From “Pure Religion” to “Human Rights”: A Brief Synthesis of the Shifting Orientation
Jimmy A. Belita, CM
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The passage of James 1:27 (“Pure religion consists in assisting the widows and the orphans in their need”) is simply continuing God’s preferential love for the most vulnerable and rights-deprived members of Jewish society: widows and orphans. The emphasis of the Old Testament is on the undeserved mercy of God. Considered unorthodox, then, was to base divine assistance on some kind of inherent dignity of the individuals, much less widows and orphans whose rights previously depended on the living male as husband and father. James’ statement, however, nuances a “pure religion” as an act of worship that culminates in giving assistance to a neighbor in need. This, too, is in continuity with Jesus’ giving prominence to that same act, that, when done as mandated by the New Commandment (“Love one another as I have loved you”), completes the worship. In this regard, the attention is switched on the needy neighbor (represented by widows and orphans). This turn-to-the subject in need as the receiving end of God’s mercy was continued by mainline Catholic theology, by enlightened humanism, and later on, by the social teachings of the Church, bannered by papal encyclicals. With emphasis on social justice in today’s contemporary theology and civic advocacy, the attention to human rights becomes unavoidable since, justice and right are two faces of the same coin. There is an ironic twist to all this: in the acknowledgement of their rights, humans are called to the subsequent responsibilities (the other face, too, of “rights”) of participating in the building of a new society and creation, patterned after God’s Kingdom, a kingdom of peace, justice, and love.

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