God, the Devil, and Human Rights: A South African Perspective
University of Chicago Divinity School
Dr. Charles Villa-Vicencio is executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, based in Cape Town. He was formerly the National Research Director in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Prior to that he was Professor of Religion and Society at the University of Cape Town, where he was appointed a Fellow in 1994. His most recent book is Looking Back Reaching Forward: Reflections on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa.
Other lectures in the series to be announced.
More Pew Forum events on human rights:
Sources of Human Rights: Religion’s Role in Defining Human Dignity
Jean Bethke Elshtain: We want to welcome you to this first in our series of lectures on the question “Does Human Rights Need God?” I almost said does God need human rights, which would be a rather interesting way to frame the concern, but it is “Does Human Rights Need God?” Other speakers in this series, and then I will turn to the introduction of our distinguished speaker this afternoon, include the Czech Ambassador to the United States, Martin Palouš, who is also a political philosopher, the Christian ethicist, Max Stackhouse, the Cornell philosopher and legal scholar, Michelle Moody-Adams, and the human rights legal scholar from Emory University, Abdullah An-Na’im.
Today, as I said, we are honored to have Charles Villa-Vicencio. I want to recognize the Pew Forum Chicago staff for organizing this event, especially Mieke Holkeboer who worked very hard on all of the arrangements, but also John Carlson and Erik Owens. I want to also acknowledge the presence of Minnesota Public Radio. They are taping this event for their program called FIRST PERSON. So, with that, let me turn directly to our distinguished speaker, Dr. Charles Villa-Vicencio.
Dr. Villa-Vicencio was born and educated in South Africa, came to the United States to do graduate work first at Yale Divinity School and later at Drew University where he received his Ph.D. He is an ordained Methodist minister and has served congregations both in South African and in the United States. He was a Professor of Religion and Society at the University of Cape Town and then took up the very important role of National Research Director for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In fact, the last time I saw Charles, was in the offices of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Research Division in Cape Town a few years ago. After the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s five-volume final report was delivered to the President of South Africa in October 1998, Dr. Villa-Vicencio began some new efforts, and he has succeeded in creating what is now the Cape Town-based Institute for Justice and Reconciliation of which he is now the executive director. As if all this weren’t enough he has also authored about 100 articles and about a dozen books, and I think what he brings to this discussion is not just his academic training and theology, but his extraordinary involvement with an incredible period in South African’s history. He has been an insightful active participant in many of those crucial moments and those crucial developments, bringing to bear through his involvement, his theological perspective as part of his anti-apartheid activism and now to his work having to do with South Africa’s future, a future in which all of us have an enormous stake. So, with that, I am really delighted that he has taken the time to come all the way here from Cape Town for this event and I want to welcome him to the Divinity School…Charles…
Dr. Charles Villa-Vicencio. Jean, thank you very much for your kind and warm welcome. Thank you to all of you for inviting me to be part of your community and to deliver this lecture this afternoon. It is, of course, an honor and a privilege to be at the Divinity School, to be at the University of Chicago and to participate in this very important forum, so, thank you very much for your kindness. You have been so kind that I have decided to be kind to you and not to read this 38-page paper that I have, but rather to speak to it. The danger when one does this, of course, is that you spend most of your time telling your audience what you are not going to tell them. I shall try not to do that. I shall try and present an abbreviated form of what I would like to say to you if you had several hours, and then hopefully we can have some discussion. So, it is an honor and privilege to be with you. Thank you very much.
