Sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church, Second Sunday of Advent and Human Rights Sunday
Old Testament: Micah 6:6–8
Epistle: James 1:22–25
Gospel: Matthew 22:34–40
Today, Lord, may the meditations of my heart, of my mind and of my spirit be acceptable and pleasing to you, the God of life that offers peace to all people, and may they express the wisdom you have given to each one of us. In your Son’s name, we pray. Amen.
Our Advent theme this year is “What are you longing for?” Naturally, each of us would answer this question differently. For today’s sermon, however, we’ll focus on our word for today: peace.
Peace is a relatively small word but with many meanings and reference points. We can speak of internal peace or external peace, for instance. Because today we’re celebrating Human Rights Sunday a day before the United Nations and the rest of the international community observe Human Rights Day tomorrow, my message this morning will thus dwell on external peace—peace in our community, peace in our world, etc. There, of course, cannot be peace for people if their human rights are abused and these violations are common and widespread.
Human rights, as we know, is a term that is often found in the media and even occurs in everyday conversations regarding the daily life experiences of people in many Asian countries as well as for people on other continents. At its core, human rights is based on the equality of every person in the world regardless of their nationality, race or ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. In the workshops of Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF) where I used to work before retiring a few months ago, we often used a definition of human rights as “the protection of human equality.” In short, human rights are the basic building blocks that a person needs to live their life with dignity. Attitudes and actions in society that oppose human rights are discrimination, exploitation and oppression that deny people their dignity, their humanity.
With the creation of the United Nations after World War II and the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the U.N. General Assembly on December 10, 1948, human rights attained an institutional platform to promote and protect people’s rights in all of the 193 member countries of the United Nations for the past 70 years through legally binding international treaties that define human rights and that provide a system for monitoring them. This framework is the legal architecture that human rights activists seek to utilize to uphold the rights of people in their societies.
For Christians, it is easy to see the fingerprints of our faith in the principles and values that undergird human rights in what is often regarded as a secular concept. It begins with the very first chapter of the Bible in Genesis:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’; . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. . . . And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:26–27, 31).
Thus, molded in the image of God, men and women both became a “very good” creation of God; they equally became children of God. The Bible does not tell us that they were created with a certain nationality or a certain race, etc., and that one was more superior than the other; rather, they were created simply as people, as human beings, without any hierarchy.
Consequently, when a person today disappears, when they are tortured, when they are imprisoned unjustly for expressing themselves, when they are denied an education or health care, it is an act done against a child of God, a human being created in the image of God by God.
The Creation story in Genesis also reminds us of the sanctity of life as all life is created by God, all life is a gift of God, all life is precious to God. The right to life as found in article 6 of the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is a reflection of this respect for the blessing of life. Moreover, all other rights, whether they be civil and political rights or economic, social and cultural rights, have no meaning without reverence for the right to life.
Turning to the New Testament and our Gospel reading this morning, the Great Commandment contained in chapter 22 of Matthew has an injunction and challenge for us:
“And [Jesus] said to [the Pharisee], ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.’ ”
Could there be human rights violations in the world today if we all loved our neighbors as ourselves, if we loved God with all our hearts? The message of the passage is so simple, but we find that the practice is so difficult.
This scripture also reveals what is at the heart of human rights violations: broken relationships—broken relationships with one another, broken relationships with God and even broken relationships with myself if I’m the one who abuses the rights of others—for if I deny another person their rights, I am ultimately renouncing my own connection with the life that dwells in me and in every one of us.
There are other passages of the Bible that provide a foundation for human rights, such as Matthew 25:34–40 —the reading that goes “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink,” etc.— that enumerates a number of human rights—the right to food, water and clothing. There is also the well-known story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25–37 that shares with us how to identify who is our neighbor as well as how to respond to human rights violations. If we reflect on our faith, it should be clear that there are a number of scriptural resources in which the Christian faith provides a solid foundation and moral perspective on human rights.
