Moving faith forward on civil liberties

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
1 Mar 2009

This talk was given on 28 February 2009 at a session on 'Faiths and Freedoms' convened by Ekklesia as part of the Convention on Modern Liberty. Simon Barrow's introduction is here - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/8822

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It is excellent that so many people have been taking part in this Convention. However, there are many others who have not yet grasped the importance of taking action now on threats to civil liberties.

It is important to reach out to people who are not at present active in human rights circles, acknowledging the values they hold and using the networks to which they already belong. This includes engaging with faith communities, such as my own – I am a Christian, to be precise an Anglican.

In the 1940s, there was a lot of discussion among people of faith, and in the world as a whole, about human rights. The horrors that could arise when basic freedoms were not respected were fresh in people’s minds. From the point of view of Christian thinkers and leaders, all humans were made in God’s image, and their treatment should reflect this. And humankind needed freedom to grow, otherwise people could never achieve their full potential and develop the maturity to make wise choices, building loving relationships with God and fellow-humans.

An international Anglican Conference in 1948 declared, "Personality is developed in community, but the community must be one of free persons.’ The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was endorsed, and the Conference agreed that ‘the Church, at all times and in all places, should be a fearless witness against political, social, and economic injustice."

Since then, some faith communities and theologians have further developed their understanding of and commitment to rights for all. But for others, human rights have slipped down the agenda, unless they themselves or people whose views they share are victimised.

It may be helpful to dust off some of the older writings on religious arguments for civil liberties, and try to make sure that some of the thinking going on at present in this field is shared more widely.

It is also useful to recognise the strength of opposition to civil liberties, and not just from people in powerful positions. There is a sad history, from which we can however learn, of communities failing to challenge human rights violations, and even joining in. This applies to faith communities as well as wider societies.

Christians, for instance, have a very mixed record on such issues as lesbian and gay rights, and treatment of people of other faiths. Sometimes, distorted readings of sacred texts and practices can be used against those who are vulnerable.

It can be all too easy to join in victimising others, especially at times of fear and upheaval. It can also be attractive to give up personal responsibility, to assume that a particular government, party or set of religious leaders has all the answers.

In effect, a nation, church or ideology can become an idol, an object of worship. ‘Do not call anyone on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven,’ Jesus advises in the Gospels. Yet there is a comfort in treating a prime minister, monarch or head of state as a 'father of the nation', in trusting that, even if authority appears to be being abused and liberties eroded, there must be a good reason.

It can also be tempting to walk by on the other side of the road when someone’s rights are being violated rather than get involved, especially if that person is part of an unpopular minority. The biblical advice to "Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God", "Love your neighbour as yourself" and "Do to others as you would have them do to you" may involve a certain amount of imagination as well as boldness.

Faith traditions can sometimes offer valuable insights into the ways that human weakness can lead people to mistreat others or callously ignore their suffering. Yet there is also the hope of change and growth. There are practices such as prayer and meditation which can help develop empathy and awareness.

If individuals and communities can move beyond denial that things can and often do go badly wrong, acknowledging that humans and the institutions we create are imperfect and that it is possible to grow by learning from mistakes, there is a greater chance of defending civil liberties effectively.

It is important to touch hearts as well as engaging minds. Stories and images can reach parts of the human psyche which abstract principles cannot. One of the best-known stories in the Bible is of the Pharoah’s daughter rescuing Moses, willing to disobey her king and father rather than turn the baby over to be killed, as any truly law-abiding citizen respectful of authority would have done.

There are also more recent examples of those whose compassion and clear-mindedness in the face of tyranny have brought blessings to themselves and others.

When faith leaders make statements which recognise the importance of civil liberties, that is positive. It is even more important to reach people at a grassroots level, touching their minds as well as hearts, and encouraging them to resist the erosion of civil liberties.

With patience and persistence, the movement reflected in today’s Convention can grow, drawing in many more people, including those in whose lives religion plays a part, and inspiring them with boldness and hope.

More articles by Savi Hensman on human rights-related themes:

* Contrasting church attitudes on human rights for all
* Being on the side of the crucified
* Developing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
* Human rights are not just for individuals
* The Christ child, the vulnerable and human rights
* Tradition, change and the new Anglicanism
* Prayerfully seeking justice and mercy

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© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi has contributed several chapters to the recent book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008). She has contributed a series of essays on human rights and Christian thought and action (detailed above).

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