Unconditional respect for every person

To talk about human rights in the light of the Gospel, we should first look at the person of Jesus and what the Gospels tell us about him. The first thing that strikes us in many episodes of Jesus’ life is how he welcomes and respects every human being, adult and child alike. He recognises, as we are taught to do, the dignity of every person, created in the image of God.

We know that he calls God “Abba” (father) and that for him, every human being is a son and daughter of God, loved by Him. As pointed out by his adversaries, he was no respecter of persons: “Master, we know that you are an honest man and that you are not afraid of anyone because human rank means nothing to you and that you teach the way of God in all honesty”. (Mark 12, 14).

More than that, he readily defends those oppressed, marginalised, sidelined, despised or ignored. Episodes like that of Zacchaeus even show us his predilection for this kind of person.

He also asks us to change our thinking and adopt the same attitude as he does: unconditional respect for every person. To this end, he goes so far as to give children as examples to adults, women as examples to men, sinners as examples to the righteous (or those who think they are), and non-Jews as examples to Jews. In so doing, he revolutionised religion and the prevailing culture where, as in our societies, hierarchies and organisational charts count. For him, each person has his/her value and dignity, and he shows this and declares it.

His commandment is clear: “Love your neighbour as yourself”. He explains: “In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me … For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; lacking clothes and you clothed me, sick and you visited me” (Mt 25:40, 35-36). Jesus identifies with each person.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, this second part of the Church’s catechism, as Pope John Paul II would call it – often little known and rarely taught in catechesis – underlines this in its own way: “the roots of human rights are to be found in the dignity that belongs to each human being” (no. 153). The Compendium continues: “These rights are universal, inviolable and inalienable. Universal, because they are present in all human beings, without exception of time, place or subject. Inviolable insofar as they are inherent in the human person and in human dignity. Inalienable, insofar as ‘no one can legitimately deprive another person whoever they may be of these rights since this would do violence to their nature”.

The previous number of the Compendium already stated: “The Church’s Magisterium has not failed to note the positive value of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations on 10 December 1948, which John Paul II defined as a true ‘milestone placed on the path of humanity’s moral progress’” (no. 152).

My experience

The importance of this Universal Declaration is well-known almost everywhere in the world today. In my experience of working for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation in Rwanda, I have seen how, if we base ourselves on these rights, we can reach an agreement between people from all walks of life. For example, I took part in the establishment of an Association for the Defence of Human Rights and Public Freedoms (ADL). I got involved in concrete ways, with people from other Churches and other religions – or no religion at all – in joint actions that had a great impact on the country up until the genocide of 1994.

Subsequently, I also participated in the campaign for an international ban on anti-personnel landmines in Brussels, within the framework of Pax Christi, and in conjunction with other associations and numerous other networks worldwide. This campaign was successful: the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and their Destruction was signed in Oslo on 18 September 1997 by 122 governments in Ottawa in December and entered into force on 1 March 1999.

Our fight

For a Christian and a M.Afr., this fight against the proliferation of weapons is undoubtedly a form of solidarity – a form of fundamental commitment. We must continue this fight, as well as the battle to abolish the death penalty in all countries. According to statistics for 2021, 106 States have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, 8 have abolished it for ordinary crimes, and 50 respect the moratorium on both de jure and de facto executions, making a total of 164 States. On the other hand, the death penalty is still applied in 54 States and territories, including some African countries. We still have more work to do in this area!

I will end by mentioning another subject close to my heart: the commitment to active and evangelical non-violence. This begins with non-violent communication, Marshall Rosenberg’s method, with which many of us are familiar, but it goes much further.

We know that non-violent campaigns and actions can only overcome some of the world’s most significant structural injustices. I like to give the examples of colonialism (Gandhi), racial segregation in the United States (Martin Luther King), communism (Lech Walesa and John Paul II), apartheid in South Africa (Nelson Mandela), not forgetting, of course, slavery: didn’t Cardinal Lavigerie become famous worldwide for his anti-slavery campaign? Only active non-violence, supported by large crowds, has eradicated these plagues on humanity.

In the end, wasn’t it the attitude of Jesus and the words of the Gospel – like those in the Sermon on the Mount – that inspired the personalities mentioned and spurred crowds into action?

By: Guy Theunis, M.Afr.