Human Rights: A Gift Denied
A Study Paper of the Lutheran Church in America (no date)
Human rights are a gift of God to all of humankind. They establish
an entitlement to justice that transcends the laws and customs of
particular societies - an entitlement arising from our Christian
belief that "persons . . . are of equal worth before God . . .
equally entitled to the things and protections they need to live in
meaningful relation to God and neighbor." *
* LCA Social Statement, Human Rights: Doing Justice in God's
Over the years, individuals, groups and nations have sought to
protect and preserve their human rights in many different ways. In
modern times these efforts have included making governments
responsible for the protection of the human rights of their
citizens. Indeed, one of the most powerful and eloquent assertions
of human rights can be found in our own Declaration of
Independence, which simply states, "We hold these truths to be
self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed
by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these
are the right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
The first such worldwide standard was the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. That
declaration contains what is still the most widely accepted list of
human rights, including the right to life, liberty and security of
persons, the right to participate in government, and the right to
an adequate standard of living.
Despite the U.N. declaration - now almost 40 years old - human
rights continue to be violated in many places throughout the world.
Today the governments of 98 countries use or tolerate torture.
Torture is used to extract information from individuals, to punish
dissenters and to intimidate the general populace. Through the use
of drugs, electric shock and other technological refinements,
torture has become more sinister than ever before.
Torture is not the only form of human rights abuse that we
witness today. People are jailed for speaking, writing and
practicing their religious faith. Nations are ruled against their
will by military governments and foreign powers. People die for
want of food, shelter and medical care. Although every country may
have its own human rights issues and problems, the concern for
human rights transcends national and ideological boundaries.
Christians and Human Rights
Christians have a unique understanding of human rights,
believing that all people are created in God's image and that each
person is someone for whom Christ died. Human dignity, therefore,
is God-given, and human rights express that dignity. When humans
oppress each other they bruise God's creation, scorn Christ's love,
and impede the work of the spirit.
In 1978, the Lutheran Church in America adopted the social
statement "Human Rights: Doing Justice in God's World." The
statement says that "both within our own countries * and around the
world we have the God-given responsibility to contribute to a
powerful and effective community of caring for all who suffer
injustice. We are especially called to work for the rights of those
`forgotten ones' who are otherwise without voice or power." The
statement calls on Christians and others to learn more about human
rights and to work for justice - God's intention for all
* The United States and Canada
Soviet Union: Anna Chertkova's Ordeal of
Anna Chertkova was imprisoned in a Soviet psychiatric hospital in
1973. Her crime: refusing to accept communism, believing in God and
belonging to a Baptist congregation not registered with the
government. Today Anna Chertkova is still confined. Many religious
believers in the USSR, of many faiths, are committed to special
psychiatric hospitals operated by a branch of the secret police.
There government officials and psychiatrists try to persuade them
that religious belief is a symptom of mental disease.
But Soviet citizens can be sent to special psychiatric hospitals
for almost any nonconformist behavior, such as distributing
religious leaflets, joining a human rights monitoring group, or
protesting government policies. Unlike prisoners in labor camps,
those confined in psychiatric hospitals are imprisoned
indefinitely. They cannot look forward to release.
Confined without trial - and often without psychiatric
examination - these prisoners are cut off from the outside world.
Visits with family members are routinely denied. All correspondence
is censored. Prisoners may be isolated or forced to live with
inmates who are criminally insane. To subdue and punish
nonconformists, hospital staff frequently give their "patients"
drugs that produce severe pain, fevers, chills and
The use of psychiatry for political purposes was condemned by
the World Psychiatric Association in 1977, but the practice
continues unabated in the USSR. Although the Soviet government has
tried to suppress the evidence, former prisoners now living in the
West, psychiatrists who have visited Soviet mental institutions,
underground human rights groups and some Soviet doctors have given
ample testimony that the practice continues. Despite claims that
there is no religious persecution in the USSR, anyone who tries to
practice freedom of religion and other basic individual rights
risks not only imprisonment but physical and psychological
Guatemala: Silent Deaths of "The
The most basic human right is the right to life itself - the right
not to be killed, tortured or deprived of basic necessities. But
recent history in the Central American country of Guatemala
demonstrates that people there have not had even this, the most
fundamental of rights. For although the civilian government that
replaced a military dictatorship in 1985 has attempted to improve
the lives of the people, the army still retains ultimate power in
Guatemala - power that it holds through the use of terror.
