Wednesday, January 19, 2011
As our forefathers set forth the principles of this nation, they laid a foundation upon which we have built for nearly 250 years. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” There is certainly room for interpretation as to what these ‘unchallengeable’ rights might look like, but according to the Declaration of Independence, it is the job of government to secure these rights deriving their powers through the consent of the governed. At a minimum, freedom and justice are an essential part of these rights – a freedom to life and to pursue happiness. Living up to these stated values has not always been our nation’s strong suit. Additionally, we have needed to more fully articulate these rights by recognizing those persons not included as entitled to those rights. In 1829 William Lloyd Garrison chastised this young nation for its hypocrisy in its treatment of slaves; the “land of the free” was actually a prison for millions of people – slaves in particular. The Civil War ended slavery, but not oppression. And then there was our treatment of the indigenous peoples of this land. Freedom and pursuit of happiness were far from reality for most of them.
The work to obtain freedom and respect for all people continued with the pursuit of women’s rights and recognition of the rights of those with disabilities. And the work goes on as we seek equal rights for all persons – gay, lesbian, and transgender too. Many of the concerns around what has come to be known as “human rights” arose with the focus on civil rights. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted that America has a schizophrenic personality. It is the Declaration of Independence that will forever challenge us, “to remind us of our ‘oughtness’ – of our noble capacity for love and justice and brotherhood.”
While this country’s commitment to freedom and equal rights has been evolving and we continue to be challenged to live what we say we believe, there has been another effort to extend the understanding of “human rights.” In the aftermath of World War II with the huge losses of life and gross abuses of human rights and dignity, the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 developed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Using as their foundation the history of philosophy and concepts of rights and liberties that date back as far as Classical Greece and Roman Law, but also relying on figures such as Immanuel Kant and John Locke, the U.N. declared a belief that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’
Statements of human rights in and of themselves are not enough. Assent to words on paper is but a beginning. But such statements have laid the groundwork for profound social change in the past century, in this country and around the world. Beyond such efforts as the women’s rights movement and continuing work for civil rights there have been efforts to gain greater rights for workers – to strike and establish minimum working conditions and the forbidding of child labor. Mahatma Gandhi built on the principles of freedom and dignity an effort to free his native India from British rule, and his efforts have rippled far beyond to have their impact not only on the caste system in his native India, but to influence non-violent actions for human rights around the globe. Amazing progress – Yes! But it can only continue if we continue to work to ensure the rights and dignity of all persons everywhere.
Rev. Janie Gebhardt is the pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Pocatello, Idaho. She is one of the founding members of 2Great4Hate.