We celebrate the 73rd anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 10.
The document, in the manner of official resolutions of all kinds, begins with a series of “Whereas” statements and proceeds to draw a series of conclusions – “therefore” – that form the body of the document.
Of the seven “Whereas” assertions, I wish to highlight two that resonate strongly with core gospel values:
- “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
- “Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights.”
I recognize that this declaration incorporates implicitly ethical principles derived from a broad range of faith traditions and from the Enlightenment humanism foundational to the founding documents of the United States.
Yet, as a Christian I see clearly the reflection of humanity´s creation “in the image and likeness” of God (Genesis 1:26-28). Our inalienable rights are grounded in our divine creation.
In our global economy, a handful of rich nations – economically stratified within their own borders – dominate financial markets, as well as the extraction and consumption of resources.
Meanwhile, the deliberations of transnational entities such as the World Bank, the World Economic Forum and the U.N. itself, struggle to give more than lip service to “the inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”
Living up to the UDHR’s ideals can seem impossible, and the global climate crisis makes this task vastly more difficult.
First, the global climate crisis exacerbates scarcity.
For example, Joe McCarthy, a staff writer for Global Citizen, points out: “The world’s poorest communities often live on the most fragile land, and they are often politically, socially and economically marginalized.”
So, when marginal agricultural or grazing lands suffer desertification because of proliferating extremes of heat and uncertain precipitation, the poor suffer first.
And the more anxious global elites feel, the more innate human selfishness kicks in – “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) – and the ideal of “fundamental human rights” gets trampled in the scramble.
Second, global economic structures and perennial political arrangements are collectively infected with sin, quite apart from the systemic stresses of climate change.
As Walter Wink argued persuasively a generation ago in his book trilogy Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers and Engaging the Powers, the biblical “principalities and powers” are not simply transcendent realities.
Rather, they are manifest in the cultural, economic and governmental structures that impose rigid limits on the scope of individual moral power.
Those who understand themselves to be stewards of these systems will sacrifice “human rights,” often with strenuous disclaimers, when their dominance and security are threatened.
Quite apart from issues of individual and collective sin, the UDHR, its undeniable idealism notwithstanding, takes for granted – indeed, incorporates into its raison d’etre – a structural arrangement of human societies that is centuries old but is obsolete in the era of global economics and globalized cultures: the nation-state.
Article 13 states, “Everyone has the right to freedom within the borders of each state.” The modern idea of the nation-state is both too expansive and too narrow for our common human dilemma today.
Too expansive because, even in an atmosphere of pervasive xenophobia, “national” populations around the globe are becoming more diverse and the economic conditions of their inhabitants more intertwined.
Too narrow because rising temperatures, sea levels and concentrations of greenhouse gases, and the destructive climate events, pandemics and armed conflicts which are their byproducts know no borders. People fleeing for their very lives will not observe borders and “national sovereignty.”
I would argue that the concept of “human rights” itself needs rethinking in the context of a global ecosystem in which all forms of life on earth are intimately connected, and we flourish or languish together.
The same creation narrative that describes human beings as being made in God’s image and likeness also describes God´s delight at each stage of the creative process and concludes that “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31, emphasis added).
To the starkly negative assessment I have given of the project of “human rights” in these perilous days, I append Isaiah´s vision of the One anointed by the Spirit of the Lord “who shall not judge by what his eyes see, … but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isaiah 11:3-4).
The prophet adds to his description of God’s Anointed the famous vision in which the “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb” in a transformed creation and “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:6-9).
Christ followers must live toward this vision of “creation rights,” which are not only transnational but “trans-species.”
By living individual lives of simplicity, generosity, welcome for the stranger, reverence for God’s creation, and by creating and sustaining communities in accord with this vision, we offer hope for human rights and a shalom still more extensive than that envisioned in the declaration we are celebrating.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week calling attention to the United Nations’ Human Rights Day (Dec. 10). The other article in the series is:
The Persistent Widow and the United Nations | Wissam al-Saliby
Adjunct professor of theology at Palmer Seminary in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He served previously as senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, and as professor of theology and ethics at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Wheeler appeared in the EthicsDaily.com documentary, “Sacred Texts, Social Duty.”