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When governments violate human rights norms

The apparent death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Turkey earlier this month should remind us of what is at stake when governments violate basic human rights. Because human rights are flaunted with impunity in many parts of the world, it’s easy to dismiss efforts to reassert their importance as a waste of time, but we do so at our own peril. Violations of human rights norms are inherently destabilizing; they increase the distrust between citizens and governments, weaken institutions and result in fragile states that lack the resilience needed to withstand genuine crises. In our inter-connected global society, such violations should concern us all.

Violations of rights as basic as the right to life represent a regression to the time when governments had and exercised unfettered power over their citizens. It took the horrors of World War II for the world to see the problems with that arrangement and to rectify it by establishing an international human rights regime that limited what governments could do to not just their own citizens, but any human being in their territory. When influential governments persistently flaunt those limits, they make the pre-WW II arrangement appear necessary, even benign. That’s dangerous.

Although it should be obvious at this point in history, it bears repeating that humans need security to thrive. Security frees people to express themselves in the myriad ways humanity finds expression and allows them to be innovative, meaningful contributors to society. When this sense of security is repeatedly violated by a powerful actor who is tasked with safeguarding it, the violation stunts healthy development, corrupts an important relationship, fosters fear and confusion, and inspires the kind of rebellion that is not easily tamed. All governments best remember that.

Excerpt from new book Wilderness

Embrace brokenness; it can make you whole

As we go through the wilderness, we have the distinct sense that we have been or are being changed in some fundamental way. Something inside feels broken and we know that even if it were mended, we will never be the same. We may wonder if we will ever be happy again or if we are doomed to spend the rest of our days roaming the earth as ghosts, absent but present. Unsurprisingly, we resist brokenness because the very idea is negative; it means being damaged, fractured, injured, split, demoralized, subdued and many other gloomy adjectives. It has an upside, however.

By fundamentally altering the way we view both ourselves and life, brokenness transforms us, enabling us to effectively live anew. It generates humility and sensitivity to others in a way that few other things can. It replaces brashness with gentleness, being judgmental with mercy and uptightness with the ability to wear life loosely. It also enables us to appreciate the fragility of life and human nature, and the slights that once offended us become as dust that we simply shake off our feet. When we are broken, we can apologize with ease because we recognize that an apology is not beneath our dignity, it affirms it. Brokenness makes us quieter, enabling us to become better listeners who are aware of our own limitations and life’s awesomeness. When Joseph embraced his brothers after his promotion, he was no longer the arrogant kid who was looking forward to being bowed to, but God’s broken humble servant-leader.

U.S. (In)stability and Global (Dis)Order: The Upside

As U.S. politics becomes increasingly volatile, there is concern that the country’s instability (or unpredictability) may already be fomenting global disorder. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently added her voice to a considerable list of voices across the political spectrum expressing this concern. From the outside looking in, allies are trying to understand what appears to be an erratic, incoherent and unpredictable foreign policy while delicately managing what most of them consider their most important diplomatic relationship. From within, there are concerns that despite having the world’s strongest military and economy, the diminution of the country’s prestige is having a negative impact on its ability to lead the globe, and if that persists, the nation’s security will soon be at risk. The latter concern is backed by polls showing the vast majority of people around the world no longer trust the U.S. to “do the right thing” in global affairs. It is not all gloomy, however. There are some gifts in this crisis.

First, U.S. instability is presenting a unique opportunity to test the strength and effectiveness of international norms and institutions. The U.S. has long been the de facto custodian of post-WW II international norms and institutions, having led in their formation and consistently played an indispensable role in their enforcement and maintenance. With the U.S. now seemingly retreating from those institutions, the test of the moment is whether they can stand without the country’s backing. The world now has an opportunity to examine the extent to which international norms have diffused globally or crystallized in international legal affairs and to assess whether the relative order and stability we have enjoyed post-war is a product of real threats of punishment or actual change in understandings of statehood and legitimate international relations (that is, states transformed by ideas). If the explosion of current reports of global disorder is indeed a result of U.S. instability, it would appear the absence of major wars only masked persisting global political dysfunction, a problem that may have contributed to our overestimation of the value of international institutions as global stabilizers. If the test (we can only guess how long it lasts) reveals that global transformation has indeed largely been illusory, we need to rethink international institutions and the manner in which they promulgate international norms. The exercise will be beneficial for long term global order and stability.

