Human rights are contentious: do they exist? Where are they from? And how do we know which specific rights should count as human rights? Is there an Orthodox case to be made for human rights? Indeed, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic raises the specific question of a right to health and healthcare, as does the current American political debate on capping prices on insulin, a life-saving medication which has been exponentially increasing in price in the last decade.
Any discussion of human rights must begin with what we mean by ‘human,’ and for Christians, the God in whose image we are created. This Creator-given human dignity is the divine stamp of blessing and value upon which rights—existential entitlements—are grounded. As Orthodox theologian Paul Ladouceur has written, “a holistic theology of the divine image, personhood and human rights is entirely consistent with the patristic vision of humanity,” and is a “solid rampart” against all manner of violence against Creation. Even outside of the modern Orthodox world, protestants and Catholics have read the tradition similarly. Prominent Reformed theologian Nicolas Wolterstorff, for example, reads Basil the Great, Ambrose, and John Chrysostom and writes that:
I see no other way to interpret what John [Chrysostom] is doing with his powerful rhetoric, than that he is reminding his audience, rich and poor alike, of the natural rights of the poor…. The recognition of natural rights is unmistakably there: The poor are wronged because they do not have what is theirs by natural right…
(Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2008), 62, cited in Susan R. Holman, “Orthodox Humanitarianisms: Patristic Foundations,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 14.1 [January 2, 2016])
Some years ago, I was on a high-speed Acela to New York one morning when, in Connecticut, a woman in her early 60s apparently fainted while waiting at the crossing barriers. Recently discharged from the hospital, she was the primary caregiver for her grandchildren, ages 4 and 2, and was now, with great caution and love, driving them to preschool. Gently, uncontrolled—inexplicable to those watching—the nose of her car bounced under the barriers and rolled onto the track—at the very moment when our train barreled through. The woman and her grandson died instantly; his tiny sister died several days later. After a long wait, a half-mile past the impact, our train still enmeshed with the mangled car, we, the shocked passengers, were eventually disgorged at the closest station to wait for a new train. When reporters began trawling the crowded platform, microphones in hand, I could not speak. Silence seemed the only respectful response to such a violent and deadly serendipity.
These days, in the global grief of the current pandemic and its economic and political fallout, I feel much as I did that morning on the platform: overtaken by silence. An inner sentinel calls me to attend with respect the widespread “shell shock” of emerging losses for which there are no adequate words. Such silence is for me a solidarity of spirit, a way, as it were, to weep with those who weep. And yet—precisely because this crisis also directly relates to my academic engagement in global health and the history of faith-based responses to illness and need, I wrestle within such silence with an equally complex sense of responsibility to find language that might shape (if only my own) choices and actions in the midst of a media firehose of verbiage. This essay is a partial response to these inner sensors. But perhaps it might encourage others wrestling with a similar struggle as we listen, hope, and begin to craft useful, tempered conversations with depth and integrity.
In May 2018, I graduated with my Master of Divinity, and immediately following the graduation ceremony, I boarded a plane to Rome, where I intended to undergo the 30-day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Although I had attended a renowned Jesuit university with one of the largest Jesuit communities in the United States, I chose to go to Rome to do the Exercises because the retreat director was an “orthodox” Jesuit, one who was not afraid to speak “the truth” and one who despised the way “liberals” had destroyed the Society of Jesus. As a reasonably conservative Roman Catholic with an overabundance of zeal and vocational angst, I seized the opportunity to make a retreat under this particular Jesuit, leaving the local Jesuits— who helped me grow as a person and a scholar—far behind.