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Working for justice...human rights

Amnesty International have just launched their Write for Rights campaign, which runs through November and December each year and encourages people to write letters to and in support of those who have suffered injustice. As we continue to focus on issues on justice, we spent some time on Sunday morning thinking about human rights and beginning to engage with the campaign.

Human rights is of course legal rather than biblical language, but the ideas behing the words are deeply rooted in scripture. The concept of human rights is based on the foundational idea that all are equal and should therefore have equal dignity and protection and access to basic needs, and Genesis 1:27 affirms that equality by declaring that all are made in the image of God. Codifying human rights is intended to protect those who are most likely to have their rights ignored or abused, and biblical laws are underpinned by the same care for the vulnerable. Respecting human rights demands that we recognise the humanity in all, and we see that modelled in the way Jesus acted with respect towards those others ignored.

Talking about human rights can be tricky, because not all agree on what they are, and because sometimes they appear to clash. There are important conversations to be had around these areas, but human rights are a really powerful tool for justice, providing accountability and facilitating dialogue, and the campaign to defend them is an important one.

This year Amnesty are focusing on women who have suffered injustice because of their efforts to defend themselves and others. If you want to know more about their stories, you can read and respond on the Amnesty website, and there will also be materials at church throughout the campaign. We already have a stack of signed postcards to return to Amnesty, responding to two of the cases.

I kept my message brief on Sunday as I wanted to leave time and space for us to engage with and respond to the Amnesty campaign. Social action is worship as much as singing or praying or listening to a sermon, and so it was good to include it in our collective worship. I did however share a few thoughts about our readings.

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:6-8)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. (Paraphrase from the Talmud)

These passages could sit across all of our thinking and doing around social justice because they speak so clearly and succinctly about our need to engage positively in the world. But they are not just about doing good, they are also about doing God. Our relationship with one another is woven into our relationship with God.

You may know the story of the potential convert who approached Rabbi Hillel, saying that he would only convert if the rabbi could recite the whole of the law while standing on one foot. Rabbi Hillel responded by saying "What is hateful to you do not do to another. This is the law, the rest is commentaty. Now go and learn it", which as I demonstrated on Sunday, can be said while standing on one foot. Micah 6:8 has similarly been considered possible compendium of all the law. Rabbi Simlai said “613 precepts were communicated to Moses, 365 negative precepts...Micah came and reduced them to three [principles]”.

These verses from Micah are really important because they hold so much of the law, and also a corrective to misuse of the law, a reminder not to get equate it with religous observance and think that is sufficient. They declare that there is no gap between our faith and our action, between walking with God and working in the world; that engaging with social justice is a deeply spiritual act, and all our ritual is meaningless without it. It is good then to look more closely at the principles Micah gives.

Act with justice This one makes this an appropriate passage to land on this week, because the biblical idea of justice is connected to the modern idea of rights, as it is concerned with treating everyone equally, often focusing on vulnerable as way of balancing the scales. The Hebrew word for justice used in Micah is mishpat, which is a legal form of justice to do with determining punishment and writing wrongs, but another word used elsewhere is tzadeqah, which is a more day to day kind of just or righteous behaviour. Tim Keller speaks of mishpat as rectifying justice and tzadeqah as primary justice, behavior that would render rectifying justice unnecessary because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else. These verses from Micah are perhaps most concerned with mishpat because they are given in the context of Israel having done wrong by God, but we should always have tzadeqah in view

Love mercy This is sometimes translated as “loving kindness”, but it is not just about appreciating the kindness of others, it is also to do with acting with lovingkindness. This is a word invented by Miles Coverdale to translate the Hebrew word chesed, which has no direct equivalent in English. It is sometimes translated as goodness or compassion as well as mercy, but interestingly it is also used in scripture to speak of covenantal love. This suggests to me that acting with lovingkindness is not simply concerned with good deeds, but with acts which mirror the covenantal love of God by seeking to build relationship. Of course we can’t have a personal relationship with everyone we act kindly towards, but we can at least seek to recognise the other as a person with whom we exist in some degree of relationship, and not just as a chance to do a good deed.

Walk humbly with your God This is the usual translation, butthe original meaning has a sense of walking wisely or carefully or completely. The joy and the richness of language means it can be all three at once. Walking wisely suggests making good decisions, which means seeking understanding of the world we walk with God in. Walking carefully suggests a desire to take care of others, to do no harm. Walking completely suggests that we walk with God every step, which goes back to what I said earlier about there being no gap between faith and action. The Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggeman also suggests it means paying attention to others, looking around and not looking down as we walk.

I think the piece of commentary from Talmud is also really important for us to hear. Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. I won’t offer a commentary on the commentary, but I will just emphasise that the scale of the work can be overwhelming, but we have to do what we can and we have to do it now. As Mother Teresa is supposed to have said, “small things done with great love will change the world”.

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