Second, U.S. instability is revealing the extent to which the architecture of the post-war global order is ill-suited for the present. The order was based on a series of assumptions about the victors of the war, the most problematic being their perpetual significance, rationality and stability. This assumption resulted in a global system that was overly reliant for leadership on a superpower (backed by a few other lesser but significant actors), and one that lacked effective alternatives should that power (or hegemon) fail, for whatever reason, to lead. Although it appears absurd today, in a largely unipolar world concerned most about the prevention of major wars, the presupposition was sensible. The world, however, has changed and so have its priorities. In this new world, as more states rise, the benignity and judgments of the hegemon are increasingly challenged, sometimes brazenly, and to resolve the most pressing challenges—economic globalization and its management, environment, terrorism, migration and poverty alleviation—more states need to participate both in substance and process. In his book, A World in Disarray, Richard Haass maintained that the U.S. is “not sufficient but necessary” for a working global order. Although certainly a correct assessment of the current situation, U.S. instability is demonstrating the undesirability of that reality for global order. A building is fundamentally unsound if its safety can be compromised by the instability of a single stone.

Third, U.S. instability is providing an opportunity or giving other states permission to rise. This may be interpreted unfavorably as representing U.S. decline, but the rise of more is good for global order. Though there are concerns that an anarchic multipolarity (as almost always assumed it will be) is likely to increase competition and conflict, U.S. unpredictability is demonstrating that unipolarity (or something close to it) is not inherently more stable. In fact, it can be more volatile because it lacks the effective checks and balances that a well-managed multilateral multipolarity could provide. Although many states currently lack the capacity or will to take on global leadership, it is apparent that the world needs to be working toward the creation of an alternative global governance model in which no single state is indispensable and effective decision-making power is spread more broadly. This can only happen if more states rise to the challenge by strengthening themselves first and then positioning themselves to be meaningful participants in global leadership. Many are recognizing the opportunity. Germany’s Angela Merkel has repeatedly noted the need for Europe to take its destiny into its own hands; Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, has thanked the U.S. for its seven-decades long global leadership, noting that the rest of the world should chart its own course and Canada must take on a greater role in the “strengthening of the postwar multilateral order;” Mexico, Chile and Peru have joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a move former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Albert Fishlow reportedly interprets, among other trade-related actions, as Latin America “trying to separate itself from the U.S. as much as possible;” and China, as one observer noted, is quietly assuming a greater global leadership role. The alternative is for states to continue to follow the hegemon hoping, fingers crossed, that it will remain rational, benign and indeed powerful.

 

Forgiveness in #MeToo Season

The last few months have been rough. Reports of sexual abuses in myriad contexts have started a movement, #MeToo, that is exposing the extent to which (mostly) women are sexually exploited globally. For victims, the movement has presented an opportunity to address painful memories; for perpetrators, a moment of shame, condemnation, humiliation, or the fear thereof; and, for women, generally, a vehicle through which they can address the culture behind a problem they face in one form or another at different points in their lives. Revelations of similar abuses within the church have elicited concerns that Christian teaching on forgiveness tends to cover rather than address the problem, shielding perpetrators and revictimizing victims in the process. Given the centrality of forgiveness in Christianity and its indispensability in human relations, it is important to address three essential, but often misunderstood, features of forgiveness in Christian doctrine.

First, forgiveness is not cheap. In Christian doctrine, God is understood as supremely loving and deeply offended by actions that injure people. These actions, which are often “sinful” (the biblical word for conduct that does not conform to God’s standards), offend Him not only because He is perfectly good (or holy), but also because they are destructive. They destroy the moral fabric of society, relationships, trust, lives, and so on. Knowing, however, that imperfect human beings would continue sinning, both against Him and others, He provided a path to receiving His forgiveness that would illustrate both the grievousness of sin and its costly consequences. That path was the bloody and sacrificial death of His son, Jesus, on a cross between two criminals. The cross then stands in the middle of Christianity as a reminder of the awfulness of sin and the enormous price God paid to make forgiveness available to all.

Second, forgiveness does not preclude punishment. God, in Judeo-Christian teaching, may be merciful, but He is also just. His mercy is implicit in His justice and vice versa. That means while forgiveness might free its recipient from the guilt of the offense, it does not necessarily free him or her from its consequences. When beings capable of choosing right from wrong choose wrong and that wrong injures others, justice, as a biblical principle, requires that something be done to not only hold the wrongdoer accountable, but to also restore the victim or bring them as close to wholeness as possible. When what has been taken from the victim cannot be replaced, as happened in the story of King David and Uriah (2 Sam. 11-12), justice still requires some kind of accountability for the wrongful conduct. David repented for having Uriah killed and although God forgave him, He still punished David severely for his conduct (2 Sam. 12:10-14). The punishment was necessary because God’s moral standard had to remain clear: no matter who you are (or think you are), you shall not take advantage of the weak; if you do, there will be consequences.

