Adoration of the Shepherds by Dutch painter Matthias Stomer
The world is once again blessed with a fresh opportunity for celebrating the Christmas festival, a profoundly religious event that takes on great importance because of the perennial echo of its traditional and age-old message of peace. A second important issue intertwined with it is the one on human dignity and human rights. Christianity which bestows this festive season to the world community firmly believes that Christmas and its beautiful story are about divinity descending to the earth of humanity. We are dealing with the greatest story ever told about God becoming man in the historical person of Jesus who appeared in the village of Nazareth in Galilee of ancient northern Israel two millennia ago. Three times a day, bells peal in the Christian churches to echo that message and event. Jesus of Nazareth has ever since his public life of teaching, healing the sick, driving out demons and befriending of the poor and the socially-marginalised, brought in a radical revolution of social change and spiritual renewal that have profoundly affected not only persons but entire societies, cultures and civilizations. And thus began the Christian era in humanity’s history with this hallowed birth of Jesus Christ.
By becoming man and putting on our human nature, Jesus Christ gave a new degree of eminence and dignity to human beings. If God became human, there must be something really sublime and noble about being human. No wonder, even the earliest of Greek philosophers, known for their insight wisdom, saw in man the measure of all things envisioning him also as the basic term of reference in relation to ethical, moral, social and cosmic matters. The whole cosmos with its natural wonders of the planetary system, the mosaic of civilizations and today’s dominant technocratic culture point to man as the focus and cynosure of everything that happens around us. As it has always been, human beings with their dignity and rights are at the bottom of all challenges and commitments the society has been and is constantly called to safeguard and foster, keeping it cohesive in peace, justice and brotherhood. Lack of this philosophy of life has torn apart people in many destructive ways through horrible convulsions of violence bringing untold suffering and pain to a world that could manage its affairs in peace and harmony. Nations have taken up arms against one another, social classes have unleashed struggles of all kinds, the rich and those who wield power and authority have been tempted to abuse them resulting in severe fragmentation of society and alienation of entire people and cultures. As of late, we are accustomed to talk about the clash of civilizations, civil strife and the frantic race for nuclear superiority coupled with the production, deployment and sale of arms, which by now has risen percentage wise. This has engendered a dangerous planet that instills fear, anxiety, insecurity and uncertainty in our increasingly-globalised world, fast becoming a global village.
Nations have taken up arms against one another, social classes have unleashed struggles of all kinds, the rich and those who wield power and authority have been tempted to abuse them resulting in severe fragmentation of society and alienation of entire people and cultures
Peace cannot be achieved if there are social, cultural and political evils rampant in society and are adversely affecting the lives of people. In situations where peace is lacking evidently, there is violation of human rights and the dignity of people concerned. When human rights are denied, human dignity is degraded. Such situations arise in the world of work where employment, salary issues affecting workers, pension schemes and social security are not ensured. Every worker has a right to work and to a decent just wage. Hence, the duty incumbent on the employer is to ensure that these are provided. Much of the world of business and commerce is most of the time filled with injustice and disrespect of human rights in these fields due to the exploitation of workers and labourers, and money-laundering. The dignity and sweat of the worker demand human and just working conditions as well. In the clerical and civil sectors too, these same demands apply. Regular working hours, well-remunerated overtime hours and right to trade union activities are some of these requirements. Work is for man and not vice-versa. The former reduces workers to a state of slavery if used as cogs in a machine thus preventing due honour and recompense for the fruit of one’s labour.
Jesus Christ, whose birth is celebrated at Christmas, was foremostly a religious figure yet His teachings had some crucial social and cultural implications too. He came from a carpenter’s family and as a growing youth and later young man, learnt that trade. But in His later life, it was fishermen that He chose as His first companions, making them disciples later. Fishing was not at that time considered to be a form of employment that was very high in rank and noble, and fisherfolk were known for their hard and difficult lives, roughness of manner, ruggedness of behaviour and impulsiveness of character. This itinerant teacher reached out to the most abandoned and marginalised sectors of the society of his day, thus creating a new paradigm of social integration which His later emissaries diffused in most of the great cosmopolitan centres of the Middle East like Corinth and Thessalonica and even reaching the imperial territories of Rome. Women, lepers, public sinners, tax-collectors and children were those groups that were despised by the so-called echelons of the high society. Neither did they have any voice nor impact in society. They were at the receiving end of social pressures of all kinds. Even shepherds who are some of the main actors in the Christmas birth story were not a respected social class. Jesus Christ had lot of space in his life and work for such beleaguered and despised people.