The title that I was given for this paper was, indeed, the question, “Does Human Rights Need God?” One of my associates immediately said what you have said, that maybe we should turn it around and say, “Does God Need Human Rights?” But, that is the question, “Does Human Rights Need God?” I have chosen to entitle my paper, for which reason you will discover in a few moments, “God, the Devil and Human Rights” and said associate, also reminded me that the devil is more interesting than God, although, not more important. With those preliminary remarks…
I do suggest in this rather long paper that the overt support for human rights by the religions of the book is, indeed, a very recent phenomenon and you will all know that; religious leaders that had hither to, with few exceptions, condemned such rights as humanistic nonsense. Those who affirmed human rights were, indeed, voices crying in the wilderness with little support from church, mosque, temple or synagogue. Certainly in South Africa the overt support of the church for human rights is, indeed, a very recent phenomenon and as late as the 1980s, there was significant support within church circles for that argument which went along the lines of the human rights affirmation being humanistic nonsense that undermines that fundamental truth that both moral and spiritual redemption comes through Christ and Christ alone. Of course, the global theological affirmation of human rights was, indeed, more progressive and it emerged a little earlier. And yet, that too, came late in the day. As you know, it was not until Vatican II that the Roman Catholic church gave official sanction to human rights, while at least some protestant churches in a cautious and in a tentative way expressed their support for the human rights initiative in 1948 at the World Council of Churches. Overt, unified support from the churches–Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox only came as late as 1979. I further suggest to argue in the paper that the public affirmation of human rights within Judaism and within Islam was, indeed, also a cautious and late development. Today, of course, most thoughtful, religious people in most religions claim that human rights are, indeed, a fundamental, God-given right, and this is the good news. I simply suggest that it took a secular human rights awakening characterized in the post-World War II rejection of the kind of barbarism that made human dignity dependent on race, creed, breeding and ideology for this to happen. So, I pose the question, “Could it be that because institutional religion has failed so dismally, that God in God’s wisdom raised up a secular voice in the humanistic tradition to affirm that work, which the religions should have affirmed so much earlier in such a clear way?”
In what follows today I am going to do essentially three things: Number one, is to provide a contextual comment on the emergence of the human rights debate within the South African context. Number two, I am going to suggest that within the South African context there is a certain ambiguity, which links secular humanist talk with religious and spiritual talk and thirdly, I am going to argue that human rights in South Africa became most potent and most powerful when it was contextually grounded in the ethos of the South African struggle. And so first of all, human rights in South Africa.
Max Horkheimer, an early exponent of critical theory in the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research once said, “Behind every genuine human endeavor there stands a theology.” “Politics and ethical paradigms,” he argues, “which do not preserve a theological moment in and of themselves no matter how skillful, are in the end, mere business.”
My hypothesis in speaking about South Africa is, that if carefully considered, the sense of the theological in the Horkheimer sense of a restlessness within the human soul, a lure that draws humanity beyond itself, is there to be discerned even in the most secular debate. The battle for human rights in South Africa was a struggle primarily and necessarily for the vote, for land and for survival; all important human rights dimensions and yet, certainly not pursued and reached after, and struggled for in explicit, overt human rights language. The vote, it was argued from the earliest days in South Africa, was sufficient to protect the right of all citizens. Any sense of a need for a Bill of Rights or a package of human rights was dismissed by the early colonialists as totally unnecessary. The British notion of parliamentary supremacy was imposed upon South African thinking from the time that the Brits first arrived and it continues to be a factor in South African political debate still today. The origin of this notion of parliamentary sovereignty can, of course, be traced back to the glorious revolution of 1688, when the hard-won parliamentary democracy over the Divine Right of Kings was celebrated far and was celebrated wide. When this notion of the supremacy of parliament, however, was transplanted into the colonies and specifically into the South African colony, it meant an exclusion of a whole section of the population, of the majority of the population because they simply did not have the vote. And when the Boers trekked North, at the end of the 19th century to escape the imposition of British colonial rule, they too, took up the notion of the supremacy of parliament and that alone. They rejected any notion of a talk of a constitution or talk of a Bill of Rights, or talk of fundamental