Observing Human Rights Day
As people of faith, there should be continuous encouragement to pray for and act on behalf of all people facing human rights threats and violations in different parts of the world. The BWA intends to use 2012 Human Rights Day as a common day of prayer for the people of Nigeria, in light of the increasing episodes of violence in northern and central Nigeria, where more than 1,400 people have been killed in attacks by extremist groups since 2010. This environment of violence and fear inhibits individual freedom of expression and the safety to speak out against these injustices.
For more than two decades, the Baptist World Alliance® (BWA) has encouraged Baptists around the world to observe Human Rights Day. The date coincides with the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted on December 10, 1948. We are encouraging Baptist congregations to observe Human Rights day on the weekend of Dec. 8-9, 2012 depending on each congregation’s day of worship.
This year, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will focus on inclusion and the right to participate in public life. The theme draws directly from Articles 19, 20 and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which speak of the right to freedom of expression and opinion, the right to freedom of assembly and association and the right to take part in government, either directly or through freely chosen representatives.
There are many places in the world where these and other rights are threatened today.
A team representing the BWA, which includes the ABC IM Missionary Daniel Buttry, will be visiting Nigeria on Dec 4-10. The BWA team will observe Human Rights Day with Nigerian Baptist congregations, which continue to ask for prayers and support in face of the plight they face particularly in the northern part of the country. Nigerian Baptist churches and individuals continue to be affected by the bombings and attacks perpetrated by the extremist group Boko Haram. The Baptist Convention lost two pastors in a recent bombing of the chaplaincy at the Command and Staff College, Jaji, Kaduna. BWA has assured Nigerian Baptists of the solidarity of the worldwide Baptist family. Nigeria faces a multitude of other human rights challenges in face of the aforementioned extremist violence. Extra judicial killings by security forces, use of torture, rape, and inhuman treatment of prisoners, corruption, violence against women, child abuses, human trafficking for prostitution and forced labor, killing of people accused of witchcraft, and other hate crimes are among the violations of human rights still taking place in the country. All these problems are aggravated by a skewed distribution of wealth.
Why Observe Human Rights Day?
The idea of human rights, i.e., basic rights and freedoms that every person upholds regardless of creed, ethnicity, race, gender, nationality, class, or any other kind of status, is not new.
Its roots can be traced to the ancient world, to the times of the Persian king Cyrus, the Great (539 BCE), as well as to the concept of natural law developed in Ancient India, Greece and Rome. In more modern times, important documents such as the Magna Carta (1215), the Petition of Right (1628), the US Constitution (1787), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), and the US Bill of Rights (1791) emerged asserting individual rights and demanding obligations of the rulers (and the states) to their constituencies. All these documents and the movements that originated them functioned as precursors to the contemporary human rights movement, whose apex can be found in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948, which many have argued to be “the most significant moral manifesto to arise out of the horrors of the twentieth century.” (Amesbury & Newlands, 2008) More than six decades later, however, there are conspicuous violations of human rights taking place across the world. Basic human rights are not only perpetrated by states and governments; but also by neighbors, religious leaders, people of every faith background, including Christians. These violations can occur through direct actions of discrimination and disrespect for other people’s freedoms and basic rights, or often through complicity or indifference to acts which clearly degrade someone else’s dignity.
Within different Christian traditions, the idea of human rights as a moral and theological duty has been grounded on biblical themes like the Imago Dei, the incarnation and the Kingdom of God. Christians often go beyond the concept of human rights, to stand for the dignity of all human beings in their relation with one another, with creation, and ultimately with God. However, as M. Douglas Meek has pointed out, human dignity “requires human rights for its embodiment, protection, and full flowering…Human rights are the concrete, indefeasible claim of human dignity.” On the top of that there is a mandate for the church to exist in solidarity with those who suffer. According to the New Testament, we are called to carry each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured,” exhorts the writer of Hebrews (13:3). German Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) described the Christian faith as a matter of being a follower of Christ. Therefore, for him, a crucial question for all contemporary Christians is “Who is and where is Christ for us today.” His own answer to that question was that Christ is above all the crucified one, the one who suffers by us and with us. Christ is the person for others. This Christ is the direction, measure and content of the church. If Christ is the person for others, then his people must form the church for others. That call to be for others leads the church to expand its horizons and helps us to develop a sense of greater responsibility in the world, particularly in light of human suffering and of the degradation of human dignity.
From the inception of the Baptist movement in the 17th century, the struggle for freedom and justice has played an important role in shaping Baptist vision and mission. Thomas Helwys, in 1612, was already advocating for religious freedom for all people, regardless of their religious affiliations. Many other advocates for freedom and justice followed since then. Thorwald Lorenzen has even suggested that the struggle of the first Baptists became an important ingredient for the Human Rights that were later codified internationally, and which are universally recognized today.
Since the beginning in 1905 of the Baptist World Alliance® (BWA), issues of human rights and justice have been a part of the organization’s agenda. The BWA constitution states that one of the BWA’s main objectives is “to act as an agency of reconciliation seeking peace for all persons, and uphold the claims of fundamental human rights, including full religious liberty.” Throughout the past century the BWA produced numerous statements condemning religious persecution, racism and other forms of discriminations, genocide, and other human rights violations. Support to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was expressed as early as in the Baptist World Congress, in Cleveland, in 1950.
While a concern for human rights has clearly be part of the life of Christian churches, including those within the Baptist tradition, there is certainly room for greater emphasis on our moral responsibility as followers of Christ in situations of oppression, and indifference, as well as a challenge for increased efforts to be the voice for the voiceless and to exercise a prophetic ministry in numerous situations. Our brothers and sisters in Palestine, in Syria, in Egypt, in the DR Congo, in Nigeria, in Pakistan, in Burma/Myanmar, in Malaysia, in Kazakhstan, in Uzbekistan, in India, in the Caribbean, in Latin America, in some Western European countries, and in several sectors of North American societies, particularly among ethnic and other minorities, continue to call on the Baptist global community to help them in their plight, to show love and solidarity, to remember them, and to help to empower their voices.
Everyone is challenged to respond to that call on a daily basis, through prayers, acts of solidarity and support, and through human rights advocacy. By designating a specific Sunday during the year to collectively and jointly think about human rights, and what they mean to those whose rights are being violated, we make an important symbolic contribution to that purpose.
Resources for congregations wanting to participate can be found at: http://www.bwanet.org/programs/freedom-and-justice/human-rights-day
I would like to use this opportunity to express my deep appreciation for the strong and ongoing support ABC has given, alongside other Baptist bodies, to the freedom and justice ministry of the BWA.
BWA Director, Freedom and Justice