Third, forgiveness is meant to benefit both victim and victimizer. When people are victimized, much anger is understandably directed at the victimizer and the idea of forgiving seems an injustice, especially when it is understood as precluding punishment and requiring reconciliation. Forgiveness, however, even when the perpetrator does not seek it, benefits the victim by providing a reliable way to release the mental and emotional pain of the injury. When that pain is not released, it can become a source of myriad destructive physical, emotional, and psychological challenges. Left unattended, it often becomes a pocket of latent hostility that will at some point be unleashed on someone else as the victim becomes a victimizer. When Jesus told his disciples to forgive “not just seven, but seventy times seven times” (Matt. 18:22) and to pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us” (Matt. 6:12), he recognized both the difficulty and necessity of forgiveness.

Victimizers also need forgiveness because it enables them to release the debilitating feelings of guilt (that admittedly not all victimizers feel) and lets them know their wrongdoing was an event, not evidence of their devolution into a sub-human species. It tells them they continue to belong in the community of humans with all its attendant expectations and responsibilities. Jesus’ response to Peter’s denial of him illustrates this point—he forgave the guilt-ridden Peter and after forcing him to reflect on the source of his wrongdoing through repeated questioning, Jesus affirmed that Peter still belonged, then told him to dust himself off and get back to the work of helping others (Lk. 22:31-34, 54-62; Jn. 21).

A Reflection on Poverty, Migrants, & International Responsibility

In November 2017, CNN broadcast its report on the auctioning of migrants in Libya (the International Organization for Migration first reported the exploitation of migrants in 2016). The images were particularly offensive and jarring because they depicted a practice thought long gone in a world where “human rights” is the professed global ethic. Sans auctioneers, the images were quite familiar—disheveled, visibly tired and emotionally and physically battered dark-skinned men, many of them young, with eyes registering empty stares or that dignity-sapping combination of shame and helplessness. The world had seen some version of them in Australia (and Papua New Guinea), Israel, northern France, along the US-Mexico border, and so on. They had elicited pity and, depending on other contextual factors, sparked moments of outrage. The persistent poverty and desperation behind the images, however, have yet to spark the kind of outrage that might be needed to compel change.

Despite reports of significant progress in reducing poverty (mostly in China, Indonesia, and India), 11% of the world’s population, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, still lives on less than $1.90/day, the international poverty line (IPL). Moreover, even states designated (low or high) “middle income countries” like India, continue to have high poverty rates. Last year, the World Bank added two new poverty lines of $3.20 (lower middle-income IPL) and $5.50 (upper-middle income IPL) to capture the “relativity” of poverty. A 2016 study showed 32 lower middle-income countries having a median poverty line of $3.21/day and 32 upper middle-income countries a median poverty line of $5.48/day (29 high income countries had a median line of $21.70/day).

The problem with these metrics, and statistics on poverty generally, is that they give only an impression of the extent of deprivation; they convey nothing of the lived and felt experience of poverty. It is one thing to know that 815 million people are food insecure and quite another to experience hunger persistently; to know that some countries have unemployment rates of 30% or more and to experience persistent unemployment in a poor country where there are no social safety nets; or to know that children in poor states continue to die from preventable disease and to experience illness in a country without viable healthcare systems. Moreover, outside the world of economic development research, it is difficult to discern the difference between “poverty” and “extreme poverty” in global context, whether such distinctions are justifiable, and if a person experiencing one would find it qualitatively different from the other. It is apparent, however, that poverty breeds desperation; the kind that compels people to get on flimsy boats or poorly ventilated vehicles with unscrupulous smugglers and take their chances on rough seas or through scorching deserts. The inability to convey that felt experience of poverty in numbers often causes those removed from it to understand it with clinical detachment, obscuring the urgent need for redress and consistent international cooperation.

