Saturday, April 04, 2009

Increasing intolerance in the name of human rights?

As our society becomes increasingly rights-focused, is there less tolerance for acts of conscience? 

This is the question asked in a major piece published on the front page of today's National Post.  Citing numerous examples, Charles Lewis shows how religious conscience, in particular, is being suppressed, often in the name of human rights and especially when it impacts on one's ability practice one's beliefs publicly.  Asks one doctor concerned over increasing  pressure to practice procedures contrary to his convictions, "What does the free exercise of religion mean if I cannot follow my conscience? It becomes meaningless if you try to privatize beliefs where they have no bearing on action."

Similar arguments are being made in the recent Macleans article "Human rights racket" by Andrew Coyne which reviews Ezra Levant's recent book on the subject.  Levant, as one might expect, specifically targets Canada's human rights commissions for suppressing civil liberties in the name of protecting human rights without being restrained by legal due process.  As the article points out:

Human rights commissions have been set up as a kind of parallel police and legal system, yet without any of the procedural safeguards, rules of evidence, or simple professional expertise of the real thing. Human rights investigators can search homes and offices without warrants. Tribunals can accept hearsay evidence, or ignore disclosure requirements, at will. Common law defences such as fair comment do not apply. Complainants have their costs paid for, even if they lose, while their targets must fend for themselves. None of this is accidental. It’s deliberate—protecting “human rights” was considered too urgent a matter to be constrained by old-fashioned notions of due process.

We are in a crisis over human rights in our society.  Part of the problem is that we no longer really know what human rights are.  Inevitably, our perceptions clash and the struggle is to figure out which of these so-called rights trump the others.  Increasingly, it is the more marginal and disputable rights that seem to take priority.  As a PC user with Microsoft programming that is inevitably prone to freezing up, by necessity I become familiar with the "reset" button of every computer I have ever owned.   We are in such a state with human rights here in Canada and elsewhere in the Western world.  We are increasingly freezing up like an old PC, as our programming (what we perceive are rights) keeps conflicting with itself.  But where is the "reset" button?

As Christians, we may be tempted to "chuck" the whole thing, retreat back to our ghettos and suggest that human rights is best left outside of the church.  We'll let society fight it out.  The problem is, as the National Post article points out, we can't.  The answer is not to retreat or pretend that human rights don't matter.  They do and as Christians who believe in the sanctity of human life created in the image of God, we have the only solid basis on which to base human rights.  We have the "reset" button!  Rather than trash the concept of human rights, we need to push it by rediscovering what human rights are and what they are not.  This is why we at The Voice of the Martyrs are recommending that people read Thomas K. Johnson's Human Rights - A Christian Primer. You can download a pdf copy or if, like me, you still prefer a book to read from than a computer screen, you can order it online from us.  It is not a perfect book (what book is?) but it is a good starting point and this is where most of us are at.  Pastors especially need to start thinking about these things. We regularly encourage our people to live out their faith throughout the week.  To practice one's faith only on Sundays, we say, is the antithesis of what it means to follow Christ. If we really believe this, we had better start training them to know how to do that in a society that is increasingly pushing them to privatize their faith and conscience, limiting the practice of their convictions strictly to the home and church.

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