The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, at the 69th anniversary of its proclamation by the United Nations General Assembly, will probably take a place in history among other classics of political philosophy.
These include the Covenant Code of ancient Israel (Exodus 20:19-23:33), Plato’s “Republic,” Aristotle’s Politics, Augustine’s “City of God,” the Magna Carta, Thomas More’s “Utopia” and the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights.
Each of these points to an ideal of community to which the human family can aspire.
In different periods of history and in different cultural contexts, these classical statements set forth foundations for a healthy fulfilment of a society’s destiny – the rights and responsibilities that are essential.
When the declaration was issued in 1948, the world was still reeling from an awareness of atrocities that accompanied World War II.
The collective desire of the assembled nations was to propose a set of principles and guidelines that would undergird the possibility of a fruitful life and of a peaceful coexistence.
The specific articles of the declaration that are the focus of this reflection are 22, 25 and 29.
These emphasize the right of every person to unrestricted access to economic and cultural opportunity (Article 22), including protection and support for that access to enable a standard of living “adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.”
Social, economic and medical services to assist in times of need are affirmed as part of this right (Article 25).
Further, the responsibility of respecting and supporting others’ rights while claiming one’s own (Article 29) is an essential feature of the Universal Declaration.
The tone of these three articles underscores the value of a collective commitment to a social and political framework that seeks the well-being of all its participants.
This egalitarian spirit ties it to the core values of the major religious traditions that came to the table of the U.N. deliberations. Each tradition can see its influence in the affirmations of the declaration.
My particular Baptist perspective resonates with the emphasis on freedom and dignity for every person, with the call of inclusiveness in the granting and protection of these rights, and with the appeal for “ministry” in the form of support for persons in circumstances of need.
While certainly not unique to Baptists, these values are hallmarks of a heritage reaching back to Roger Williams and his proposal for the communal framework of Rhode Island.
He and other Baptist pioneers were champions of the admonitions of the gospel to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, embrace the marginalized and restore the broken to wholeness.
It is ironic that among nations who embraced the Universal Declaration and its values, there is still political resistance to a livable minimum wage, to a social safety net that provides support for victims of economic distress, to measures designed to promote affordable health care and to education resources sufficient to provide avenues for all children to achieve their potential.
Statements of noble values do not always find their way into political realities.
The declaration has received its share of criticism, both from nations who have seen it as tilted toward the cultural priorities of Europe and the West, and from persons who are generally opposed to being told of their responsibility to support the same rights for others that they enjoy for themselves.
And, it is no secret that even signatory nations to the declaration have persisted in behaviors that are contrary to its stated values.
No “blueprint for community” – ancient or modern – has been the perfect solution to the complex problems and challenges that face the human family.
Still, each effort, ancient and modern, has attempted to offer the principles, values and ways of thinking that contribute to the sustainability and good health of the human community.
The declaration will also share with its classical ancestors this lack of perfection of application in the “real world.”
None of its predecessors has succeeded at the creation of a perfect world, and it probably will not either.
Still, it offers the hope and the guidance that there is at least a healthy and wholesome direction toward which efforts can be directed, and there is plenty of historical evidence to suggest this direction is the better way.
Perhaps there is some encouragement in the Apostle Paul’s observation on the gospel: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7) – pointing to the imperfection of our efforts to implement it fully.
The fact that the human agency of such values and rights is flawed doesn’t keep the treasure in its earthen vessel from still being a treasure.
To the age-old question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” the answer of the Universal Declaration of Human rights is a resounding, “Yes!”
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series for Human Rights Day 2017 (Dec. 10). Previous articles in the series are: