstable, even when they appear as solid as rocks. When it comes to business interests, the “rule of law” encompasses three factors: combating corruption, providing transparent regulations for the conduct of business, and guaranteeing the fair enforcement of contracts.
We need to be unafraid to say, “Support human rights! They’re good for us!” The Zuni Indians say, “We dance for pleasure…and the good of the city.” “…we who care about our brothers’ and sisters’ rights,” Schultz proposes, “should not be hesitant to acknowledge that we do so for many reasons, not the least of which is the good of the city.”
To the Muslims, he was the Messenger; to the Jews, a heretic and charlatan; to the Christians, the Son of God. In these postmodern times, Jesus belongs also to the sociologists, the historians, the scientists who speculate on the transmission of culture; to the electronic media, to the distributor of religious products, to the politicians.
Why do the questions persist: Did Jesus ever live, or was he invented? Why are there no contemporary accounts? What are the secular views of Jesus? How did the central concepts of Christianity evolve, and continue to evolve today?
Jesus the Man
There are no contemporary accounts. There are no firsthand portraits, no credible autobiographies or remains. Some historians conclude that Jesus never existed, that he was a synthesis of older gods and myths, shaped to meet the needs of an oppressed people in their struggle for survival and independence.
For those who lean towards the existence of Jesus, the questions multiply. The gospels, those portions of the New Testament purported to be written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, may not be very reliable. They were composed at a later date by people who probably were not the four apostles and who may have had no firsthand information of Jesus.
Historians have tried to carefully peel away the veneers of poetry, politics and propaganda to arrive at the bare truths of the Jesus story. From the writings of Renan and Schweitzer in the 19th and early 20th century to the scholars of the Jesus Seminar in the 1990’s, naturalistic explanations have continued to refine the secular view of Christian history.
Secular historians, such as Burton Mack, carefully develop a context for the inception of Christianity. That context includes the political, economic and cultural environment which incubated the movement for generations before it spread like wildfire throughout the world.
The image of Jesus which emerges from the current generation of naturalistic historians is that of a Jewish man, fairly orthodox, tending to be rather zealous, yet not violent. He prophesies and performs miracles. not unlike a shaman or a guru; indeed, some of the Talmudic commentaries regarding Jesus describe him as knowing the magical arts of the Egyptians. He may have been influenced by the Essenes, by the Qumran community, by the teachings of Hillel.
Jesus the Christ
With the death of Jesus came the birth of the Christ. It was left to a man who never met Jesus, Paul — an early Christian convert and Roman citizen — to lay the basic foundations of Christianity. Paul taught much more than the sayings or actions of Jesus; Paul told a meaningful story about Jesus, complete with a language and imagery that would fuse with pagan symbols and concepts over the coming centuries until it spread across the entire planet. The deification and theologizing of Jesus had begun. No longer was Jesus to be seen as a man; he was the Son of Man, and a host of other titles: the Savior, the Redeemer, the King of Kings, and the truly heretical title among the Jews, that of the Son of God.
The conversion of Jesus into a mystical abstraction allowed for an explosion of apologetics. As the early Christian churches developed creeds, schisms took place. Competing theologies led to purges, as the Gnostics and other heretics were driven from the Body of Christ.
Generations later the followers of Jesus, refined and energized by persecution, finally won over the Roman empire. Even after that empire fell, the war for souls continued. Within a thousand years after the fall of Rome, Christianity had spread over Europe, Africa and Asia, and would soon reach across the ocean to the New World. In that time the church had become many churches, had endured reforms, created monastic orders, established universities, copied and destroyed countless books, financed breathtaking art and bloody crusades.
The meek Jesus had become a weapon of the powerful, but he was still confined within the limits of the church and the cathedral, the ministrations of the priests, the Latin liturgy, the traditions of centuries. All of that would change with the invention of the printing press.
Jesus the Software
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
With the death of Jesus, the Word that became flesh was back to being the Word. The most sacred duty of Christians was to spread the Word, through the “Good News” of the gospel.
The Bible was printed and exploded across the literate world. Christians who could read began to consider Christianity without the filter of the clergy. A major result of this Reformation was the shift of authority, at least for many believers, from the Church to the Word. The struggle between ecclesiastical authority and scripture continues to the present. It may be that new groups tend to rely more on revelation and scripture as they emerge, rather than upon authority, which accumulates as the weight of the institution — its traditions, assets and experiences — increases.
What explains the power and longevity of Jesus long after so many other religious figures have faded?
Viewed from one perspective, Christianity was successful in becoming a medium for the transmission of concepts and control or influence of behavior. The Word was accompanied by instructions for understanding and applying the Word.
