RHR 2008: Boker tov from RHR!
RHR 2008: Muslim text study / conversation

RHR 2008: Abrahamic Religions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

A meta-note: I hope to be able to post some more personal responses, something that synthesizes this material a little bit, later today. For now, here's another session transcript for the benefit of those who aren't able to join us in person; enjoy!

L to R: Sulayman S. Nyang, Dr. David Gushee, Dr. Arnold Eisen.

The first formal session of Day 2 is a panel called:

The Abrahamic Religions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary; Dr. David Gushee, founder and president of Evangelicals for Human Rights and a professor of Christian ethics; and Sulayman S. Nyang, professor and chairman of the African Studies Department at Howard University and a former Gambian ambassador to the Middle East; moderated by Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, Director, Religious Studies Program, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Rabbi Fuchs-Kreimer begins by citing Jane Meyer's book The Dark Side. Alberto Moya was presented with information about what was going on in Guantanamo, and took it on himself to follow up on it where many others had not; he made a huge difference at great cost to himself. Afterwards somebody asked, "why did you do it?" And he said, "If I hadn't, my mother would have killed me!" Many of us are doing this work precisely for that reason.

It's a privilege to moderate an interreligious panel at a conference like this. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was 60 years ago Wednesay; it grew out of a meeting of men and women from many different faiths, and many also who were secular. "Across this great cultural divide they crafted a document which became parent of the American civil rights movement." It was something revolutionary, a vision of the rights every man and woman would have in every country regardless of their government and regardless of religion.

Eleanor Roosevelt was involved with ths process, and has written about how her faith spurred her in doing this work. She understood that people would come with diferent languages/beliefs, and in the end would create "a bridge to walk across." Today we'll hear from three individuals who represent three historic religious traditions from which they ground their understanding of sacred, unique human life. "The ideals carry no weight unless the people understand them and demand that they be lived," Roosevelt said; today these speakers will talk about the communities they live and work with and the coreligionists they try to lead to understand this.

Professor Arnold Eisen begins:

This issue is utterly urgent: universal achievement of human rights at a time when religion has such potential to do good, and to do evil, in the world.

This morning's task is impossible -- to talk about all of this material in 15 minutes! I'm going to focus on 2 particular points. The first point: It's one of the great gifts of the Torah, the foundation text of Judaism and the tree of life to which I hold fast, that Torah makes it clear from the beginning that Jews are a small portion of a much larger creation. You can lose sight of it; when you read the Torah's narratives you tend to focus on our heroes. You do Jacob and are happy to shunt Esau off to the side; you read about Isaac and are glad when Ishmael is out of the picture. You have a narrow view of things which historically has been reinforced by ghetto, persecution, which didn't incline Jews in the direction of universalism.

But Torah portrays Jews as part of a much larger creation.

The entire family of humanity is created in God's image. God made sure that family was created in diversity, and diversity is part of what God declares good! After things go wrong and God starts afresh with Noah, here too the focus is entirely universal. Only long after that does God settle on a design to bring knowledge of God and compassion throughout the world to a particular person/family, Abraham, therbey setting in motion a process that gives the world not just Judaism but the 3 great monotheistic traditions.

How amazing it is that the covenant of circumcision is established with Abraham at the birth of Ishmael, and not at the birth of Isaac. The text could have waited, limited it to Isaac, but it didn't! That's a mark that it wanted to go beyond total particularism, and it sets the Jews in eternal dialogue with another one of the world's great traditions. Ishmael is built into our story, and our story is built into their story. It's much more complicated in Christianity, which makes our story a preface in its story.

How important it is that this sign of the covenant does not mark the Jewish covenant alone... God did not set things up for particularism.

The tradition tried to reinterpret in a less universal direction the teachings of the Noachide covenant. Some have made a great deal of the Noachide covenant; others haven't. But the world is not just divided into two, Jews and idolaters; the world is divided into three, Jews, idolaters, and children of Noah. You can tell a story that over the centuries the children of Noah category has gradually expanded, and the idolaters category has contracted to almost nothing. Muslims have been monotheists from the very beginning in Jewish law.

