Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Reframing Rights Language

The language of rights has become the predominant lingua franca of moral discourse in Western democratic regimes. Rights language is powerful language; indeed it is something of a ‘fighting creed’. At its best, it calls for a recognition that access to vital goods is being denied or hindered by agents or agencies that have no moral or political legitimacy to do so. There is strength in rights language. Perhaps for this reason in particular, it has become customary and even instinctive for persons to state their moral viewpoints or make their claims in terms of rights. This is most unfortunate for a variety of reasons.

Rights language tends toward the absolute and uncompromising despite the recognition by policymakers, lawmakers, and those who implement policy that rights claims must be prioritised and balanced with competing claims. Framing moral claims or aspirations in terms of rights does not automatically guarantee their legitimacy nor the capacity for other persons or institutions to meet a need. Such claims are frequently stated in conflictual or adversarial manners, sometimes justified, sometimes not. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is some resistance to an inflation in rights discourse for fear of the adversarial stances and seemingly irreconcilable positions we see in debates—such as those surrounding abortion—being extended to more areas. (Similarly, the adversarial and litigious culture of the United States is not one we desire to see transplanted in any way in Australia.)

The capacity for our society to have coherent moral discussion is in a bad state. Numerous philosophers, social theorists and theologians have provided various diagnoses of this reality in our pluralistic culture which pressures us to create an ostensibly neutral, supposedly ‘secular’ language. Human rights discourse appears to some to be just that. However, it is more likely that our instinctive leap to claim ‘rights’ for all and every moral or political aspiration is not access to a universal moral language so much as an attempted shortcut to getting what we need (or perhaps just want) rather than going through the difficult processes of moral argument and persuasion.

In looking for a reframing of ‘rights’ language, it is not my intention by any means to resist moves to see the poor and marginalised, the victimised or oppressed lose what rights they have or fail to be protected with rights they should have. I desire instead to see processes of deliberation and education that properly grounds rights and really do advance our aspirations to embody the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human rights in its complex outworkings.

The social dimension of rights needs to be properly elaborated in any discussion. It has been rightly said that discussion of moral and civic responsibilities needs to be increased; though it is difficult to see how well this discussion can be encouraged in an individualistic culture where the assertion of a ‘right’ to ‘do what I like’ so long as ‘I don’t hurt anyone’ is paramount and what ‘hurt’ actually entails is unclear or hotly contested.

What exactly are rights? I suggest that rights are warranted claims on a commitment of a particular society or agency thereof to guarantee particular goods or prevent unfair restrictions to access them. We do not simply ‘have rights’ as ‘individuals’. We have rights in community with others committed to our mutual good. We can legitimately argue that there are rights that all human beings ought to have. In this respect we can call them ‘human rights’. In other words, rights do not trump moral argument or recognition but are their outcome. We recognise there are certain essential goods (such as particular kinds of freedom) that are essential for human flourishing. When we commit to guarantee access to such goods insofar as it is reasonably possible for us, these can be enshrined as rights. However, the process of social recognition should not be subverted by the mere claim of a (novel) right and enshrinement through legislative stealth. The place of cultural deliberation and social recognition must be upheld. If cultural deliberation is subverted through overreliance upon rights language, we actually undermine the discussions of common good required to create or sustain a culture that is truly committed to ‘human rights’.
Such concerns need to be at the centre of any ongoing discussion of the future of rights in our country. Any rush into expanding rights discourse that does not adequately deal with these difficult and problematic issues is ill-advised and may well lead ironically down a path of less concern for each other in our diversity and for those in serious need. Our responsibilities to help others must transcend ‘rights’ and reach for a higher justice. 

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Remembering Our Primary Social Calling

In some form or another, most Australian Christians realise that their ethical and political convictions should bear the marks of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The rediscovery by many Christians that the gospel is indeed ‘public truth’ has led some to assume that the primary means of Christian social influence is to grasp at the ‘levers of power’ in order to press home any residual Christendom advantage we might have before we are lost in some feared flood of secular and/or multi-religious voices.

Yet fears—real or imagined—while being impressive short-term motivators (as politicians show us especially at election time) are unworthy of those who dare to make the claim that the crucified Jesus is the risen, ascended Lord. While Christians should not sit idly in the midst of problematic social change and ethical challenges, there is something disturbing about the moral panic that is trumpeted by some Christians as though the redemption of the world was all up to them. There is something faithless and impatient about all of this.

