Being European, Human Rights, and Grace

European_mapDefinitions can kill a thing. Yet, it can take more than a sign (such as a name) but some shared understanding of what that sign signifies to allow a discussion that goes beyond the surface. Oh to be sure, a surface (thin) conversation may be a necessary starting point but if this is to thicken into something more, if even understanding one another, the question of ‘what we mean’ by what we say becomes important.

All of the above is to say that I have been reflecting on the this term, concept, idea (???) – European…

As a land mass Europe transcends many geographic nations and yet clearly appears to be less significant in terms of personal identity to those who live within Europe including those who might consider themselves as somehow European. According to polling by ‘Eurobarometer’ in response to the question: ‘In the near future I see myself as…’ the responses were: 39% only my nationality; 2% only European; 6% European and my nationality; 51% my nationality and European. My source for this was Here.

Of course such responses only beg more questions such as – what nationality (I would say Scottish rather than British) and then what actually does it mean to say ‘Scottish’ or indeed ‘European’.

There is so much here to explore. From my own perspective as a theologian, there is so much to reflect upon.

One issue comes immediately to the fore:

“In a 2012 Eurostat poll (pdf), this was the value that most people identified as being shared across Europe. Yet, as the recent bitter row over British membership of the European Convention on Human Rights illustrates, there is little agreement as to exactly what “human rights” entail in practice and how they should be enforced”.

It may be rightly countered that such a concern is not simply shared by Europeans and as such is not a defining description of values. So indeed argues John McCormick.

Be this as it may, that others also share these values does not negate the fact that a concern for human rights is a value commonly expressed by those who live in Europe and indeed the connection between Europe and other nations who also hold these values.

In my family we used to have a laminated copy of the Universal Convention of Human Rights stuck up on our kitchen wall. My son has one of these rights carved in ink into his body. I studied in a seminary who introduced me to the fact that there was a Human Rights Sunday and one of my former Professors Dr Thorwald Lorenzen engaged in published theological reflection upon the subject. This said I also aware of some of the more philosophical discussions on human rights related to whether or not they are simply a ‘Western?’ imposition on others.

Be the above as it may,  on the whole I have found Christians somewhat ambivalent on the subject. For some it matters, but not enough to be the content of a Sunday sermon or part of the liturgy. Others respond: ‘Human beings do not have rights they have responsibilities’. In turn for some others it appears that they only appeal to such ‘rights’ when it is their own rights which appear to be under threat. Or again for others the idea ‘I am special, I am human’ appears to apply only to some people some of the time. A bit like grace it seems that ‘human rights’ can be great to receive but not so great when being distributed freely to others.

Perhaps indeed the concept of grace offers a different way to theologically reflect upon human rights. As such they represent an expression of ‘the mark of Cain’ (Gen. 4). A sign to protect a potentially violent humanity from itself and others. So viewed, such rights are located not simply in the creation of humanity in the image of God but in the (undeserved) salvation and preservation of humanity through the action of God. In practice such rights are the mercies that human beings extend to one another to create the space in which they can develop and express their identity and live their lives free from the coercion and violence of others. Such mercies were ignored by those who executed Jesus in God’s name. As such and as an act of witness to the grace of God expressed in this Jesus they should be upheld by those who own his name – yes even extending these rights to those who deny then to others (Luke 23:34).

I do not know if the above will do. I do think, however that the protection of the space of mercy for others to live and express themselves is a value with which I identify and whose narrowing through national self interest is one I would wish to resist.

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