27 June 2014

An Aside on Human Rights; Herman Bavinck and Me

I've come to the last of the essays of early 20th century Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck in collected "Essays on Religion, Science, and Society" (John Bolt, ed. 2008). In the final essay, Ethics and Politics, Bavinck discusses the relationship among morality, justice, and politics. (You can read an earlier post about this essay here.)

Already in 1915 Bavinck addressed the foundation of human rights:
Whether there is a jus intra gentes [justice among the nations] depends completely on the definition one gives to justice. If there is no justice without coercion, then it is impossible to even speak of international justice ... In fact, we all are profoundly impressed that international justice is virtually without power ...
Today, international humanitarian law has progressed a bit beyond Bavinck's decade; there is at least the possibility of coercive intervention into the domestic affairs of a state that is grossly abusing the human rights of it citizens together with implementation of non-coercive economic sanctions designed to remedy systemic human rights abuses. Trials before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity also provide a measure of coercion. Nonetheless, as a practical matter there really isn't much more for teeth with respect to international humanitarian law today than a century ago.

Bavinck, however, was not dissuaded of a place for international law by the absence of coercion:
Even if none of these attempts [to provide a remedy for breach of international law] is successful, then human rights are still not without value or power. First, human justice was not devised by [Hugo] Grotius; it was developed long before him and goes back to ancient times.
In other words, justice is not--in the first place--about power. Justice is the standard of political morality and can be used to evaluate state action regardless of the absence of a coercive remedy.

But when it comes to deriving a foundation for the justice of human rights, Bavinck makes an interesting assertion:
International justice ultimately rests (and must rest), either implicitly or explicitly, on two pillars: the Christian principle of the oneness of the human race in origin and essence, and the principle of the catholicity of God's kingdom.
I developed the first of Bavinck's two principles at some length in my article, Looking for Bedrock: Accounting for Human Rights in Classical Liberalism, Modern Secularism, and the Christian Tradition (download here). Yet I must confess his second principle never occurred to me. In fact, I'm not sure what he meant. What is the connection between the catholicity of God's kingdom and international justice? Is it that the current form of God's kingdom is no longer ethnically limited but is international in scope? Or was Bavinck simply thinking of the situation obtaining in World War I where most of the belligerents claimed to be Christian nations?

I must admit that I fail to see the relevance of catholicity regardless of which of these two options best fits Bavinck's intentions. If anyone has a better idea of what he meant, let me know.

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