We are witnessing, not just Jesus as an institution, but even Jesus as software. In a more or less metaphorical sense, religious instruction resembles programming. It is usually downloaded from a group of family or friends and internalized by the recipient by modifying emotional and cognitive processes. The Jesus application had to run on an operating system of Biblicism, and, once it became patched and strengthened, it was robust enough to handle the additional processing required by a sect. If the installation in an individual is done well, and maintained frequently, the program will run without ceasing and will then replicate itself. “What would Jesus do?” is a classic example of the internalized program in action.
Proponents of the controversial theory of memetics describe Christianity as a “meme-plex” of self-replicating units of cultural information which has evolved into a powerful, living entity.
It is possible to view Christianity (and other major religions of maturity) as the product of a sort of cultural “natural selection.” The analogy can certainly be abused, but the parallels are striking. Concepts of Christ may serve to improve the comfort and even survivability of believers, at least until the believer can transmit the beliefs to another. Religions which promote large families increase the probability for transmission of the religion itself. Those groups which teach abstinence for all believers (such as the Shakers) are at a great disadvantage when competing with their more fertile rivals.
What can a secularist learn from the Jesus story and the Jesus experience?
For one, that there is little to be gained in persisting in questioning the physical reality of the man Jesus. The historicity of Jesus does not appear to be as important as having the experience of Jesus. Religious ritual is theater; theater is designed to evoke strong emotions in the audience. Emotions are the core of the religious experience, whether a feeling of oneness with God, a feeling of shame and contrition, a sense of being seized by a divine spirit, or even the experience of evil.
So, whether or not Jesus ever lived, ever existed, he does now. His dwelling place is with the various other gods and demigods, old and new, in a virtual heaven that spans cyberspace and literature. Every believer has their Jesus, the one who mirrors them. To the soldier, he is a holy warrior; to a mother, a devoted son; to a working man, he is a carpenter; to the preacher, he is the greatest story ever told…
A New Religious America
During the past 35-years the United States has become the world’s most religiously diverse nation. During that short period Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Zoroastrians, and varieties of Jews and Christians have flocked to our shores. Children from all these religions attend our public schools together while the parents work side by side in a variety of occupations. Why did this religious phenomenon suddenly occur? Can the United States remain the world’s most secular government and at the same time be the most religiously diverse? These questions may be the most important challenges we face in the twenty-first century. Diana L. Eck, professor of Comparative Religion at Harvard, offers some stimulating and provocative answers in her new book, A New Religious America, recently published by Harper Collins.
Creatures of Habitat
Mark Hengesbaugh is a local author who happens to be married to a good friend of my wife. He recently published a new bookCreatures of Habitat (Utah State University Press) that serves as a field guide to non-game animals located in the Great Basin area.
The book is notable for its readable style, while it contains a great deal of useful information, the tone is light and chatty. But don’t let the readable nature of the text fool you. There is a wealth of valuable information between the covers of this book including concepts such as a keystone species. Prairie dogs are one such creature; if and when they fail there is a domino effect among other animals and plants. “Biologists have identified more than 170 species that rely on prairie dog towns in some way.”
Mark notes that we should use the best methods of science to determine when and where to either build or protect. Far from a knee-jerk environmentalist, Mark notes that hunters have spent more time and money than most groups protecting wildlife habitat. Finally, the book’s conclusion notes that, “Native plants and animals are only expressions of natural landscapes; as these places disappear so do the creatures that inhabit them…Blaming others allows individuals to shrug off personal responsibility and continue on a comfortable course.”
The book can be purchased directly from Utah State University or, as I found, from amazon.com.
New Looks for the Utah Humanist
The times, they are a-changin’.
So is The Utah Humanist. We hope to make both the format and content more interesting, more relevant than ever.
Look for new articles, features, improved graphics, and more information on Utah’s freethought community. And, as always, we welcome articles, letters and suggestions (see the Meetings and Contacts page for submission information).
This issue even includes a “centerfold!” Take a peek at something that just might be getting censored these days: the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, also known as “The Bill of Rights.” Rights? Privacy? Are these important to you? Keep your copy of the Bill of Rights handy. You’re going to need it.
While this is an expanded issue (the print edition), we’re not yet sure if we’ll stick with the larger format. Your input would help us.
We also encourage you to visit the Humanists of Utah website. Webmaster Wayne Wilson is redesigning the site to have a consistent look and feel Of course, your comments are always welcome.
Finally, this is not exactly our “Christmas issue,” so don’t expect the usual … er … sugar plum fairy tales. Jesus is a pretty important guy in our society, and there are many interesting points of view and stories about him. Enough said.
Be aware. Be informed. Be happy.
And a merry Solstice to all.