Take out a sheet of paper.
Spend about five minutes drawing human rights.
What picture comes to mind?
This unorthodox exercise was what greeted us on the first day of a class I’m taking on human rights. The regular lecturer wasn’t even there, a guest was in charge. Having the liberty provided by the first lecture of a course, she decided to have us take on this unorthodox task- to draw a picture of human rights. As much as it felt like some trendy new era approach to education, it was an interesting assignment, and it prompted some great internal questions about the field of human rights and how it relates to social justice.
Got a picture yet?
A piece of my mind wanted to humour some artistic impulse to do something more abstract and conceptual, something that used visual space and texture to open a dialogue, but this was the first day and I didn’t want the entire class to think of me as a stuck up art snob. Plus, this was just a five minute drill.
It was interesting to see what people came up with.
The majority of students drew overt symbols to represent certain, specific rights. A patch of terrain stood for the right to land. A ballot box represented one’s right to vote. Freedom of religion? It didn’t take that much effort to see that represented by the cross, the Star of David, and the crescent moon. I think that fairly accurately represented the immediate instincts that are triggered when one hears the word “rights.” These are things people are entitled to on the basis of being human. Education, accessible health care, clean water, security.
I wanted to draw a little something more than just a bunch of symbols that represented specific categories of rights. There’s got to be something more to this field than merely a list of entitlements. There’s got to be something more overlying, otherwise these would seem quite arbitrary.
There’s another impulsive visual that tends to pop up when one hears the word “human rights,” and that’s an image of its abuses. An image of a child living in dire poverty is one that’s tragically familiar and yet so distant. How about the image of political prisoners, enslaved women, or tortured detainees? Or genocide? In my experience talking about and studying human rights and social justice, it is easiest to identify and describe these standards that we hope to set by taking note of what happens when they are violated. Most of what we have come to know and enforce about genocide today was hardly thought of until the Holocaust became world wide knowledge. In itself, it was far from being the first genocide.
So what could I draw? Did I just want to draw a child slave, a starving indigenous person, and a tortured political dissident, and then cross it all out with some giant X. Is human rights simply the absence of all these ills?
I didn’t feel comfortable with that approach. It’s kind of a safeground when debating human rights to keep the conversation focused on what ills in the world should be removed. It’s always easier to critique than to criticize. However, I think that while our repulsion at slavery and genocide tell us that there are certain ways the world shouldn’t work, that thought also rests on the idea of there being a way that the world should operate.
And that’s leaving the safe ground, yet it’s where you end up if you want to have a rooted understanding of human rights. Human rights aren’t about a system of rules- a friend recently pointed out the irony of the amount of “laws in place to secure liberty.” It usually incorporates rules to guide us towards a life lived the way all instincts seem to indicate lives should be lived.
That’s why I had to be up front in this class that it’s unfair for me to talk about human rights without also explaining how they’re rooted in my faith and my beliefs. That’s why I would typically rather use the word justice instead of human rights. To me, justice is a right ordering of relationship with God and with others. It’s why Jesus mentioned that all the other commandments hang off of the ones that say Love God with all you’ve got, and Love your neighbor like yourself. Justice is this order, and all human rights hang off of it.
And Jesus has a term for what happens when people exist in the correct ordering of relationship with God and each other. It’s the Kingdom of Heaven.
I know a lot of evil has resulted in the past out of efforts to create utopian societies. People with noble intentions and grand ideas start movements that oftentimes become circles of exclusivity. The people outside are at best excluded, and at worst, dehumanized and killed.
This usually happens, however, when things, even good things, get put out of order. When people develop a saviour complex. The Kingdom of Heaven revolves around Love. It’s a proper ordering of relationships. While most human rights workers understand the needs of free speech, food, and education, I’ve grown very familiar with our need for relationships. And the things you need to sustain relationships aren’t the things that exclude and dehumanize others in an effort to create a “perfect world,” in fact they’re quite the opposite- compassion and grace.
And so a picture?
I think that justice, in its purest form, can be expressed by a simple call to neighborliness, a neighborliness where we’re free to take our eyes off ourselves and to look out for each other. Where we celebrate each other. Where the people we help are thought of as friends rather than victims or charity cases.
Where we live in relationship, a correct ordering of relationship with God and each other.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a neighborhood.