A sermon by Bruce Van Voorhis for Human Rights Sunday
Old Testament: Genesis 1:26–27, 31
Epistle: James 1:22–25
Gospel: Luke 10:25–37
O Creator God, may the meditation of my heart, mind and spirit be acceptable and pleasing to you, and may it be faithful to the wisdom and teachings you have gifted to us. In your Son’s name, we pray. Amen.
Today we are observing Human Rights Sunday, a celebration of life and a sermon topic that is relevant to all of us; for as I look around the church this morning, I see only human beings, human beings all with the same equal rights simply because we are human. This understanding, in essence, is the basic definition of human rights.
Today we are also observing the second Sunday of Advent on which we are focusing on the word peace as we await the arrival of the Prince of Peace during that wonderful birthday party that we hold every year on Dec. 25 for the birth of God among us. It is fitting that we emphasize peace today on Human Rights Sunday as it is largely the absence of inner peace and peace around us that fosters the conditions for the human rights problems that we face today.
We remember our human rights today because tomorrow, Dec. 10, is International Human Rights Day, the anniversary of the date in 1948 when the U.N. General Assembly unanimously passed, with the exception of eight abstentions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or UDHR, through which the international community began the process of articulating various human rights principles, such as the principle of non-discrimination, and defining specific human rights. As you know, these rights include freedom of speech, of assembly, of association, of the press, labor rights, women’s rights, child rights, the right to education, to health, an adequate standard of living, etc. This process was initially undertaken in response to events in Asia and Europe during the 1930s and 1940s—tragedies that took millions of lives and caused hardhearted suffering and an immense degradation of human dignity, an assault on humanity that includes the Rape of Nanjing, the Holocaust, the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan and other callous incidents associated with the Second World War. In the intervening six decades since the UDHR was passed, the United Nations, in addition to defining what are people’s rights, has sought to monitor these rights and in especially the past few years to emphasize the implementation of these rights. As you know, however, from reading the newspaper or listening to the news every day, the ability of the United Nations to promote and protect people’s rights has, at best, been limited.
This overview is an understanding of human rights from a legal and political point of view. It is largely the perspective of human rights groups and forms the foundation of their work every day.
What, however, does human rights have to do with our Christian faith?
If we reflect on our scriptures, the teachings of Jesus and the values of our faith, it is difficult to divorce ourselves from being Christians and from being human rights activists, for there is just as much a faith-based or moral underpinning to human rights as there is a legal basis.
Let us begin by looking at our Old Testament reading today. Paraphrasing the scriptures in the first chapter of Genesis, we heard today in verses 27 and 31 that God created men and women in God’s own image, in the image of God we are all created, and that God looked at everything he had created, including us, and saw that it was all very good. We are thus all creations of God; we are thus all children of God. When a person disappears, when they are tortured, when they are imprisoned unjustly for expressing themselves, when they are denied an education or health care, it is an act done against a child of God, a human being created in the image of God by God. Consequently, as Christians who worship this God and are followers of this God, can we allow this violence and this negation of the dignity of a child of God, our God, to take place?
Let us look deeper at who is this God and what this God requires of us.
In 1 John 4:7–11, an epistle from the New Testament that we did not read today, it says, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this, the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
When a person is shot and killed while waiting for a bus, when a woman is beaten, when a child is sexually exploited, when a person loses their land and home in the name of development, this is not loving one another. What, as Christians, should we do?
An answer comes from the well-known injunction of the prophet Micah in chapter 6, verse 8:
“He has showed you, O man, what is good,
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice and to love kindness
and to walk humbly with your God?”
These words from the Book of Micah contain several relevant points regarding our discussion of human rights today. First, when our rights and the rights of our brother and sister are denied, we are to seek justice. Moreover, this response is a way in which we love kindness, in which we express our compassion, in which we bear witness in society to our God and the challenge that God gives us to build the Kingdom of God in this world.
Lastly, the prophet Micah calls us to walk humbly with our God. Our failure to do so, however, is at the heart of human rights violations today and in the past; for if we analyze the root cause of most human rights violations today, we find that one fundamental source is that we fail to walk humbly with our God and with our fellow human beings. The power that is exercised to abuse another human being and to deny them of their rights is a reflection of the ego of the one who violates the dignity of another human being, of the person who ordered this violation to take place and of the legal and political system that permits this violation to take place and that obstructs any attempt at rectifying this abuse through a process to attain justice.
In short—and this is no unexpected revelation—human rights violations are sin. They are a sin against the dignity and humanity of a child of God; they are a sin against the God who created that person. Moreover, they are a manifestation of the root of this sin and all others—a rupture in our relationship with God and with our neighbor.
I want to now expand on this notion of relationships and to underline the way we are all connected to each other through sharing a number of points that are made in the documentary film I Am that is directed and narrated by Tom Shadyac and that was shown at our KUC Movie Night in November. In this film, Shadyac asks two basic, but significant, questions: what is wrong with the world, and what can we do about it? He seeks answers to these questions through interviews with a variety of religious leaders, authors, scientists and academics.
One of the overriding messages of this film is that we are all connected with each other and with the natural environment on which we depend for life in ways we are most likely unaware. The film uses the field of science to explain the links that connect life by noting that we are all part of one gigantic energy field. For example, the film describes two electrons flying in different directions into infinity. When one changes direction, however, the other makes the same identical movement at the same time.
In another experiment in the film, Shadyac sits in front of a dish of yogurt that has two wires connected to a meter. Shadyac is connected to neither the dish of yogurt nor the meter. He is then asked to think of someone that stirs his emotions. When he mentions his lawyer and his agent, the meter immediately swings to the end of the scale.
