On the Righteousness of Rights

Posted on January 13, 2016 by PLT Staff

On the Righteousness of Rights

This article was originally published in The Wheel:

Some years ago I was teaching a continuing education course at Providence College on the history of Christian responses to poverty. A fresh-hatched PhD, I could reflect at length on the early Church and a small collection of Cappadocian sermons. But when it came to subject matter after, say, the sixth century, I was at best a running half-step ahead of my students. One day mid-semester, lecturing on what I had learned only days earlier, I found myself praising liberation theology and its ideal of human rights within biblical principles as a near-perfect ideal when, from the back of the room, a veteran nun raised her hand. She had recently returned from years among the poor in Central America.

“I know it sounds great when you read the priests and intellectuals,” she said, “but I’ve been there. The reality for ordinary people is not as empowering or positive as all that.” She was voicing more than just her personal observations from the field; she was also reflecting, I later learned, an underlying hesitancy of Catholic authorities (before Pope Francis) about the politics of liberation theology. Our conversation opened my eyes to the complexities of solidarity and human rights, and the equally complex interactions between religious power and talk about liberation. Indeed for some Christians today, a focus on human rights is dismissed as a secular or relative and therefore meaningless construct, or demonized, often (paradoxically) by the same sectors of faith communities that are also most active in global missions and aid activities.

Asked why Christians should care about the poor, few may think of human rights. For many ordinary citizens around the world today, Christianity more often evokes concerns about human rights abuses, particularly (for example, in missions aid) an evangelical zeal that runs roughshod over human dignity and the validity of respect for agency in a fragile incarnation. Yet rights play a huge role in global and public health, and an estimated 40 percent of health care services around the world have faith-based roots. Poverty-relevant rights in such contexts are usually about the basic provision of food, clothing, safe shelter, legal economic justice, and adequate and effective health care delivery. These are known as economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights.

Why does it matter…

To continue reading, click here for the full article in the Fall 2015 issue of The Wheel.

  • Publication Information
  • Author: Susan R. Holman
  • Publication Type: Journal Article
  • Journal Title: The Wheel
  • No: 3
  • Date of Publication:November 2015