For a long time, human rights proponents have tried to persuade governments that not only does poverty make people vulnerable to human rights violations, it is the most scandalous of them all. While acknowledging the complexity of its causes, they have argued that poverty is not just some unfortunate reality, but also the result of policy choices made at both domestic and international institutional levels; that the mismanagement of economic globalization exacerbates the problem by increasing the level of economic/income inequality within and among states and is a potent source of continuing injustices; and that it does matter that others have more, especially in cases where it can be shown that few have much more precisely because others are deprived (directly and indirectly), not in spite of it. For their part, governments have largely rejected the idea of poverty as a human rights violation citing the difficulty of assigning clear duties and obligations. The adoption and widespread ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights has done little to change the fact that governments still largely view these rights as social or development goals rather than as rights. Together, these realities have not only compromised the international system’s ability to hold actors, be they state or non-state entities, accountable for actions that cause widespread economic deprivation, but they have also reinforced the deeply problematic view that global poverty reduction efforts are only a matter of charity rather than justice.

The manifestation of the challenge of poverty within the migration context at a time when nationalist sentiment is surging in most parts of the developed world has been unhelpful. Political narratives of “economic migrants” coming to “take our jobs,” “bring crime,” or “destroy our culture” have drowned serious discussion in the public square about the root causes of global poverty and meaningful solutions. This has an unfortunate double-edged impact: it further marginalizes vulnerable people, deepening their insecurity and desperation and entrenches the problematic belief that rich states have nothing to do with their condition. Although there are many bases for assigning international responsibility for poverty reduction, to far too many, it is improper to suggest the developed world bears any responsibility for the condition of today’s global poor. “Slavery and colonialism are over, deal with your corrupt leaders, get yourselves together, and move on already,” the popular argument goes. If only it were that simple.

While it is indeed true that poor states bear responsibility for improving their condition, they do not and cannot bear it all.

The world is more economically-integrated than ever. This integration has ensured, for better or worse, that the policy choices of a single influential state can have global impacts. Developed states dominate global economic fora and direct the vast and complex arrangements undergirding the global economic system. They use that influence to enforce their preferences often with little regard to their potential impact on the wellbeing of people in less economically developed states (LEDS). Though certainly not without controversy, some notable examples of these realities include the adoption of intellectual property rules that compromise poor states’ ability to provide affordable medicines to their populations (whether the 2017 amendment to World Trade Organization’s IP rules is making a difference is yet to be seen); the granting of agricultural subsidies to farmers in prosperous states that negatively impact global food prices and the livelihoods of farmers, who represent a large share of the population, in poor states; the excessive competitiveness pushed by corporations and adopted by influential governments in international fora that tends to negatively impact labor standards in LEDS; the adoption of policies favoring privatization, also pushed by states at the behest of powerful domestic special interests, that sometimes hinders access to essential goods in poor states; and the long-term unemployment suffered by segments within LEDS upon implementing WTO-driven trade liberalization policies in vulnerable industries.

There are also cases as when the increase in the production of biofuels by the European Union and United States resulted in a dramatic increase in world food prices, reportedly plunging an estimated 100 million people into hunger. Other related concerns include how influential banks in developed states continue to receive and use ill-gotten funds from corrupt leaders from poor states despite the widespread ratification of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, which prohibits illicit financial flows; how developed states contribute significantly to global emissions of carbon dioxide and are making investments to protect themselves from climate change’s many risks while offering LEDS that have contributed least to the problem a pittance, leaving them bearing the brunt of the consequences (economic or other); and the myriad ways through which some developed states have destabilized the politics of targeted LEDS for their own political ends and the resulting economic impacts.

The aforementioned cause considerable damage. To then characterize “helping poor countries” only as an act of charity is problematic. In fact, these realities suggest “development aid” is but a binky—necessary because it soothes, but ultimately, without also addressing substantive structural injustices, changes little. Arguments that things will get better in the long run if we continue implementing the same policies are unpersuasive because of the indeterminacy of the “long run.” Are we not already in it?

When the United Nations was founded in 1945 the world’s conscience had been sufficiently pricked by the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust that states committed to work together in good faith to not only maintain peace, but to also promote human rights and global economic stability and well-being. It is way past time to take the latter commitment a lot more seriously, especially as it relates to LEDS. A good starting point is acknowledging controversial inconvenient truths, the most significant being that an unfair global economic system may indeed account (not to a negligible degree) for the large disparities in wealth between nations. This must be followed by the hard work of compelling the creation of mechanisms to hold all governments accountable for the myriad ways through which their actions or omissions result in persistent economic deprivation. Or, we can pretend “it’s their problem” and simply sigh the next time we hear about the exploitation or deaths of some poor migrants in some hot desert, some place in the world…

 

How to Increase Worldwide Support for Human Rights

In a speech delivered at the Jacob Blaustein Institute in New York this month, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, expressed concerns about the “growing belief . . . that somehow human rights are inconsistent with the world today.” Citing what he called “the growing flirtation with realism” (or is it “principled realism”?)—which presents power as the ultimate determinant in international affairs—the Commissioner warned that the world had already seen the devastating consequences of this worldview, particularly when it is combined with “chauvinistic nationalism,” balance-of-power politics, and a belief in the effectiveness of threats of violence and ultimatums. With leaders increasingly sidelining human rights concerns, he argued the solution was in expanding worldwide popular support for universal human rights by better informing the public of their critical importance and role in upholding global peace. To succeed, however, the Commissioner’s strategy must be combined with a concerted effort to address three problems now deeply embedded within the international human rights architecture.

