What religion can learn from the social sciences [human rights/social justice]
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion/
Published On Fri Dec 10 2010. By Stephen Bede Scharper – Christianity
Nearly three decades ago, I participated as an undergraduate in a formal Hart House debate at the University of Toronto. The resolution that night was “Be it resolved: That human rights constitute the prime concern of the Church.”
I was assigned to speak for the opposition and felt encouraged by the fact that the invited speaker was His Eminence G. Emmett Cardinal Carter (1912-2003), then serving as archbishop of Toronto. Carter was not known as a social justice firebrand, and I surmised his remarks would give ecclesial heft to my side’s arguments.
I was wrong. Surprisingly, Carter spoke in favour of the resolution, claiming that human rights, rather than human salvation, formed the centrepiece of Christian ministry. (Despite the cardinal’s stance, our team still won. We had happily stacked the house with friends.)
Last month at St. James Anglican Cathedral in Toronto, one of the most dynamic and powerful contemporary Christian voices for human rights, Sister Helen Prejean, blended wit, humour and compassion as she spoke cogently of those who have been consigned to death row.
Her celebrated 1994 book, Dead Man Walking, rendered into a 1996 film starring Susan Sarandon, tells of Prejean’s transformation from a well-bred nun hailing from an upper middle class background to a forceful crusader for human dignity, especially the poor.
For both Carter and Prejean, their teachers in the underpinnings of human rights were not simply their theological forebears, but social scientists looking at unjust social structures, as well as secular groups such as Amnesty International, which have been at the forefront of global advocacy for persons tortured and imprisoned for speaking their minds.
As Prejean remarked to her Toronto audience, “I didn’t learn about human rights from the church; I learned about human rights from Amnesty International.”
She had been invited by Amnesty for the Cities for Life campaign on Nov. 27, which united Toronto with nearly 1,300 urban centres in more than 80 countries to push for an end to the death penalty.
The evening formed part of a spate of recent Amnesty events leading up to today’s celebration of International Human Rights Day, a day on which an empty chair will sit starkly in Oslo in honour of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, a government critic who has called for human rights protections, political accountability and democratization in China.
Liu Xiabo will not sit in the Nobel chair, but instead will sit in his jail cell, serving an 11-year sentence on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” in China.
Prejean, as a sheltered nun living in a convent in New Orleans, was oblivious not only to the fearsome death penalty rate in China (which executes more people annually than the rest of the world combined) but also to the race-based horrors of poverty a few blocks away in a low-income housing project, and the disproportionate ratio of young black men languishing on death row in the United States.
Shielded by “class and culture,” she explains, she was “asleep” and had to be “awakened” to the realities of racism and deep poverty within her own city.
One of the voices who roused Prejean was fellow Roman Catholic sister, sociologist Marie Augusta Neal (1921-2004). Neal taught Prejean that the Christian vocation was not simply to show charity toward the poor, but to strive for justice for the poor.
It was a personal game changer, one that pulled Prejean out of her well-ordered convent down the street to the St. Thomas housing project, where she lived among the impoverished black residents. It was there that she was asked to write a letter to a death-row inmate, leading to her remarkable emergence as a premier paladin for those condemned to state-sponsored executions.
Religious voices who have turned to the social sciences, such as Neal, Gregory Baum of McGill, and the “liberation theologians” of Latin America, such as Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru, are engaged in a crucial and long-standing theological tradition — whereby religious thinkers wander outside their own intellectual gates to learn from and be enriched by other, sometimes secular, intellectual communities.
Thus, beginning in the 1960s when Latin American theologians turned to the social sciences, including Marxist analysis, to understand the roots of historic, institutionalized poverty and oppression, their critics were powerful and plentiful, including Cardinal Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, now Pope Benedict XVI, and U.S. president Ronald Reagan. These liberation theologians were accused of “reducing” the Gospel to a political message.
Such censure was nothing new, however. When St. Thomas Aquinas(1225?-1274), the towering intellectual mind of the Middle Ages, turned to Aristotle, a pagan philosopher, to help unpack the Christian mystery for a medieval world, the effort was condemned by the archbishop of Paris.
No religion is an island. All are in need of dialogue with other cultural, spiritual and intellectual traditions to help them “awaken” to the “signs of the times,” including human rights abuses. And when religious voices are added to the growing chorus of human rights advocates, the results, in the words of Prejean, are “downright refreshing.”
Stephen Bede Scharper is associate professor with the Centre for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto. Stephen.email@example.com.
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