The Ethics of Human Rights: Contested Doctrinal and Moral Issues

Friday, October 28th, 2011, 04:36 WIB
The Ethics of Human Rights: Contested Doctrinal and Moral Issues

Name of Book  :  The Ethics of Human Rights: Contested Doctrinal and Moral Issues

Author              :  Esther D. Reed

Publisher         :  Baylor University Press, 2007

Pages                :  230 pages


The Ethics of Human Rights: Contested Doctrinal and Moral Issues is a book that discusses the language of human rights in theo-ethical conversation. Here, Reed attempts to formulate a Christian ethics of human rights. On one hand, Reeds insists that Christians must engage the secular human rights agenda because human rights feature significantly in the contexts in which we find ourselves today. On the other hand, she also never makes a claim that the Gospel leads to the language of human rights. Thus, what Reed proclaims is that a Christocentric and revelatory theology for natural rights. Furthermore, in writing this book, Reed is greatly guided by Barth and Bonhoeffer at transitional points in her arguments. Furthermore, her analyses were not only much influenced by theological and ethical thinkers, but also by many documents such as the United Nations Declarations of Human Rights, reports by the World Health Organization, the Articles of the Geneva Convention and legal cases regarding the rights of animals. 

This book consists of several chapters i.e.: Introduction part. Chapter 1 is about The Question of Rights. Chapter 2 entitled On the Relation between Divine Law and Human Law. Furthermore, Revelation and Christ the Measure of “Natural” Rights became the title of chapter 3 and chapter 4 was Human Rights and a Tropological Reading of Genesis 9:1-17 91. Chapter 5 discusses God’s Command to “Multiply” and the Right to Reproduce; while chapter 6 focuses on Animal Rights and the Responsibilities of “Dominion”. Finally, chapter 7 was about War, Democracy, and the Retreat from Human Rights. 

The following are summary of each chapter. In Chapter 1, Reed attempts to understand “right” theologically with reference to God’s self-revelation of righteousness, divine law, sovereign mercy, providential care of the created order, and so on, and from here, she tries to engage critically with present-day notions of human rights. For her, primary definitions of “right” are measured with reference to what has been revealed of God’s eternal law—though in ways that are mindful of the provisionality of all human law, ethics, and moral reasoning. Reed draws especially on the work of Protestant scholars who, broadly speaking, treat “the natural,” “natural law,” and “natural reason” as subsets of the doctrines of creation and Christology. Her main dialogue partners are significant Protestant theologians who have engaged constructively with questions about the relation between divine providence, the law of nature and the law of reason, and human governance. 

Chapter 2 discusses the scene politically, ethically, and theologically; while chapter 3 examines why the relation between divine and human law should concern Christian people today. In general these two chapters talked about the various tensions between theological conceptions of “right” and/or “natural right” understood with reference to God and modern, liberal notions of subjective rights, and to help equip Christian people for dialogue with those who come to the discussion from other perspectives. Part of our work is to seek a route between accommodationism on the one hand and failure to engage in everyday politics on the other, between sect and compromise, what Tillich called “correlation” and impotence with respect to political judgment. 

Chapter 4 thus examines the openings provided by Karl Barth and others for renewed interest in theology of the natural, and natural rights, and how Protestant theologies of “nature” and “the natural” (notably from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Colin Gunton) have opened ways of thinking pneumatologically and eschatologically about human ends and interim goals. It addresses the topic of a revelatory theology of natural rights and examines theological reasons for affirming that natural rights are a way of expressing the dignity and liberties bestowed on humanity by God—marks of the Author upon his creation that form the basis of claims that humans can and should make on one another.  Furthermore, this chapter is also a response to the disjunction that practitioners have to negotiate every day between theologically conceived notions of “right” and natural right on the one hand and present-day human rights on the other—without either pretending that there is unbroken continuity between the two or perceiving their difference in terms of unbridgeable strangeness. Finally, this chapter discusses ways of thinking and acting that recognize the togetherness in Christ of the reality of God and the reality of the world, and thus seek to frame an ethic of natural rights as a way of talking about the proper dignity and worth of the creatures of God. This chapter moves toward a tropological reading of Genesis 9:1-17 for precisely such guidance. 

Chapters 5–7 have a practical focus on learning from and assisting Christian people whose work involves engagement with human rights instruments. It addresses selected rights-related topics that, arguably, set priorities for Christian engagement today. Following the agenda set by the tropological reading of Genesis 9:1-17, chapter 5 asks whether there is a right to reproduce and, if so, why and how the biblical account of God’s covenant with Noah requires attention to its global and transgenerational perspectives. Chapter 6 asks whether moral and legal rights should be accorded to nonhuman species. Chapter 7 discusses the right to personhood at law in the face of terrorism and the retreat from human rights in supposedly “benign” Western democracies. Consideration of biblical imperatives beyond Genesis 9:1-17 could lead us to discussion of other rights-related issues; our particular delimitation of topics is more practical than doctrinal. 

Thus through this book, Reed offers us what could easily be called “case studies” on selected topics intended to demonstrate the way that we move between general scriptural affirmations and practical decision-making, given the fact that God’s commands are not directly translated into the language of human rights. This is a careful theology, nothing naïve, with a wide sweep of relevant factors, empathetic reasoning, and consistent with the theological arguments and directive values she made in the first sections of her work.

However, on the other hand, Reed’s work also leaves her readers with some unresolved issues. The first is a methodological one, already familiar to the scholars who debate divine-command theory and certainly is not one to be solved within the boundaries of Reed’s work—that is an explanation of the relationship between human experience and the revelation of God in Christ. For the reader who is unfamiliar with the issues, put very simply, the old debate asks how theology can actually begin with the revelation of God in Christ when this revelation comes to us filtered through the lens of our own experience. Second, because of this on-going debate, Reed’s work is, to some degree, defined by the heavily theo-technical languages of dogmatics and offering argument and counter-argument for those who have already made contributions to the field. This is a time-honored and valid approach within her chosen discursive field and Reed does it with mastery.


 Summary by Cut Mita