The Need To End Minority Rule in U.S.       

Harvard professors of government, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, make a convincing case that the structure of the U.S. government has permitted minority rule in the U.S. and they propose ways to change that structure to reduce the enabling of such minority rule.[1] We will examine their arguments about structure and reform. Then a couple of other ways to change one part of that structure—the Electoral College–will be proposed by this blog followed by looking at another critique of the current U.S. government structure provided by Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University.

Existing Structure Enabling Minority Rule

 “Democracy is supposed to be a game of numbers: The party with the most votes wins. In our political system, however, the majority does not govern. Constitutional design and recent political geographic trends — where Democrats and Republicans live — have unintentionally conspired to produce what is effectively becoming minority rule.”

“Our Constitution was designed to favor small (or low-population) states. Small states were given representation equal to that of big states in the Senate and an advantage in the Electoral College, as we are seeing in this year’s presidential election. What began as a minor small-state advantage evolved, over time, into a vast overrepresentation of rural states. For most of our history, this rural bias did not tilt the partisan playing field much because both major parties maintained huge urban and rural wings.”

“Today, however, American parties are starkly divided along urban-rural lines: Democrats are concentrated in big metropolitan centers, whereas Republicans are increasingly based in sparsely populated territories. This gives the Republicans an advantage in the Electoral College, the Senate and — because the president selects Supreme Court nominees and the Senate approves them — the Supreme Court.”

Moreover, “recent U.S. election results fly in the face of majority rule. Republicans have won the popular vote for president only once in the last 20 years and yet have controlled the presidency for 12 of those 20 years. Democrats easily won more overall votes for the U.S. Senate in 2016 and 2018, and yet the Republicans hold 53 of 100 seats. The 45 Democratic and two independent senators who caucus with them represent more people than the 53 Republicans.”

“This is minority rule.”

“The problem is exacerbated by Republican efforts to dampen turnout among younger, lower-income and minority voters. Republican state governments have purged voter rolls and closed polling places on college campuses and in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, and since 2010, a dozen Republican-led states have passed laws making it more difficult to register or vote.”

Levitsky & Ziblatt’s Proposed Reforms

Eliminate the electoral college by constitutional amendment. This is not easy. Under Article V of the Constitution, the Congress shall propose amendments “whenever two-thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary [Senate (2/3 x 50 = 33.3) and House (2/3 x 435 = 290). Or under Article V, the Congress shall call a Convention for proposing amendments “whenever . . . two-thirds of the Legislatures of the . . .States [currently 2/3 x 50 = 33.3] apply for such a convention). I agree.

Eliminate the filibuster, which has meant that “meaningful legislation now effectively requires 60 votes, which amounts to a permanent minority veto.”[2 ] This would require a Senate vote to change its rules. Under the current Senate Rules, I believe that would require a vote of at least 60 senators, but whenever a new congress convenes as it will do in January 2021, I believe it may do so by majority vote.   (Please advise by comments to this post if these beliefs about Senate Rules are wrong.).) I agree.

Offer statehood to Puerto Rico and the District of Colombia, “which would provide full and equal representation to nearly four million Americans who are currently disenfranchised.” I agree.

Defend and expand “the right to vote. “HR-1 and HR-4, a package of reforms approved by the House of Representatives in 2019 but blocked by the Senate, is a good start. HR-1 would establish nationwide automatic and same-day registration, expand early and absentee voting, prohibit flawed purges that remove eligible voters from the rolls, require independent redistricting commissions to draw congressional maps, and restore voting rights to convicted felons who have served their time. HR-4 would fully restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was gutted by the Supreme Court’s Shelby County vs. Holder ruling in 2013.” I agree.

Other Suggestions Regarding the Electoral College

There are at least two other methods of changing the anti-democratic nature of the current Electoral College that, at least in part, would not require constitutional amendment.

First. Peter Diamond, professor emeritus at M.I.T. and a 2010 Nobel laureate in economics, has suggested a constitutional amendment that would require each state to divide its electoral vote between the two leading candidates within the state in accordance with the popular vote. For example, a state with an even split in the popular vote and 10 electoral votes would allocate 5 such votes to each candidate.[3]  Yes, such a change would require such an amendment since it would require all states to do it this way.

Or each state independently could decide to do just that, without a constitutional amendment, since Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution provides, “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct,” the Electors to which it is entitled. (Emphasis added.)  It, however, seems unlikely that all 50 states independently would decide to do this as a matter of each state’s laws.

Another way of changing the anti-democratic nature of the Electoral College is approval by additional states of the existing National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which requires signatory states to award all their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote in the 50 states and the District of Columbia once the Compact is signed by states with at least 270 electoral college votes. As of October 2020 this compact had been adopted by 15 states and the District of Columbia, which have a total of 196 electoral college votes although one of the states (Colorado) has suspended its approval of the Compact.[4]

This proposal raises a number of legal issues. Some legal observers believe states have plenary power to appoint electors as prescribed by the Compact; others believe that the Compact will require congressional consent under the Constitution’s Compact Clause or that the presidential election process cannot be altered except by a constitutional amendment.

Another Challenging Critique of U.S. Government

Another challenging and surprising critique of the current governmental problems in the U.S. has been provided by Larry Diamond,  a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.[5]

According to Mr. Diamond, “Today, we are far closer to a breakdown than most democracy experts, myself included, would have dared anticipate just a few years ago. Even if we are spared the worst, it is long past time to renew the mechanisms of our democracy, learn from other democracies around the world and again make our republic a shining city on a hill.”

Moreover, “The very age of American democracy is part of the problem. The United States was the first country to become a democracy, emerging over a vast, dispersed and diverse set of colonies that feared the prospect of the ‘tyranny of the majority.’ Hence, our constitutional system lacks some immunities against an electoral debacle that are common in newer democracies.”

Today, he asserts, “The American [election] system is a mishmash of state and local authorities. Most are staffed by dedicated professionals, but state legislatures and elected secretaries of state can introduce partisanship, casting doubt on its impartiality. No other advanced democracy falls so short of contemporary democratic standards of fairness, neutrality and rationality in its system of administering national elections.”

In contrast, “even though Mexico is a federal system like the United States, it has a strong, politically independent National Electoral Institute that administers its federal elections. The Election Commission of India has even more far-reaching and constitutionally protected authority to administer elections across that enormous country. Elections thus remain a crucial pillar of Indian democracy, even as the country’s populist prime minister, Narendra Modi, assaults press freedom, civil society and the rule of law. Other newer democracies, from South Africa to Taiwan, have strong national systems of election administration staffed and led by nonpartisan professionals.”

