Wednesday, April 29, 2009

the sweetest words

I have recently been learning a low-cost way to print t-shirts and have been really impressed with the results. As part of my learning, I decided to produce a range of t-shirt prints inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The bastard child of two world wars, the UDHR sits as a strange legal-but-not-legal philosophy of the United Nations. Widely flouted, widely ignored and unenforceable it might be, but it remains some of the most powerful words to come out of the twentieth century.

As an avowed secularist, I think we could do far worse than regularly consider the implications of the UDHR, perhaps encompassed by Article 1:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Despite what my society tries to tell me, there is no human rubbish. No trailer trash. No worthless pond scum. My worth is not measured in pounds sterling. The poorest person in Sierra Leone might not have a house, a car, enough food and the other innumerable things I take for granted, but he is worth the same as me. He is as much a person as I am. We are brethren, whether we recognise it or not.

More than that - nobody, NOBODY has a divine right to rule over others. Don't ask me to vote for you because of your religion or lack of it, because the answer will be no. Power corrupts, especially unearned power. Your title and position means nothing to me.

But in some ways, the clipped tones of the UDHR sound terribly unhelpful and ambitious. It is one thing to recognise that people have an inherent worth and rights which cannot be taken away from them, but it is another thing to know what to do with that information when a large percentage of the population of the world is deprived of those same rights.

We are tempted to focus on ourselves, our rights, our self worth. We are tempted to campaign vigorously (perhaps violently) when we perceive that they are taken away. Unfortunately the uncomfortable truth is that we do not need to assert these rights. On a world scale, we have no idea what is torture, or police brutality. To pretend that actions which the state does against our protests is in any way reminiscent of the abuses that go on elsewhere is entirely fallacious. For one thing, people recognise and complain in our country. Accidents and deaths which occur at the hands of officials are investigated by the media if nobody else. Even Guantanamo - which lies at the far end of acceptable behaviour of a free state - is not forgotten.

Please hear me - these things are not unimportant. We should take these things seriously, particularly when the actions by our state and institutions betray obvious inconsistencies and hypocrisies. But how much more seriously should we take the facts that in countries where police brutality really exists people just disappear? Where deaths are common, unremarkable, unreported and not investigated? Gandhiji said that we should be constantly considering the effect of our actions on the poorest person we knew. Unfortunately, I've met some very poor people who are unaffected by more than 90% of our campaigning, which has more to do with us than them.

Rather than constantly harping on about slights to our perception of our own human rights, we should be concerned far more with those who have nothing resembling rights. Instead of loudly complaining about our 'Freedom of Speech' we should be speaking up for those who are not able to complain.

Whilst these things were buzzing around in my head on the bike earlier, I couldn't help but also think of words from my own religious community. The Sermon on the Mount contains one of the most ignored parts of Christian scripture. Perhaps for some of the same reasons I've mentioned above - it seems so far-fetched and, in some ways, highly offensive.

Matthew 5:

1 Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them saying:
3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The poor are clearly not blessed - they're kicked around, treated as if they are worthless, ignored, vilified and treated as subhuman.

But wouldn't it be amazing if people actually lived as if they believed this. What kind of a world would it be when a group of people decided that the most holy, most valuable people were the smelliest, smallest, ignored, forgotten people on the planet? When they desired interaction with these people because they recognised that they were blessed and that some of the blessing might rub off on those whom the world considers to be worthy. That holiness is not to be measured by how many titles you have, how often you visit holy places, which special words you use - but simply by how you interact with 'the least of these'.

I think that is a really profound and beautiful idea.

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Blogger Karin said...

I totally agree with the sentiment, but how do we put that in to practice each and every day with each and every person?

I try to take time for the people others have become impatient with and show respect to those others look down on, but can't guarantee I'm never prone to these failings.

However, I still struggle with the Big Issue seller. The one I could pity, she has a rotten job and at least two children to support, although what about the father(s)? Are they around? Do they support her? Another Big Issue seller in our small town claims to be her brother. She says she lives in London - how can it pay her to travel here even a few days a week?

I wouldn't even mind if she were taking me for a ride and I buy the Big Issue even if she isn't all that needy, but if you buy it she asks for other things such as baby milk, nappies, chocolate, coca cola. And besides which I don't find much to read in the Big Issue, so it is a waste of paper for me.

But what if she is really needy, even though I'm told by her 'brother' that she recently travelled to see her parents in Romania.

Or what if she desperately wants to enjoy a Western lifestyle.

What guidance does the UDHR offer?

Does it show her more respect and do her more good not to respond to her begging or should I be more concerned that she might be genuinely in need?

As to the motives behind the Big Issue, am I honouring them by not buying a copy merely out of pity and a niggling conscience? It is, after all meant to help restore the dignity of the seller, and resorting to emotional blackmail to encourage people to buy it does not strike me as dignified.

1:56 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

All good questions - but not any that I can answer.

11:39 PM  

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