First, the human rights system must improve its enforcement mechanisms. Human rights norms are notoriously underenforced. The existence of nine core human rights treaties, an expansive system of treaty bodies, and review/monitoring mechanisms has done little to change that. This problem has delegitimated human rights norms in the popular imagination, making them seem, instead, like rainless clouds—everywhere but offering nothing. The many human rights reports submitted to treaty bodies for country reviews and to the Human Rights Council for its universal periodic reviews consistently show that underenforcement is largely the result of the vast power gap between governments and their citizens and the lack of effective mechanisms to hold governments accountable for violations. Because there are significant structural obstacles to improving enforcement, universal human rights proponents must devote more resources to finding innovative ways to reduce the impunity gap. Without improvements in enforcement, the system fails to answer the “so what” question, making it irrelevant to many.

Second, the system must promote social, economic, and cultural rights. For too long, civil and political rights have been emphasized at the expense of socioeconomic rights. In so doing, the human rights system has not only downplayed a central concern of two-thirds of the world’s population, but, given the contentious history of the human rights Covenants, it has also unwittingly reinforced the perception that it prioritizes the preferences of the West. It is significant that the individual complaint mechanism for the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights was created in 2008 at the adoption of its protocol (entering into force in 2013) while that of civil and political rights was created in 1966 (entering into force in 1976). Although the system recognizes the problem and has instituted Special Rapporteurs and independent experts on various aspects of socioeconomic rights, these efforts do not go far enough. The political debate about the validity of socioeconomic rights may persist, but the question is settled in international human rights law. The universal human rights agenda ought to reflect this in bolder ways.

Third, the movement must become more inclusive. The Commissioner correctly noted the persisting view that human rights are an “esoteric stream of international law, promoted mainly by Western idealists, leftists, liberals…” That view, which is held not only by some government leaders, as the Commissioner indicated, but also by a significant proportion of laypeople worldwide, speaks to not only why some shun or ignore human rights norms, but also to the sense of alienation that is increasingly accompanying them. The leading scholars, lawyers, and policymakers at the vanguard of the most influential human rights-promoting institutions tend to indeed lean left, and in many ways fit the common description of “elite.” This is having a two-fold impact: it is increasingly (a) slanting the universal human rights agenda left and (b) alienating a significant percentage of the world’s population whose values lean right, dampening their enthusiasm for a regime whose many norms would ordinarily fit their own value systems. This point should not be mistaken for a repackaging of the cultural relativism argument; it is rather an observation about the narrowing of the human rights lens. This should concern the movement not only because it robs it of significant voices as it fights to assert its relevance, but also because it represents the loss of the political ambiguity that once accounted for the broader, though imperfect, support the idea of human rights enjoyed in the aftermath of WW II. If the movement does not become more inclusive, the universal human rights agenda will lose rather than gain popular support.

Wresting the U.N.’s Significance from Dotards & Madmen

It has been a few weeks since the conclusion of the General Assembly’s 72nd session. Most years, the event is remembered for its often entertaining absurdities. This year’s memorable absurdity was Donald Trump’s calling, from the UN’s podium, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man,” to which he responded by calling Trump a “dotard.” Later, Trump responded by calling Kim a “madman.” Ordinarily, this would not be much to write home about, but with 60% of the American population believing the UN is doing a “poor job,” such high-profile spats tend to not only divert the world’s gaze from the seriousness of the forum, but they also reinforce negative perceptions of the organization, deepen skepticism about its effectiveness, and contribute to its persistent underappreciation. Perhaps, for a change, we should consider briefly the value of this unique organization.