In addition, “more recent democratic countries have adopted constitutional provisions to strengthen checks and balances. Like many newer democracies, Latvia has established a strong independent anti-corruption bureau, which has investigative, preventive and educational functions and a substantial budget and staff. It even oversees political and campaign finance. South Africa has the independent Office of the Public Protector to perform a similar role.”

In contrast, the U.S. “has no comparable standing authority to investigate national-level corruption, and Congress largely investigates and punishes itself.”

On another issue, newer democracies have taken “measures to depoliticize the constitutional court. No other democracy gives life tenure to such a powerful position as constitutional court justice. They either face term limits (12 years in Germany and South Africa; eight in Taiwan) or age limits (70 years in Australia, Israel and South Korea; 75 in Canada), or both. Germany depoliticizes nominations to its constitutional court by requiring broad parliamentary consensus. In other democracies, a broader committee nominates Supreme Court justices. In Israel this involves not just the executive branch but the parliament, some of the existing justices and the bar association.”

In contrast, the U.S. “lacks national checks on executive corruption and national guarantees of electoral integrity that have become routine in other democracies around the world. And nominations to our Supreme Court have become far more politicized than in many peer democracies.”

Conclusion

A proposal for changing the undemocratic  structure of the U.S. Senate will be discussed in a future post.

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[1] Levitsky & Ziblatt, End Minority Rule, N.Y. Times (Oct. 23, 2020). Levitsky and Ziblatt also are co-authors of How Democracies Die, which was reviewed in the New York Times: Szalai, Will Democracy Survive Trump? Two New Books Aren’t So Sure, N.Y. Times Book Review (Jan 10, 2018).

[2] This blog has published posts that discuss the history of the filibuster rule, including modest reforms of the rule in 2013, and recent unsuccessful litigation challenging the constitutionality of the filibuster.

[3]  Diamond, Letter to the Editor: Let States Split the Electoral College Votes, N.Y. Times (Oct. 29, 2020).

[4] National Popular Vote, Inc., National Popular Vote!National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, Wikipedia.

[5] Diamond, I’m a Democracy Expert. I Never Thought We’d Be So Close to a Breakdown, N.Y. Times (Nov. 1, 2020).  Diamond is the author, most recently, of  “Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency,“ Penguin Random House, 2019, 2020).

The U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Partial Commendation

On July 8, 2019, the U.S. State Department launched the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights.[1] This new Commission deserves both commendation and criticism. Below are its positive points, and a subsequent post will discuss the many legitimate criticisms of this new institution.

U.S. Primary Sources for Human Rights

According to Secretary of State Pompeo, the Commission regards the U.S. Declaration of Independence from 1776 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 as pillars of U.S. dedication to human rights. As the Secretary said at the launch, “The Commission will focus on “human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An American commitment to uphold human rights played a major role in transforming the moral landscape of the international relations after World War II, something all Americans can rightly be proud of. Under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights ended forever the notion that nations could abuse their citizens without attracting notice or repercussions.”[2]

In other statements the Secretary has asserted that freedom of religion and belief is the foundational and most important freedom. While that perhaps could be debated, it is clearly an important freedom.

Both of these declarations indeed honor human rights, and the inclusion of the Universal Declaration is an implicit admission that the U.S. alone does not have all the answers on this subject. Here then are some of the key points of these two documents that call for commending the Commission.

U.S. Declaration of Independence

These are the familiar words from the U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

On December 10, 1948, the U.N. General Assembly at a meeting in Paris, France adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by a vote of 48-0. Eight countries abstained: the Soviet Union, five members of the Soviet bloc (Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine and Yugoslavia), South Africa and Saudi Arabia. The other two U.N. members at the time were absent and not voting (Honduras and Yemen).[3]

Some of this Declaration’s words in its Preamble and 30 Articles are reminiscent of the language of the U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776. Here are some of the provisions of the U.N. document:

  • “[R]ecognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” (Preamble)
  • The “peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women.” (Preamble)
  • “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” (Art. 1)
  • “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” (Art. 2)
  • “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” (Art.3)
  • “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” (Art. 4)
  • “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” (Art. 5)
  • “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” (Art. 7)
  • Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.” (Art. 8)
  • “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” (Art. 9)
  • “Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.” (Art. 10)
  • “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty . . . .” (Art. 11(1).)
  • “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” (Art. 14(1).)
  • “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.” (Art. 16(1).)
  • Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” (Art. 18) (Emphasis added.)
  • “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.: (Art. 19.)
  • “ Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” (Art. 20(1).)
  • “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family . . . .” (Art. 25(1).)

Other UDHR provisions, which have been overlooked in various comments about the Commission and which relate to its negative points to be discussed in a subsequent post, are the following: “[H]uman rights should be protected by the rule of law” (Preamble); U.N. “Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” (Preamble); “[E]very individual and every organ of society . . . shall strive . . . by progressive measures national and international, to secure . . . [these rights and freedoms] universal and effective recognition and observance”[Proclamation);[4] “The will of the people shall be the basis of authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage . . . .” (Art. 21(3).)

The importance and significance of these provisions were emphasized by the Commission’s chair, Mary Ann Glendon, in her book: A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2001). The Preface says the UDHR “became a pillar of a new international system under which a nation’s treatment of its own citizens was no longer immune from outside scrutiny. . . . Today, the Declaration is the single most important reference point for cross-national discussions of how to order our future together on our increasingly conflict-ridden and interdependent planet.”   Her book’s Epilogue emphatically states:

  • “The Universal Declaration created a bold new course for human rights by presenting a vision of freedom as linked to social security, balanced by responsibilities, grounded in respect for equal human dignity, and grounded by the rule of law.”
  • “The Declaration’s principles, moreover, have increasingly acquired legal force, mainly through their incorporation into national legal systems.”
  • “One of the most basic assumptions of the founders of the UN and the framers of the Declaration was that the root causes of atrocities and armed conflict are frequently to be found in poverty and discrimination.”

Conclusion

The U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights indeed are major sources of human rights, and the Commission’s proclaiming them as important is an action to be commended.

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[1] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights? (June 15, 2019); Other Reactions to State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 17, 2019); More Thoughts on Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 18, 2019); U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Developments (July 4, 2019);U .S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Is Launched (July 8, 2019); More Comments on Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 9, 2019); Additional Discussion About the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 18, 2019).

[2] State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo Remarks to the Press (July 8, 2019).

[3] U.N., Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Dec. 10, 1948), UN Gen. Assembly Res. 217A, Doc A/810 at 71; Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Wikipedia; Kenton, Human Rights Declaration Adopted by U.N. General Assembly; U.N. VOTES ACCORD ON HUMAN RIGHTS, N.Y. Times (Dec. 11, 1948). The history of the UDHR and its not being legally binding on U.N. members or other states are discussed in The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (July 11, 2019).

