That a Greater Creative Tension Might Emerge: A Reflection on the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In honor of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Grace Initiative Global and The Episcopal Church in Vermont hosted “The Burlington Forum on Coexistence” at the Cathedral Church of Saint Paul in Burlington, Vermont, on Friday, December 7, 2018. The purpose of the event was to promote dignity, respect and coexistence, and to offer a roadmap for addressing hatred, anger and exclusion. The Forum featured brief remarks from 13 faith leaders and community members working to combat economic injustice and violence, and those defending migrants, refugees, and people marginalized by gender, race or religion. I had the privilege of offering one of the reflections, which is provided on this page in video and transcript. Also, as the official event videographer, I filmed the other speakers’ presentations on behalf of the Episcopal Church in Vermont. The complete series can be viewed here: https://vimeopro.com/diovermont/the-burlington-forum-on-coexistence


That a Greater Creative Tension Might Emerge: A Reflection on the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

By Maurice L. Harris

[Transcript]

You know, if I’m being completely honest, I have to say that I was at first a bit reluctant to accept the invitation to speak at today’s event. Unbeknownst to the event organizers, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and I have, let’s say, a complicated relationship. But I ultimately agreed to do this because I suspect, or at least I hope, that my tensions will resonate with all of you, and that as a result of my brief address a greater creative tension might emerge—a “tension,” for lack of a better word, that urges each of us to reflect on how differently we interpret words like dignity, respect, and human rights, although we may all agree with these concepts abstractly.

Differences of interpretation have driven some well-meaning people in recent years to actually speak out against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I’m reminded of Mexican activist Gustavo Esteva and the author Madhu Suri Prakash who both caution that the universality of human rights is the moral justification behind “global thinking.” And in this context, global thinking is not such a good thing. Essentially, what they’re warning against is the myth that anyone who is deprived of his or her human rights might find salvation in a global solution that is supposedly non-religious, supposedly trans-cultural, or possibly worse, culturally neutral.

Esteva and Prakash call out western attempts to “recolonize” indigenous peoples around the world and dissolve their cultures. It matters who controls the interpretation of words like dignity, respect, and human rights and what factors might be influencing their definitions. For example, Marcos Sandoval of the Triqui people of Oaxaca, says “Westerners represent justice with a blindfolded woman. We want her with her eyes well open, to fully appreciate what is happening. Instead of neutrality or impartiality, we want compassion.”

So, how do you and I reconcile the impartiality required of us in Article 10 of the Universal Declaration with the compassion so often needed in our own justice system? How do we reconcile Article 4, the prohibition of slavery in all its forms, with the 13th Amendment of our US Constitution that to this day permits slavery as a form of punishment? How do we reconcile the fact the US, even after joining the Universal Declaration in 1948, resisted it in the 50s and 60s when it called into question Jim Crow laws and Cold War policies.

I have come to think of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a sincere and worthwhile aspiration, a tangible symbol of people’s hunger for interdependence, and a bittersweet reminder that one of humanity’s noblest efforts to articulate the terms of coexistence—and live into that covenant—was, and still is, imperfect.

For me, I guess I’m trying to find a “middle” way. Perhaps it has to do with my Episcopal orientation—Protestant, yet Catholic—as some like to say, always seeking balance. I am inclined neither to celebrate the Universal Declaration as a global formula for human dignity, nor am I inclined to denigrate it as the orthodoxy of western recolonization. Instead I have come to think of it as a sincere and worthwhile aspiration, a tangible symbol of people’s hunger for interdependence, and a bittersweet reminder that one of humanity’s noblest efforts to articulate the terms of coexistence—and live into that covenant—was, and still is, imperfect.

The signing of the Universal Declaration may have happened some 70 years ago, but as the inheritors of that great work, we can choose to keep passing the pen around the table, adding seats to the table, and honoring the spirit of human dignity that inspired the Universal Declaration yet transcends any words on a page. Thank you.

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