I was excited to read this text because of a post I saw on Twitter that talked about Gündoğdu locating the ultimate authority for human rights, not merely in the nation-states that allegedly protect them but in human beings themselves who demand those rights by migrating contrary to unjust law. That definition of what it means to be human realigned all the ethical pieces in my head. Mythologically, within my faith, those are exactly the stories I know and tell to relate my values. Pharaoh seeks to do genocide to the Hebrew people. With God as Deliverer, Moses, Miriam, and the Hebrew people walk out of Egypt to seek out a broad and spacious land for community life and conduct. (The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary relates that this is literally how the Hebrew Bible defines “salvation.”) Fleeing Herod’s edict to kill all children under two years of age, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus walk into Egypt for haven and sanctuary.
To be human is to flee injustice in search of a broad space, haven, and sanctuary. If you are a faith nerd, like me, you point to Psalm 23 as a way of recognizing that the most dearly beloved Psalm in Christian communities has echoes of this definition. Maybe it is why we treasure Psalm 23. Deep down, Psalm 23 tells us what it means to be a human being. I want to come back to that.
This book was a critique of the human rights theory of Hannah Arendt. Coming out of World War II, international declarations were made about human rights. Arendt, as a Jewish person living in Germany, became increasingly concerned about the antisemitism she saw escalating in her country. She was briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo and escaped to the United States where she became one of the most important political philosophers and theorists of the 20th Century.
Arendt wrote of a “right to have rights.” In other words, how do we vest rights in such a way that they cannot be taken away when the political winds change? When fiat or blame is leveled, how do we make sure that people or peoples become something less than human beings? For when people are without voice, work, or labor, Arendt wrote, they are something less than human beings. They are expulsed from humanity. Arendt did not want the discourse of human rights to be something static or certain because, she believed, despots or governments would always find a way to maneuver around a concept that did not move with contingency.
Here in the text was a word I had never encountered but now has become part of my lexicon. Arendt thought the discourse on human rights should be “aporetic.” If you are a regular reader to my blog (did I just hear an echo?), you know that I used this term in my Exodus/Wilderness sermon series. Aporetic is a way of saying that we should work with Socratic questioning in ways that recognize some things always end up in perplexity. If we keep at this process, however, we may find a path or a way where there was no path before. We reexamine, “think without a bannister,” so that no trite or easy answers carry the day.
Arendt makes it clear that human rights are not something that have any meaning outside of legal leverage and ongoing practices. In fact, Arendt contends, that real legal codification and practice must be augmented to be real. In our present day, this could not be any more clear. Unless we augment rights around employment, voting, and fair housing, allowing those rights to remain static means they are eroded or taken away. Gerrymandering seeks to take away the power of the vote. Voting-by-mail is being regularly denigrated by President Trump. Even the doubt cast on the electoral process may upend the presidential election process. Augmentation is necessary as a way of meeting contingencies created by those who would subvert basic human rights.
For Arendt, the basics of what it means to be human are about “cultivating a trust in the reality and regularity of life, establishing a relatively durable dwelling place, and creating public spaces to appear and act in the company of fellow human beings.” (p. 208) My belief is that faith needs to actively incorporate such concepts into its teaching, preaching, and dialog. Talking about God creating human beings without such real political and legal standing is romantic discourse without the everyday grit and substance faith should be about. We should then challenge those in the halls of power who actively expulse others from humanity as people who have made themselves God’s adversaries. If God created these people to be human beings, who are you to take away their voice, labor, and work, their dependable and routine life?
Gündoğdu relates the quandary Arendt faces as she struggles with rightlessness in an age of rights. For if human rights are conferred by the nation-state through citizenship, what happens to human rights when people who are not citizens seek human rights? Are immigrants and refugees not human beings because they have no path to citizenship? Also, as citizenship is deflated, does it also mean that human rights are lost as well? With economic inequality on the rise throughout the world, where do we vest human rights?
She references the sans-papieres movement as a way of establishing a “founding” of human rights by occupying a political space not open before, establishing new questions about equality and freedom (encapsulated in a term she references as “equaliberty”), and demanding their role as political subjects. I think how young people have similarly done this through their legal and political work around climate change.
This book was dense and a slog for me even as many of the concepts changed my worldview and had me recognizing I needed a more rigorous theology around what it means to be a human being. Study is a spiritual practice for me because I experience joy in this kind of learning. It may be that Gündoğdu is just ten times smarter than I am in a way that requires my whole brain for every sentence.
In keeping with Arendt and Gündoğdu and their definition of what it means to be a human being, I had an incredible conversation with my daughter just the other day. We talked about the basics of what it means to be a human being. While voice, work, labor, the regularity and dependability of life, and the willingness to occupy political space are important characteristics of what we all should know as human beings, I do think some Biblical concepts should be added to the mix.
Coming out of the Biblical Exile, Jewish prophets recognized that without human rights, they were building houses that they did not themselves live in or growing vineyards that they themselves did not eat the fruit of. I think an investigation of “shalom” concepts like these are part of the ongoing, aporetic dialog that will lead us to a fuller understanding of human rights. That sense of being able to weave together a community through construction and the growing of food and being able to enjoy the shelter and fruit of that labor are part of what it means to be a human being.
Finally, one of the primary concepts of “shalom” that is found in Micah 4:4 and in Psalm 23 are key to what it means to be human. That each of us might be able to sit underneath our own olive tree and find rest and leisure in God’s good creation are considered antidotes to imperial rule. When there is a widespread sense that we do not have to be hypervigilant about what will happen next to find food or shelter, to avoid being killed by law enforcement, and that the world is not going to hell in a handbasket, we become more fully human. That the Jewish people celebrate Passover every year, advised to recline in leisure as they eat the meal, is a reminder. We are reminded that yes, trauma has come and may come, but there are times when our humanity is fully embraced in celebration, Sabbath, and rest.