One of the first places I visited when I moved to Atlanta for seminary, was the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Its the sort of place that is meant to make people feel good about what has been accomplished and generically encourage people to continue fighting the good fight for justice and human rights.
The place is set up like a museum. The admission price of $18.50 gives you access to immersive exhibits and info-graphics that detail terrible abuses of power from the past hundred years. The place is absolutely beautiful! It was curated by Tony Award winning playwright/dircetor George C. Wolfe, who really did make the entire museum into a theatrical experience. I learned about the important role that Bayard Rustin played in organizing the logistics of MLK’s March on Washington and other rallies. I read first-hand accounts of the march to Selma. I was brought to tears by the price that had been paid in the fight for equality.
On the second floor is the exhibit of the “Offenders and the Defenders” of human rights. The offenders were Hitler, Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and Augusta Pinochet. The Defenders were: Mohandas Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Yelena Bonner, Martin Luther King Jr., Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, and Estela Barnes de Carlotto. If you don’t know who any of these people are, then you should look them up. The two groups are on opposite walls facing each other, and us visitors fill the gap between them. The heroes and the villains were clear. The heroes fought for human rights, and the villains oppressed people. The obvious message is to be on the side that supports human rights.
The Civil Rights section had a display that shared stories of people who had been killed for fighting for equal rights. In almost all of these, the guilty parties were members of neo-Nazi groups or the KKK. A white guy standing next to me said, “Its a good thing those groups don’t exist anymore.”
There was also a small area that talked about the United States today, suggesting that things may not in fact be perfect right now. But, this was all done in a very low-key way. A dense paragraph mentioned that popular views on LGBT rights were changing in the United States. Drone strikes, Guantanamo Bay, and counter-terrorism projects were cited as “policies that have generated debate about the most effective ways to keep America safe.” Of course, literally every other movement in this museum involving the heroes and villains also “generated debate”.
It was possible to go through the entire center without feeling terribly convicted about anything in particular. Visitors are continually let off the hook, and I think a lot of people see the center as a giant victory party. That’s certainly what this shirt that I found in the gift-shop would suggest:
But, I don’t think that people are treated equally today, and I am complicit in that. I look at the row of Defenders of human rights, and I want to be like them. I look at the row of villains, and even though it makes me feel sick, I can also see what they were trying to do. I want to contribute to the right side of the struggles of today, but just as in the parts of the Center that described today’s injustices, the best way(s) to do this are usually a bit fuzzy to me.
What are these “Human Rights”, and how exactly do I go about fighting for them. As far as I can tell, the only good for the existence of universal human rights comes from the idea that certain rights are given to people by God. If you want to look at philosophical/ethical arguments for human rights that don’t resort to God, the read my next post about why this doesn’t actually work.
But, if rights are given to people by God, then knowing God better will teach us about the rights that God may have given to people.