The air we breathe is also dissected to illustrate the links between us. Naturally, in this room, we are all inhaling and exhaling the same air, but did you realize that we are also breathing in the air, or more accurately a part of the air, that Jesus breathed, that Muhammad breathed, that Buddha, Confucius and other historic figures breathed? Argon, the film explains, is an inert gas that does not mix with any other gas and that comprises 1 percent of the air we all breathe. Thus, the argon that we exhale eventually travels around the world after being inhaled and exhaled by billions of people linking us with people of the present but also people of the past and people of the future.
Now that we understand the connections that scientifically bind us together as a human family, let us look at human nature. If we think of the writings of Charles Darwin, we most likely remember his phrase “survival of the fittest.” However, Shadyac’s film reminds us of Darwin’s conclusion that sympathy, not survival, is the strongest instinct of human nature—an observation that for some reason has become lost. Thus, cooperation is at least as much a part of our nature, the film notes, as competition, and consequently, to be human is to be egalitarian and democratic, to be the keeper of our neighbor, to respect one another and to live in community. In the film, Desmond Tutu states: “We are because we belong.”
Those who abuse people and their rights, however, reach a different conclusion. In their eyes, they belong, but others do not—a reflection again of their ego. They thus break the relationship between themselves and others.
What therefore are we as Christians to do about human rights violations?
First, we can heed the words of James 1:22–25 that we heard this morning:
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror, for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing.”
We can also learn from the familiar story of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke that was also read today. We all know this story quite well. It offers a good illustration of how we should relate to our neighbor. We must remember though that the central figure in this parable, the Samaritan, was from an ethnic group that was despised by the dominant Jewish community of that day—a relationship that makes this story even more powerful as the victim was a Jew. If we frame the Good Samaritan story in our contemporary context, especially one set once again in the Middle East, today’s Good Samaritan would most likely be a Muslim.
Moreover, there is the example of Jesus in Matt. 20:28 to guide us, for “the Son of man came not to be served but to serve.” Phyllis emphasized this point in a recent sermon when she reminded us that we should use our power, not to dominate others, but to serve others.
The film I Am provides some answers for us as well, for, if you remember, the film also seeks to answer what we can do to address the problems of the world of which daily human rights violations are naturally one of them.
Thus, another important message of I Am that springs from the conclusions of a number of people that Shadyac interviews is that we need to change our consciousness. If we begin to base our words and actions, not on what we can get out of doing something, but on how we can bring out the good in other people, then this different consciousness can alter our relationships with each other. This change though has to begin with me. I, of course, cannot determine the attitude of others, but I can determine my own attitude, and I can influence the attitude of others. When a large number of people begin to think, act and speak differently, then we can begin to transform the behavior of society, such as what occurred during the civil rights movement in the United States and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. The academic activist Howard Zinn explains that everyday small acts over a period of time—acts and words and incidents that may seem inconsequential when they occurred— created these strong social movements after they touched and moved an ever greater number of people. Archbishop Tutu offers once again his insight to this discussion. “Change happens,” he says, “because you are concerned.”
Not only must we as Christians become concerned and act to promote and protect human rights and transform society, but we must also work to transform those who oppress and violate the lives, dignity and rights of others. This challenge in the film comes from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who told his African-American followers that people persecuting them are damaged human beings and that they have the power to set their oppressors free from their damaged souls, for following the path of love allows their oppressor to become fully human again. These words, while not easy to heed, encapsulate the power and spirit of forgiveness.
As Christians, we have been presented with a huge challenge this morning. It is not easy; and in Hong Kong, we are blessed that we do not face the human rights violations of so many of our Asian neighbors. We can, however, remember the words of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma: “Please use your liberty to promote ours.”
It is natural to feel overwhelmed and powerless in the face of the enormity of today’s human rights issues, whether in Burma, China or elsewhere in the world. However, we must remind ourselves that we are not alone in this struggle. A Presbyterian pastor in the United States in a sermon many years ago described the way in which the Grand Canyon was formed that is helpful to appreciate this point. He explained that this massive canyon was created by the Colorado River, which, he said, is nothing more than millions of drops of water all moving in the same direction. Over the course of time, these drops of water wore away the rocks that appeared to be so solid and impervious to being reshaped and changed. Today we are those drops of water. We just need to all move in the same direction.
We may protest though and claim that I’m not a human rights defender. I believe though that everyone is a human rights defender. We may not march in demonstrations or sign urgent appeals or lobby on behalf of others, but almost every day an opportunity is presented to us to reach out to another human being, to another child of God. It may or may not directly relate to helping that person enjoy one of their human rights; but when we reach out to another person, we are helping to strengthen the relationships that bind us to each other, to strengthen our humanity through the care, compassion and love that we express for another human being who may be a total stranger to us but who is not a stranger to God. It is in showing respect to that person that we are acknowledging their value as a person, their humanity. This act is the work of a human rights defender because it emphasizes the equality and importance of all of us.
In helping to protect the rights of others, we are also working to protect our own rights. These words from the Rev. Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor in Germany, that were uttered at the end of World War II have always reminded me of this point and our relationship with each other regardless of our identity:
“In Germany, they first came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me;
and by that time, no one was left to speak up.”
As Christians, as I noted earlier, it is difficult to be true to our faith and not be a human rights defender, for God constantly beckons us to be witnesses of his love in this world—an invitation that Archbishop Tutu simply, but clearly, reminds us of in I Am: “God says, I don’t have anybody else except you [and me]!”
Who can refuse God?
Bruce Van Voorhis
(Bruce Van Voorhis works in Hong Kong for Interfaith Cooperation Forum [ICF], a regional network of young Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and indigenous activists working for justpeace at the grassroots level in South and Southeast Asia. ICF is a joint program of the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs [APAY] in Hong Kong where Bruce is based and the Christian Conference of Asia [CCA] located in Chiang Mai, Thailand.)