rights of anyone. President Paul Kruger of the then old South African Republic or the Transvaal Republic as it is often called, in fact, spoke the words that we heard again and again in South African Parliament that the testing right of any laws of Parliament is a principle of the devil. His notion being, that Boer sovereignty, Afrikaner freedom was to be attributed to Divine Providence and any talk of human rights or any talk of the Bill of Rights, that violated that fundamental will of the people expressed through the vote, was, indeed, a principle of the devil. And when the Union of South Africa was established in 1910, this notion of the sovereignty of Parliament was again used at the time and again and again on subsequent occasions, as I spell out in my paper, to exclude any notion of a Bill of Rights, any notion of human rights, because the sovereignty of those who were citizens and who had the vote was sufficient to protect their freedom. The same clause was used to remove those few black South Africans whose names were on the voter’s role in 1910 by a simple vote and act of Parliament and again in subsequent years to remove so-called “coloured people” who had the vote in South African. Supremacy was in the hands of Parliament and those who had the note. And so, against this background you will appreciate that it is somewhat ironic and yet, it is quite understandable that when eventually there was universal franchise in South Africa, as recently as 1990 and 1994 election when the African National Congress came to power, it was that African National Congress that said we need a Bill of Rights and we need to affirm international human rights to protect ourselves as a people, against ourselves and against the violation of our fundamental rights. It is ironic, because that black majority that had been suppressed and oppressed for so long, now had the opportunity to get their own back. They chose to protect themselves against their own majority vote through introducing what is today, arguably, the most progressive Bill of Rights in the world. It is at the same time understandable, that those people who had struggled for so long for their freedom would recognize the necessity to protect that freedom, both at the time and in years to come, by insuring that fundamental rights are entrenched in a constitution and in a Bill of Rights. This having been said, evidence also shows that the affirmation of fundamental human rights values underpinned the struggle against colonialism and against apartheid in South Africa from the earliest days of colonialism. I am suggesting that the idea of human rights was not an alien concept for people in South Africa, an alien concept that was imposed or introduced by Western thought and through Western ideas into a dark and barbaric continent. It was latently there from the beginning. It is there in the form of the earliest resistance to colonialism. It is there in the anti-slavery agitation. It is there in the struggle for freedom of the press way back in the 1920s. It is there in the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955 and in the anti-apartheid movement and in the ultimate forces that saw the collapse of apartheid and the beginning of democracy in 1994. There was a movement in South Africa that included secular voices and religious voices, that included people of faith and people who rejected the historic faiths in pursuit of human dignity, in pursuit of human freedom and it was within that context and against that background that a human rights’ culture emerged and, indeed, a constitution of which we today, I think, can justifiably be proud. And so, given this heritage that rejected human rights and given this heritage that affirmed human rights in spite of this official rejection, the question emerges, how South Africa and whether South Africa can sustain this affirmation of rights and pursue this affirmation of rights given the enormous challenges that the nation faces? For all the wonders of a new beginning, a new beginning can only emerge out of what constitutes the past, and herein lies the challenge and the difficulty of the South African struggle for human rights. Because this very affirmation of human rights has brought about both resentment and hope within the South African context. Resentment from those whites essentially who feel that they no longer have the privileges that they once had, but also a certain amount of resentment from black South Africans who, several years after the adoption of the new constitution and the new Bill of Rights, are still denied those fundamental rights that are enshrined in that Constitution. So, the question emerges, does South Africa, do South Africans, have the will, the energy and the commitment to pursue this agenda with poverty, alienation, HIV/Aids and a host of other factors, deny the poorest of the poor the most fundamental rights that would ascribe to them and given to them in 1994? I am suggesting that through the remarkable struggle for human rights in South Africa, despite the contradictions of which I have spoken, the question of the sustainability of human rights is a challenge that we continue to face. Within that historic context let me then ask the question of where does God fit into all of this? How does one account within this homegrown secular and religious South African tradition of human rights, how does one account within this tradition, which I argue is more than secular and less than religions, how does one account for the hand of God, if at all?