[4] The U.S. has signed and ratified 19 multilateral human rights treaties in accordance with the Constitution’s Article II (2.2) requiring the “advice and consent” by two-thirds of the senators present at the vote. In addition, the U.S. has signed, but not ratified, nine other multilateral human rights treaties while at least seven significant human rights treaties that as of February 2013 had not been signed and ratified by the U.S. (See Multilateral Treaties Ratified by the U.S., dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 9, 2013); Multilateral Treaties Signed, But Not Ratified, by the U.S., dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 12, 2013); Multilateral Human rights Treaties That Have Not Been Signed and Ratified by the U.S. (Feb. 16, 2013).

 

 

 

 

The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

As has been noted in a post about the recent launching of the new U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the following favorable comments about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): “The Commission will focus on “human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An American commitment to uphold human rights played a major role in transforming the moral landscape of the international relations after World War II, something all Americans can rightly be proud of. Under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights ended forever the notion that nations could abuse their citizens without attracting notice or repercussions.” [1] (Emphasis added.)

In addition, the Commission’s chair, Mary Ann Glendon, has written a marvelous book about the UDHR: A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2001). [2] In her Preface, she says this Declaration “became a pillar of a new international system under which a nation’s treatment of its own citizens was no longer immune from outside scrutiny. . . . Today, the Declaration is the single most important reference point for cross-national discussions of how to order our future together on our increasingly conflict-ridden and interdependent planet.”  (Emphasis added.) Her book’s Epilogue emphatically states:

  • The Universal Declaration created a bold new course for human rights by presenting a vision of freedom as linked to social security, balanced by responsibilities, grounded in respect for equal human dignity, and grounded by the rule of law.”
  • The Declaration’s principles, moreover, have increasingly acquired legal force, mainly through their incorporation into national legal systems.”
  • One of the most basic assumptions of the founders of the UN and the framers of the Declaration was that the root causes of atrocities and armed conflict are frequently to be found in poverty and discrimination.” (Emphases added.)

Therefore, the following brief summary of the UDHR should assist in understanding the upcoming work of the Commission.

The History of the UDHR

The Charter of the United Nations entered into force on October 24, 1945. Its Preamble stated, in part, that the U.N. was created “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women” and “to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.” And one of its stated purposes was “To achieve international cooperation . . . in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” (Art. 1(3)) The Charter also established the Economic and Social Council (Ch. X), which was to “make recommendations for the purpose of promoting respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.” (Art. 62(2))

In June 1946, that  Economic and Social Council established the Commission on Human Rights, comprising 18 members from various nationalities and political backgrounds. The Commission then established a special Universal Declaration of Human Rights Drafting Committee, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, to write the Declaration. The Committee met in two sessions over the course of two years to consider that proposed instrument with Canadian John Peters Humphrey, Director of the Division of Human Rights within the U.N. United Nations Secretariat, as the principal drafter of the UDHR along with a committee that included René Cassin of France, Charles Malik of Lebanon, and P. C. Chang of the Republic of China. Once the Committee finished its drafting in May 1948, the draft was further discussed by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the U.N. Economic and Social Council, and the Third Committee of the General Assembly. During these discussions many amendments and propositions were made by UN Member States.

On December 10, 1948, the U.N. General Assembly at a meeting in Paris, France adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by a vote of 48-0. Eight other countries abstained: the Soviet Union, five members of the Soviet bloc (Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine and Yugoslavia), South Africa and Saudi Arabia. The other two U.N. members at the time were absent and not voting (Honduras and Yemen).[3]

Selected Provisions of the UDHR

Many of this Declaration’s words in its Preamble and 30 Articles are reminiscent of the language of the U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776. Here are some of those words in the U.N. document:

  • “[R]ecognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” (Preamble)
  • “[H]uman rights should be protected by the rule of law.” (Preamble)
  • The “peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women.” (Preamble)
  • N. “Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” (Preamble)
  • All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” (Art. 1)
  • Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other s” (Art. 2)
  • Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” (Art.3)
  • All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” (Art. 7)
  • Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” (Art. 18) (Emphases added.)

Legal Status of the UDHR

As a resolution of the U.N. General Assembly, the UDHR is not legally binding on U.N. members. As Mr. Justice Souter stated in an opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court, “the [Universal] Declaration does not of its own force impose obligations as a matter of international law.”[4] Instead, like the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the UDHR was an inspiration and prelude to the subsequent preparation and adoption of various multilateral human rights treaties as well as national constitutions and laws.

Conclusion

 On December 10, 1978, the 30th anniversary of the UDHR’s adoption, President Jimmy Carter said this Declaration “and the human rights conventions [treaties] that derive from it . . . are a beacon, a guide to a future of personal security, political freedom, and social justice. . . . The Universal Declaration means that no nation can draw the cloak of sovereignty over torture, disappearances, officially sanctioned bigotry, or the destruction of freedom within its own borders. . . . Our pursuit of human rights is part of a broad effort to use our great power and our tremendous influence in the service of creating a better world, a world in which human beings can live in peace, in freedom, and with their basic needs adequately met.”[5]

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[1] Here are other posts about the Commission:  Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights? (June 15, 2019); Other Reactions to State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 17, 2019); More Thoughts on Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 18, 2019); U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Developments (July 4, 2019); More Comments About the Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 9, 2019).

[2] The Glendon book discusses the history of the drafting of the Declaration and includes copies of the various drafts.

[3] U.N., Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Dec. 10, 1948), UN Gen. Assembly Res. 217A, Doc A/810 at 71;Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Wikipedia; Kentonspecial, Human Rights Declaration Adopted by U.N. General Assembly; U.N. VOTES ACCORD ON HUMAN RIGHTS, N.Y. Times (Dec. 11, 1948).

[4] Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain,  542 U.S. 692 (2004); Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, Wikipedia.

[5] Excerpts From Carter’s Speech on Anniversary of Human Rights Declaration, N.Y. Times (Dec. 10, 1978).

 

The Many Skills of an Orchestra’s Music Director

A recent attendance of a rehearsal of the Minnesota Orchestra highlighted for this amateur music-lover the many skills required of an accomplished music director of  a major symphony orchestra. The Minnesota Orchestra’s Osmo Vanskä is such a music director [1] Below is his photograph while conducting.

First, he or she needs to have a thorough knowledge of the wealth of orchestral works in order to help plan an orchestra’s season.

Second, for a specific concert, the music director needs to be intimately familiar with the works on that concert’s program and retrieve or develop how he or she will interpret and conduct each piece, including facial and body movements.

Third, he or she must be able to communicate verbally (in English, for the Minnesota Orchestra) what he wants from each section of the Orchestra. This should be done with all humility and graciousness. At the rehearsal I attended, Vanskä said,”Thank you,” to the Orchestra at the completion of the rehearsal of one of the pieces for the upcoming concerts.