Before this post is mistaken for an ode to the UN, I will acknowledge the organization’s significant structural, procedural, and operational weaknesses. The most glaring being its inability to restrain its most influential members; the democratic deficits of the Security Council; biases against some states; a bloated budget and an unwieldy bureaucracy; and the inability to effectively enforce international norms. Moreover, self-inflicted wounds like the sexual abuses of UN peacekeepers (the 2015 report can be found here) and the cholera debacle in Haiti and its associated accountability challenges have tarnished the organization’s image as have the ironies of human rights-abusing states being members of the Human Rights Council and the world’s largest arms exporters being permanent members of the Security Council. The UN has also been sidelined in the making of consequential international policy by fora such as the G-7, G-20, and international financial institutions, reinforcing the perception that it is not particularly effective.

Often lost in assessments of the UN’s effectiveness, however, is an appreciation of its politico-legal architecture and its implications for the organization’s operation. The 193-member intergovernmental organization has an independent legal personality, but it remains a voluntary association of sovereign states, doing the bidding of states and, except in few and very carefully prescribed cases, refraining from intervening in matters considered within a state’s domestic jurisdiction. Its founding instrument, the UN Charter, labored to make that point. This arrangement constrains not only what the organization can do, but also how it does it. When states turn a blind eye to refugees and asylum seekers, the UN can only prod them to do more; when states fail to agree to a unified strategy, as continues to happen with the Syrian conflict, the UN is unable to effectively address difficult problems; when states complain that the organization is bloated and ineffective but refuse to enact reforms, the organization remains stagnant and ineffective; when states use finances to pressure the organization into moving in their preferred direction, the organization’s critical independence is damaged, deepening its credibility crisis; when influential states continue to use their “right to veto” to shield allies from arguably justified UN censure, the Security Council’s role of enforcing the organization’s critical security and military decisions is compromised and the UN’s primary purpose is hobbled. States’ failures become the organization’s failures.

With people most dissatisfied with the UN’s peacekeeping efforts, we must ask what kind of peace the organization is expected to maintain. Should the Charter’s Article 1 goal of maintaining international peace and security be interpreted as maintaining complete tranquility in all places, at all times? If not, how much upheaval is permissible before the organization can be legitimately accused of failure? Is it success that since its founding in 1945, there has not been a third world war? Is it sufficient that the organization engages the many ongoing conflicts by providing a forum for parties to address their differences and sending peacekeepers when/if those differences escalate into conflict or must it also guarantee results? Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General of the UN, famously noted that the organization “was created not to lead mankind to heaven but to save humanity from hell.” If we adjust our expectations and accept that realistic interpretation of the organization’s mandate, we find that the organization enjoys notable success for which it is not given nearly enough credit.

Through its many funds and programs, the UN is on the ground throughout the world, in the most desperate places, delivering humanitarian aid and filling in the gaps where states have failed to fulfil their duties. It is also proactively addressing destabilizing social, economic, and political conditions by promoting human rights, sustainable development, and international law. The International Court of Justice, the UN’s main judicial organ, also continues to hear and resolve contentious cases between states. Notably, this year the UN adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Although nuclear-armed states show no interest in ratifying it, guaranteeing, as the Nobel Committee noted, that the treaty will not “in itself eliminate a single nuclear weapon,” it remains significant because it provides a basis for setting a new and important international legal standard that nuclear weapons are not allowed. This matters because, contrary to popular belief, states do comply with international norms most of the time. With North Korea flagrantly violating the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, from which it withdrew in 2003, it is easy to overlook that many states that are party, are not.

Lastly, with the UN incessantly ridiculed for being “all meetings and talk,” it is worth noting that it is through meetings and talks that it attempts to harmonize the competing interests and priorities of its members (who represent 7 billion people with different languages and cultures). That apparatus makes “talking” a necessity and agreements, whatever form they take, an achievement. If only dotards and madmen could see that.

 

Humans are Special

I have been struck by how quickly the recent Las Vegas shootings left the headlines and our national discourse. Was the “moving on” somehow emblematic of how we’ve come to view life—something cheap and disposable, the loss of which no longer merits a meaningful pause? Was it a symptom of a soulless market-driven culture, helplessness  resulting from the many senseless deaths to which we have become accustomed, or was something much deeper going on? I’m inclined to explore the last option for a moment. If our mental health professionals are right, a significant percentage of us are unhappy, stressed, and depressed. In fact, many live in that desperate unspeakable place where they not only welcome death, but secretly hope it beckons them. In that condition, it is hard to see the joy or value of life, let alone to appreciate its loss. It’s a miserable hypothesis, I know, but in a nation where suicide and other “deaths of despair” are at crisis levels, it may not be too far-fetched.