Moses Mendelssohn writes the first book of modern Jewish thought, Jerusalem (1783), which contains a large section arguing for pluralism. He excludes only atheists from pluralism under the Enlightenment that atheists cannot be moral because they have no belief in punishment from God in the afterlife! He argues that Hindus are monotheists with a polytheist symbol system and are therefore entitled to full rights and recognition.

And then you get my teacher, Heschel, the man who impacted me more than any other 20th century book. In his 1965 address at Hebrew Union seminary he made it clear why intolerance is no longer tolerable. "We share too much in common, especially fear and trembling before the living God. Because the world is in peril we must stand together or everything falls apart." This minority tradition must have connections with peoples other than itself. I go deeper into life with the help of these narratives, and deeper into these narratives with the help of life.

Religious traditions first conceived and developed thousands of years ago were not developed with 21st-century human beings in mind. They have other intentions. And yet, these are our traditions, far more than creeds; these are living things. One does not fulfill the commandment to love the Lord with all our hearts, souls, and minds, if we shut down our minds and side with the intolerant and the persecutors. We have a privilege, a gift, and also an obligation; otherwise the tradition dies and God can't be a living presence in the world. We have to take this tension and work with it.

In our Torah cycle we're about the chronicle the fearful and touching chronicle of Jacob and Esau. "To see your face is like seeing the face f God," Jacob says, but turns down Esau's request to live together; separation would be best for him and his covenant. Rbabi Soloveitchik has made much of this line, arguing that Jews in America today could also benefit from more separation. I'm not here to debate that, but I want to make the crucial point that sometimes good fences do in fact make good neighbors. Difference is to be preserved, not eliminated. ...One tries to respect people across the bounds of difference.

I want to spend a few minutes talking about faith, for two reasons. First, it's a canard often heard (most recently in the spate of militant atheist books) that religion is inimical to tolerance and human rights. That it's only tribal, particularistic. I don't know how one defeats this with argument! You can debate; I'm not sure what the point is. The more important debate, it seems to me, takes place in action. You don't refute a charge like that except by proving that religion is, in fact, a source of love; a legitimator for human rights; not only a legitimation for terrorism but can be an incentive to love. You can have disagreement for the sake of heaven, and prove that it really is for the sake of heaven that this is happening.

There is a much more serious objection that's heard, that Judaism cannot endorse human rights because Judaism cannot endorse a theory of rights. This is a serious argument and I have only 3 minutes left! But it's wrongheaded. The notion of human rights emerges from enlightemment social contract theory, but I would argue that the notion of the human is Biblically based; without the nition of God's image, of the covenant with all humanity, the enlightenment social contract would not have developed and our basis in western liberalism would be very fragile.

We've got a language which does not entirely accord with Jewish tradition; of course there will be tensions between modernity, which since Kant has interpreted that language in an agnostic direction, and our tradition for which God and commandedness have to be central. But! Hashofet kol ha'aretz lo yaaseh mishat? ["The judge of all the earth will not do justice?"] There is a Lord of all the earth who enjoins justice upon us! Therefore you are thrown into the language of human rights; that's a fruitful way that modern culture has achieved a measure of success in this regard. So you don't make the argument that we've always had human rights; but we're part of a living tradition which can more than embrace a definition of human rights, even with all of the tensions involved.

I have put the emphasis on the possible, because I think right now we're in a situation in the world we're hoping is a commandment. We've just gone through an election in which we've chosen hope over love of known quantities, and the religions of the world could easily fall back on criticism, but we need to use the best of ourselves to change things. Of course particularism and tribalism are part of our tradition. Every religion has the occupational hazard of chauvinism built in. But the idea of meeting a brother long-estranged and seeing in that brother the image of God is a possibility built in to our tradition from this very line in Torah!

I'll end with one of Heschel's more famous teachings. It's forbidden to make images of God because then we might forget that the images of God in this world are us. We are the images of God in the world; protecting human rights protects God's image from defacement.

Dr. David Gushee said:

I'll try to describe the congruities and incongruities between the Declaration for Human Rights and my own tradition; I'll speak out of Christian particularity rather than trying for a thin veneer of universalism.