Fourth, at the performance of the pieces at a concert, he or she must be able to have a “stage presence” and bring all of this together for the audience’s enjoyment. When I have attended this orchestra’s concerts, I always have been amazed at Vanskä’s ability by facial and arm gestures and, I assume, by facial expressions I cannot see from the audience, to lead the orchestra in marvelous performances.

The work I heard for 75 minutes of the rehearsal was Tapiola (19 minutes concert performance time) by Jean Sibelius. This is a tone poem capturing the beauty, mystery and magic of the Scandinavian forest and portraying Tapio, the animating forest spirit mentioned throughout the Kalevala, a Finnish epic poem. In the score Sibelius added this preface: “Widespread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests, Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams; Within them dwells the forest’s mighty God, And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.” [2]

It must be mentioned that Finnish-born Vanskä is“renowned internationally for his compelling interpretations of the standard, contemporary and Nordic repertoires and  has led the Orchestra on five major European tours, as well as an August 2018 visit to London’s BBC Proms, and on historic tours to Cuba in 2015 and South Africa in 2018.  In addition, he has led the Orchestra in its award-winning recordings of the complete Sibelius and Beethoven symphonies and the upcoming completion of the recording of the 10 symphonies of Mahler.

As someone who has been on three church mission trips to Cuba and is a close follower and commentator on the U.S. pursuit of normalizing relations with Cuba under President Obama and the unfortunate retreat from those policies by the Trump Administration, I especially was thrilled by the Orchestra’s trip to the island in 2015. [3]   I similarly was thrilled by the Orchestra’s trip to South Africa in 2018, especially after I had seen and heard Mandela at a special program in London’s Westminster Hall in 2001 and by also having visited Cape Town and Robben Island.[4]

Vanskä started his professional musical career as a clarinetist. I fondly recall his beautiful performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto at a benefit concert for displaced Syrians that was organized by some of the Orchestra’s musicians.[5]

In December 2018, the Orchestra announced that Vanskä, now 65 years old,  will leave the Orchestra when his current contract expires in 2022. He said, “I feel at this moment, more than ever in my life, that the Minnesota Orchestra is my own orchestra. And that’s a great feeling. What we have achieved, especially since the lockout, is something very special.”[6]

I join the many Orchestra listeners and patrons in saying he will be sorely missed and difficult to replace.

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[1] Suggestions of other skills of music directors are invited from those who know more about orchestras.

[2] Minn. Orchestra, Program (April 25-27, 2019).

[3] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBAMinnesota Orchestra To Go to Cuba (February 13, 2015); Minnesota Orchestra Goes to Cuba This Week! (May 11, 2015); Minnesota Orchestra’s Trip to Cuba Garners National Recognition (Dec. 17, 2016).

[4]  See List of Posts to dwcommentaries—Topical—South Africa & Mandela. See also these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Minnesota Orchestra Celebrates the Life of Nelson Mandela ((July 24, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra’s “Celebrating Mandela at 100” Concert (July 29, 2018); Inspirations for Minnesota Orchestra’s South African Tour (Aug. 14, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra’s Concert in South Africa (Cape Town), (Aug. 15, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra’s Other Activities in Cape Town, South Africa (Aug. 16, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Durban), (Aug. 18, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Pretoria), (Aug. 20, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Soweto), (Aug. 24, 2018); Minnesota Singer’s Celebration of Minnesota Orchestra’s Concert in Soweto, (Aug. 29, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Johannesburg), (Aug. 25, 2018). See also Celebrating the Rhodes Scholarships’ Centennial, (June 21,, 2003); Nelson Mandela Makes Connection with Cecil Rhodes (May 20, 2018). Minnesota Public Television  (tpt) has produced a television program about the Orchestra’s South African tour: Music for Mandela: Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa.The first showing of this program is May 5, 2019, 10:00 p.m. (CDT) on tpt’s Twin Cities station (Channel 2).

[5] Successful Benefit Concert for Displaced Syrians, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 7, 2016).

[6] Ross, Conductor Osmo Vanskä to exit Minnesota Orchestra when contract expires, StarTribune (Dec. 8, 2018).

 

U.S. Urges U.N. Security Council To Reject Venezuela’s Maduro and Embrace Guaido

On January 26 the U.N. Security Council met to debate action on the crisis in Venezuela.[1]

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, after giving examples of the despair of ordinary Venezuelans, asserted that the U.S. was there “ to urge all nations to support the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people as they try to free themselves from former President Maduro’s illegitimate mafia state. . . .The humanitarian situation demands action now; it demands action today.”

As a result, the U.S. “ stands with the Venezuelan people. So far, many other nations have chosen to do the same and they too have recognized the legitimate government of interim President Guaidó. The United States stands proudly with you as we stand together in support of Venezuela. You knew the Venezuelan people did not have a moment to spare.”

After criticizing China and Russia for supporting Maduro, Pompeo said, “But no regime has done more to sustain the nightmarish condition of the Venezuelan people than the regime in Havana. For years, Cuban security and intelligence thugs, invited into Venezuela by Maduro himself and those around him, have sustained this illegitimate rule. They have trained Maduro’s security and intelligence henchmen in Cuba’s own worst practices. Cuba’s interior ministry even provides a former – provides former President Maduro’s personal security. Members of this body often use their microphones here to condemn foreign interference in internal affairs. Let’s be crystal clear: the foreign power meddling in Venezuela today is Cuba. Cuba has directly made matters worse and the United States and our partners are the true friends of the Venezuelan people.” (Emphasis added.)

Elliott Abrams, the new U.S. Special Envoy for Venezuela, following Secretary Pompeo, noted that every criticism [of the U.S.] came from a country that is not democratic. And he accused Venezuela of being a “satellite” of Cuba and Russia. “This is not about foreign intervention in Venezuela,. It is not an attempt to impose a result on the Venezuelan people. Democracy never needs to be imposed. It is tyranny that has to be imposed.”

The ambassadors of Russia and China, both permanent members of the Security Council with veto power, said they considered the political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela an internal matter and urged the United States to stop meddling. The Russian ambassador said, “If anything represents a threat to peace and security, it is the shameless and aggressive actions of the United States and their allies to oust a legitimately elected president of Venezuela.” The U.S., he said, was trying “to engineer a coup d’etat in Venezuela.”