That wretched condition stands in sharp contrast to the Bible’s take on the promise and value of human life. While the Bible does not shy away from presenting life’s harsh realities, it is also equally unapologetic in its view that life is an extraordinary gift from God—no one else can give it. Life is presented as the very breath of God breathed into a lifeless creation that then became a living being (Gen. 2:7). The human being stands apart from the rest of creation as a prized and cherished creature, distinct from all others, and having a unique relationship with the Creator in whose image he is made (Gen. 1:27). Fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), the human being is endowed with extraordinary talent and capacity (we can figure out exactly when an eclipse will be, for goodness sake!) and is placed on earth for a limited time to use that awesome capacity to show off the manifold goodness and majesty of God in all areas of life.

Senseless deaths are, thus, not just heartbreaking and sad, they are a waste and a vile robbery. For us to see them, once again, for the grave violation they are, we could begin by searching among modernity’s casualties for that lost piece of humanity that once told us we were special.

The trouble with politicized Christianity

In a scathing article published last month in La Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit-affiliated Italian Catholic journal, a priest and a pastor took on what they view as a problematic intermingling of religion, morals, and politics among Christians—particularly evangelical Protestants and Catholics—in the United States. Using the 2016 election of Donald Trump as a centerpiece, the authors argued that many of the positions taken by these “value voters” reflect a desire for a theocratic state not unlike that which inspires Islamic fundamentalism and warned that “confusing spiritual power with temporal power means subjecting one to the other.” Unsurprisingly, the article did not go over well in many corners. One writer found it “long, confusing, wildly inaccurate in its interpretation of American Christianity, and an unremarkable critique by uninformed foreigners.” While there are certainly some problems in the piece, the least of which is its overstatement of its main point, its central concern—the politicization of Christianity in the United States—deserves honest consideration, especially as an in-house debate among Christians.

First, it is important to note that the involvement of Christians in politics—the activities associated with how society is ordered and governed—is encouraged in Christian doctrine. Christians have a broad Bible-based socio-political mission that includes fighting all forms of injustice, feeding the hungry, protecting and advocating the rights of the poor and other disadvantaged groups, promoting peace, and so on. That mission requires courageous and zealous participation in politics, and the employment of every legitimate tool to which other citizens avail themselves. Christ, who told his disciples his kingdom was “not of this world,” so challenged the practices of the politico-religious establishments of his day that some of his early followers thought he might indeed establish a worldly political kingdom. But he clearly told them to prioritize his spiritual mission: reconciling people to God by telling them the story of His love as expressed in Christ’s sacrifice—a practice known as evangelism. Aspects of the socio-political mission may further the spiritual, but the two are distinct.

While the goals and priorities of Christian political engagement are clear in doctrine, they tend to be less so in practice. A Pew Research Center Study from the 2016 presidential election showed the majority of Christians voted for Trump: Protestants (58%), Catholics (52%), and white, born again/evangelical Christians (81%). (Let’s ignore, for now, the problematic groupings.) The numbers presented an incongruity of sorts. Popular media analyses concluded several factors accounted for the result—the group’s concerns about supreme court nominees, socio-cultural issues, and the protection of religious liberty. Deeper analyses presented a more complex picture as the economy (87%), immigration (78%) (often conflated with refugee flows), terrorism (89%) (often conflated with concerns about the migration of people from Muslim-majority states and refugee issues), ranked much higher in importance for white evangelical Christians, for instance, than the foregrounded socio-cultural issues (70% for supreme court appointees and 52% for abortion). And, race, rather than religion, appeared a greater determinant as in the case of Hispanic Catholics, 67% of whom voted for Clinton likely out of concern for the treatment of Hispanic Americans under Trump. Although the socio-cultural issues were not among the highest of Christian voter priorities, they were, as shown in the study, still significant considerations in their choice. And, despite these complexities and nuances, in popular thinking, the political association of Christianity, broadly, with “the right” and its agenda calcified even more than it already had in past presidential elections.

The Christian Lobby

Looking back, the “Christian vote” in the 2016 election should have been foreseeable. The groundwork had been laid over the last few decades (especially the last two) by an influential Christian lobby of sorts that had emerged in U.S. politics. The lobby had two broad objectives: preserving Judeo-Christian norms as the nation’s default moral ethic and protecting Christians from real and perceived threats to their faith arising from the steady secularization of the country. Both goals have been widely embraced by Christians, but they are problematic and efforts to achieve them, misguided. To whatever extent the first goal is desirable, it is at its core a spiritual goal achieved, for lasting impact, through evangelism not politics; the second seeks to prevent the persecution of Christians, an eventuality all but guaranteed by the faith’s many counter-cultural doctrinal positions. The pursuit of these goals has mired Christian leaders in the type of political yuck from which they are not easily extricated and unnecessarily politicized the faith. I’ll explain.