Christians are indeed sent into the world to make a difference but the means by which that difference is sought are just as important as the ends. The attempt to guarantee security for the church’s voice through the machinations of legal and political apparatus may well be overlooking the depth of challenge that the death and resurrection of Jesus makes to our settled view of things. Our baptism into this death and resurrection does not remove us from the world but neither does it send us back with a sense of superiority and urge to rule and direct the lives of others in the name of the ‘word of God’. Those who would be ‘reigning with Christ’ are sent back into a world with a whole new ethos exemplifying what it means to live in the world that God in Christ really has reconciled to himself. That is a task to be lived out at cost to ourselves at every level of life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Letters and Papers in Prison, pp. 382-3) reminds us that

the church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell [men and women] of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others… It must not underestimate the importance of human example… it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power. 
Such a life must be lived in the manner of the One we follow: not trusting finally in the securities of state, law, or social kudos, but in the God who raises from the dead and whose kingdom will indeed come on earth as it is in heaven.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

A Call to Civility

When the Americans emerged from a mid-term election, it was with few surprises, not only in terms of result but regarding campaign style and character. It seems Americans have reached a point in political life where they have become used to a quality of political discourse that has degenerated to new levels of shallowness and disrespect. The freak show of American cable ‘news’ and punditry, the ugliness of shrill, combative blogging and the substitution of personalities and polling for policy debate all sound alarm bells for the health of civil society and a functioning democracy. Undoubtedly, the U.S.A. is a different country to Australia with its own narrative and mythology concerning its imagined origins and destiny.

Yet many of the same worrying signs have appeared in Australia—and among Australian Christians. The ‘culture wars’ mentality of so-called Left and Right wings of politics increasingly hardens believers into inflexible progressive versus conservative camps who can only value a victory for their ‘godly’ agenda over that of their enemy. Their enemy. Not simply a political opponent. Not even a partisan adversary. Enemy.

The depth of this antipathy can be debated. But at least on the surface, at least at the level of public rhetoric, political discourse has taken a turn for the worse. Too many Christians and Christian organisations have tied themselves to predictable political party lines and anointed themselves as priests and prophets of God’s political will, ready to decry Christians who disagree as they would the prophets of Baal. The willingness of believers to sling mud at fellow believers disturbingly mirrors the media sound bites of political antagonism. Politics has been captured by cynical exercises in character assassination… but where is the counter-witness of the gospel among Christians?

This political situation exudes disrespect on three levels. First, it shows disrespect to the systems, principles and practices of governance that frame our attempts at democratic discourse. Rather than champion analysis and discussion of vision, ethos and policy, the politics of disrespect utilises ‘new media’ to drive singular pre-packaged messages through, frequently promoting suspicion and fear. This undermines the public square as a forum of debate and deliberation concerning the common good. Second, this politics is disrespectful of our leaders, our representatives in government. If Australians have been characterised as holding authority figures in relatively low esteem in the past, they now risk downgrading this to new depths of mockery and loathing. Whatever disappointments or failures we find in particular politicians, this is no excuse to undermine leadership or to discourage the more noble motivations for entering politics through excessive personal scrutiny, lampooning or character assassination. Third, this politics is disrespectful of those represented, the citizens of Australia. It reduces the body politic of citizens to a mob thought to be below serious thinking or incapable of mature cooperation in search of the common good. Is this a situation Christians want to see deteriorate further or can we move toward being part of the solution?

This requires a change in culture. But at the least it ought to begin among Christians. Jim Wallis of Sojourners in the United States has promoted a ‘civility covenant’ for American Christians to embrace, to move against the flow of their political culture. It is reproduced here below. We invite you, your church or Christian organisation to embrace it.

Too often, however, we have reflected the political divisions of our culture rather than the unity we have in the body of Christ. We come together to urge those who claim the name of Christ to "put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you" (Ephesians 4:31-32).

1) We commit that our dialogue with each other will reflect the spirit of the Scriptures, where our posture toward each other is to be "quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry" (James 1:19).

2) We believe that each of us, and our fellow human beings, are created in the image of God. The respect we owe to God should be reflected in the honour and respect we show to each other in our common humanity, particularly in how we speak to each other. "With the tongue we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God....this ought not to be so" (James 3:9,10).

3) We pledge that when we disagree, we will do so respectfully, without falsely impugning the other's motives, attacking the other's character, or questioning the other's faith, and recognizing in humility that in our limited, human opinions, "we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror" (1 Corinthians 13:12). We will therefore "be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love" (Ephesians 4:2).

4) We will ever be mindful of the language we use in expressing our disagreements, being neither arrogant nor boastful in our beliefs: "Before destruction one's heart is haughty, but humility goes before honour" (Proverbs 18:12).

5) We recognize that we cannot function together as citizens of the same community, whether local or national, unless we are mindful of how we treat each other in pursuit of the common good in the common life we share together. Each of us must therefore "put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour, for we are all members of one body" (Ephesians 4:25).

6) We commit to pray for our political leaders - those with whom we may agree, as well as those with whom we may disagree. "I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made - for kings and all who are in high positions" (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

7) We believe that it is more difficult to hate others, even our adversaries and our enemies, when we are praying for them. We commit to pray for each other, those with whom we agree and those with whom we may disagree, so that together we may strive to be faithful witnesses to our Lord, who prayed "that they may be one" (John 17:22).

We pledge to God and to each other that we will lead by example in a country where civil discourse seems to have broken down. We will work to model a better way in how we treat each other in our many faith communities, even across religious and political lines. We will strive to create in our congregations safe and sacred spaces for common prayer and community discussion as we come together to seek God's will for our nation and our world.