Specific groups have been singled out for persecution by the
army. Indian peoples, who constitute 40 percent of the population,
are one such group. Since 1979, the army has destroyed entire
Indian villages and murdered untold numbers of people. At least
74,000 Indians have been forced into "model villages" operated by
the army, where they live under the most restrictive of conditions.
An estimated 150,000 Guatemalans have fled into neighboring Mexico
and other countries to escape the terror. Thousands more have
abandoned their destroyed crops and homes and moved to Guatemala's
wretched urban slums, where they eke out an impoverished and
In the cities, the violence has been more limited, directed at
carefully selected individuals. Persons who show the potential for
community leadership, and thus may pose a threat to the power of
the military, often vanish. These victims, "the disappeared," come
from all walks of life. They are Catholic priests and catechists,
professors, students, doctors, trade unionists - even the mothers
and children of those who have somehow displeased the
Some of the disappeared are killed shortly after abduction, and
their mutilated bodies are found by the roadside. Others are held
in secret detention centers where they are tortured and denied
basic necessities. Their families do not know whether they are dead
or alive and there is usually little hope for them. In the face of
such repression, Guatemalans formed Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo (GAM), an
organization of family and friends of the disappeared who work
together to locate their incarcerated loved ones, and publicize the
conditions of their arrest and final disposition. But in the spring
of 1985 two leaders of GAM were tortured and killed - among the
40,000-60,000 Guatemalans the Washington Office on Latin America
estimates have been murdered since 1978.
Today the number of killings has dropped from the staggering
levels of a few years ago, not because the military has been curbed
by the civilian government, but because it is no longer necessary
to murder as many people to maintain the required level of fear.
Guatemala remains a land of terror for many of its citizens, while
much of the world remains unaware of their plight.
Namibia: The Agony of Nahas Ndevahoma
On July 29, 1985, Nahas Mukaita Ndevahoma was arrested at his home
in northern Namibia by soldiers of South Africa's occupation army.
Mr. Ndevahoma, a high school principal and member of Namibia's
Evangelical Lutheran Church, was accused of aiding guerrilla
fighters belonging to Namibia's liberation movement SWAPO.* The
South African soldiers, who are in Namibia to enforce their
country's illegal colonial administration of this United Nations
Trust Territory, offered no evidence for their charges. Nor was Mr.
Ndevahoma, who like the overwhelming majority of Namibia's citizens
is Black, brought before a court of law or charged with any
* South West Africa Peoples Organization
Instead, during a week in detention at a nearby army base, he
was brutally tortured: "I was continuously beaten. [At one point]
three sacks were tied around my neck covering my head and water . .
. was forced into my nostrils and through my mouth. While this was
being done I was kicked in the stomach."
During the torture session the soldiers produced a man who
claimed he witnessed Ndevahoma delivering food to the guerrillas -
an accusation the principal strongly denies. "This man I have never
seen in my life. All his testifications were completely
Ndevahoma was finally released on August 5, but not before he
was forced to pose for a photo with a soldier extending a handful
of money. The reason for the picture, he was told, "was for
propaganda purposes. They will publish it showing me receiving
money from them and say I was providing them with information."
Nahas Ndevahoma's arrest and torture may have been in
retaliation for a complaint of theft he lodged against soldiers
suspected of stealing food from the school. But he was not an
exception. Each year hundreds of Namibians are arrested for
violations of South Africa's draconian security laws. Many, like
Mr. Ndevahoma, are never charged with a crime and never appear
before a judge - they are simply taken away and held for weeks or
even months in secret prisons. There, deprived of the protection of
the courts and doctors, and denied access to attorneys, family and
clergy, many detainees are tortured or killed - the victims of a
racist system that denies Namibia's Black people even the hope of
For there can be no human rights without government
institutions, including the courts, the police and the
constitution, to protect them. By denying the Namibian people their
inalienable right to choose their own forms of government and
establish their own institutions, South Africa can violate the
rights of individuals with impunity. That is why the United
Nations, including the United States, Canada and the other Western
democracies, has condemned South African colonial rule of Namibia
as illegal and reaffirmed the fundamental human right of the
Namibian people to political self-determination and
But until the international community succeeds in forcing South
Africa to leave Namibia and allows Namibians to exercise their
rights, Nahas Ndevahoma and his people will suffer more beatings,
more torture, and more murder.
