Much of the Middle East is under protest following the removal of former Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak. Regimes in Bahrain and Libya are murdering their citizens for demonstrating against the government, violating their human rights with impunity. One would expect the United Nations, the self-anointed protectorate of fundamental human rights to do…or at least say…something. So I checked the UN website for resolutions, press releases, or any official document that expresses the UN’s commitment to protecting human rights, including the freedom of expression and the right of self-determination. These rights are explicitly outlined in the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which Bahrain – whose military opened fire on protesting crowds yesterday – has ratified.
It’s hard to tell whether the UN has taken an official position regarding political protests in its member states of Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and elsewhere in the Middle East. After a month of protests, the UN has published only a handful of press releases condemning the use of excessive violence against peaceful protesters in the region, but not a single reference to the conflicts in any official documents.
So what has the United Nations been up to these days?
- Reporting on the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (also known as “The Strategy”) which has as its objective “to become a global authority on scientific and technical knowledge.” This is somewhat ironic since the UN doesn’t exactly have the most pristine record of accuracy and honesty when it comes to “scientific and technical knowledge.” Maybe “The Strategy” is just another word for damage control following the Climategate scandal.
- Speaking of climate change scandals, the UN has also been busy on its draft resolution on “Mainstreaming Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women in Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies and Disaster Reduction.” Really? Why not a resolution providing UN funding for abortion to eradicate catastrophic climate change and secure a 35-hour work week ensuring adequate time for leisure? Oh right – they already have one.
- Issuing reports by the Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space. Drafted by the Committee on the Relevant Use of Global Resources, no doubt.
- Celebrating the recent passage of a recurring resolution condemning the “Defamation of Religion.” By this they mean a resolution that gives Muslim majorities license to shamelessly persecute Christians, Jews, Baha’is and other religious minorities.
- And of course entertaining yet another resolution condemning Israel.
Given the UN’s propensity to embrace distraction over substance, it would be easy to argue that the U.S. should simply withdraw from the global body or set up a sensible, focused alternative. But I don’t think we should abandon the UN just yet. Granted, the organization is a poster child for mission creep (in fact the term came from the disastrous UN mission to Somalia) – or, more accurately, mission leap.
Still, the United Nations was founded in the shadow of the Holocaust to remind people that the trappings of modernity had not abolished man’s sin nature. Seemingly civilized, intelligent cultures produced regimes capable of committing barbaric, unthinkable crimes against human beings. The original charge of the UN was to promote a common understanding of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms as universal and inalienable. The laws of individual nations were only valid insofar as they comported with higher principles of justice. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights codified some of those principles and held them out as standards by which to measure national actions.
This was – and is – important. The idea that we ought to govern ourselves by certain universal principles, which by definition apply to all people in all cultures at all times, is no longer in vogue. No longer universal. One of the problems with “multi-kulti” as practiced in the EU is that it celebrates particular cultural features as laudable per se, without holding them up to overarching principles of human conduct.
The disregard for universal principles is epidemic in the European Court of Human Rights, which does not reason from either legal precedent or principle. The EU Court is guided by a Convention which most of its justices view as a “living” document that evolves according to the cultural consensus of the day. Each case is viewed as a unique set of facts to be adjudicated according to what essentially amounts to the whim of the judges. In the U.S. the standard for appealing a case to a higher court is whether the previous decision was “arbitrary and capricious.” Without a framework of principles by which to judge, every decision is, quite literally, absurd.
Of course our Supreme Court, when it strays outside the boundaries of the Constitution and rummages for “rights” in “emanations and penumbras,” is quite capable of issuing its own incoherent rulings. And our Congress has not always shown adequate deference to our founding documents. One of the responsibilities of citizens of free nations is knowing how to evaluate the laws of man against higher principles of justice – and being brave enough to articulate the difference.
The first principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” It is no accident that this echoes our own Declaration, which holds that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” This truth, as our Founders recognized, is self-evident. And it is exclusive.
It is not compatible with slavery, elitism, Sharia law or caste systems and we should not be afraid to say so, whether we are in the US, the EU, the UAE or the UN. Universal principles are after all universal.
To the extent that we have abandoned the framework of first principles, we are rendered incapable of respecting and protecting basic human rights. Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949, we have witnessed genocides in Cambodia, East Timor, North Korea, Sudan, Rwanda, Yugoslavia and elsewhere. Yet time after time the international community has been paralyzed, unable or unwilling in each of the above cases to stop perpetrators who were in clear violation of international law.
The U.S. is by far the largest contributor to the UN and, as a permanent member of the Security Council, has the power to veto any substantive resolution. Yet we have lost our authority to bring clarity and purpose to this body. Why?
It has often been said, as the Church goes, so goes the nation. I would argue that, by extension, as the Body of Christ at large goes, so go the nations. The Church in America has had a rocky relationship at best with first principles. We have been conflicted and confused on every moral issue since our founding. Pastors, preaching in the name of Jesus and citing Scripture as their source, have defended – and continue to defend – conduct that cannot be reconciled with Scripture or with basic principles of human rights. I am not talking about fringe elements here. George Whitefield, who is credited with furthering one of the great revivals in American history, believed slave labor was essential to the prosperity of the South. Partly because of his efforts, slavery was made legal in Georgia. In a remarkable display of moral confusion, Whitefield used the proceeds from his slave plantation (ironically named “Providence”) to fund an orphanage.
Southern Baptists are called “Southern” because they chose to align themselves with the interests of Southern slaveholders rather than adhere to the basic principle that all men are created equal, which arises from the premise that all men are created in the image of God.
Internationally, the Church has fared no better. In July of 1933, the Catholic Church introduced the “Reichskonkordat,” a covenant between the Holy See and the Third Reich, which effectively neutralized the Church’s opposition to the Nazis in exchange for certain protections. The Concordat was signed four months after the Enabling Act of March 23, 1933, which gave Hitler unfettered power to pass laws without any meddlesome interference from the parliament. The Church negotiated a covenant with Hitler knowing the German constitution had been abolished and with it any access to civil rights.
In the same year, the “German Christians” co-opted the German Evangelical Church and declared the cause of Christ compatible with the agenda of the Nazi Party. While claiming to be “carried by the eternal love of the heavenly father, free through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and sanctified by the power of God’s spirit,” they warned that “the cross of Christ and the swastika should not and may not oppose each other.” During their first public worship service, the German Christians opened with “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and closed by singing “Germany, Germany Above Everything, Above Everything in the World.” So much for coherence.
Thirty years later, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. chastised his white brothers in Christ for “refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.” It is notable that Dr. King begins his letter to his fellow clergyman with a tutorial on first principles: “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” And it is tragic that nearly fifty years after Dr. King wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, most Christians are still silent on injustice.
We have forfeited our authority as a voice of truth and moral clarity in the nations. For that we have to repent.
Once we have brushed off the ashes and replaced our sackcloth with street clothes, we need to be about the business of understanding that what is is not always what should be. Sometimes there is a huge chasm between the “is” and the “ought.” The great divide is a consequence of not aligning ourselves and our world with certain fundamental principles. I will stick my neck out here and say that it is not enough to quote chapter and verse. We have to be able to articulate universal principles in terms that people everywhere can understand and then defend those principles against all comers who argue from self-interest. This is not an easy task. As history has borne out, sometimes first principles will get in the way of our own interests and even our own safety. But, as Dr. King so aptly put it, “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the [twenty-first] century.”