September 21st was the International Day of Peace. It was also the day we mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 and translated since that time into over 500 languages, the declaration remains one of the most important documents in human history. It can certainly seem a heavy read but I would suggest that now, around its birthday, we dust it off and take a proper look to find out how it can speak to us today.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.Article 1.
It can be easy to read this first Article, immediately validate its logic and then move on. But it’s worth reflecting on why this article appears at the top of the list. People of every world religion and none would agree that the ‘golden rule’ should apply in our dealings with others (that we should treat others as we would want to be treated). It is a principle that Christians believe is perfectly exemplified by Jesus, and one that governs our whole approach to seeking justice. ‘If everyone acted this way…’ you’ll often hear it said, ‘…then all the world’s problems would end.’ It seems like such a simple maxim to live by but in reality we constantly fail to implement it, both as individuals and communities.
Despite being so familiar, the concept is a radical one. It asks us to resist the most primal protective instincts. It asks us to make ourselves vulnerable, offering to others the compassion they might not have been willing to offer us. In doing so we start to build a world where conflict is not a possibility, instead of responding to antagonists with violence and tribalism which will only drive people to ever greater extremes.
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.Article 2.
In the wake of the Second World War, nations and peoples were reeling from some of the most inhuman acts and policies committed on all sides. The ideology of the Third Reich claimed the lives of six million Jews, nearly 500,000 Romani people, and hundreds of thousands more members of the LGBT+ community and other minority groups. Article 2 sought to underline the universal responsibility to respect every individual regardless of their background, and warns against making any distinctions between people based on aspects of their identity.
In many parts of the world, these battles are still being fought. Today we are mindful of the ongoing abuses of the LGBT+ community in Chechnya, the recent suppression of peaceful political dissent in Russia, and the continuing abuses suffered by the Rohingya people and communities in the occupied Palestinian territories, and even the discrimination that still takes place at home against people of colour, immigrants, and minorities of all kinds. As we fight against injustice in the world the letters of Paul to the early Church remind us of the equality and unity that we should seek; Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.’