If God Were a Human Rights Activist

9780804793261: Hardback
Release Date: 29th April 2015

9780804795005: Paperback
Release Date: 29th April 2015

Dimensions: 152 x 229

Number of Pages: 152

Edition: 1st Edition

Series Stanford Studies in Human Rights

Stanford University Press

If God Were a Human Rights Activist

Human rights must be profoundly reconstructed, if not reinvented, if they are to confront successfully the challenges posed by the rise of political theologies and their rival conceptions of human dignity.
Hardback / £56.00
Paperback / £16.99

We live in a time when the most appalling social injustices and unjust human sufferings no longer seem to generate the moral indignation and the political will needed both to combat them effectively and to create a more just and fair society. If God Were a Human Rights Activist aims to strengthen the organization and the determination of all those who have not given up the struggle for a better society, and specifically those that have done so under the banner of human rights. It discusses the challenges to human rights arising from religious movements and political theologies that claim the presence of religion in the public sphere. Increasingly globalized, such movements and the theologies sustaining them promote discourses of human dignity that rival, and often contradict, the one underlying secular human rights.

Conventional or hegemonic human rights thinking lacks the necessary theoretical and analytical tools to position itself in relation to such movements and theologies; even worse, it does not understand the importance of doing so. It applies the same abstract recipe across the board, hoping that thereby the nature of alternative discourses and ideologies will be reduced to local specificities with no impact on the universal canon of human rights. As this strategy proves increasingly lacking, this book aims to demonstrate that only a counter-hegemonic conception of human rights can adequately face such challenges.

Contents and Abstracts
2The globalization of political theologies
chapter abstract

Claiming religion as a constitutive element of public life is a phenomenon that has been increasingly gaining worldwide relevance in the past few decades. It challenges secularism, the paradigm of religion and state relations which is at the core of western-centric modernity and has spread across the globe through colonialism and globalization. According to this paradigm, Christian values are recognized as "universal" but institutional Christianity activism is relegated to the private sphere. This resolution of the "religious question" is being challenged in many parts of the world, the western world included, by political theologies for which the distinction between the public sphere and the private sphere is not valid. This chapter distinguishes different types of theology (pluralist and fundamentalist; progressive and traditionalist) showing that the relations among political theologies, forms of globalization, secularism and human rights are not univocal or monolithic.

3The case of Islamic fundamentalism
chapter abstract

This chapter analyzes the globalization of some forms of Islamic political theology commonly designated as Islamic fundamentalism. This is a minefield in which claims of conceptual difficulty are often mixed with implicit or even explicit assumptions about real or imagined political threats. It is thus imperative to counter the monolithic conceptions of Islam prevalent in the West today. Even when militantly anti-Western, the different Islamic political theologies differ as to what it means to be anti-Western, as the rejection of Western modernity as a cultural imperial project may or may not involve the rejection of global capitalism. This chapter gives special attention to the relations between Islam, and particularly fundamentalist Islam, on the one hand, and women's rights and the struggle against sexual discrimination, on the other.

4The case of Christian fundamentalism
chapter abstract

This chapter analyzes the globalization of some forms of Christian political theology commonly designated as Christian fundamentalism, especially in its Protestant strain. The expansion of Christian fundamentalist movements throughout the world, whether by means of proselytizing missions or through electronic resources, has significant political impact. It tends to strengthen political conservatism, if not far right politics. While liberation theologies tend to valorize grassroots, popular culture, Christian fundamentalism is becoming a mass culture phenomenon, mixing the alien and the familiar, the ancestral and the hypermodern, as if they were homogeneous components of the same religious artifact. Although a fierce defender of global capitalism, it rejects the Western society for having "liberalized" the family, education, sexual and reproductive rights, which they consider a betrayal of Christian values.

5Human rights in the contact zones with political theologies
chapter abstract

Political theologies promote conceptions of human dignity, social regulation and social transformation that often contradict those conventionally associated with human rights. New contact zones among rival conceptions are thereby generated and, with them, new forms of political, cultural, and ideological turbulence. This chapter analyzes the following dimensions and manifestations of such turbulence: the turbulence among rival principles; the turbulence between roots and options; and the turbulence between the sacred and the profane, the religious and the secular, the transcendent and the immanent. This analysis sheds new light on the limits of conventional human rights politics on a global scale and calls for a deep reconstruction, or even reinvention, of human rights, if they are to provide credible answers to the strong questions raised by global injustice.