We need to remind ourselves that the argument that came from black theology, the argument that came through contextual theology and those remarkable affirmations of the Kairos document did not receive the extensive, explicit and whole-hearted support of the churches. Those were minority voices. They were a church within the church rather than the church itself. Against this background how does one talk about God within the quest for human rights? I want to suggest that it is perhaps by beginning to talk of the human condition itself. The human condition which includes a deep anthropological refusal to submit to subjection. “Do you not believe,” asked St. Augustine, “that there is a deep so profound and so hidden within that we are not able to recognize it or comprehend it ourselves?” I am suggesting the question has to do with the need to plumb the depths of this human spirituality that refuses to submit to oppression. This is a human phenomenon that has throughout history disturbed, challenged and often annoyed, not only born-again atheists, but also self-assured religionists and even those who William James once called the “once born and healthy minded among us.” Intrigued by an array of South Africans returning to South Africa in the beginning of 1990 in the wake of President De Klerk’s momentous decision to release political prisoners and to invite exiles to return home, I took it upon myself to interview a range of former political prisoners and returning exiles, asking them the simple question, “what is it that sustained you? What is it that gave you hope in the darkest days? What is it that enabled you to see this day gone in our land a day of freedom?” I asked this question of Joe Slovo, perhaps, South Africa’s most celebrated atheist. Head at the time of the South African Communist Party. He referred to himself as a “believing unbeliever.” “I believe in the roots of faith,” he said, “and I understand its driving energy, I simply reject the metaphysics that you Christians talk about.” He recalled an encounter that he had at the time with Johan Heyns, a former moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church and he recalled Johan Heyns saying to him, “Joe, if you do not believe, if you do not have faith, if you have no God hypothesis, what is the source, then, of your morality?” Slovo, a mild-mannered man tells me that he refrained from reminding Johan Heyns, that the very church of which he was moderator had for years and decades supported apartheid through theological legitimation. “I believe in the greatness of the human spirit,” said Slovo, “and I wouldn’t dare articulate what that spirit is responding to.”
I asked the same question of Nelson Mandela. He thoughtfully said and I quote, “Speaking of God is beyond my capacity and beyond my ability to articulate. Religion,” he said, “is about mutual love and mutual respect. It is about seeking for dignity and I understand a dignity of people who claim they are made in the image of God.”
Let me give you two more. Ruth Mompati, a wonderful, tough, old veteran of the struggle, spoke of the power of the inner spirit. She used the Tswana word sereti, the human spirit sereti which has its origin in Modimo, in God. “True human beings,” she said, “are awakened by and are disturbed by the spirit of Seretti and I can know no peace until they realize that for which they had been created for.” You could hear the Augustinian ring in her non-Augustinian belief.
I spoke to Cheryl Carolus. Cheryl is just returned from the Court of St. James as South Africa’s second Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Cheryl said, “You know, there is a deep longing inside of each one of us for our place in the sun, and, that place in the sun, make no mistake about it includes material things and yet,” she said, “Human beings do not live by bread alone. There is a restlessness within the human spirit.”
It is these voices of political prisoners and exiles, some atheists, some believers, some not ready to make the call on such issues that are representative of the spirit of renewal that we have witnessed and we have seen in the shift that has taken place in South Africa at a legal level from South Africa being classified as a Christian state to South Africa becoming a secular state. In 1983, South Africa adopted a new constitution. The preface to that constitution read, “In humble submission to Almighty God.” It went on to pledge itself, “to uphold Christian values and civilized norms”–in 1983, at the height of the struggle. In 1996, with the adoption of the first constitution of a democratic South Africa, all references to a Christian state were dropped. Here is the preamble…
“We, the people of South Africa, recognize the injustices of the past and we honor those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land. We respect those who have worked to build and develop this land and we believe that South Africa belongs to all those who live within it.”
Some Christians took to the streets. They marched on Parliament, expressing their concern that South Africa had deviated from its Christian values in affirming a secular constitution. Interesting. Whatever else the world’s great religions may teach, they teach or they tell stories of people who learn little by little with difficulty, sometimes with reluctance, the meaning and referent of the word “God.” The God of the Hebrew Scriptures, suggests Van Peursen, “is an ever new and an always surprising recognition of a liberating presence.” The Hebrew Scriptures speak of a God in terms of experience and acknowledgment rather than a naming of that God.
