Charles Malik, The Universal Declaration and the Church

I don’t often block quote on this blog but today I will make an exception. Before the quote comes up it is right to write a bit about the person I am hoping to introduce some of you too, if you have not yet heard of him.

Charles Malik, was born in Lebanon (sometimes called the Switzerland of the East, and though siding with the Arab nations in the Isreali-Arab conflict Lebanon was non-military participant in the conflict, It also has a diverse faith community). Malik, a Christian, Philosopher and Theologian, played a significant part in drafting the UN universal declaration of human rights. To contextualize, this was  in the immediate post second world war era, and slightly before the cold war heated up, at a time of insecurity and reminiscent of genocide and evil. His contribution to the process is well documented in a recently published book of his writings edited by his son Habib Malik. It is from this book that I will cite.

In the introduction, written by Mary Ann Glendon, Professor of Law at Harvard University, we are told that Malik served as rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Commission. (This means that he was tasked with writing up a report that would be kneaded into the bread that became the Universal Declaration, in part thanks also to Maliks diplomatic skill.) Glendon notes that at the time, as is still often the case: ‘political realists did not believe there were any universal principles of human decency.’ She reminds us that many hold to what Thucydides said (and later Nietzsche paraphrased) : ‘Right is only a question between equals in power. The strong do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must.’

Whatever you might think of Human Rights law now, and how in some cases it has been abused or taken too far in some directions, the universal declaration is a document which, if one reads today, clearly resonates strongly with values Christians ascribe to. Therefore I have chosen to quote Malik, since his thoughts serve as a reminder to doubters and naysayers what we as Christians are about.

But first a bit more background. On 10 December 1948, the General Assembly of the UN the declaration was adopted by 48 votes for, 0 against and 8 abstentions (the Soviet bloc and satellite states). Countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Iceland and the United States, accepted the final wording of the declaration as a universal standard to strive for, a huge diplomatic feat often unrecognized. The key element contained within it is the recognition that politics, power and the nation-state, should be a servant to its citizens. And that these citizens should have their dignity restored which is espoused to the human soul by its ‘original peculiar origin and immortal destiny,’ and distinctively part of the ‘platonic-christian inheritance’ of the West.

Malik goes on when speaking to the world Council of Churches symposium on International Affairs in April 1949, just five months after the decleration was ratified, and after it had been criticised by the Soviets and unfortunately by some conservative elements in the US:

The one great modern phenomenon is the rise of the masses, the destruction of hierarchy, the leveling down of distinction and structure. The term ‘the masses’ is here employed in an ontological sense: it refers to the kind of being and valuation of the masses. This rise is necessarily also a revolt and, as such, it was accurately described and predicted by Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, and in our own days no one has been more sensitive to it than Ortega y Gasset and Heidegger. The phenomenon of ‘das Man’ in Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit is the most wonderful philosophical description I know of this characterless, dark, distracted, gossipy, irresponsible, self-lost, impersonal, indecisive and unauthentic spirit of the masses.

The church, inasmuch as it veers away from a Christian Humanism, partakes in the terrible accusations described by Malik above.

He continues:

So far as material, economic and social conditions constitute real causation, the masses have rebelled and risen as a result of the industrial revolution. It can be shown that as the masses rose, man, humanity necessarily declined. When you become and atom in a massive ocean of identically like atoms, without structure, without distinction, without ontological differentiation of function, then you lose your sense of essential, inalienable, human individuality. The international work of human rights and fundamental freedoms is a faint effort to recover this lost individuality, to the end that the individual human person should realize his own natural dignity, namely the rights and liberties with which he, as a man, is endowed by nature.

The inauguration of the Human Rights Room (Room XX) at the European headquarters of the United Nations - Geneva
At the risk of loosing you, I will move to the final and concluding quote, which follows Maliks argument that the universal decleration should be covenanted into law, that the West should be the force that would start the task. It is a requirement for us, because ‘…truth is knowable, we are by nature destined to know it and to articulate it and to share it.’ Nevertheless, because of passivity it seemed to Malki that ‘the truth, which is integrally there, is nevertheless hidden from the view of the Western mind.’ And so he comes to the role of the Church in relation to politics:

Now politics is by nature the sphere of compromise and calculation. A certain degree of untruth and impurity and insincerity must needs cling to the politician. He must carry it as a chastening cross. It will be understood and forgiven only in confession. Thus, the full affirmation of man in his truth cannot come in the political sphere. The crisis of human rights consists therefore precisely in the fact that politics is meddling in a field that belongs more properly to the moral and prophetic consciousness. Politics should follow: it should not lead. When, contrary to nature, it is leading in these fundamental matters, then there is something the matter with the Church. For I do not beleive that the Church, which has the full deposit of truth, is leading enough in this field. There is certainly preoccupation with trivial problems when the greatest problem of the age, namely whether man can still remain man, with his freedom and laughter and joy and reason and love, is insufficiently faced by the only agency that can really face and solve it. Politics does not really care; but if the care of God is not itself made potently manifest, then man, and therewith the politician himself, is completely lost.

Either there is a common morality about man that can be codified and not only respected, but also actually observed under a rule of law, or we are on the verge of chaos. The proposed covenant is a symptom of decay, not cure. What can arrest and reserve the process of decay is certainly not international machinery, but the Spirit of God once again mightily breaking forth through the hearts of men. As in every crisis throughout the long record of human misery, the Church of Christ is the only real answer.

Let the Church therefore be the Church, one, holy, catholic and Apostolic, and the rights of man will be both proclaimed and realized… What a pale and miserable phantom is all out activity for human rights by comparison with the humanity already achieved for all of us in Jesus Christ! Whatever we do with our human covenant, surely he is able to keep His covenant with us.

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3 Responses to Charles Malik, The Universal Declaration and the Church

  1. wellwateredgarden says:

    It isn’t until the church, that is, the ‘eclesia’ moves out of its four walls and into the street will anything change.

  2. Pingback: Human dignity: Kafka might have an answer for atheists | Fiction and the Reading Public

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