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza then took a personal swipe at Abrams, noting that he had pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the Reagan administration’s support for contra rebels fighting the government in Nicaragua,

UN Under Secretary-General of Political and Peacebuilding, Rosemary DiCarlo, made a logical, but unpersuasive suggestion: “We must try to help bring about a political solution that will allow the country’s citizens to enjoy peace, prosperity and all their human rights,”  This essentially reiterated the plea earlier in the week by U.N. Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres  urging all parties to “lower tensions and calling for all relevant actors to commit to inclusive and credible political dialogue. Concerned by reports of casualties in the context of demonstrations and unrest in and around the capital Caracas, the UN chief also called for a transparent and independent investigation of those incidents.

The Security Council, however, took no vote on the situation in Venezuela under the threat of vetoes by permanent members Russia and China. This was presaged by the vote to consider the Venezuela crisis: nine in favor (Belgium, Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Kuwait, Peru, Poland, United Kingdom, United States) to four against (China, Equatorial Guinea, Russian Federation, South Africa) with two abstentions (Côte d’Ivoire, Indonesia).

The next day, January 27, U.S. National Security Advisor, John Bolton, tweeted, “ “Any violence and intimidation against U.S. diplomatic personnel, Venezuela’s democratic leader, Juan Guiado (sic), or the National Assembly itself would represent a grave assault on the rule of law and will be met with a significant response,” Bolton also noted Cuba’s support for Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro’s paramilitary forces.

Other Commentary[2]

After the Council’s meeting, Cuba Foreign Secretary, Bruno Rodriguez, tweeted, “”I categorically reject slanderous accusations against #Cuba from the US Secretary of State in the Security Council of @ONU_es. His assault on #Venezuela constitutionality, orchestrated from Washington, will fail despite the lies.” Another of his tweets stated, “Secretary of State slanders Cuba to justify a coup against the constitutional power in #Venezuela. Washington designed, financed and managed the alleged usurpation of the Venezuelan Presidency,” The U.S. was doing so “”on the basis of unfounded accusations, false data and masking role of his Government in orchestrating that assault on regional peace. ”

In addition to the above developments,  the U.K. joined the U.S., Germany, France and Spain in backing  Guaidó. The U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, said, ““After banning opposition candidates, ballot box stuffing and counting irregularities in a deeply-flawed election it is clear Nicolás Maduro is not the legitimate leader of Venezuela.”  Therefore, the U.K. would recognize Guaidó as the legitimate president unless Maduro within the next eight days called for a new election. [3]

Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, claims that “every sensible observer agrees that Latin America’s once-richest country, sitting atop the world’s largest proven oil reserves, is an economic basket case, a humanitarian disaster, and a dictatorship whose demise cannot come soon enough.” Moreover, he argues, “Twenty years of socialism . . . led to the ruin of a nation.” In short, according to Stephens, “Why does socialism never work? Because, as Margaret Thatcher explained, ‘eventually you run out of other people’s money.’”[4]

All of these developments pose many questions to ponder as we go forward or backward.

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[1]  Brokaw, Pompeo confronts U.N. Security Council on Venezuela, UPI (Jan. 26, 20190; State Dep’t, [{Pompeo] Remarks at United Nations Security Council Meeting on Venezuela (Jan. 26, 2019); U.N., UN political chief  calls for dialogue to ease tensions in Venezuela; Security Council divided over path to end crisis (Jan. 26, 209); Reuters, White House Promises “Significant Response’ to Any Venezuelan Violence, N.Y. Times (Jan. 27, 2019).

[2]  Cuban Foreign Minister rejects accusation by the United States against Cuba, Granma (Jan. 26, 2019); Semple, With Spies and Other Operatives, A Nation Looms Over Venezuela’s Crisis: Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 26, 2019); Baker & Wong, On Venezuela, Rubio Assumes U.S. Role of Ouster in Chief, N.Y. Times (Jan. 26, 2019); Morelio, Pompeo presses U.N. Security Council to ‘pick a side’ in Venezuela’s crisis, Wash. Post (Jan. 26, 2019).

[3] Doward, UK tells Venezuelan president: call fair election or stand down, Guardian (Jan. 26, 2019).

[4] Stephens, Yes, Venezuela Ia a Socialist Catastrophe, N.Y. Times (Jan. 25, 2019).

Cameroon Elected As  Member of U.N. Human Rights Council

As has been discussed in many posts, for the last several years the government of Cameroon has been engaged in armed conflict with the minority of Cameroonians whose principal European language is English (the Anglophones). In the course of that conflict, the government allegedly has committed many human rights violations.[1]

This record and the objections against these acts were voiced by many other governments during Cameroon’s recent Universal Periodic Review by the U.N. Human Rights Council, which is the body within the U.N. system made up of 47 States responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe. These Council members are elected by the majority of members of the U.N. General Assembly through direct and secret ballot. The General Assembly [purportedly] takes into account the candidate States’ contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights, as well as their voluntary pledges and commitments in this regard. (Emphasis added.)

Despite Cameroon’s dismal human rights record, on October 12, 2018, the U.N. General Assembly elected Cameroon to be a member of the Council for a three-year term beginning January 1, 2019.[2]

Amnesty International  Human Rights Watch and other rights groups objected to the election of Cameroon and certain other countries. “Elevating states with records of gross human rights violations and abuses is a tremendous setback,” said Amnesty International USA’s advocacy director, Daniel Balson. “It puts them on the world stage, and moreover, it empowers them to fundamentally undermine notions of human rights that are accepted internationally.[3]

In this context, Human Rights Watch raised “serious concerns about human rights in . . . Cameroon, . . . . [where] government security forces and armed separatists have committed grave abuses against residents of the country’s Anglophone region. The region has been rocked by protests and violent clashes rooted in longstanding political grievances of the Anglophone minority. While the government has taken some positive steps in recent months, including signing the Safe Schools Declaration, violence and abuses in the Anglophone region continue.”

The Council elections of Cameroon and four other African states (Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Somalia and Togo) are partially attributable to the Council’s allocation of 13 of the 47 seats to African states; and to three of the African members having terms ending on December 31, 2018 and being ineligible for re-election after having served two consecutive terms (Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia and Kenya). The other African members are Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia.[4]

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[1] See Cameroonian President Biya Wins Re-Election by a Landslide, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 26, 2018); Continued Violence in Cameroon, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 4, 2018). See also posts listed in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CAMEROON.

[2] U.N., General Assembly Elects 18 Member States to Human rights Council, Allowing Vote by 3 Member States in Article 19 Exemption over Financial Dues (Oct. 12, 2018).

[3] Assoc. Press, US, Rights Groups Say UN Rights Council Vote Lets Abusers In, N.Y. Times (Oct. 12, 2018); Human Rights Watch, UN: Philippines, Eritrea Don’t Belong on Rights Council (Oct. 11, 2018).

[4] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Membership of the Human Rights Council; U.N., General Assembly Elects 18 Member States to Human Rights Council, Allowing Vote by 3 Member States in Article 19 Exemption over Financial Dues (Oct. 12, 2018).