United States: Liberty and Justice for
Many Americans find it easy to see and condemn human rights abuses
in other countries, but what about abuses here at home? Does the
United States systematically violate the human rights of some of
Most people would probably say no, that the Constitution and the
Bill of Rights guarantee and protect our rights, and provide legal
remedies for individual injustices. But David Sohappy, a
61-year-old Native American religious elder, and member of the
Yakima Indian Nation in Washington State, would tell a different
story. In August 1986, Sohappy was ordered to begin a five-year
prison sentence for "poaching" salmon from the Columbia River, even
though the United States had guaranteed the Yakima people fishing
rights on the river "for as long as the sun shines, as long as the
mountains stand and the rivers run."
Had David Sohappy been white, he could only have been fined for
his alleged crime. But under a special federal law applicable only
to Native American reservations, he was convicted of criminal
charges, and taken 2,000 miles away from the river he and his
people have fished for the past 12,000 years. Yet his story is not
unique. Today only 1.5 million Native Americans survive in the
United States, a mute testament to 400 years of neglect and
brutality by the conquering whites. Although bound by treaty to
respect Native American land rights and provide health, housing,
education and other services, the United States continues to ignore
both its treaty obligations and Native American human rights. By
virtually every measure they are among the poorest and most
desperate of our people.
Slavery has left another bitter legacy of human rights abuses,
one that haunts this country more than a century after its final
abolition. For if the shackles of slavery are now broken, the bonds
of racism and grinding poverty remain. Twenty years after the last
racist laws were removed from the nation's statute books as a
result of the Civil Rights Movement, more than one third of Black
Americans are officially classified as poor. Nearly half of
America's Black families struggle to survive on incomes that
average less than a third that of whites, and levels of Black
employment, education and health are significantly lower than those
of the white majority.
Other human rights abuses know no color, but emerge from
economic trends and government policy. Take, for example, the
plight of the homeless. Estimates of Americans without shelter
range from a low of 250,000 to as high as three million, and there
is little doubt that their numbers are growing. Many of the
homeless are mentally ill, many are aged and infirm - unable to pay
rising rents on fixed incomes. Others are simply too poor to pay
soaring housing costs. Shelter is a basic human right, yet these
most-vulnerable people now constitute an army of despair in the
parks and sidewalks of our major cities - victims of government
policies that put profits and "urban renewal" ahead of human needs,
and even human lives. A 1986 study of homeless people in one
"welfare hotel" in New York found infant mortality rates higher
than those in Costa Rica and other underdeveloped countries.
As Christians we are called upon to oppose injustice and defend
human rights wherever we find oppression. But human beings have
rights that go beyond such precious civil liberties as the freedom
of speech and the right to vote. All persons have a basic human
right to decent housing and education, to an adequate diet and
health care, to employment or a minimum income, and to equality of
opportunity and fair treatment regardless of race, sex, religion or
cultural background. When denial of these rights results in hunger,
misery and perennial poverty, then social and economic differences
among individuals become violations of human rights. In the midst
of our affluent and democratic society such misery is a fact of
life for millions of people. It is a fact that we dare not
What You Can Do
Learn More About Human Rights
Study the LCA social statement "Human Rights: Doing Justice in
God's World," available from the Division for Mission in North
America, LCA. Contact human rights organizations for information
about human rights abuses in different countries. Some names and
addresses appear below.
Become a Human Rights Advocate
- Join or form a branch of Amnesty International in your
- Ask your synod and/or your Lutheran state public policy advocacy
office (currently in 18 states) about ways of working with other
concerned Lutherans on human rights issues.
- Write to your local, state and national elected officials about
your concern for human rights, urging them to support legislation
that promotes and protects human rights in this country and around
- Participate with others in activities that promote respect for
human rights, including letter-writing campaigns, letters to the
editors of local newspapers, and prayer, vigils and marches for
- Regularly include victims of human rights abuses in your
prayer petitions during Sunday worship.
- Encourage local television stations and newspapers to provide
greater coverage of human rights issues.
- Work with other members of your congregation and community to
sponsor speakers, films and forums about human rights abuses.
- Set aside a special day, or days, to demonstrate concern for the
victims of human rights abuses. Consider December 10, recognized by
the United Nations as International Human Rights Day; Central
America Week and Native American Sunday, both in March; Martin
Luther King Jr.'s birthday, January 15. But remember, any day is a
good day to pray and advocate for human rights, because for
countless numbers of God's people around the world, every day is
another day of oppression, suffering and terror.