A fresh reading of the Declaration of Universal Human Rights on its 60th anniversary leaves me with a conclusion that there's nothing in that document hwich is inconsistent with the Christian faith if the Christian faith is rightly understood.

Christianity's deepest congruences with the declaration are often found where that declaration is more reticent to speak. The Declaration offers four things:

1) That the recognition of such rights is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world;

2) That disregard for human rights has resulted in outrageous and barbarous acts;

3) That the kind of world created by such rights fits with our highest aspirations;

4) That the nations of the UN have already implicitly agreed with all of this.

Rights are articulated as a common standard of achievement for all... The declaration enumerates rights under the categories of rights, liberty, security. The rights articulated comprehensive and sweeping.

Only one article emphasizes the duties of individuals. Most focus on the specific rights held by human beings by virtue of being human.

The Christian faith is congruent with this for two primary reasons, one visible in the text and one not. There is a profound congruence on the level of moral principle. The declaration articulates broad moral principles: human freedom, dignity, quality. The value of human life. Christian scriptures affirm these principles, and Christian leaders have often understood that such principles are constitutive of what it means to be human. I will not now rehearse the list of many times when Christian leaders have fallen short of this attention; they are too many to name.

The declaration is also congruent in how it reflects Christianity's deepest theoogical convictions -- though it shies away from any explicit theological claims! The congruence is subterranean, found in the very idea that humans have inherent dignity, equal and inalienable rights. The declaration itself gives no reasons for this claim.

But Christians would argue: each human is in the image of God, reflects the image of God, is made for blessed eternal relationship with God. Moral laws and principles in Scripture demonstrate God's care for human beings, given divine guidance and inspiration. The prophetic demand for justice for every human life, especially the most vulnerable, reflects the value of human life in God's sight. Christian faith personalizes and heightens these claims with the doctrine of the incarnation...

The document contains an implicit eschatology. "The advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief, and freedom from fear an want, has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people." That word advent -- advent of a world -- cannot help but be striking for a Christian who speaks to you during Advent! Advent means coming; Christians celebrate the weeks before the birth of Jesus as the season of Advent. Humanity's deepest hopes will find realization; light is penetrating darkness.

I believe that the declaration of human rights is an eschatological document; you might call it a messianic document. It dreams of a world of justice and peace. What it can't say, but believers can, is that this is the world God dreamed of when God created... it's the world the prophets pointed to, the world Christians believe that Jesus came to initiate. It's tikkun olam. "When every tear shall be wiped away at last and all shall dwell in freedom and justice."

The declaration proclaims itself as the common standard of achievement for all people and nations; thus human rights will be advanced by moral suasion, and by progressive measures both national and international. In sum, the declaration hopes to reach the glorious day when human rights are honored, through education and law. A robust Christian theology will want to say more about how any such success will come both as a human work and as a gift from God, and will flow toward the eschatological future God has in store for humanity.

I want to talk also about some incongruities between this declaration and certain tendencies in Christian theology; the problem is, I think, with Christian thought, not with the declaration! Classical Christian thought finds its center in the notion of the cross, where God's perfect son laid down his life for humanity. The cross functions in the New Testament not just as the central theological image but also as the central moral paradigm. Believers are instructed to be like Jesus, who voluntarily put aside his rights and privilege and consented to the humiliation of human nature.

Imitation of Christ, therefore, takes the form of laying down one's privileges and rights in order to love the neighbor above the self. A number of Christian theologians find this paradigm to be incompatible with human rights. Some go so far as to call human rights a fiction, and label it a product of the quasi-pagan enlightenment with no roots in Christian faith. ...Some argue that the true Christian can claim no rights for him/herself! But most theologians go on to say that the obligation to love one's neighbor do create binding duties for the Christian.

Christ tells us to love our neighbors. Examination of the human condition shows that our neighbors are needy creatures. This creates a Christian duty to intervene on behalf of our neighbors when they are threatened. Contemporary human rights language can be seen to systematize and codify that obligation, a way of making concrete the obligations of neighbor-love, but it's framed in terms of the duties we have to others, not the rights we have in ourselves.