 

“Is One New Humanity Possible?”

Sunday, October 7, was World Communion Sunday at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. This was celebrated with global music, including pieces from African-Americans (“McKee” by Matthew H. Cori and “In Christ There Is No  East or West”), Japan (“Here, O Lord, Your Servants Gather” by Isao Koizumi), Taiwan (“Search Me, O God”), Argentina (“Glory, Glory, Glory”), Jamaica (“Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ”) and South Africa (“Thula Sizwe”).

The sermon, “Is One New Humanity Possible?” by Senior Pastor Tim Hart-Andersen explored this global theme as well.

The Scriptures

Ephesians 2:11-22 (NRSV):  

  • “So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘he circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body[ through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into dwelling place for God.”

The Sermon

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near…that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two.”

“The problem in Ephesus 2000 years ago was a divided humanity and the animosity that came with it – not all that different from the times in which we live, in many ways.”

“So Christ Jesus came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.”

“From the Jewish perspective the population of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus was split in two, those “who were near’ – Jews, members of the covenant community of God’s people – and those ‘who were far off’ – Gentiles, outside the circle of the covenant community. ‘Near’ and ‘far off’ are not geographic terms; they refer to neighbors, co-workers, fellow students, people you see in the store, between whom there existed, in the words of Ephesians, a ‘dividing wall of hostility.’”

“In Ephesus those not sharing the same faith tradition or language, culture or politics did not share the same humanity. They were separated. They were other. They were alien. They were far off and someone else was at the center.”

“The problem of ‘the other’ is as old as humanity itself. It was there in Ephesus, and it is here, among us, today. It appeared in a variety of guises back then; the world was divided into male and female, slave and free, Jew and Greek. There was always the other.”

“It’s no different in our time. Racism grows out of an othering based on skin color. People with differing abilities become the other. Or people making minimum wage. Or immigrants. Or people of wealth. Or people living on the streets. And on and on it goes…rural-urban, left-right, Republicans-Democrats, men-women.”

“Sometimes we’re the other; sometimes we do the othering. We all tend to conjugate humanity into what we perceive to be its constituent parts – as if that will solve something or somehow satisfy us.”

“On the contrary, that tendency, if left unchecked, will be our undoing. That’s true not only in our national life, but on the global stage, as well. If we continue to approach the world and life in our communities as if our particular group or nation . . . [was] at the center, isolated from others not like us, that center will not hold. The dividing walls of hostility between them and us, if not dismantled, will ruin us.”

“The response of the Christian Church in ancient Ephesus was to use their imagination and develop a dream of an utterly different world in which people celebrated and welcomed the other. The followers of Jesus referred to it as a new humanity, and they saw it as God’s intention in Jesus Christ. The goal was not to do away with differences or cover them over or negate them, as if they weren’t real, but, rather, to learn to live with them, and to see them as a strength…in fact, places where God might be found.”

“’So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,’ the writer of Ephesians says, ‘But you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.’”

Václav Havel argues that only by transcending the self – which is the goal of religious traditions – will we overcome our tendency to deny the humanity of the other. He defines transcendence as…“A deeply and joyously experienced need to be in harmony even with what we ourselves are not, with what we do not understand, with what seems distant from us in time and space, but with which we are mysteriously linked because, together with us, all this constitutes a single world.[1]

“One new humanity.”

“At the conclusion of one of the most rancorous and dispiriting and painful weeks in recent American history, and a month away from a pivotal, acrimonious election, one new humanity seems impossible to attain – almost ludicrous to consider, even laughable. Political culture has been debased to a take-no-prisoners approach in which survivors of sexual assault are mocked, opponents are bullied, and lying has become acceptable.”

“As followers of Jesus we’re committed to a moral vision for our life together, but it doesn’t look like that.”

“One new humanity will not abide division based on race or economics, gender or social position or power. It will insist on the inherent worth of every individual. It will never stop asking how to make the world more just. It will seek to sustain the one, beautiful planet we have. And it will reject fundamentalism of any kind, because fundamentalisms, whether religious or political, are always declared at someone else’s expense. They thrive on an ‘other,’ who is wrong, who is outside, who is not included.”

“This is not a secular vision, devoid of spiritual content. It’s a religious vision – our religious vision. Ephesians is clear about this, and we should be, too. For us, Jesus Christ is the wellspring of one new humanity. To follow Jesus means to enter into the difficult work of learning to live together with all our differences and disagreements. Our faith in Jesus compels us to speak the truth, yes, sometimes with righteous rage, but always in love, trying not to let anger over injustice turn us into that which we protest.”

“One new humanity. Small steps matter. It will take disarming imagination to do this, like that of a seven-year old. We’ll need a new way of seeing the world, born of our religious conviction and counter to everything the world tells us. We’re going to have to resist and reject the way the world is and offer an alternative vision.”

Václav Havel says a divided, rancorous, hostile world calls for transcendence that refuses to let the way things are, be the way they have to be. Can we not dream beyond the ugly reality that has such a vice-grip on us and then work together toward that dream, that vision that emerged from Ephesus so many years ago?”

“The monk Thomas Merton described a vision, . . . so moving and so descriptive of the essence of what we’re trying to do with a religious vision that reaches past the otherness in which we dwell. It happened to him on March 18, 1958, in Louisville, Kentucky. ‘At the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district,’  Merton writes,’I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.’”[2]

“Our nation is desperate for such a vision to begin to remove the dividing wall of hostility – not to make us all the same and agree on everything, but to teach us to live with our differences in a way that honors them and respects them, and each one of us. I’m not talking only about political differences, although they may be uppermost in our mind these days. But I’m also thinking about race and socio-economic status, and education, and geography, and where we live in the city.”

“The old order was based on fear, and when we are afraid of one another we turn each other into enemies. The new order that comes out of the gospel is based on hope – and, as Maya Angelou says, ‘Hope and fear cannot occupy the same space.’”

“E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. It was the imperfect vision of the nation’s founders, with which we are still blessed and which we are still trying to get right.”

“Last summer in New Mexico we climbed to the top of a high mesa one day. It was a stunning view. We could see for miles over the desert landscape. Another couple soon joined us. They were immigrants from Albania. We talked, and they told us their story. They had fled as refugees to Greece, Italy, and other countries, before finally being welcomed to the U.S. They were so happy to be here. They both had settled and found jobs, and now they were on a road trip to take in their new country.”

“’God bless America,’ they said in heavily accented English. They were aliens no more.”

“Citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

“One new humanity is possible, but it will take vision, and work. It’s the calling of the church. Some of us will have to set aside the privilege we enjoy, by virtue of where we fit in the culture, in order to enter the narrative of people considered the other, because our very status is a wall, whether we want it to be or not, between us and them. A good way to begin might be by listening to one another, listening to one another as we have never listened before.”

