A tool for justice and peace: human rights

by Bonnie Klassen and Adrienne Wiebe

In 2020, MCC celebrates 100 years of relief, development and peace and one way we want to mark this anniversary is by sharing articles and stories from the archives. Calling for change and for a more peaceful and just world has been foundational to MCC’s work for decades. MCC has published articles about economic justice, domestic violence, land claims, military spending, conscientious objection, peace theology, and many more.

This week, we want to share an abbreviated version of a 2011 article which was published in the Peace Office Newsletter called ‘Human rights and the quest for justice and peace.

Threats, torture, forced displacement, and homicide against Evangelical church leaders and members in Colombia are documented and denounced in “A Prophetic Call,” which is published annually by two church-related organizations. Perhaps this is the first thing that comes to mind when North Americans think about human rights in Colombia. And yet for Colombian Mennonites, the lunch program they operate for children in a marginal neighborhood of Bogota is also viewed as a defense of human rights. The program fulfills the children’s “right to food,” it is not just an act of charity, according to Peter Stucky, one of the pastors. These two examples illustrate the comprehensive way Colombian Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, and Brethren in Christ churches use a human rights approach as a tool for working towards justice and peace. In what follows, three members of these churches describe their understanding of the relationship between human rights and faith.

Ricardo Esquivia—Strengthening human dignity

Esquivia is a lawyer and has been a member of the Colombian Mennonite Church for over 50 years. He is the founder of Justapaz, the Christian Center for Justice, Peace and Non-Violent Action. He is currently the Director of Sembrandopaz on the Caribbean Coast.

In the words of Esquivia, “Human rights and Christian faith are inter-related; they are tools that support one another. Christian faith is, among other things, an ethical proposal. Human rights complement Christian faith. One must have faith—some kind of faith—to promote human rights. We cannot achieve anything without faith.

“In Sembrandopaz, we work towards integral human development; not only economic development, but also human dignity. Human beings need to be aware of their own dignity in order to be able to develop. Human rights are one tool that permits the protection of human dignity. We make use of this tool to strengthen the dignity of communities. We not only work with the first generation of human rights, that is, political rights, but also with economic, social and cultural rights. If economic, social and cultural rights are not developed, then political rights are an illusion. We work to build just communities by finding a way for government and community to come together. Human rights are the cement that glues them together.”

Ricardo Esquivia, Director of MCC partner Sembrandopaz, participates in a mural painting project in Sincelejo, Colombia. MCC and the U.S.-based Foods Resource Bank support Sembrandopaz in a broad-based effort to empower families to improve their own food security, better care for the environment and find new ways to support themselves from the land they have. (MCC photo/Colin Vandenberg, 2017)

Jose Rutilio Rivas—Respecting life as created by God

José Rutilio Rivas is the Director of Fagrotes – The Agricultural Foundation for Weaving Hope in the Chocó region of Colombia. He is also a farmer, theologian, pastor and regional church leader with the Mennonite Brethren churches in this region.

Rivas points out that “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms the intrinsic dignity and equality of all people. Article 1 states: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, and . . . should act fraternally with one another.’ Article 3 of the declaration states: ‘All individuals have the right to life, to liberty, and security of person.’

“The idea of equality and the respect of life among human beings is central to the ministry of Jesus, and ultimately to Christian faith. In Genesis 1:26, God creates human beings in his image, and in Exodus 20, God orders the respect of life and human relations: ‘Do not kill.’ In the person of Jesus, human rights are made flesh. Jesus gave his own life so that humans can live forever in equality, peace, and security. Jesus taught that loving one’s neighbour enables peaceful co-existence based on respect and justice.”

San Antonio Nursery employee Jose Anibel Borja Martinez and Jose Rutilio Rivas, right, examine rice hulled on location. At the San Antonio Nursery staff plant and grow cacao seedlings before distribution. There is also a rice mill where farmers from both the project and community can bring their rice to be dried and milled and sold. The Cacao project is run by the Mennonite Brethren Church of Choco in Colombia, an MCC partner, to encourage the production of legal crops instead of coca. (MCC photo/Nina Linton, 2013)

Alejandra Arboleda—Walking towards God’s peace

Alejandra Arbolea is a social worker.  She has coordinated the School Mediation and Community Peacebuilding and Advocacy programs with Edupaz, a ministry of the Mennonite Brethren churches in Cali and rural communities in Valle and Cauca.  Alejandra served in community peacebuilding with MCC in Colombia and Mozambique.  She continues to be active in peacebuilding as a Mennonite Brethren church leader.

As Arboleda puts it, “The reconstruction of the Colombian social fabric devastated by corruption, social inequality, and death is not an easy task. However, as Anabaptist churches, we are called to work together for life; to move from liturgy to the practical life of the teachings of Christ. “In Edupaz, our faith moves us to intervene socially, not in order to gain church members, but rather so that children, teachers and parents can be peacebuilders, and in some way break the cycle of violence. As Jesus said: ‘The Kingdom of God is close, and it is the children.’ Human rights are an integral part of our faith, and we strive to educate for the respect of rights.

“We facilitate workshops about healthy family relationships, with the hope that no child, woman or man will be the victim of abuse. We focus on learning to value life and to eliminate discrimination based on skin color or social class. We also teach alternative nonviolent strategies for conflict transformation. Christ invites us to practice a living faith; a faith that proclaims the respect of human dignity without discrimination, because we recognize the image of God in all people.”

In fall 2017 Alejandra Arboleda led a pilot project on restorative justice and conflict transformation through MCC partner Edupaz. Her work included coordinating an effort to teach leatherwork with youth living in areas where gangs and violence are prevalent. (Note: MCC supports the work of Edupaz in other peace efforts, but the leatherwork was a project supported by other organizations.) (MCC photo/Colin Vandenberg)

These voices from the Colombian Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches reveal an integrated understanding of the relationship between faith and human rights. This understanding provides a tool in the church’s calling to value life as created by God, strengthen the human dignity of each person, and walk steadily towards God’s justice and peace in Colombia.

Bonnie Klassen is the Area Director for South America, Mexico and Cuba, and Adrienne Wiebe was the MCC Policy Analyst/Educator for Latin America and the Caribbean when this article was written.

This article was originally titled ‘Colombian Mennonite perspectives on human rights: A tool in working for justice and peace’. Read the full article here.

Get involved: To learn more about MCC’s work and how you can get involved in working for justice and peace, visit our website here and find more reflections on human rights and advocacy here.

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