One problem is that this tends to encourage a compassion or love-driven response to instances of human need, rather than a steady focus on the just structuring of human community. Ambivalence for claiming rights for oneself leads many Christians to accede to their own victimization, and to the victimization of others. A third problem is the reo-ccuring tendency of some Christians who are most impressed by the language of the cross to be least impressed by the struggle for human rights, and therefore to abandon that struggle altogether.

In my own work...I've focused on the coming reign of God. When God reigns, God's will is done. God clearly wills the just treatment of every human being, all precious in God's sight. This is clear across the Biblical canon. Human rights language is one critical way of defining what justice looks like, the justice God demands. Christians are called to be Kingdom people; to create churches that both embody justice in their own communal life and advance justice in the public arena. In this work we must join our efforts with any and all people who feel that tug toward justice.

[Today is Eid al-Adha, so Imam Yahya Hendi is leading prayer at his mosque today instead of joining us; instead we have Professor Sulayman Nyang.]

Professor Sulayman Nyang says:

When we talk about Islam and human rights, we have to take into account the theological and metaphysical site of that relationship. Then we have to look at the historical experience of Islam and the manner in which it relates to human rights. And thirdly I get to deal with the sociological and political situations in the world today and how they together affect our understanding of human rights and how our human rights can be benefited from and could be violated by Muslim behavior.

First of all, if you were an alien from another galaxy doing research on humans, what is going to strike you most is that what scholars now call the Abrahamic religions, and what you see in common industry, is that you will find that these 3 religions share a number of things in common, and together in the historical narrative would give account to what we now call human rights. You find clearly in these 3 religions that they all have the same myths of origin. These three religions agree that they came from Adam and Eve, and have maintained that for thousands of years. What is striking here is that in addition to the fact that they all claim to come from Adam and Eve, that they are beneficiaries of a series of migrations, there's one that links them all together: the metaphysical migration when Adam and Eve were kicked out of one world of existent into another. They became the first immigrants. They were followed by another immigrant, Noah, taken by flood. So he started a new dispensation. And then there is the immigration which we all share in common: Abraham. The immigration of the mind, from the mind of idolatry to the mind of believing in one God. All three of them embrace that tradition.

And the migration motif is repeated over and over again in their narratives. Look at Moses: another form of migration! Not metaphysical like Adam, or by flood like Noah, or Abraham which is mental transformation, but the migration against tyranny and the movement of a people who became unique and different from the rest of humankind. In the case of Moses, you have justice. Abraham was rebelling against idolatry; Moses was rebelling against tyranny and oppression by those who controlled the state! He led the people across the Red Sea. A series of miracles in all these developments.

But what happened did not stop with Moses. Jesus too. If you move from the theoretical to the historical, you get to sociological reality. Jesus himself was an immigrant, oppressed and terrorized! Israelis are very conscious of this fact. Mary and Joseph and the little boy fled to Egypt. It was the reverse version of Moses, who spent 40 years in the desert to change the mindset of the Jews who were brainwashed by the Egyptians. And then Joshua led the Hebrew people. In modern times, some African-Americans see the election of Obama as a replication of the Jews' experience. Martin Luther King was killed 40 years ago and now we have Obama; Joshua led the Jews 40 years after Moses.

Muslims are the newcomers, the last-comers. They fit the pattern, frm Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed himself was an immigrant. Moses led the Jewish people out of Africa into the promised land. Jesus fled to Africa from tyranny of the Romans. Jewish holidays are against oppression: Chanukah, against the Greeks; against the Persians. Does that sound familiar? So remember Jewish history.

Muslims, I always remind them: you forgot your migration to Ethiopia. So migration becomes very important. So if you are an alien anthropologist looking at humans, what you find clearly today is that one fundamental difference between the Abrahamics is that they have one other thing which is responsible for human rights debate, which has consequences in regard to mental estate. Most Americans talk about life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, three concepts which are integral in this human rights debate. The founding fathers were conscious of property; they didn't talk about mental estate, just about "life." If you use it as an intellectual basket, everything fits in to it.

