Faith Lived Out: Inherent Dignity


Last week marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the massacre at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Nobody really knows how many were killed in June of 1989 – several hundred, perhaps a thousand. The run-up to this solemn anniversary was full of heightened security by Chinese authorities, tighter control of information, efforts to downplay the tragedy, and increased surveillance of citizens. Those with power were not taking any chances. So it was no surprise when June 4 came and went with little disruption in Beijing. Instead, human rights supporters gathered among the more independent environs of Hong Kong to keep memory and hope alive.

Part III of the United Methodist Social Principles addresses “The Social Community” and perhaps more than any other part of this document resembles post-World War II human rights instruments. In fact, the opening paragraph of Part III calls for “the recognition, protection, and implementation” of principles highlighted in the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That Universal Declaration was written in the shadow of Auschwitz and other “crimes against humanity.” A close study of history will also reveal that it was drafted in the wake of trendy legal and moral rationalizations for the disregard of certain people. Our church supports this renewed commitment to all because of “our respect for the inherent dignity of all persons.” The list of concerns among this section of the Social Principles includes the rights of people from every conceivable background. We are on record affirming a common, shared humanity.

This comprehensive respect for human rights may not seem controversial, especially for a church body. Typically, the devil is in the details of application. If we look in the mirror, we must acknowledge the way Christians have participated in a violation of these rights. Coming clean is critical, but that is different than denying the principle of commonality itself. Today, even the notion of universality is under attack. Many contemporary human rights documents evolved from a collection of philosophical ideas given birth during the Enlightenment period (especially the Eighteenth Century). After all, America itself is an experiment conducted within theoretical convictions of that age. Notions of self-evident truth, equality, and liberty did not arise in a vacuum. We may not have lived these principles very well, but we at least presumed them to have authority when it came to ordering public life.

In some respects, that is no longer the case. A belief in universality regarding human rights has been critiqued from both the left and the right. Some on the left have charged that Modern concepts of human rights betray a particular European bias, that they are an attempt to force a one-size-fits-all concept of rights on the rest of the world. Some on the right (especially in Christian theology) have decried the secularizing of the gospel according to Modern (Eighteenth Century) philosophy. For several decades now, it has been fashionable to dance on the grave of the Enlightenment. Both of these critiques deserve careful consideration, and there is some truth lurking in the observations. There are also dangers to dismissing hard-won consensus regarding basic human rights.

When challenged about human rights violations, many in China resort to charges of Western cultural imperialism. State spokespeople say those who pick on human rights issues don’t “get” China. Never mind that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written, in part, by the revered Chinese philosopher, P. C. Chang. When theologians dare to speak of human rights, they are often considered has-beens of the Modern era, outdated curmudgeons who have not been liberated from the Enlightenment’s domination of gospel particularities. Then again, the inner circle of academic theology has been harping on this point for a while. A new generation just may relegate this dismissal to the ash heap of reflection. Oh, how times change. Perhaps this is a moment for those committed to universal human rights to rearticulate their claims.

In 1846, just as the antislavery movement was gaining momentum, abolitionist Wesleyan philosopher, Asa Mahan, made a powerful appeal for the universality of human rights. He even stated that when we consent to the sacrifice of rights possessed by a solitary individual humanity is degraded in ourselves. Convictions regarding shared humanity do not get any deeper than that. Theologically speaking, a people who believe Jesus lived, died, and rose for all will not have a hard time embracing this truth. Human rights are not earned but given by God. We should be very, very careful about entertaining dismissive arguments relative to such rights.

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Chris Momany

Chris Momany has been chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College since 1996 and has taught in the Department of Philosophy/Religion since 1998. He is an ordained United Methodist minister, and a graduate of Adrian College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Drew University. His academic interests focus on Christian ethics and philosophy. He has been published in the Christian Century, the Wesleyan Theological Journal, The Asbury Theological Journal, the Circuit Rider magazine, the United Methodist Reporter, and other venues. Chris also writes for the Daily Bible Study curriculum of the United Methodist Publishing House and for MinistryMatters, an online ministry resource. His book on the Wesleyan ethic of love and justice bears the title, Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness. Chris has led many conferences, workshops, and continuing education events. For several years he has combined his research and teaching with a focus on human trafficking. Today it is estimated that 27 million people are held as slaves throughout the world. Chris has been a national leader among college and church professionals in confronting this issue.

Leave a Reply

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
Notify of
%d bloggers like this: