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Faith in Human Rights?


Marianne Farina, CSC

Does God need human rights? Elizabeth Bucar addresses this question in a text exploring religion's role in human rights discourse. The answer to this question, according to several of the essays in her book is complex. Religious leaders and faith communities have been involved in human rights advocacy based on beliefs about God and God's will for all creation. Yet religious groups have also questioned and challenged modern political interpretations, especially when they conflict with religious teachings. This is a critical focus for society today, due to growing concerns about the rise of religious and ideological fundamentalism and the escalation of violent attacks in our local communities and throughout the world. It calls us to ask the "why" of human rights, i.e., the foundational beliefs supporting human rights. As we enter the fourth generation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) work, we need to develop a discourse capable of exploring this question.

The Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in collaboration with other universities, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith centers, and Bay Area social service organizations created a program entitled, Faith in Human Rights: Promoting Human Dignity, Working for Justice, Building Peace. The initial phase of the project took place from January through May 2009, and various programs for graduate students, religious leaders, and local community. These included: courses, lectures, workshops, film festival, and art exhibits (details available at

Each of these venues facilitated an examination of human rights theory and practice from the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim perspectives. We investigated whether sacred texts, historical developments, and religious practices provided a foundation for understanding human rights. From these explorations, we learned how each faith community possesses a rich heritage of teaching that promotes human dignity, social justice, and common good. Though there are troubled periods of each tradition's history, in more recent times various faith communities have re-interpreted these principles in ways that promote greater solidarity among people.

The program also raised questions regarding human rights advocacy of local and regional groups. We investigated how these faith communities, in conjunction with social service groups, promote and educate people about their rights and duties. The various programs of these associations, e.g., East Bay Housing Organization's campaign to address the needs of immigrants and other disenfranchised communities or Ella Baker Center's program for prison reform and rehabilitation called "Books Not Bars," helped us to recognize ways that interfaith groups find common ground to initiate human rights actions. We learned how local initiatives such as Progressive Jewish Alliance, Catholic Worker Justice, and Islamic Networks Group, participate in human rights action and/or education. These actions, while important in themselves, also shape the public discourse about human rights. They help us recall our "faith" in human rights, i.e., what it is we believe and affirm about God and about human beings and their communities as we promote human rights.

"Faith" in Human Rights?

The "faith" in human rights realized through our dialogue and study is critical for human rights work in the 21st century. Critics of human rights regimes claim that UDHR is a failed project. Some question the declaration itself. Religious and cultural groups are quick to point out that the UDHR is an enlightenment document--modeled principally on political thought of 17th century. Others see flaws in the human rights regime because powerful states too often make legislative “adjustments” in the ratification of treaties and/or refuse to accept “optional protocols,” thus allowing states to escape accountability.
Additionally, they note the human rights regime cannot really enforce treaties. Multinational corporations, international investment groups, and other development agencies freely operate within and across nations with almost no regard for the policies generated by the treaties. Sanctions, others maintain do not work and often there is little one can do to punish or shame rogue governments and other human rights abusers. These assessments about human rights have in essence “cooled down” human rights commitments of individuals and nation-states.

To address this lack of international will among communities and nation-states to fully implement UDHR, perhaps we need authentic "faith" in human rights. Various groups need to engage in articulating their understanding of the foundation of human rights, i.e., the principles and rationale for the declaration. As Mary Ann Glendon reminds us, the UN Charter professes "faith" in freedom and democracy. It also represents a deeper conviction of "faith in the inherent dignity of men and women." One-way for this to occur would be an implementation of what I call the "logic of interdependence" inherent in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 1993, the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action pointed to such a “logic” stating that, “All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated.” As we define “logic” as “the relationship of element to element to whole in a set of objects” so too is the human rights regime a cohesive enterprise wherein we realize the foundations for declaring human rights. This logic was the basis of the Faith in Human Rights program. The program generated a dialogue capable of motivating our communities to greater promotion and protection of rights for all people and all creation. How did we come to understand this "logic of interdependence"?

Three key aspects of this logic are: concept, the interdisciplinary history of the development of human rights thinking; content, the interconnectedness of human rights themselves; and context, the interrelatedness of people's stories of human rights struggles and our ongoing education for social justice-action. Practical application of this “logic” underscores the matrix inherent in human rights thinking and action.


The history of human rights thinking has had many phases. In fact, before "natural rights" as a political theory appears in modern era, a variety of arguments from religion, philosophy, law, social sciences, and human experience justified the notion of rights. Deep in these traditions, there existed core beliefs relating to the notion of human rights and responsibilities. Some believed God created human beings in the divine image. Others raised awareness of the sanctity of life and the interrelationship of all creation.

Codes, covenants, and laws of cultural and religious groups, represent significant elements, e.g., goodness of human beings, care for creation, and the function of community, that contributed to the development of a concept such as "right." Though not always interpreted as an individual's right, these codes emerge from an understanding of human capabilities as right conduct, which fosters good for the whole. In these earlier manifestations, we also discover the commitment of religions to the manifestation of social codes and laws directed to creating a set of conditions for humanity to thrive.

