By Lisa Marchal
When I first arrived in London, people back home (in Indiana) expected that my time here would be fascinating. And parts of it have been. The other day, a group of friends got special seating, up in the choir boxes, for evensong at Saint Paul's Cathedral, and by accident we met the Bishop of London.
My fellowship group meets across the street from Westminster Abbey. It's good stuff. But I don't have a TV, so I spend way too much time fiddling on news Web sites, Google and YouTube. I get bored, quite lonely and homesick - a big healthy dose of real life, all the time.
The primary point of being here is allowing time for concentrated study on human rights. I learned by the end of the first week of term that this would be a challenge. The field is wide and has its own canon of works, heralded scholars and jargon, all of which are relatively new to me. But I don't see any way around this study, if I want to dig more deeply into the crucial ministry of social justice. People have asked why I'm changing careers. I didn't know that I was. I find that question strange, interesting and sad. Whenever I get asked this, I wonder if social justice and the church are seen, at best, as merely related or, at worst, as two separate entities entirely. That's worrisome.
From where I sit, one of United Methodists crown jewels is the United Methodist Committee on Relief and local missioners. UMC's ability to mobilize quickly for emergency relief, and its ongoing passion for mission work, are remarkable. The sweep of Scripture clearly calls us to these things, but Scripture also calls us to even more than this.
One of our lecturers quoted Oxfam America, an international relief and development agency, by reframing the old "teach a person to fish" adage. You may have heard it: "Give a person a fish and there's food for a day. Teach a person to fish and there's food for a lifetime." As the lecturer reminded us, that's not really true, if the fish have all been taken from the water because of greed or pollution. Maybe the fish are there, but the fishing poles are all broken or there's no equitable market for selling what is caught. There are moments when mercy is needed; and there are times when systems need to be changed. Human rights, like works of compassion, are about honoring human dignity.
To paraphrase yet another lecturers, human rights establishes the basic standard of human respect below which we dare not sink. Negotiating just how this plays out in practical terms is infinitely complicated, but the exercise can be managed if there is first a basic agreement to honor human dignity. The church was in the mix when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted after World War II, but our influence on the development of the modern concept of human rights has been there since the beginning of the church itself. With this heritage, the UMC is reminded that it can play an appropriate, passionate, informed, effective role in the work of social justice. In fact, it must.
With all due respect to my terrific classmates, I've noticed that I come at our course a bit differently than most of them, who are tackling this from a secular perspective both personally and professionally. I wonder if this accounts for a measure of despair and cynicism I've observed in many of them.
I feel fortunate for my faith informs me that God's love has, does and will prevail. Because of this, I have a reserve of hope that keeps me going as I read yet another graphic page of atrocities or become incredibly frustrated by how bureaucratic bloat or lack of will enables injustices to continue.
In God, I also find forgiveness in those moments when I'm faced with my own complicity in all that goes wrong in this world. But while I experience this hope and forgiveness, I am reminded that God is demanding that we speak truth to power, and that we speak it in love. We help write the story of creation, and separate ourselves from the purposes and power of God when we abdicate our responsibility to create living systems that recognize and protect the dignity of our brothers and sisters.
So, with God's help, I intend to keep trying.
Lisa Marchal serves as a clergy member of the South Indiana Conference who is on student leave in England.