“Westminster’s Race and Grace dialogues are one place where that listening is happening. It happens, as well, in our global partnerships in Cuba, Palestine, and Cameroon, as we listen and then learn the stories of people who have been othered by history. And it can happen where we work, with our neighbors, at school. Even in our families. I know families are feeling these dividing walls of hostility. I hear it all the time from church members.”

“I had my own Thomas Merton-like moment last week. We went out to eat at a Vietnamese restaurant 15 blocks south of here called Quang Restaurant.

“It has one big, open room, no divisions, with lots of tables, and they were all full. It was like walking into the world at dinner. There were people from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe sitting at the tables. Older folks, young families, single adults, children running around. Different languages. People who drove fancy new cars and others who came on the bus. Mixed groups eating together and talking with one another.”

“It was noisy and steamy and smelled of good food, and I suddenly felt kinship with them all, as if everyone were at the same table. It was World Communion Sunday a few days early. I had glimpsed – in Quang’s – the friendship within the human family that God so desires of us.”

“One new humanity is possible, through the transcendent power of God’s love, as we know that love in Jesus Christ – a love that can overcome anything that wants to keep us apart, even the dividing walls of hostility among us. And then one new humanity, one new humanity, has a chance of growing.”

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

One new humanity is possible. Everyone can contribute to making that possible, one small step at a time. With humility each of us needs to recognize that one individual cannot do it all yourself, but that you can do something within your limited circumstances. Also recognize that sometimes you will fail in this effort and you will ask God for forgiveness.

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[1] Václav Havel (1936-2011) was a Czech statesman, writer and former dissident, who served as the last President of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until its dissolution in 1992 and then as the first President of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. The above quotation appeared in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference [New York: Continuum, 2000], p. 45); Sachs, now Baron Sacks, MBE is a British Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, theologian, author and politician who served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013.

[2] Thomas Merton’s Mystical Vision in Louisville, Spiritual Travels.

 

 

 

“Who Is Jesus for Us Today?”  

This was the title of the sermon on September 9, 2018, by Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor, Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. (A photograph of the church with its new addition is below.)

Biblical Texts for the Day

 Psalm 8 (NRSV):

“O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”

“O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

 John 1: 45-51 (NRSV):

“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you get to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’”

 The Sermon[1]

 “The work of the Church is fundamentally a teaching task: asking questions, seeking answers, exploring possibilities – and then translating all of that into life between Sundays. . . .”

“Christianity is never settled for any of us, no matter our age or the extent of our involvement in church. The world is always changing. If our faith is not similarly dynamic, not living, not rising to the challenges we see all around us, not attuned to the context in which we live, it will slowly wither away. . . .”

“Actually there’s something appealing to the notion that what happens in churches can be hazardous to the status quo. Powerful worship is subversive; it wants to upend the dominant ethos. A church ought to be considered a place the world enters at its own risk. After all, we follow a Savior perceived to be such a serious threat that he was crucified.”

“But the Church is not only what happens inside these walls for a few hours each week. . . . Church mostly happens the rest of the week, out there. We – you and I – are the Church when we leave here and go out into the world. . . . “

“The faith we practice has always felt compelled to move out into the streets and ask, ‘What is God up to in this place and in this time?’ because we want to join that work. Call it public theology, or our witness in the world, or the pursuit of biblical justice – our faith has never wanted to sequester Jesus in the sanctuary, as if he might – we might – be sullied by the messy reality of what’s going on in the world around us.”

“We Come Together not to be sheltered in this sacred space, but, rather, to hear the call of God to go forth and be the Church. To do that, however, means we need to understand whom we follow out into those streets. . . .”

“The decision to follow Jesus, Professor Gail O’Day says, ‘Is inseparable from the decision one makes about Jesus’ identity.’ [New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) p. 534] . . . .”

“Who we think he is will determine the kind of Christians we become.”

“In the 1930s in Germany, the young pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself growing skeptical about the Jesus being preached in the churches of that land. As political rhetoric became more overtly racist and the culture increasingly supportive of extreme Aryan nationalism, most German Christian churches rolled over and acquiesced to all of that. They gave their Jesus over to the rising ideology of the times. It was expedient for them, convenient for them, to go along with the predominant and popular spirit of the land.”

“Bonhoeffer and his colleagues – Karl Barth, Martin Niemoller, and others – resisted, and some of them eventually paid for it with their lives. They wrote an affirmation of faith rejecting the distorted theology used to underpin racism and nationalism. They started an alternative church, called the Confessing Church, as opposed to the German Christian Church, which supported the ideology of the times.. They founded an underground seminary, as over against the schools of the German Christian Church, which taught theology that supported the direction the nation was moving. They preached and worked against the tide.”

“And behind all that work, according to Bonhoeffer, was a single, driving question: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? . . . .”

“Who is Jesus Christ for us today? That question will inform our worship at Westminster this fall, even as it informs our life as we move from this place out into the world . . . “

 “Eighty years ago in Germany was not the only time when Christians have resisted the prevailing winds. Forty years ago in South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church wrote and adopted what became known as the Confession of Belhar. The Dutch Reformed Mission Church was the segregated denomination created for “mixed race” persons in the 19th century by the white Dutch Reformed Church, the denomination that eventually – by the mid-20th century – would develop a theological justification for apartheid, a theological basis for apartheid.”

 “The Confession of Belhar is a theological denunciation of the racist political system of South Africa of that time. It rejects the notion that God would accept the dividing of the human family on the basis of race or color. The Confession answers Bonhoeffer’s question, ‘Who is Jesus Christ for us today,’ by portraying Jesus as the one standing with those on the receiving end of the cruelties of history, those excluded from places of privilege and power by virtue of who they are or where they live or what language they speak or whom they love or the circumstances of their lives.” (Emphasis added.)

“Who Jesus is for us determines what it means for us to pursue his way – to be Christian in our time.”

.“Like the Germans of the Confessing Church, and like many in our land today, the ‘mixed race’ South Africans stood their ground . . .against those who would corrupt Christianity to make it supportive of the politics of exclusion and racial superiority. They declared that one could not be a follower of Jesus and, at the same time, a supporter of apartheid. Think of that in our time: it is not possible to a follower of Jesus and supporter of racism at the same time.” (Emphasis added.)

“Our denomination adopted the Confession of Belhar two years ago. . . .  We chose to adopt it to speak to our own historic and current racism in America, a system that has been in place for so many centuries.”

