Today is one of the most important festivals in Christendom. Pentecost, also known as Whitsun. The day when the story of the Holy Spirit coming upon the men and women of the early church is told and retold. It can seem a remote, supernatural even spooky story with its metaphors of flame and wind and speaking in tongues. But the receiving of the Spirit by the early believers is a way of understanding the Church’s call to engage with society in a distinctive way.
This evening I would like to reflect for a few moments on the Pentecost story and consider what it teaches us in relation to a topical question about which there is much debate: human rights.
Christians, while supporting the concept of human rights often feel anxious about the language. In the recent debate in the House of Lords over assisted dying, bishops argued successfully in the end, that life was not so much a right as a gift; and this basic standpoint informs Christian engagement on this subject. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted in 1945, French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) observed, “We agree on these rights, providing we are not asked why. With the ‘why,’ the dispute begins.” Those of all religions and none will have different rationales for supporting human rights, but I would like to suggest that Pentecost is where we should start to look for the Christian.
A life of faith asks that the orientation of a person is that of one seeking God, acknowledging that our lives are lived in response to the numinous, a basic orientation that searches for meaning, that receives life itself as a gift and lives in response to that gift. The hallmark of a Christian life is one lived in response to the love of God and the continuing presence of the Spirit.
It is the Spirit, in Hebrew – ruah – or breath – of God, who brooded over the waters at Creation, who brought order out of chaos, who made the dry bones in the valley live in the book of Ezekiel, who gave speech to the apostles at Pentecost, who turned Peter, from the frightened follower who denied he ever knew Jesus, into the orator who speaks from the pages of Acts in our second reading tonight.
The Pentecost story is literally vital in helping the church define its character and purpose in society. It is an enlivening story, of empowerment, of mutual accountability, of communal experience and shared vision.
We are called to discern the movement of the Spirit, to read the signs of the times, and to speak about it like Peter.
The story of Pentecost tells us several things about ourselves in relation to God; The Spirit did not come to one lone disciple asking him or her to bear the weight of the mission alone; the Spirit was poured out onto the community And this revelation of what God is like – showing us the 3rd person of the Trinity, gives us a model of personhood that governs our common life in the world.
And this is also where we start to engage with the modern, mostly secular language of human rights.
There is much controversy surrounding human rights in our public debates; in response to heightened fears about terrorism, the nature of human rights and at what point they are qualified is part of our political conversations. The mistake in the shooting of Jean Charles de Menendez last year after the 7th July bombings in London, the proposals for identity cards, legal arguments over the detainees in Guantanemo Bay all in the arguably still early years of human rights language post 1945 means that the Church can make its own distinctive contribution to the public debate.
And this springs from our celebration of this festival of Pentecost.
First, the engagement in debate at all. The pouring out of the Spirit on the apostles had the effect of making them able to speak, in a way that their hearers could understand. The Spirit enabled a translation from the language of faith to the language of the marketplace and the effect of Peter’s message, on the crowd, we are told cut them to the heart.
Second, the fact that the Spirit was poured out onto the community and in a way that affected them physically is a sign of the presence of God and the characteristics of that presence.
Third, the revelation of the third person of the Trinity, the revelation that God is three persons, that God is somehow the space between the persons as well as the persons themselves gives us a model for engaging with society’s anxiety over human rights.
The Spirit dignifies and ennobles us, the Spirit inhabits us, stretches and draws us out.
With these principles, we can draw from the Pentecostal experience that human rights as far as the church is concerned are not so much individualist but personalist.
Personal rights are inalienable and come from our understanding of ourselves as created in the image and likeness of God, and also our acknowledgement that an essential element of the flourishing of a person is within community.
The concept of personhood comes from a Christian understanding of God: not a man with a beard on a throne, not a despot, albeit benign, or a CS Lewis’s type vivisectionist God experimenting on his creatures, nor a watchmaker God who winds up the world and watches it run itself down; but a Trinitarian God; God in the Christian tradition is three persons and one God. God is relational, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. From this doctrine combined with the Incarnation; the belief that God became human in Jesus Christ, comes a strong platform of human dignity and right relation on which to rest the notions of justice, and human rights.
If at the centre of a circle is Human Dignity, then springing from it is a series of concentric circles
First circle we might say contains personal rights (inalienable)
Second Social rights
Third Instrumental rights (mediated by institutions)
Bodily rights, political rights, rights of movement, associational rights, economic rights, sexual and family rights, religious rights, communication rights.
Personal is RIGHT TO LIFE AND BODILY INTEGRITY
Social is RIGHT TO FOOD, SHELTER, REST, MEDICAL CARE
Instrumental is SECURITY IN SICKNESS, INABILITY TO WORK, UNEMPLOYMENT (ie Welfare Sate)
Personal: RIGHT TO SOCIAL INTERCOURSE
Social; RIGHT TO ASSEMBLY AND ASSOCIATION
Instrumental: RIGHT TO FORM SOCIETIES AND ORGANISATIONs
A Pentecostal definition of human rights will recognise not only that a person has the right to self determination, but that that person is unique and mysterious. That the person has a soul not just a body and a mind.
Our acceptance of the spiritual dimension to our lives, our lives lived in response to the quickening presence of the Spirit mean that this primary relationship with God turns us outwards from ourselves and from our church towards our neighbour; whoever that may be. Our interpersonal relationships flow from this one primary relationship. The quality of our spiritual relationship with God is an inescapable function of how well we treat our neighbour.
This can be summarised in the Christian commandment: Love God, you’re your neighbour as yourself.
An appreciation of human dignity derives from our resting in the Creator: we are made in the image of God. Personal inalienable rights flow from this as human nature has been taken into the nature of God in the incarnation; human experience has been made sacred by God becoming human. The concept of a person as social flows from an understanding of God as Trinity. Social and instrumental rights flow from our reading of Pentecost; a communal, ordered inspirational experience of God.
Pentecost illuminates and envigorates the current rights debate to the extent that it will always turn us first to God and to our neighbour in whom we will find God. We will then be able to name the lie that an individualistic understanding of society or rights teaches us: I don’t need you, I deserve the possessions I have, I owe you nothing; I can do what I want; anything is possible if I try hard enough.
There is no security in such mantras, there is no peace in possessing the whole world at the expense of your soul. There is conflict and even war at the end of the conversation that begins with I don’t need you.
There is peace, security, justice and right relationship in knowing that we belong to God, the source of our being and we belong to one another.
This central theological question will inform our attitude to rights: to whom do we belong, in whom do we trust, to whom do we return?
The Spirit teaches us an obliged freedom; an absolutely unfettered liberty that is at once bound in service of others. A Christian human rights ethic is one which mirrors the action of God in the world; God’s life poured out into JC; kenosis and at Pentecost, the Spirit poured out into the life of men, women and children. As Isaiah reminds us, this is the Spirit who, when upon us, will send us to bring good news to those who are oppressed, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and comfort to all who mourn.
The Spirit teaches us a dynamic definition of human rights, relational, biased towards those who are marginalized, dependent on the belief that God created each person. The Spirit teaches us that when we approach another human being, we act justly not only in order to receive justice ourselves; but we approach any other human being in the knowledge that in doing so, we approach holy ground.
Canon Lucy Winkett: Precentor, St. Paul’s Cathedral
4th June 2006