But if you are in the field of human rights, you run into trouble your metaphysical trouble if you are Muslim, which is that human beings belong to a system where God has 3 major creations that are critical in terms of narrative. God created the angels (we don't talk much about them these days, except metaphorically.) Muslims believe in djinns, a concept Jews and Christians do not share, but this has implications for Muslims in terms of the way theology, metaphysics and history relate to the world today. Muslims are governed not only by what the Qur'an says about how you should relate to one another (and here Muslims have much in common with Jews, believing in radical monotheism) but -- incarnation is very central to Christianity, incarnation and resurrection. Muslims do not pass that test.

When you talk about human rights, you find yourself in a fix as a Muslim; but human rights could be used as a series of concepts that could be supported by religion if you believe that God created all human beings, regardless of how they look, as children of Adam. So if you are a modern Muslim living in the world today where human rights is dominant, driven by Greek and post-Englightenment European concepts; the Greek concepts is how the Greeks see human beings, as superior to the animal world. This became clear even in the Germanic manifestation. You have people like Kant, who does not see the animals as part of our world. But science has made it categorically clear that chimpanzees are only 3 degrees away from us! That's one of the reasons why if you press the human rights argument closely, some elements are going to tell you that dogs should be upgraded to human status.

If you look at the history of the narrative, recognize that Muslims looking at the metaphysics can agree that human beings have their rights to exist. And though many Muslims would like to bend over backwards, to make sure that all the rights accorded to minorities, women, and all forms of creation, like those who argue on environmental lines -- but animal rights make the debate murkier, because a Hindu, a Jain, and a Buddhist may come to a different understanding on these issues than the Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

The alien anthropologist would conclude: most religions are tribal, but how do you live as human beings? The Jains, Buddhist, and Hindus believe they have multiple-entry visas into this world. They die, and then come back here, and what does that mean for human rights?

Clearly the messiah is on his way, because we are actually ahead of schedule; we have 20 minutes for Q and A.

When I put up the banner saying that torture is a moral issue, indicating an interfaith background for the issue, some people took it as a political statement. My question is, do you have thoughts about how to bridge this gap and how to depoliticize the issue?

Dr. Gushee replies: Activism on human rights issues is political, in the sense that it has to do with the polis, the community in which we live. The accusation really is that it's partisan. When I hear this, I say: I'm not being political, I'm trying to be Christian. It's not partisan in the sense that this is a cause of the Democrats against President Bush. One way to do that was to lay out the names of many who were opposed to this policy who were Republicans.

With whom do you dialogue within your three traditions on this subject of human rights and finding a faith-connection?

Sulayman Nyang replies: In the interfaith conference, we dialogue Jews, Christians, Catholics and Protestant groups, and Muslims; it started out that way twenty years ago, but over the years because of America's radical diversification of ethic, racial and religious groups we now have in the interfaith conference Mormons, Hindus, Buddhists, even Zoroastrians, and other groups are now part of the dialogue! So when we dialogue, we do that.

I have also been involved in intra-Muslim dialogue. There is tension within the community between Sunnis and Shiite. I have been one of those Muslims willing to try to broker the differences between Sunnis and Shiites. Trying to create serious dialogue between Sunnis and Shiites at American University here. We are Muslims but sometimes we are more willing to dialogue with Jews than with Sunnis, Shiites.

[Someone quips: we Jews know nothing about that. General laughter!]

There are problems also between some of the Salafi and Wahhabi Muslims who want nothing to do with Muslims who are Sufi. There is tension between the more mystical Muslims and those who are more legalistic. I am interested in all these forms of dialogue. I was the first Muslim who told one of my friends, a Bahai, "hey, we're living as Americans; how can you be Americans, and cannot dialogue as religious people?" He said, in Iran we cannot dialogue with Muslims. Which is true; it's a problem! That we can all celebrate praises to God, but look the other way when it comes to other people praising God.

Dr. Eisen adds: We're much better at dialoguing with other traditions than we are at dialogue within our own tradition. Soon the majority of affiliated Jews in the United States will be Orthodox; in the most recent election, most Orthodox voters voted for McCain and most non- Orthodox voted for Obama. We need to start working on dialogue within the tradition, and human rights is a good place to start.