“Westminster has embarked on a pilgrimage to join the great effort in our nation finally, finally now wanting to come to terms with the original sin of this land, the enslavement – the buying and selling of human beings, the thinking of people as less than human – the enslavement of Africans to build up our nation. The legacy of that terrible time yet endures today. That journey for us, as followers of Jesus, starts with the question: Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” (Emphasis added.)

“Following Jesus is costly. The South Africans found that out. The Confessing Church in Germany discovered that. We will learn that, as well. The challenge to love in the way of Jesus should not be undertaken lightly. It will change each one of us and, hopefully, the world in which we live.”

“That’s why it matters what we do here in worship week after week. That’s why it matters that our children and youth are engaged in nurturing their faith. That’s why it matters who we are as a congregation in this city.”

The Confession of Belhar[2]

After the  sermon, the congregation read in unison the following extracts from the Confession of Belhar:

  • “We believe: that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ; that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world; that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker; that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells;
  • That the credibility of this message is seriously affected and its beneficial work obstructed when it is proclaimed in a land which professes to be Christian, but in which the enforced separation of people on a racial basis promotes and perpetuates alienation hatred and enmity;
  • Therefore, we reject any doctrine which, in such a situation, sanctions in the name of the gospel or the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and color and thereby in advance obstructs and weakens the ministry and experience of reconciliation in Christ.” (Emphasis added.)

Conclusion

This sermon provided at least a partial answer to the question, ‘Who is Jesus for us today?’ It d did so by referencing the creation of the Confessing Church in Germany and the Confession of Belhar in stating, “Jesus stood “with those on the receiving end of the cruelties of history, those excluded from places of privilege and power by virtue of who they are or where they live or what language they speak or whom they love or the circumstances of their lives.” [3](Emphasis added.) ==================================

[1] Sermon: Who Is Jesus for Us Today? (Sept. 9, 2018).

[2]  See The Confession of Belhar Is Adopted by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), dwkcommentaries.com (July 21, 2016).

[3] The sermon went on to say that further answers to this question will be provided in future sermons and other discussions at Westminster.

 

 

South Africa’s ANC Members Killing One Another 

On September 30 the New York Times reported that over the last several months at least three members of the African National Congress (ANC) who had spoken out against corruption in the political party had been murdered. [1]

Another ANC member who had spoken out against the corruption and who is now in hiding said, “if you understand the Cosa Nostra, you don’t only kill the person, but you also send a strong message.” He added, “We broke the rule of omertà,”  saying that the party of Nelson Mandela had become like the Mafia.

Moreover, about 90 politicians have been killed since the start of 2016, more than twice the annual rate in the 16 years before that, according to researchers at the University of Cape Town and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime.

According to Mary de Haas, an expert on political killings who taught at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, “The politicians have become like a political mafia. It is the very antithesis of democracy, because people fear to speak out.”

In the meantime, South Africa’s economy is struggling. According to the Wall Street Journal, the “economy has plunged into recession, its rand currency has slid and pressure is mounting from a dissident faction within his ruling party [the ANC].” These problems are occurring “amid a selloff in emerging-market assets, rising oil prices and a historic [South African] drought that cut agriculture production.” The country’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, said, ““The economy moved against us.…We were too slow with some reforms.” But “Now the reforms are coming fast and furious.”[2]

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[1] Onishi & Gebrekidan, Hit Men and Power: South Africa’s Leaders Are Killing One Another, N.Y. Times (Sept. 30, 2018).

[2] Parkinson, Steinhauser & Keeler, Economic Problems Exacerbate Challenges for South Africa’s Leader, W.S.J. (Sept. 26, 2018).

Nelson Mandela’s Decade of Democracy Article (April 2004)

As we have seen, the fifth and last concert in South Africa by the Minnesota Orchestra was in Johannesburg, which is where Nelson Mandela in 1964 was arrested and charged for four major crimes that he attacked in a lengthy statement to the court in the Rivonia Trial. Now we examine his April 2004 newspaper article on South Africa’s first decade of democracy. Another connection with that city occured in June 2004, when he announced his retirement from public affairs that will be discussed in a later post.

Decade of Democracy Article [1]

In April 2004, Mandela wrote the following article in The Sunday Times about his country’s first decade of democracy:

“Freedom in our lifetime was a slogan of hope, encouragement, sustenance and inspiration to generations of our freedom fighters, anti-apartheid activists and the masses of our people suffering oppression, exploitation and degradation.”

“A struggling people and their liberation movements have to hold on to the hope of freedom even under the most difficult circumstances, against the greatest odds and in the darkest hours. We, the people of South Africa and the freedom movements of our people, have suffered many moments and eras of deep despondency when it must have appeared that the so much longed for emancipation was never to be attained, at least not in our various and respective lifetimes.”

“Measure that against centuries of colonial rule and dispossession. Against decades of apartheid rule, the most structured form of racial domination and discrimination the world has known after the Second World War.”

“A decade may in mere measurable terms seem to be nothing in human history. As a people, we South Africans know this decade of living together in peace, in the acknowledgement of our common humanity, in the democratic accommodation of our differences within our national unity to be a human achievement that in its impact and magnitude transcends and belies the brevity of its years.”

“I have so often heard us being described by people across the globe as a miracle nation. We were expected by the world to self-destruct in the bloodiest civil war along racial grounds. Not only did we avert such racial conflagration; we created amongst ourselves one of the most exemplary and progressive non-racial and non-sexist democratic orders in the contemporary world.”

“Perhaps we do not always appreciate the magnitude of that achievement and its inspiration for a late-twentieth and early twenty-first century world yearning and searching for hope and meaning. For once history and hope rhymed, a famous poet reminded me and us, speaking of the miracle of our transition and the wonder of our democracy.”

“This first decade was one of laying foundations, of early building, of consolidation. Much of it had, by the nature of our divided history, to consist of breaking down, of un-doing. The government over which I was chosen to preside had to take stock and come to an understanding of the structures and rules that governed our nation and our lives under the perversion of apartheid; to initiate the process of de-legislation and re-legislation; to create a new system of legislation and regulation governed by the supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law.”

“That government – the government of national unity – was in itself, by its mere nature, a celebration and demonstration of the will and the capacity of the South African people and their elected leaders to make democracy work. It brought together three historically antagonistic political movements in a co-operative venture to make our country succeed, to establish and consolidate our democracy, to unite our people in their diversity.”

“When I reflect on this first decade of our democracy and more particularly for the moment on those first foundational five years, I have to pay tribute to the wisdom and the considered rationality of the leaders of those participating parties and all the members of that first Cabinet. They all will have opportunity and reason in their inevitable memoirs to reflect and report on my moments of impatience, anger, folly and irrationality, I suppose; what will remain with me is the memory of collegiality, shared patriotism and the pride of country.”

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[1] Nelson Mandela Foundation, Decade of Democracy (Sunday Times April 2004).