Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Issue of Slavery

Despite the many aspects of the Christian and Hebrew Bible in support of the universal rights presented in the first chapter of The History of Human Rights, there are activities within these two texts where human rights are seemingly neglected. Pierre Teihard de Chardin, who was a member of the Society of Jesus and an UNESCO respondent, argues that equality, liberty, and fraternity are “inseparable components of Christian love” (25). According to Chardin, Christianity promotes moral equality for all humans (a position he endorsed during his participation with UNESCO). The text, however, subtly explains that early Christian leaders did not fight for the emancipation of the “indentured servants” within the Christian community. Paul, a prominent Christian figure, even encouraged slaves to be subordinate to their masters (26). The text further explains that, although Hebrew slaves were limited to seven years of bondage, foreign slaves were never given freedom. Foreign slaves were given certain rights once they were circumcised, including the right to religious worship and participation in the Sabbath, but were ultimately subject to the individual who owned them (48). Because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights draws heavily from a variety of religious views and traditions across the globe, wouldn’t the existence of human rights violations also evident in the Christian and Hebrew Bible undermine its promotion of freedom, equality, and brotherhood? An individual or group of people would easily be able to argue in support of human rights violations using the same texts. In fact, human beings have drawn from other passages in the Christian Bible to justify the concept of slavery. Genesis 9:25-27 was used throughout the course of history to validate the enslavement of Africans, who were thought to be descendents of Canaan. “’Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.’ He also said, ‘Praise be to the LORD, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend Japheth’s[a] territory; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth’” (Gen 9:25-27 NIV). It seems that the respondents involved in UNESCO’s search for universal human rights should have put less emphasis on the religious ideas and traditions found within Christian and Hebrew text. The participants (Chardin specifically) would have created a stronger foundation for their findings had they brought the issue of slavery within these two texts into focus and explained them accordingly. If UNESCO allowed other religious traditions greater influence in its inquiry, would the organization have avoided these contradictions?


  1. I think that Ishay’s focus on religious foundation is more to emphasize the fact that our contemporary tradition of human rights did not spring into existence from nothing, but is in fact founded on historic (albeit exceedingly problematic) systems of justice. I don’t think Ishay is arguing that religions should be the foundation of moral law, but that historically it is. Before fixing the problems with human rights now, we must understand where they came from.

  2. The question at the end of your post reminds me of something I had wondered while reading the section on UNESCO: Were the viewpoints sought out through UNESCO really as globally representative as they claimed to be? I hadn’t thought about the question in terms of religious diversity, but more in terms of socioeconomic/political status. Ishay explains that the questionnaire on human rights perspectives was distributed to thinkers and writers from member-states of the United Nations. Cross-culturally, thinkers and writers represent a relatively elite echelon, and are often influenced by each other. This may be a bit of a stretch, but perhaps the method of focused inquiry with thinkers and writers accounts for some degree of the surprising amount of agreement between UNESCO leaders as well as the responses they received from the questionnaires (despite some of the key differences you point out in your post). Would results would have been different if the survey included “common” members of societies, or people who had actually suffered from human rights violations?


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