Let’s consider why the lobby may have decided to pursue these goals in the first place. Setting aside the many problems associated with measuring faith, studies show a notable decline in the number of people identifying as Christian in the U.S.—94% in 1951, according to a Gallup poll, and 71% in 2015 (a drop from 78% in 2007), according to a recent Pew study. (These numbers tell only a small part of the story. They say nothing of the quality of Christianity that remains.)  In response to the decline, the Christian lobby has engaged the “culture wars” with ferocious determination, with the goal of ensuring the country at least retains features of “Christian character.” Its formidable opponents have dealt it many defeats and it has, in turn, sought even greater political influence and ever-deepening political alliances. Lost in the lobby’s efforts is the recognition that Christianity is first and foremost personal—there are Christian people not Christian countries or institutions. In seeking to maintain the country’s Christian character, the lobby is essentially trying to impose on a pluralistic state Christian values as political ideology divorced from Christianity’s spiritual roots. This approach benefits politicians, who get elected on the imprimatur of Christian morality (fast fading in the West) and use it instrumentally to further other political objectives that are not necessarily in line with the faith.

Some Christians might argue the culture wars are about the protection of life and the preservation of desirable social standards, not Christianizing the state. The argument is reasonable and persuasive, but it downplays the significance of its core and the implications thereof. The desired standards are moral standards based on Christian theology. In that theology, morality is more than just behavioral and is not imposed externally. It is, instead, a deep transformational process that happens individually (not institutionally) from the inside out. To get people to embrace that Christ-inspired moral transformation, Christians are to share their faith in word and deed (evangelize). They are to persuade others of its virtue not to use the government to impose it on people who find it neither desirable nor useful as do other lobbies.

The Christian lobby is also trying to preserve a social climate in which Christians are comfortable and free to exercise their faith without persecution or fear. American Christians had long found security in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but the social changes of the last few decades have persuaded them of its insufficiency. The many religious liberty cases popping up across the U.S. are evidence, as Rod Dreher pointed out in the Benedict Option, of Christians increasingly feeling they are being asked to choose between being a good Christian and being a good American. While addressing the concern through deeper political alliances may seem a good strategy, and may indeed, as it did for Emperor Constantine’s Roman Christians, stem the tide of persecution (which is negligible compared to that experienced by Christians in other parts of the world), the small gains come at a high cost.

In a pluralistic society, the results of such efforts can only be temporary, lasting only as long as the personalities tasked with preserving them. (In ancient Rome, the steps Constantine took to somewhat “Christianize” the empire through public institutions were, upon his death, reinforced half-heartedly by one of his sons, and, later, Theodosius. It took one determined Julian to undo much of it.) Christians would do well to remember that persecution is an unavoidable feature of their faith—Christ was crucified. The latter observation is not a call for Christians to court martyrdom or to sit idly by while their rights are trampled, but rather a reminder that comfort is hardly a Christian priority, and it is certainly not one worth politicizing the faith over.

Damage to Christianity

The damage done to Christianity through problematic political entanglements tends to last much longer than the gains. The entanglements make it difficult for well-meaning Christians to oppose the myriad areas of divergence between their faith and other positions held by their political partners, so they become silent accomplices to various forms of injustice perpetrated by their partners. It should be no surprise that attempts to preserve the Christian character of the state have also made it easier for Christians, based on a warped cost-benefit analysis, to embrace policies that seek to exclude or marginalize people of other faiths. The alliances also feed extreme elements within Christianity that will seek theological justification for any decision their political partner supports. Most important, when the independence of Christianity suffers, the faith’s spiritual mission, Christ’s priority, becomes even more difficult as people begin to associate it with partisan politics. It should bother U.S. Christians that “evangelical”—a benign theological term—is now politically-charged.

The myriad problems arising from close associations between Christianity and partisan politics have not been lost on thoughtful Christians. In 2008, a group of concerned Christian leaders, careful to note they were not speaking for all Christians, adopted an Evangelical Manifesto aimed at asserting Christianity’s independence from politics and clarifying both the mission and limits of Christian involvement in politics. It might be time to circulate another, if only to remind Christians that no amount of culture-warring can take the place of evangelism, and political institutions cannot resolve humanity’s moral problems, they offer only a temporary solution.