6Toward a post-secularist conception of human rights: counter-hegemonic human rights and progressive theologies
chapter abstract

This chapter discusses the possibilities for mutually enriching interactions between counter-hegemonic conceptions and practices of human rights and liberation theologies. Since the 1960s, pluralist, progressive theologies and community-based religious practices have emerged, for which God seems to be revealed in unjust human suffering, in the life experiences of all the victims of domination, oppression, and discrimination. As a consequence, to bear witness to this God means to denounce such suffering and to struggle against it. If both revelation and redemption take place in this world, a contact zone is thereby generated with the ideals of social and political liberation underlying the utopia that another more just and free world is possible. One of the paths towards counter-hegemonic human rights lies in the possibility of connecting the return of God to a trans-modern, concrete insurgent humanism.

chapter abstract

This book identifies the major challenges that the rise of political theologies pose to human rights with the objective of exploring the possibility of transforming human rights into a much stronger instrument of emancipatory politics in an unjust, globalized, but resiliently intercultural world. In the background of the arguments developed in this book is the concrete experience of the World Social Forum in which converge activists in social struggles for socio-economic, historical, sexual, racial, cultural, and postcolonial justice who base their activism and their claims on Christian, Islamic, Judaic, Hindu, Buddhist, and indigenous religious beliefs and spiritualities. They represent a political inter-subjectivity that seems to have deserted conventional secular critical thinking and political action: the combination of creative effervescence and intense and passionate energy, on one side, with a pluralistic, open-ended, non-violent and yet radical conception of struggle, on the other.

1Human Rights: a fragile hegemony
chapter abstract

This chapter briefly traces the genealogy of the western-centric human rights conception. Nowadays, there seems to be no question about the global hegemony of human rights as a discourse of human dignity. Yet, a large majority of the world's inhabitants are not the subjects of human rights, but rather objects of human rights discourses. Thus the question is: are human rights helping the struggles of the excluded, the exploited, and the discriminated against, or, on the contrary, making these struggles more difficult? The hegemony enjoyed by human rights is commonly viewed as the product of an historic linear trajectory towards their consecration as the ruling principle of a just society. The chapter challenges this view by identifying four illusions underlying it: teleology, triumphalism, decontextualization, and monolithism. Being widely shared, such illusions constitute the common sense of conventional human rights.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School. He has published widely on globalization, sociology of law and the state, epistemology, democracy, and human rights in Portuguese, Spanish, English, Italian, French, German, and Chinese.

"Boaventura de Sousa Santos is one of the most influential critical thinkers of our times. God may not be a human rights activist, but many religious and believing people are also at the forefront of the struggle for human dignity and emancipation. However, their conception of human rights is counter-hegemonic, distinct from the established Western modern version, and sometimes, as in Liberation theology, inspired by a radical anti-capitalist perspective. Our understanding of human rights is profoundly expanded and enriched by Santos' remarkable new book."

Michael Löwy, Emeritus Research Director, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

"Santos's task is to point to a 'counterhegemonic' conception of human rights, the grounds for which he finds in progressive theologies that, he posits, exist ' with certain nuances' in all major religions . . . [H]is challenges are worth confronting, and the intellectual journey he provides is worth taking . . . Recommended."

W.F. Schulz

"Using his characteristic irony, erudition, and wit, Santos argues that western notions of human 'rights' are meant to espouse the dignity of humankind, yet they are also being advanced for the facilitation of imperialism and the proliferation of misery. Through an appeal to secularism, these notions of human rights render themselves incapable of responding to the lived realities of peoples of the global south—those left in the abyssal realm of imperial damnation. A must-read for those interested in the question of human rights and the complicated task of building law beyond its current, dominating and degrading paradigms."

Lewis Gordon
Professor, University of Connecticut, author of What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought

"This tantalizingly-named book challenges readers to view human rights from the perspective of 'God' and to ask whether human rights derive from 'God.' We are all invited to follow Boaventura de Sousa Santos as he expertly explores this perspective and urges readers to consider future possibilities for human rights."

Mogobe Bernard Ramose
University of South Africa