On this day, over half a century ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. This document took on the ambitious task of ensuring that all people, regardless of religion, race or political opinion, would be granted fundamental human rights. Human Rights Day, as the anniversary of the signing has come to be known, is an opportunity to reflect progress that has been made, and the challenges we still face.
As a faith leader and conflict resolution specialist, I am acutely aware that some of the greatest threats to human rights in the 21st century relate to the ongoing “War on Terror” that dominates U.S. foreign policy and all-to-often pits the “Christian of the West” against the “Muslim of the Middle East.” With Muslims and Christian comprising over half the world’s population, it is clear that there can be no meaningful peace in the world without peace between these two groups.
But the pathway to peace faces troublesome obstacles. The relationship between Christians and Muslims is supercharged by the violent extremism of a few bad actors. If ever there was a time to pursue peace, now is that time. The U.S. has a vested interest in conflict resolution with groups that commit violence, but often only non-governmental peace-building groups are able to engage with these groups, which are skeptical of any Western government.
So I find it deeply disturbing that the very thing that needs to happen – this partnership between government and non-government actors – is hindered by well-intentioned but imprudent laws restricting the role of peace builders. The U.S. government rightly passed laws forbidding “material support” of terrorism. However, they wrongly extended the meaning of “material support” to include training, expert advice or services relating to conflict resolution programs.
In other words, conflict mediation, human rights training and peace-building efforts aimed at turning terrorist groups away from violence can be criminalized, punishable by over 15 years in prison and seizure of assets. Under current law, I could be imprisoned for my work of peacemaking. And so could many of my friends.
This is why I joined a diverse group of faith leaders who wrote Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Nov. 29 asking her to exempt activities aimed at preventing or resolving conflicts with terrorists. Secretary Clinton has the authority to ensure the law is applied in a way that enhances national security and yet still permits specific types of peace-building activities that can only be done by civil society.
I believe there are two primary rationales for exempting non-governmental peacemakers from the “material support” law: the pragmatic and the theological. First and foremost, we should ask ourselves how to mobilize the greatest number to achieve the greatest peace. Due to globalization there has been a shift from traditional interaction between nations to increasing interaction with transnational non-state actors. There is a well-documented track record of successful peace building by NGOs. They are uniquely able to enter into politically complex conflicts without the same baggage and suspicion that U.S. government officials bring.
People of faith like me have theological reasons to promote the role of peace building as well. Jesus’ followers are called to a peacemaking lifestyle of sacrificial love. We are commanded to bless our persecutors, respond non-violently to evil and seek peace with everyone.
The role of the state is not excluded from the Bible’s teachings either. Whereas Jesus’ followers are called to a peacemaking ethic of sacrificial love, the state is called to bring justice. The state bears the sword. Governments have a God-given responsibility to promote the common good, uphold justice, and protect their citizens.
As Christians, we must pursue peace and submit to the government. But what do we do when the U.S. government makes laws that could imprison us for obeying the Scriptures about making peace? We prophetically speak out against governmental policies and practices that we believe are wrong.
On this Human Rights Day, I urge Clinton to end her tenure with this legacy: empower peacemaking NGOs to work towards peace and help decrease violent extremism. Like never before, the role of peace builders needs to be amplified. The efforts of these organizations contribute to a peaceful world and should be legal, especially when they seek to turn terrorist organizations away from violence. May all people of faith stand together in solidarity, together to forge a lasting peace.
Rick Love is president of Peace Catalyst International and associate director of the World Evangelical Alliance Peace and Reconciliation Initiative.