Does human rights need God? It depends who your God is. The God of H.F. Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, was not the God of Archbishop Tutu. The God of Verwoerd, was not the God that was beyond the comprehension of President Mandela. I take you on a quick tour of that debate that you know so well. Julian Huxley thought that any notion of a God out there is no more than the last fading smile of a cosmic Cheshire cat. And yet, he said that he believes in the religion of life. Martin Heidegger, suggested that to live religiously is not necessarily to be a Christian, or a Muslim or a Jew; it is to dwell poetically. Paul Tillich spoke of the God beyond God. Jacques Derrida who saved the soul of some spoke of religion without religion. Levinas, the Jewish philosopher and scholar said we encounter the other–listen to this, “in the eye of the other person. When that claim is made upon us we dare not walk away from it.” I argue that what unites the Huxleys and the Heideggers and the Derridas and the Levinas’s and the Nelson Mandelas and the Archbishop Tutus and the Joe Slovos is not a quest for some Greco-rational ontological conceptualization of the Divine. It is rather a commitment to an ethico-political alternative to that which crushes the human spirit and if that be God, then human rights needs God. An-Na’im suggests that secularism is incapable of inspiring people with this vision. I am suggesting that any attempt to institutionalize or control, or even name that presence theologically, takes us into dangerous realms. It is there that the possibility emerges that we begin to use God, that we fit God into our agenda, instead of honoring the silence of the moment and seeking to be obedient. Of course, I am in dangerous theological territory and the theologians among us may be beginning to load their rifles. Sufficeth to say, I am dabbling in the tradition of Kierkegaard, who spoke of subjectivity as truth. Indeed, I am daring to reach a hand into what Bonhoeffer sensed was the need for a religion-less Christianity. My quest, and I want to suggest that it is a quest that can be discerned in the South African struggle for human rights, it is a quest for an openness, transcendence, it is an awareness of a lure that calls us beyond where we are to where, in our better moments, we ought to be. Allow me to contextualize my comments for one moment.
While working in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, someone once asked me whether I thought that my training and years as a professional theologian equipped me to do the job that I was doing. My response was that I scarcely and rarely used a theological work or concept or symbol and yet it is the most theological job that I ever had in my life. Theology is an attempt to understand the struggle within the human spirit for liberation, for freedom and for transformation. Let me quickly come to the last section of my paper.
What then does one say about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, in relation to this history of which I speak? How does one relate this notion, this universal notion of human rights to a particular contextual struggle, in South Africa, Syria, Bosnia, or anywhere else? Herein lies the hermeneutical task. I am indebted to Mieke Holkeboer, Ph.D. candidate at this university, when she draws on Gadamer and David Tracy, to wrestle with that hermeneutical question of how one interprets the classical text. It involves seeking to uncover the latent and surplus meaning, the additional meaning that there may be within that text. And this is a tortured and a difficult process. It is tortured and it is difficult because it raises as many questions as what it answers. Allow me to illustrate again.
We have recently, and I want to immediately say, in one of the most progressive developments in modern history, seen the advent of the International Criminal Court. How does one relate the demands and the expectations of the International Criminal Court, how does one relate that, for example, to a truth and reconciliation kind of process that we saw in South Africa, that we are now seeing in Ghana, that we are now seeing in Peru, Sierra Leone, that we are seeing in East Timor. The International Criminal Court is saying that there is an obligation to prosecute at the heart of these TRC processes is something called amnesty, which exempts the perpetrator from prosecution. The United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan recently in a lecture at Wits University in Johannesburg said, and I quote, “it is quite inconceivable that in a case such as South Africa, that the court would seek to substitute its judgment for the judgment of an entire nation that seeks the best way out of its traumatic past.” One hopes that he is right. To return to the South African sentiment, a failure to have offered conditional amnesty to perpetrators would have failed to have stopped the war and plunged South Africa, perhaps, into the bloodiest conflict on the African conflict. Again, the questions abound, who should be prosecuted and who should not be prosecuted? What crimes should be subject to the possible amnesty and what crimes should not? These are not easy questions and there are, indeed, no easy answers. Politically, amnesty, reconciliation and truth, I want to say, are the three words that our generation is likely to grapple with for some time to come. Reconciliation, truth and amnesty. Amnesty, is perhaps, the most powerful political instrument available to governments who are seeking to create a new order out of the past. This is amnesty not because of confession, not because of dialogue, not because of reconciliation, not because of theological persuasion, but amnesty as a political necessity to stop the war and to try again. These are difficult questions. They raise questions that go to the very heart of the human rights’ debate and the demand for prosecution. How does one relate this to the demand for peace? At what point can the international community or the international court in the Hague, Geneva, New York or anywhere else, tell the good people of Sierra Leone that they should not include amnesty in order to insure peace? At the heart of this question is the African notion of Obuntu, which is a deeply human, profoundly moral and passionately compassionate philosophy, which is less dogmatic than Western legal systems and is less optimistic and pessimistic about human nature. It simply argues that at the heart of peace-making is restoration and at the heart of restoration is inclusion–enabling people who are former enemies to come together and to seek a new way forward. This is not a denial of the high ideals of human rights. It is not a denial of those aspirations of the West. Indeed, it is seeking a new way to reach those ideals. It is a process that includes postponement of ideals. It is a process that includes compromise on ideals. It is a process that at the very heart of which there is negotiation and there is dialogue and herein, I want to suggest lies both the generosity and the controversy of the South African quest for human rights, both the generosity and the controversy, because many of the dos and don’ts of the human rights idealists of Amnesty International and the rest, are not there, but neither does this mean that South African has plunged itself into impunity. It is seeking another way to reach those ultimate ideals–not now, but later.
