A Faith-based Human Rights Approach
This blog post was written by The Rev. Anne Thatcher, an Episcopal priest in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Anne attended Cristosal's October 2017 Global School Seminar, "Human Rights, Reconciliation, and Faith" in San Salvador. She is a longtime Cristosal supporter, and we are grateful to her for sharing her perspective on human rights and faith in this season of Lent.
“Que piensan de nosostros? Ustedes han oido de la violencia en nuestro pais” (What do you think of us? You have you heard about the violence in our country), asked 14-year-old Jaime* as he made direct eye contact with me. We sat in a circle of white plastic chairs, in the state-run juvenile reinsertion center outside of San Salvador, El Salvador. This was the unit for youth from Barrio 18, or the 18th St. Gang. I will never forget that young face—his and the others that sat with us, and those who watched outside the classroom, leaning against the barred windows, while many more crowded against the exterior classroom wall.
I said, “You are human beings and you are young and learning and vulnerable. It is our job as a community to take care of you. We know that at this age you are vulnerable to manipulation by adults. You make mistakes, we all do, but that is part of learning. I am a Christian, a priest, and I believe that every one of you is good, a good person.” My heart broke as I spoke for I knew that Jaime and his peers, who we had just met, would not likely survive their release from prison. Caught in a web of violence, they are human beings rejected by their own gang, by their communities, the military and the police.
When I reflect upon that moment in October 2017, I see the classroom, where we sat eye-to-eye, one asking the other, “Do you see me as human?” To have someone assume that you believe (as they do) that they are beyond redemption is heart breaking. Jaime was waiting for our Christian judgment to rain down upon him and his peers. This moment begs the question: what message is the Church sending about how we treat God’s human beings?
After attending Cristosal’s Human Rights, Reconciliation, and Faith Global School Seminar last October, I asked myself why I was constantly drawn to Cristosal and human rights work. I realized it is because this work is essential to what I believe human beings are called to do on this earth. I also discovered that crafting a “faith-based” approach to human rights was, for me, a redundant objective because I believe that you cannot separate one from the other.
“What is the state if it is not ourselves?” Noah Bullock, Cristosal Executive Director, asked when discussing the human rights approach of helping citizens put a claim on the state to uphold its responsibility to care for them. And so I ask, “What is the Church if it is not ourselves?” For the Church that lives in isolation from the world, rejecting all those who do not comply with its laws and expectations, is a Church that dies. Nor is it a Church that is living into the fundamental rule of Christianity, to spread the Gospel to the world. And this Gospel is the Gospel for all people and that all people shall be saved. That includes Jaime and his peers in the juvenile reinsertion center. Jesus is the great equalizer. The last shall be first and the first shall be last (Mt. 20:16). Therefore, for Christians, a human rights approach is essential to our practice. We do not get to pick and choose whom we care for. It is our job as Christians to love and welcome Jaime and his peers back into society as human beings regardless of their gang-related history.
Noah also stated that for a human-rights based approach to work, “it must be our vested interest because then we will get out there- but that means being able to see ourselves as equal as humans.” This, too, is at the foundation of Christianity: to see the other as an equal person. The life and ministry of Jesus was to affirm the human dignity of all people, sinners included (tax collectors, prostitutes, criminals, etc.). The feeding of the five thousand in Matthew 14 describes food being given to all who were hungry and thirsty. There are no verses describing the disciples distributing food according to social, political, or economic status. Food was given to all who were hungry and thirsty. That was the only requirement, basic human need.
One of the Lenten themes each year is practicing love. We remember that God so loved the world that he sent his only son Jesus Christ (John 3:16). This unconditional love is the answer to being freed from our own fear of the “other”. When we rest in and are affirmed by God’s abundant love, we find the foundation for human rights. If I believe that God’s kingdom is one in which all human beings are unconditionally loved, accepted and provided for so that they can live with human dignity, then my actions are no longer limited by my own humanity. It is love of my fellow human beings that moves me to reach out to care, protect and provide for them as I would for my own family and myself.
This is fulfillment of the Second Commandment, to love our neighbors as ourselves. The danger is the temptation of my ego to be the end of my actions. Robert Egger, founder of D.C. Central Kitchen poses this question: When we are assisting others, is “it about the redemption of the giver or the liberation of the receiver?” Do I reach out to advocate for my Salvadoran neighbor’s human rights because I want to feel good, so I can say that I have done my Christian duty? Or do I do so because my neighbor deserves to be as free as I am? As safe as I am? As protected as I am? Because we are human beings, we are God’s people and as God’s people we are all equal in the eyes of God. The challenge is to live into seeing each other as equals, to see each other through the eyes of God instead of through our own human eyes of comparison and calculation. By acknowledging that our actions as humans will inherently include self-interest, we open ourselves to God’s transformative work through the Gospel. My personal interest, rather than being corrupted by ego can be transformed into a love of and passion for the liberation of the receiver.
How can we get the Church to recognize that human rights work is fundamentally intertwined with our call to live out the Gospel? I close with the words of the Rev. Dr. Alan Boesak: “It is not in withdrawing into ourselves that we find God. It is in reaching out to the wounded other that God reveals himself to us. Therein lies the tenderness of conscience I am pleading for. It is not simply an ‘inner voice’ which leads us to deeds of charity. It is the presence of love that demands justice, that cannot rejoice in the lie and that creates havoc within ourselves until justice is done” (Boesak, 221).
*This name has been changed to protect identity.
Boesak, Allan Aubrey. “The Tenderness of Conscience : African Renaissance and the Spirituality of Politics,” 2005.
Bullock, Noah. Cristosal Global School Seminar Presentation “Human Rights, Reconciliation, and Faith," October, 2017.
Egger, Robert. http://www.robertegger.org/writing/quotes. February, 2018.