On Being European, Human Rights and Grace


A bit like grace, it seems that "human rights" can be great to receive but not so great when being distributed freely to others, Blythe observes.

Definitions 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 for a discussion that goes beyond the surface.

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 this term, concept, idea of "being 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 percent only my nationality; 2 percent only European; 6 percent European and my nationality; 51 percent my nationality and European.

Of course, such responses only beg more questions, such as "What nationality?" For myself, I would say Scottish rather than British. This raises another question: "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: human rights.

Debating Europe, an online forum that connects citizens with their elected representatives, reports, "In a 2012 Eurostat poll, 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, professor of European Union politics at Indiana University.

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 Declaration 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 that introduced me to the fact that there was a Human Rights Sunday, and one of my former professors, Thorwald Lorenzen, engaged in published theological reflection upon the subject.

This said, I am aware also 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 that 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" (Genesis 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 also 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).

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.

Stuart Blythe is rector of International Baptist Theological Study Centre in Amsterdam, Netherlands. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Politurgy, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @StuartMBlythe.

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