Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Human Rights, Dignity, and Spiritual Belief

Last week I stood with hundreds of people clapping and singing at the First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. The congregation was hosting an evening event for the national conference of the United States Human Rights Network.

First Iconium is a predominantly African-American congregation with a special mission to serve the cause of equality, justice, and human rights. They enthusiastically welcomed us, an audience that included Black, Latino, Asian, and White conference attendees from a wide variety of social, political, and religious movements.

Keith Jennings, coordinator of Iconium's Social Justice Ministry, strode to the podium and told us that while the gospel choir sang of Jesus, he wanted us to understand this was just one way to affirm our collective humanity. He welcomed us all, and recognized that in the audience there were believers and non-believers, and that some were straight and some were gay, but he said that everyone who was struggling for justice and basic human rights was welcome in the sanctuary of the church he attended.

Around the world there is a growing movement that uses a human rights framework to expand the protections offered by civil and constitutional rights.

It is easy to see that the Christian Right seeks to deny civil rights to those individuals its leaders label as sinful. The Christian Right undermines constitutional rights as it continues to breach the wall of separation between church and state. At Talk to Action, we also argue that basic human rights are being trampled by the policies promoted by the Christian Right in the United States.

By articulating a human rights framework, we begin with the benchmark set by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which elaborates a clearer picture of what is meant by freedom of religion:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change [his or her] religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest [his or her] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

As the brackets suggest, this was an imperfect document, yet it sparked a new movement that we join in progress.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights set a critical standard when it linked equal protection under the law to not just acts of discrimination, but also "incitement" to discrimination:
All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

The Christian Right has attacked the rights of women as well as gay men and lesbians in a concerted effort to impose their theological views on the secular body politic--and the bodies of millions of people in our society. Furthermore, the relentless "incitement to such discrimination" by the Christian Right is itself a violation of basic human rights. It is ironic that the Christian Right has sown the foul wind of discrimination while claiming Biblical justification (Hosea 8:7, KJV).

Finally, the issue of dignity is central to our outlook here at Talk to Action. We note that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states clearly:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

Not just rights, but dignity. Click over to the Guidelines page at Talk to Action where this essay was first posted, and you will see that dignity is a core part of our process. Dignity is a basic human right. We take that seriously here, and it means that we will strive to not demonize people swept up by the windstorm of fear and resentment sown by the leaders of the Christian Right; even if we believe they eventually "shall inherit the wind" (Proverbs 11:29, KJV).

OK, so I have been citing Biblical text just to make some of you restless. But here's the deal: the right to dignity flows in all directions. Honoring the right to dignity means we not only must respect the right to hold sincere religious beliefs when we criticize the policies of the Christian Right; but we must do the same with our own allies.

In practice, this means learning to listen without offense to quotes from not only the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, but also the Five Books of Moses in the Judaic Pentateuch, the Old and New Testaments in the Bible, the Koran, the sacred texts of Buddhism, Hinduism and any other religious texts our allies find meaningful. And, yes, any secular text that our allies find meaningful. To borrow from feminist theory...it's not "either/or" it's "both/and."

The issue is not secular belief versus spiritual faith; the issue is how to craft a pluralist civil society that honors the dignity of both secular philosophy and spiritual faith, while insisting that theological claims alone should never dictate public policies. That's why we say we are challenging theocracy; because that's what the Christian Right is increasingly sowing: a theocratic society.

It is up to us to see that they reap the whirlwind generated by a unified human rights movement defending civil and constitutional rights--but demanding human dignity as well.

We want rights and dignity--bread and roses.

Originally posted on Talk to ActionTalk2Action

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