Mennonites and Human Rights: Uncomfortable bedfellows or collaborative cohorts?

Insisting that secular leaders govern justly is not a foreign concept for Mennonites, suggested César García, General Secretary of Mennonite World Conference, in his plenary address[1] to the “Mennonites and Human Rights” conference held at the University of Winnipeg a couple of weeks ago.

Using the language of human rights, however, is indeed quite new.

César García (Mennonite World Conference photo)

César recounted his experience meeting with a U.S. State Department official in Washington to explain the adverse effects of the US military support of Colombia suffered by Anabaptist churches there. At the end of his presentation, the official asked him “which human rights are being violated in the context of your churches?”

An innocuous question. But César couldn’t answer. He didn’t know. His theological training and pastoral experience hadn’t provided any framework for translating Christian concerns and faith into human rights discourse.  Indeed, there was even some suspicion due to “their secular and non-Christian base.”

Paul Heidebrecht[2] along with other presenters at the conference echoed this reality – that Mennonites have not quickly taken up human rights language. Some presenters challenged us to do so more quickly in order to be more faithful and effective, while others were significantly less enthralled and called us to remember that our frame of reference is Christ and the gospel.

The former highlighted the huge advances in human security and safety since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while the latter described human rights as based on western individualism to the detriment of community-focused values, Christian and otherwise.

However, presenters weren’t as far apart as this stark description of positions suggests. Most agreed with a middle ground that saw Mennonite and human rights as complementary or overlapping. Thus, in César words, “we need to identify our shared goals and to work together based on what we have in common.”

Nevertheless, for César, a global Anabaptist response to human rights difficulties within the worldwide Mennonite community should be 1) centred on God, 2) church based, and 3) compassionate.

  • Centred on God because we are “motived by God’s love and Jesus’ focus on the vulnerable in society, the victims of systemic injustice and violence.” Indeed, “our pursuit of justice begins in God’s heart. It is the fruit of our communion and relationship with God.”
  • Church-based because we do resonate with the critique of a human rights framework as being individualistic. César insisted that only religious faith “can provide the moral foundation that human rights requires” because it teaches humans to live in ways that first, “reduce our natural tendency toward egocentrism,” and second, “teach solidarity, non-violence, equality, and justice.”

Indeed, César strongly affirmed “the centrality of the church in God’s strategic plan of social transformation,” suggesting that human rights activists with Anabaptist convictions who “look for justice at the margins of the church are living with a contradiction of terms.”

  • Compassionate because a follower of Jesus, according to César, “cannot be indifferent to those who cry out in pain” and thus “advocacy is the minimum” we must do on behalf of those who suffer. Indeed, César suggests, we cannot do less than what human rights advocates do. We are called to “to walk alongside those who suffer, to stand with them, and to try to stop the cycle of violence as Jesus did.”

According to César, “we may avoid the language of human rights, but we cannot avoid the language of Christ.” He laments the fact that “some Christians expend too much time today arguing against human rights language while millions of people suffer the oppression of governments that do not respect human rights.”

Thus, César calls us to “acts of a global and compassionate multicultural family” that will make a real difference in the lives of suffering people around the world.

César concluded that “human rights are a good tool in order to work toward justice”; it’s a “language that can be heard today.’ Still, he reminds us that “even though justice is very important, it is not our final goal. Our final goal is reconciliation. It is to make up a new people, a new global family through the ministry of reconciliation.”

Conclusion: Reconciliation in a global community as the final goal, and human rights as an excellent tool.

What do you think?

By Tim Schmucker, MCCC Public Engagement Coordinator

[1] César García, “Human Rights, the State and the Global Mennonite Community.”

[2] Paul Heidebrecht, “Looking for the Right Words: Human Rights and MCC’s Advocacy Work.”

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