Values and Principles III

by Elias Blum

I still regard the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one of humanity’s great legal, ethical and political achievements. If you have not done so, I recommend that you sit down and read the text.

Seen as a declaratory and aspirational document, it sets out all the basic principles and values of a free, just and humane society. I regard it as a kind of meta-constitution, setting out the benchmark by which all other constitutions, laws, systems of government and policies should be judged.

In light of an apparent retreat from these principles in certain quarters (including in long established Western liberal-democracies that should know better) it is more relevant today than ever. Across the ‘Free World’, democracy is being eroded and corrupted. Hard won human rights are being cast aside.

The list is long and crushing:

Rapacious oligarchs are closing ranks in the face of the worst economic inequality since the Great Depression.

The values of civility are being undermined by a gutter press and polarised media.

Public duty and responsibility are disregarded by a venial political class who are still enriching themselves by selling off public assets to their friends.

Poverty stalks millions of families, even in wealthy countries.

The European Union, which for all its many faults has promoted peace, freedom and tranquility in Europe, is being torn apart by dark reactionary forces.

We are destroying the environment with fracking, carbon emissions and nuclear waste.

Russia is rattling sabres from the Baltic to the Black Sea – and let’s not even mention the horrors of Aleppo.

Saudi Arabia is waging a proxy war with arms we sell them in Yemen.

Many thousands of refugees are fleeing wars in the Middle East and the horn of Africa.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. It barely scratches the surface of all that is so horribly wrong in the world. In general, the outlook look at the end of 2016 seems pretty bleak. Hope feels far.

Yet, somehow, we must believe in hope. Hope is a Christian virtue, which gives us the power to live in a world as it is while living for a world as it should be. It is also a civic virtue, without which whole societies can fall into the paralysing bewildered despair on which corruption and despotism feed. 

That’s the tension: How to be an ethical citizen who cares about the state of the world, without being crushed and depressed by the the burden of it?  How to live as a citizen in a democratic society, to ‘seek the good of the city’, without losing hope when it all looks so very bleak? 

The Christian narrative asserts that ‘a light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’. Somehow, some day, that light is going to transform everything that it touches (and not in a merely spiritual way, or as a ‘pie in the sky when you die’ compensation, but in practical, tangible ways that actually bring human life closer to what it should be).

But the darkness feels so big, and the candle often seems to flicker so faintly. There is a challenge right there: not to be overcome by evil, but to carry on overcoming evil by good. 

I’m not interested in glib, dismissive answers. ‘God’s in control’ doesn’t really address the issue, it just blames God for whatever happens, as if torture and tyranny, poverty and war – the world as it is – were God’s final word, and as if there were nothing we could do about any of it. I’m convinced that God weeps for the state of the world and calls us to be agents of change within it. It wasn’t supposed to be broken like this.  One day, it won’t be broken anymore. We – as salt that preserves and savours, and as light that shines – have some vital and active part in the long, difficult process of redeeming and restoring the world.  

This requires the integration of, on the one hand, a distinctly Christian civic ethic that can reanimate the values of humane democratic politics and, on the other, a practical theology of hope that can motivate one through the waves of despair. We have to figure out how, in our capacity as citizens in a flawed and increasingly shaky democracy, to walk by faith in a possible and promised restoration, and not by the sight of the perils and ruins we see around us.

So I’m walking through the world today with a Bible in one hand and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the other, aware that these two are intrinsically and intimately linked, and trying to figure out, in practical terms, how to put them both into action together.