It is a paradox indeed and a sign of contradiction that certain political ideologies which presume to safeguard the dignity of workers end up by oppressing and making them instruments of their twisted social philosophies and economic systems. Radical Marxism is such a political ideology buttressed by militant atheism and an oppressive economic system. The historical French revolution which was unleashed, fuelled by the uprising of the common people as much as the Russian revolution of the last century and all others inclusive of countries like Vietnam, China, Rwanda and Burundi, Cuba and Nicaragua with the overturning of oligarchic systems, finally themselves ended up being oppressive socio-cultural and political systems holding the people at bay, robbing their dignity and rights through inhuman dictatorial rule. These revolutions are known for their barbaric massacres, extrajudicial killings, torture, disappearances and resultant untold human sufferings. They were sad and lamentable eras of crude dehumanisation. Today’s struggles of oppressed people deprived of democratic freedoms crying out for such reforms under iron-fisted rule and the phenomenon of refugees fleeing their native countries, offer ample evidence of this modern social drama of human rights violations. The right to be free, as all philosophers had said, is what defines human beings and what it means to be human. When fundamental freedoms are denied or truncated, society can become intolerable and vicious giving rise to tragic forms of social unrest. In many countries, human rights struggles have flared up into devastating revolutions as a result of their denial or suppression.
There are many organisations and NGOs that are today making their voices heard in defence of human rights. Amongst them we find the most powerful international body that is the United Nations Human Rights Commission monitoring situations of social injustice affecting politics, democracy, freedom of speech and movement, the right to self-determination and information as well as rights of religious, cultural and social minorities. The International Court of Justice, based in The Hague, tries rulers guilty of crimes against humanity and abuse of power. The world where people have lost their human dignity and experience threats to life, property and knowledge is indeed an impoverished one. Today, we are prone by sheer force of circumstances and considering it a matter of conscience to come to the defence of a culture of life while squarely denouncing a widely-prevalent culture of death diametrically opposed to it, through suicide, drugs, procured abortion, euthanasia and threat of nuclear confrontation and terrorism. These chilling modern phenomena also militate against some of the basic teachings of the world’s religions. The medical field witnesses much of these evils as can be expected. Illegal abortions around the world run into staggering millions annually. It has become a veritable crime against humanity even as religious extremism which kills in the name of religion. The newborn infant of Christmas would therefore be a prophesy against this destructive and dehumanising culture that has come over our modern world. The feeble cry of the innocent babe from its stable of Bethlehem’s inn is an echo of a cry for life for the unborn and the defenceless victims. It brings shame on a world that has reached such incredible heights of scientific endowment and technological feats. It is indeed a paradox as to why a modern world arrayed as it is with breathtaking knowledge and highly-complex skills is incapable of rising to an equally elevated level of morality and ethics. The message of Christmas linked to the life of a newborn is a plain condemnation of the brutality of all the modern Herods and Neros who have massacred and continue this heinous crime against the little ones.
The feeble cry of the innocent babe from its stable of Bethlehem’s inn is an echo of a cry for life for the unborn and the defenceless victims
The child is a miracle of nature, a bundle of joy, a master artefact in the moulding hands of the divine potter, the bond between the parents, the future man and the future saint. Its gentle face carries the first traces of God’s image and likeness which is the first good-news revelation one reads in the very opening pages of the Bible. What is more gracious and gripping a sight than to behold a child nestling in the bosom of his mother showered with warmth and security which only a mother can express and experience! One of the very poignant scenes in the life of Jesus’ public life was where we see him calling little children from the arms of their mothers, to embrace and bless them with the message: “Allow little children to come to me for to such as these belong the Kingdom of God. Woe unto him who becomes a cause of scandal to them. For, it is much better that a milestone be hung around his neck and he be cast into the depths of the sea.” This teaching really shows the grievousness of all adults who can spoil, derange and abuse children for whatever purpose. Children who are received in love, educated and formed towards a mature adulthood indeed are a treasure to humanity as well as a source for future blessings for a nation.
Christmas then is a cry for life calling for preserving human dignity of every person and ensuring all rights coming from that dignity. One cannot get into the joy of this festival in a world ridden with hatred, violence, conflicts and dissensions that endanger life, particularly of those who are most weak and vulnerable. The spirit of Christmas will endure wherever attention is carefully paid to the scrupulous safeguarding of the dignity and rights of people doing one’s utmost to build peace based on justice to all. The birth of Jesus Christ brought together the humble shepherds from their fields who harkened to the voice of the angels and wise kings from afar who followed the star of Bethlehem, under the one roof of the inn, where the divine infant was laid. It is the call to the world, during this festive season to strive to bring people together in an aura of peace and help avoid tensions and conflicts based on race, language, ethnicity or religion which surely would risk endangering human dignity and threaten human rights.