So, let me conclude by suggesting that the quest for human rights, should never be viewed as an ideal sense of justice and a historical achievement that happens now. It involves a context; it involves settling for what is reasonably possible as the next possible and logical step in pursuit of an ideal that cannot be realized immediately. Let me speak as a theologian. It involves a cautious human response to a gracious and restoring God who is beyond our ability to name or control and who continually calls us beyond ourselves and beyond our own dogma, whether it be theological or that of human rights.
I end by quoting a poem from Dag Hammarskjold, which I suggest shows a profound theological understanding of this God. He says, “I am being driven forward into an unknown land. The path grows steeper, the air colder and sharper. A wind from my unknown goals stirs the strings of my expectation. Still the question, shall I ever get there? There, where life resounds in a clear, pure note in silence.”
Question and Answer
Chairperson: Charles, I want to thank you for getting this lecture series off to such a splendid start. I am sure that a number of you have questions. Lest I forget, before we turn to questions, there will be a reception downstairs in the common room. You are all invited and you will have an opportunity to engage Charles in a more informal way once we have concluded this meeting. Now let’s open it up for questions. We would ask you to come to the microphone in the aisle to pose your question. Charles, I will just leave it to you to field the questions and at one point, I will stop the Q&A in order that we can adjourn to go to the reception. So, let’s have our first question.
Questioner: Welcome to the University of Chicago. We are glad you are here. My question has to do with where you see, in the evolution of the South African notions of rights, the role of Marxist ideology, because Joe Slovo was not just simply an atheist, he was a Jew who was formed in a particular historical and ideological setting. I am asking, because I am Jewish and from a family of Communists, so I want to know how those sorts of quasi-theological roots, because we have always referred to the Communist Party as the “church,” interacted in the formation of this remarkable spiritual secularism you talk about in South Africa?
Villa-Vicencio: Thank you. A very very important question. I remember one of the first public lectures that Joe Slovo gave when he came back to the country. He was speaking at the University of the Western Cape and he had no longer finished delivering his speech, trying, going out of his way, leaning over backwards as it were to appease the Christians and the Jews and the Muslims in the religious community that someone stood up and attacked him from the left and attacked the churches and the synagogues and everyone else and Joe said, “welcome home.” I think that what we saw in South Africa, in what, indeed, I think was a remarkable, secular stroke, theological spiritualism, spiritualist tradition, was, in fact, that the entire nation was confronted by a common enemy called Apartheid. So, many of these debates between religionists and secularists, between Christians and Jews on the one hand and atheists and Marxists on the other were issues that were glossed over in pursuit of the ethical ideal, which I would want to argue, is at the heart of classical Marxism, in the same way that it is at the heart of the religions of the book and that is where we found our common ground.
Chairperson: Well Charles, while someone is thinking of another question, I thought it would be interesting for you to elaborate a bit further on your fascinating insight that rights curb all forms of sovereigntism that push in a direction, that recognizes no limits and is tempted to become absolute, including the sovereignty of the people, the will of the people. I wonder if you might say a bit more about that, because that tends in a way to be somewhat counter-intuitive to people who like to believe that a culture of human rights and some notion of the will of the people rather happily go together. Would you expand on that a bit? How that tension was sorted out?