The heritage of human rights concepts reminds us that we cannot reduce our conversations to legal arguments emerging from concerns between the state and individual. We need to engage in the "why" of human rights--learning from cultures, faith communities, and fields of social sciences so that our idea of human rights emerges from the entire history of humankind--not just its political developments. In essence, the UDHR is a consensus document and therefore requires a variety of conversations. These discussions help us to continually draw from diverse voices in society to enliven our commitment to human rights. As Islamic law scholar Abudullahi An’Naim notes “every generation has to re-invent the consensus.”

Recently, religious groups have sought to create a new consensus. In 2006, a Congress of World Religions took place in Montreal to create a document that would represent a consensus of faith traditions concerning human rights. In producing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by World's Religions, the Congress illustrated ways that religious teachings can support human rights. The Faith in Human Rights program continued this task by offering courses to study sacred texts and theological ethical theories regarding human and divine covenantal relationships, human freedom and action, as well as religious values, principles, and laws of faith communities. These courses were team taught with professors from each of the Abrahamic traditions, and students were drawn from each of the schools in the theological consortium (Graduate Theological Union). The dialogical model also allowed us to explore one another's tradition, so as to discover common ground among our faiths. Through this work, we learned how religions interpret the foundation for human rights thinking and action, especially in their articulation of "faith" and in promoting moral-religious formation of individuals and communities to support human rights work.


Human rights theory has generated lists of individual and communal rights. Political thinkers have also noted that competing claims to rights has created a “conflict of rights.” They suggest that by identifying basic rights, e.g. civil and political rights, and then secondary rights, e.g. social, cultural, and communal, we can resolve this conflict. The basic rights create the set of conditions necessary for the realization of secondary rights. However, critics argue that these sharp distinctions lack clarity, for we can speak of property rights as both an economic and civil right. Other theorists describe three generations of rights: the first generation consists of civil and political rights; the second are economic, social, and cultural rights; and the third generation addresses the need for collective rights of minority groups and rights connected to self- determination.

Yet, as the 1993 Vienna document and action plan stated human rights are interdependent and interrelated. The importance of this is brought out in descriptions of human rights and duties found in John XXIIII’s Pacem in terris, the InterAction Council statement of Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities (1998), and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (2000). Each of these documents describes the critical relationship between rights and the corresponding duties of individuals and communities for the realization of these rights. For example, in Pacem in terris, John XXIII described personal, social, and instrumental rights. These categories illustrate how rights can be differentiated not in their meaning, but in the ways that society and social institutions mediate rights.

Through our workshops and courses, the Faith in Human Rights program offered concrete examples of the interconnection of rights. We realized that we should speak about sets of rights, while also addressing responsibilities of individuals and communities to realize these rights. As members of different faith traditions, we claimed that human rights is a common, collective, and comprehensive realization of the freedom and fulfillment God wills for all beings.

Histories of human rights, articulation of human rights theory and lists of “rights” give us only a partial understanding of the UDHR. We need to hear the stories of those who struggle for civil, political, and social freedoms and opportunities. A narrative of human rights demonstrates deep concern and a sense of urgency. William O’Neill argues that “rights are best conceived, not as properties of abstract sovereign selves, but rather as "the ‘grammar’ of responding to the experiences of victims." It is an exercise, he notes, that is a “narrative (discursive) agency.” Forums for listening to these stories are essential. Reflection on these realities brings us to the truth about the complexities of different cultural identities, historical perspectives, and the real-life fears embodied in every story of human rights struggle.

The Faith in Human Rights program helped us to recognize how in our local area people struggle for their rights. Attentive to the voices of teenagers in prison, the victims of trafficking and torture, and struggling immigrants and workers, we learned about systems in our communities and around the world, that deny their rightful claims for justice and recognition of human rights. We were reminded of wrong-doing as a religious violation, a sin, against the good God wills.

These stories help us to realize the importance of "conversion" to greater solidarity with those who struggle for their rights and our community as a whole. Solidarity, as John Paul II reminds us, is a virtue. Solidarity helps us see the "'other'--whether person, people, or nation--not just as some kind of instrument, with a work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our 'neighbor', 'a helper' to be made sharer on a par with ourselves in the banquet of life to which we are all equally invited by God." (On Social Concern # 39) Cultivating solidarity, we hope to deepen our communion with one another as we address the needs of the local and global communities seeking the full recognition of their human rights..

Next Steps

By addressing rights in this “logical” manner, we bring new insights to the overlapping consensus of human rights, we develop a better understanding of the content of human rights; and we place these needs and concerns in the context of our times and location of our communities. In this way, human rights thinking is not judged as “nonsense on stilts,” but as a power unleashed for good in the local communities and across nations. An interfaith approach addressing the "why" of human rights, creates common ground for a human rights culture capable of recovering, as Elizabeth Bucar notes, “…that which can open up a possibility of mercy, compassion, reconciliation, redemption [and] renewal” of rights interests.

The Faith in Human Rights program addressed specific ways that study and dialogue could revitalize human rights thinking and action. The formation of the Interfaith Coalition for Human Rights will allow us to continue this project so that faith communities will witness to God's plan for the goodness and fulfillment of all persons and all creation. In this way, we could say God does need human rights.

Sr. Marianne Farina, CSC, Ph.D., teaches at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA