A day for justice
Dec. 10: Human Rights Dayby Tim Shenk
Advent is a time when we relive the ancient longing for the Messiah, from Isaiah's mystic prophesies to Mary's exultations in God's goodness and justice.
"He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly," Mary declares in Luke 1:52-53. "He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."
A theme of radical, social justice runs throughout the salvation story, so it is fitting that during the second week of Advent, people around the world will celebrate an international holiday in honor of human rights.
Human Rights Day, observed Dec. 10, commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.
Coming in response to the horrors of World War II, the declaration was a promise by the world's governments to protect the poor and the oppressed, treat everyone fairly, ensure an adequate standard of living and guarantee freedom of expression and belief, among other things.
The declaration's ideas have since been written into numerous constitutions and treaties, and it serves as the unofficial charter of the worldwide movement for human rights. It calls upon "every individual and every organ of society ... to promote respect for these rights and freedoms."
As Christians, we should celebrate Human Rights Day as an affirmation of God's love and concern for suffering people.
The idea of human rights has deep roots in our faith. From the creation story, we know that human beings are made in God's image and worthy of respect. The prophets taught that the most vulnerable people—the widows, orphans, immigrants and debtors—deserve special consideration and assistance.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan teaches that a righteous person will help any stranger in need. It does not even matter whether you belong to the same group or believe the same thing.
But living justly is only part of the divine story. The Bible teaches not only justice but mercy and love. And love, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13, is the greatest of all spiritual gifts, without which all human efforts are empty and meaningless.
Perhaps this is why governments often fail to respect human rights in practice. Abusive states still imprison thousands of "prisoners of conscience" for no reason other than their beliefs. Massive economic deprivation continues despite the trillions of dollars in the global economy. Even slavery lives on in many forms around the globe.
Our troubled world, as in Isaiah's time, needs a savior. Isaiah prophesied that the Prince of Peace will establish a kingdom "with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore" (Isaiah 9:7).
As we celebrate Jesus' birth, let us work to change this world according to the justice of his kingdom.
Tim Shenk is a master's degree student of international affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He is a member of Manhattan (N.Y.) Mennonite Fellowship.
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