Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

An Anabaptist Account of the Ecclesiological Shaping of the Relationship between Theology and Human Rights Discourse

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

An Anabaptist Account of the Ecclesiological Shaping of the Relationship between Theology and Human Rights Discourse

Article excerpt

Abstract: Risks inherent in the embrace and pursuit of human rights should lead Christians to engage in this work with caution. But these risks should not dissuade Christians from participating in public dialogue and action in terms of human rights. In order to forestall the dissipation of theological content generally and ecclesiological concerns specifically, theological engagement with human rights discourse and initiative should be nuanced and selective, and this nuanced selectivity must be shaped ecclesiologically. Since Mennonites are embracing and engaging in human rights activities, they can do so selectively and without displacing theology if they frame their engagement with societal issues in ecclesial terms--with an understanding of the church as a body that transcends political boundaries and subverts the violence inherent in the law.

Of all the moral concepts, rights seem most in tune with the temper of
our times. At their best they evoke images of heroic struggles against
oppression and discrimination. At their worst they furnish the
material for lurid tabloid stories of litigious former spouses and
lovers. Whatever the use to which they are put, they are ubiquitous,
the global currency of moral/political argument at the end of the
millennium. ... Love them or hate them, rights are unavoidable and no
modern ethical theory seems complete without taking account of
them. (1)
-- L. W. Summers

INTRODUCTION

L. W. Summer's broad description of the place of human rights in modern ethical theory is also an apt description of much ethical discourse that is explicitly Christian. Christians are currently engaged in human rights discourse and initiatives in part because everyone else is doing so; and yet such engagement is not without its controversy. The embrace and pursuit of rights as currently understood and practiced is fraught with dangers, including the potential loss of robust theological shaping and content; the temptation to allow theological and ecclesiological realities to dissipate or become indistinguishable from any other concerns; and the possibility of not recognizing the violence that often accompanies the defense and promotion of human rights by coercive state power. More subtly and insidiously, a full embrace of human rights discourse and initiatives may result in victories of certain kinds without proper regard for the freight carried by these "victories." Put another way, drawing on the insights of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, conflicts between central powers and individuals, and resistance to explicit totalitarianism, can result in victories such as spaces, liberties, and rights. But since such victories are possible, it becomes easy to assume that pursuit of those ends ought to dominate our efforts--that is, the way to engage in conflicts with powers and to pursue justice is to pursue rights. However, Agamben makes a second observation that is less widely acknowledged--namely, a putative victory of rights may well signal an even deeper enslavement to the powers from which we have ostensibly been freed by the exercise of those very rights. (2)

These dangers inherent in the embrace and pursuit of human rights should lead all people, particularly Christians, to engage in this work with caution. But they should not dissuade Christians from participating in public dialogue and action in terms of human rights. The Christian church is perpetually in the state of confronting new developments--e.g., changing understandings of slavery, role of women, various cultural trends, etc.--and the church ought to welcome and then discern these new developments and engage them theologically. (3)

Talk of the church, however, tends to dissipate when human rights discourse begins. In order to forestall the dissipation of theological content generally and ecclesiological concerns specifically, theological engagement with human rights discourse and initiative should be nuanced and selective, and this nuanced selectivity must be shaped ecclesiologically. …

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