Dr. Gushee adds: Baptists have been making human rights arguments since before the Enlightenment, based on their experience of religious victimiztion. I try to dialogue with the early voices in my tradition. In more modern times I think Vatican II-era Catholicism went way ahead of the rest of the Christian community in terms of formalizing human rights, so I try to be in dialogue with them as well.

There's been a healthy articulation between speakers of "the right to be human." But something in my view is missing: some attention to the reality in the world today that global corporations are now bigger than most nationstates, and have a profound impact on human rights. Do the speakers see this as a concern?

Dr. Gushee: When you read the universal declaration, it's state-oriented; the assumption is that states pose the threat and states must do the safeguarding, of human rights. But it's clear that today corporations pose more challenge than states do. You need structures to set limits on what corporations can do, while you also need state-level laws as well.

Dr. Eisen: You can say that three forces are still in tension: nationalism, capitalism, religion. No one can doubt the power of religion, which lays a burden on those of us who speak in the name of religion; the world's survival is at stake. Given that religion is a force in the world today, which can at least stand up to nationalism and capitalism, the responsibility we face cannot be exaggerated.

I agree that labeling something political should not be an effective technique for shutting down discussion, though people do it all over the country. We saw in California last month that a religious group, the Mormons, managed to enshrine bigotry against gay people in the CA constitution at least temporarily. You've all had experiences in your streams with the rights of gay people. What should your streams be doing politically to ensure the rights of gay people?

Professor Nyang: The MPAC came out very strongly; there are Muslims in that community in California, and MPAC tried to redeem themselves as not being anti- the movement, but tried to protect themselves and to ally with Orthodox Muslim communities by saying to them that we are not necessarily opposing that group politically but we oppose their practices in light of our teaching from Islam.

Professor Gushee: I just love to address this issue! [laughter] I think that conservative evangelicals have been defined in the public eye by their opposition to gay rights, and I think this has been disastrous for the mission of our community. An important recent book coming out of the evangelical community, Unchristian -- even for many young Christians, the word evangelical is associated with "anti-gay," and I believe that this does not fit with who Jesus was or is. I don't want to be associated with hatred or bigotry. But it's a long journey in our community. There's a lot of work to be done. It's a project that will not be done in my lifetime.

Dr. Eisen: In the Jewish community, the point is not to preach and shout; the point is serious dialogue in working through the tradition. You can't convince people that something is not a threat by shouting at them. You have to work through the tradition. For all its flaws, I was proud of how the Conservative Jewish community handled this issue. You work through the tradition and come out the other end, and do that through patient dialogue.

Professor Gushee: We also have to do this process. There's a form of liberal Christianity that when it encounters problems like this, it just throws out the text. But that doesn't work for most of us. You have to work through the texts, and that takes a long time.

The declaration of human rights was drafted by the UN. What's the role of the UN in forwarding the cause of human rights? The Human Rights Commission or Council, and its role today?

Dr. Gushee: I would like to see the Christian community engage international institutions, especially the UN, that they might be effective in engaging conversations that can only happen at that level. Part of the evangelical population has picked up a strong anti-internationalism as part of our community. I'm part of a group that is attempting to get us to engage constructively with international institutions. We need the UN to be as strong as it can be, to advance its own moral commitments, including the declaration.

Professor Nyang: From the Muslim POV, three points are critical with respect to the UN. One is that the UN has become the home of all human groups. This is one reason why I jokingly tell Americans that God in His wisdom made America not only the homeland of immigrants, in New York City for example, but in NY all human groups are represented. Even in DC, 192 countries are represented in this city! The whole of humankind is represented here.

What is amazing is that the United Nations could be the parliament of man, as one of the British poets used to say. If human beings are going to meet and discuss their condition, the UN is that organization. But the UN is grounded in the reality of the state. States are given domestic jurisdiction. If you want to intervene in the rights of a state, you will run into trouble.

We close with a prayer, written by Eleanor Roosevelt, aimed at spurring all of us to be our best selves as we engage in this work.

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