by Nestor Ravilas
It is a little mistake to say that human rights was born in 17th century during the beginning of the enlightenment period. Contrary to this, humans from the beginning of civilizations, from hunter-gatherer to agricultural period, have been asserting, utilizing, and imposing their rights and liberties in this planet over and against other beings, living and non-living. What is accomplished, or rather wished to accomplish, by the course of enlightenment movement is to liberally confer freedom and rights to all human beings. Although it might be correct to say that human rights and freedom were exercised prior to modernity, it is, however, confined among the civilized, the educated, the nobles, and the land owners of Europe. This is to say the savage, the ill-mannered, the proletariat, the destitute, the beggars, those belong to Nietzsche’s herd, have neither freedom nor rights. The enlightenment vision is to democratize human rights and freedom by simply acknowledging the basic humanity of everyone, including the aforementioned group of scumbags.
This means that a political and social conditions must be created to assist everyone to self-determination in order to excel and to flourish in life. Nonetheless, norms and social arrangements that categorized and classified people by birth, color, gender, religion, ethnicity, nationality, etc. are deeply ingrained in our society that allocation of rights and freedom were tilted to dominant people called “the higher humans”. Our distant past is an artifact that disproves the notion of “spontaneous order”. Everything humanity has constructed, from social structures, to beliefs, including knowledge, are all utilized for the advantages of privilege groups. It is an ambitious dream, but, in order to create a well-ordered society, basic humanity must be given to everyone, and by doing so, granting them with equal access to the privilege of having a livable and fulfilled existence.
It was under this intention that rationality rises as the unassailable component that constitutes our humanity. Although it comes in a package with secularism that assails religions primarily, its promise of progress and democracy would end the dark ages ruled by sacred fascism. Private ownership has not yet been viewed as precursor to capitalism. It bespeaks rather of the end of the monarchs’ monopoly of the goods and the fruits of the land. Liberty, justice, and fraternity become the undying slogan that drives democratic society until today.
Unfortunately, reason is primarily a European rationality, it is the white man’s consciousness! It ends up, nonetheless, in oppressing and enslaving the “Orientals” – the new savages.
In this genealogy, religion has no significant response. It seems unwittingly yielded to Ulrich Beck’s advice to give up science and politics, and focus instead on “spirituality”. Thus, they approach the bible as a book of instructions for the life to come in an unseen and unimaginable world. “The Image of God” included was exhausted in trying to trace the genetic and moral characters the divine act has bequeathed to humans. Holiness, moral sense, non-materiality are just among those offered to delineate this image of God in humans. Reason was even suggested in theology’s attempt to flirt with enlightenment, only to miss out completely the true value and significance of “imago dei”.
Progressive scholarship locates the writing or collection of the materials found in Genesis 1-11 during the tragedy and horror of the exile. The idea therefore of humans created after the image of God was born in this tumultuous Jewish history of war, carnage, genocide, oppression, slavery and other forms of dehumanization. How do we suppose to understand then the audacious claim that humans were created after the image of divine considering the awful context that produced it?
Jurgen Habermas says that it was in the crisis of legitimizing earthly power that leaders of the archaic period draw their authority from religion. The rise of empires which had been engaged in periodic war produced great men and leaders in this period. The heroic feats of these exceptional few raised them above ordinary humans. This need for power and authority to command great number of people with no any blood relations and the exploits of these extraordinary men made them gods among their own people and among the conquered ones. Etymologically, the word god simply means pre-eminence or strong. All these support the study of Sa-Moon Kang that gods are the great leaders of primitive time. Because this fusion of politics and divinity, rulers of archaic period were considered as manifestations of the gods.
Habermas continues that during the axial period this notion did not change much. Although at this point, the divine or gods were relocated outside of the material world and beginning to inhabit the ethereal space as in Israel’s religion, earthly rulers draw still their power and authority from sacred history. From manifestation of gods, political rulers become representatives of gods on earth. This development did not offer any redress, but both entail in the same way that rulers, the monarchs, the emperors, and the kings enjoyed an insurmountable privileged of divinity, either as manifestations or representatives. This divine origin made them sovereigns who reigned above any law, and owned everything found within the domain of empires, including humans. They were under the disposal of these rulers, and only they decides who will live and who will die. And during the rise of empires, war becomes an enterprise and a game where ordinary humans played, fought, and died for the pleasure of their kings and emperors. It was also during this time that colossal artifacts such as the pyramids and palaces were built under the gruesome practice of mass slavery and force labor.
It was in this context, in this games of wars and bacchanalia of the gods at the expense of the sweat and blood of the rest of humanity that the writers of Genesis 1-11 cry out – All of us, every human being, are created in the image of God! The cry was not to answer our non-sense theological question, “What is the nature of man?” It is rather to thrust a spear against this demonic monster that gives utter rights and freedom to the privileged few while subjecting the rest of humanity to abject and outrageous servitude. It was written to clarify our relation to each other, to democratize divinity, and grant all humans of equal rights and freedom. All of us are manifestations and representatives of God/gods that no one should be subjected to slavery, oppression, abuse, injustice, killing, and all forms of subjugation!
The Cartesian-Kantian rationality as basis of basic humanity crumbles when the West faced the irrational “savages” of the Orientals as poignantly discussed by Edward Said in his works. Reason is struggling even now on how they should have to deal with Western religious people whose orientation is imbued with mythic narratives. The “Image of God,” on the other hand, reading it as instruction for social relations, would not bring us into uncertainty even in the face of the most savage people of the most distant tribe in this planet. It says outrightly that every human we meet is a manifestation or representative of God – her rights and freedom must be respected, promoted, supported, and protected as every human community moves toward its collective aspiration of wellness and flourishing. Only that we are so oblivious, or ignorant, of this basic but liberating wisdom of our Judaeo-Christian tradition.