Human Rights in Japan
By: The Rev. Dr. James A. Moos
Executive Wider Church Ministries and Global Ministries
I bring you greetings from the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). These two denominations in the United States work together throughout the world in a partnership called Global Ministries. Global Ministries is thankful to share Rev. Mensendiek with you here at Kwansei Gaukuin. I am also thankful to share with you in chapel today as we approach International Human Rights Day.
Human Rights Day commemorates the International Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted on December 10, 1948. The Declaration was one of the first major achievements of the United Nations. It states that all people shall have freedom of thought, conscious and religion. Everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living, and the right to an education. The Declaration enumerates rights that are civic, cultural, economic, political and social.
Human rights are also affirmed in the official documents of many nations. My country’s Declaration of Independence states that every person is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And among the rights listed in the Japanese constitution are freedom of the press, religion, speech and assembly. All of these statements of human rights are good and important.
And yet, human rights are so often not respected. In all societies, there are oppressed groups that are denied their rights. According to the United Nations, there are over 70 countries that criminalize homosexual relations between consenting adults. The African nation of Chad is now implementing a law that will make same-sex relations a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
And religious freedom is increasingly being undermined. A major study recently concluded that over 3/4ths of the world’s population lives in countries where restrictions on religious freedom are “high” or “very high.”
In Pakistan, 14 people are known to be on death row for their religious views, and another 19 are serving life sentences. In January of this year, Switzerland placed limits on religious symbols on newly constructed Islamic Mosques. And in the Middle East, the Islamic State is inflicting violence upon Christians and other religious minorities. Even now in the 21st century, most people in the world do not enjoy full religious freedom.
And although the United States likes to see itself as setting the standard for human rights, we also fall far short. Thirteen years after the 9/11 attacks there are still accused terrorists being held in prison who have never had a fair trial. And many of our states are passing laws that will limit the ability of minorities, the poor and the elderly to vote in elections. Voting is the basic right of democracy, to take any action that would limit it is a disgrace.
So even though there is a broad understanding of rights that most people of most nations would agree upon, implementing those rights remains difficult. All countries still have a long way to go in fulfilling the hope and promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The fact is that in many places, people are not gaining rights, they are actually losing them. Why is that? If most people affirm the importance of rights, why is that so many still don’t enjoy them?
I think that part of the reason is that while there is a shared understanding of what “rights” are, we still need to understand what it means to be “human”. As long as the idea of rights remains an abstraction, we can agree upon it; it’s not threatening. But when we try to apply rights to this or that group of people it becomes more difficult. The fact is that some people are seen as less “human” than others. They are seen as flawed and therefore not entitled to the same rights as those who conform to social norms.
In the American context, our founders attached to our constitution what we call “the Bill of Rights.” Among other things, the Bill of Rights guarantees free speech, the right to petition the government and the right to a fair trial. It’s a very good list of rights. The trouble is that the same people who wrote the constitution didn’t think that all people were equally entitled to enjoy these rights. The fact is that some people were seen as having a lower degree of humanity.
Slaves of African descent were only counted in the constitution as being 3/5ths of a human. There were even debates on whether or not Africans had souls. Because they weren’t seen as fully human, they weren’t given the same rights. As slaves, they had no rights at all. The Bill of Rights didn’t apply to them. So for many, many years, they were held in chains.
All over the world, racial and religious minorities, women, the poor, homosexuals, immigrants and many others aren’t given full measures of dignity and respect. They don’t have access to many opportunities. By law or by custom, marginalized groups are viewed as coming from the lower levels of humanity, so they aren’t given the same level of rights. In other words, they are oppressed.
I recently learned about the buraku here in Japan. For hundreds of years, they have lived at the bottom of the social order. As outcasts, they have not been fully included in the human family. Therefore, they have suffered and they continue to suffer from discrimination and ostracism. I am glad that the Kyodan has called for their liberation.
The Christian faith has important things to say about what it means to be human. Throughout scripture, all people are shown to be fully human, including those that the world looks down upon. The outcast, the despised and the oppressed are equal members of the human family.
In the Genesis story of creation which is our scripture lesson for today, God created us male and female in the likeness and image of God. The Bible doesn’t teach that some of us have God’s image and others don’t. It doesn’t teach that some of us have more of God’s image than others. From the least of us to the greatest, we all bear the likeness and image of God. In fact it is often to those at the lowest levels of respectability that God shows special favor.
The central event of salvation in the Old Testament occurred when God liberated a people held in slavery. God told Moses to go down into Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let the children of Israel go free. Through Moses, God led them from slavery into the land that had been promised to their ancestors.
To the Egyptians the Israelites were not fully human. They had no rights; as slaves they were forced to obey the commands of others. And yet God raised up these despised, oppressed people and set them free. In fact God chose them to be a light to all the nations.
And that same concern for the poor and the oppressed is expressed by the Old Testament prophets. In many places the prophets tell us that our righteousness depends upon how we treat the most despised, the lowest, and the least respected elements of society. We are righteous only if we let the oppressed go free. We are righteous only if we provide food for the hungry and homes for the homeless. We are righteous only if we provide clothes for the naked. We are righteous only if we treat the stranger as our neighbor. In this way the prophets affirm the dignity and worth of every person. All are truly and fully human.
The life and ministry of Jesus carries this message even further. Jesus favored the marginalized and outcast; he showed them the greatest honor. He embraced the lepers, the disabled, women and the poor. He even made friends with the hated tax collectors. Jesus affirmed the human worth and dignity of despised groups and frequently praised them as having a correct understanding of faith. In other words, Jesus showed that even and especially the despised share fully in the likeness and image of God.
Faith calls us to apply that same logic to the marginalized groups of our day. There are many such groups. Racial minorities. Religious minorities. Homosexuals. The poor. Those infected with HIV/AIDS. People with disabilities. Immigrants. The buraku. And in many ways and in many places, women are also given second class status. These and other marginalized people aren’t valued equally with others; they aren’t given full measures of dignity and respect. They are seen as second class human beings who don’t deserve a full measure of human rights.
I understand the Japanese word “ningen” is made up of two characters, one of which means “person” and the other of which means “among.” In other words, to be a human being is not to be an isolated individual, but to be part of a larger community. In the church we call this community “the body of Christ.” And, as the Apostle Paul tells us, all parts of the body are to be highly valued and respected. In fact, those parts of the body that are considered the lowest are the ones we are to give the greatest honor to.
We do well to commemorate International Human Rights Day. It is an opportunity to educate people all over the world about the liberties that are due to every person. And as citizens of our own countries, we celebrate the rights that are written into our constitutions.
Making lists of human rights is a good thing. Writing those rights into our laws is even better. But these things are not enough to prevent discrimination and oppression. We must always remember that the rights we so treasure must be applied to living, breathing people who find themselves in many different situations.
Human rights are the birthright of every human being, no one can be excluded. It is not the case that there are greater and lesser degrees of human dignity which entitle some to possess more rights than others. Our faith teaches us that every person, without exception, is valued by God and ought to be valued by us. Our faith teaches us that every person, without exception, is fully human. Therefore every person, without exception, should be given a full measure of human rights.