The message this morning, however, will center on the words of one of the Old Testament prophets—Micah in Micah 6:8—that was read this morning. In this passage, we are called to be just, kind and humble. Although this one verse is brief, it is rich in meaning as it outlines not only how we should respond when the human rights of an individual or a community or, indeed, the whole society are abused but also what is a root cause of the violation of human rights.
According to Micah 6:8, when our rights and the rights of our brothers and sisters are denied, we are to seek justice; for without justice, can there be respect for human rights?
If we survey the human rights problems afflicting much of Asia and the world today, we can often observe a common phenomenon: widespread human rights violations existing alongside pervasive corruption within a context in which the legal system too frequently renders injustice instead of justice, resulting in impunity for both the abuse of human rights and the repetition of corrupt practices. In such a context, in such a society, the common knowledge among the people is that those with political and economic power are immune from the accountability of the judicial process, which subsequently breeds fear to speak out, and people’s silence ensures that the system with its entrenched denial of human rights and its encouragement of corruption will continue.
It is in such a context that Micah challenges us to act for justice and to support those whose rights and dignity have been assaulted, which are naturally not easy tasks. We may claim that we are not human rights activists or that we do not work for a human rights organization, etc., but our Christian faith makes other claims upon us. Indeed, we are called to be human rights defenders. Moreover, in defending the rights of others, I am also defending my own rights, a view that echoes the insightful words of the Rev. Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor facing the power of the State in Nazi Germany, who said:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
When we work for justice, however, when we work to uphold the rights of others as well as our own rights, we are living out the second challenge of Micah 6:8 “to love kindness,” for our words and actions for justice are an expression of our kindness, of our compassion, like the Good Samaritan in Luke. Through seeking justice, we bear witness in society to our God and the challenge that God gives us to build the Kingdom of God in this world.
These then are the guideposts that Micah 6:8 provides for us to respond to the negation of people’s rights: “to do justice and to love kindness.”
As noted earlier, however, Micah 6:8 also offers us an explanation for why people are deprived of their rights, and this explanation can be found in the last challenge Micah gives us in this verse: “to walk humbly with [our] God.”
Being called to be humble once again appears to be so simple but, like we noted earlier, is, in reality, not so straightforward. First of all, we usually do not like to be humble; and in some cultures, in fact, being humble is considered a sign of weakness, and few people like to be perceived as weak.
More profoundly, however, our inability or unwillingness—our failure—“to walk humbly with our God” is at the heart of human rights violations today and in the past; for if we analyze the root cause of most human rights violations, we find that one fundamental source of our human rights problems is that we fail to humble ourselves before God and to walk humbly even with our fellow human beings.
The cause of many human rights issues is purely greed for power, money, or both. In the process of trying to acquire more power and more money, other people and their rights are disrespected. The power that is exercised to abuse another human being and to deny them of their rights is a reflection of the ego of the one who violates the dignity of another human being and of the person who ordered this violation to take place. There is also the “institutional arrogance,” the “institutional ego,” of the legal and political system that permits this violation to take place and that obstructs any attempt at rectifying this abuse through a process to attain justice.
As explained earlier, Christians too are naturally called to act when people’s rights are abused and denied them. In addition to the challenge that has been highlighted previously in Micah 6:8, the words from our epistle reading this morning in James 1:22–25, that is, to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only,” also beckon us to respond.
In reality, human rights violations are sin. They are a sin against the dignity and humanity of a child of God; they are a sin against the God who created that person. Moreover, they are a manifestation of the root of this sin and all others—a rupture in our relationship with God and with our neighbor. Thus, once again, at the heart of human rights violations are broken relationships. A task of Christians therefore is to respond to human rights violations in order to repair these relationships and to mend our broken world. It is part of the difficult journey of seeking to be authentic Christians, to live out our faith authentically.
May God bless us with the commitment and courage to follow this challenge of our faith, and may God be present with us on this journey for peace. Amen.
Bruce Van Voorhis served the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs in Hong Kong as a Global Ministries Mission Co-worker.