Villa-Vicencio: You know, again, Jean, my biggest or most significant contribution would not be at the philosophical level, but again, illustratively through the South African situation. One of the issues that South Africa faced when the new constitution was framed about 1994, and it was adopted a year later, was what are we going to do about this Bill of Rights which affirms certain fundamental principles? What are we going to do about that now that we have universal franchise? It was a huge debate in South Africa as to what kind of majority would you need in Parliament to overturn any of those principles and I think that suggests that it has always been recognized that those principles, those rights are dialectically related to the will of the people, to the vote. I remember Mr. Mandela at the time saying that all of us need to prepare for that day when maybe we will be forgetful of the fundamental principles that brought us to this moment. The implication being that it doesn’t mean that we can’t change those principles, but we ought to at least stop and be thoughtful in saying that if there were certain principles that gave this nation birth, before we change those principles, let us think clearly, let us think soberly and let us think creatively, rather than using the greed of the vote as someone called it the other day, to merely get our own way. So ultimately after a lot of debate, the settlement was two-thirds majority to get that. The interesting thing is that there have been a number of judgments through the constitutional court which have been against the government and they have made no attempt to change that constitution until 10 days ago in terms of voters and we have a system where we don’t vote for a particular person in a constituency, we vote for a party. The situation has now prevailed that a number of people who were elected under the flag of a particular party are crossing the floor to join another party and the government says that they are ready to go to the constitutional court and if the constitutional court is not happy, they will change the constitution to allow that to happen. Now, the bottom line of all that is, so that a new alliance may emerge between the African National Congress and the old National Party that now call themselves the New National Party in a new consolidated power block. So, maybe the greed of the vote is there after all.
Questioner: I wonder if you could elaborate a bit on the relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation and potentially amnesty as well. There is a theological element to forgiveness and a legal element to amnesty and somehow above or below that is reconciliation, and I wonder within the context in which you are speaking, if you could add a little texture for me to those terms?
Villa-Vicencio: Erik, you know for me. Let me start at another place. I have a very modest definition of reconciliation. I don’t think reconciliation is where we all hug and love one another. For me, reconciliation is the beginning of a process. It is the beginning of a journey. Where in Levinas’ words we look one another in the eye. There is the beginning of a relationship. Very often still a lot of mistrust, but it is the beginning of a process that basically says, we are prepared to break with our bad habits of the past, we prepare to find a new way of dealing with certain fundamental problems that are preventing us from hugging one another as perhaps we would like to eventually do. So reconciliation for me is a modest beginning when we break with the past, we seek to build a relationship as an ethical platform, as a kind of wellspring that will inspire us to deal with those fundamental material and other issues that stand in the way of us truly loving one another. So, for me, reconciliation is a very different thing from forgiveness. I think we can begin the journey of reconciliation without forgiving one another and, if in the end, we also forgive one another and love one another, well, God be praised.
Questioner: Can I hear you respond to some current philosophical issues with human rights that make the serious claim that I think needs to be dealt with, that human rights, in fact, is wishful thinking and that it is secularized Christianity. And when I heard you talk I kept thinking of Flannery O’Connor’s famous quote, when pressed by somebody if God, in fact, was more like a symbol or an emotion, or something like that, she said, “well, if that is the case, then to hell with him.” Human rights, I think, needs something more than what you have given it. There are people now making this claim in a very cynical way. I would just like to hear you respond to that.
Chairperson: If you don’t mind, I am going to piggy-back off that. Charles, I was wondering as you were speaking about that restless yearning and searching in the human spirit that you talked about and emphasizing this anthropological dimension, if that could, in a sense, bear the weight of the argument, a way to sustain a culture of human rights, to generate one in the first place and to sustain it? I think that works with the question that was posed. I assume that you have given that some thought, I dare say.
Villa-Vicencio: I have given it some thought. I don’t have an answer. I think my answer is I don’t know, but I hope so, that I hope this yearning within, “this deep so profound” that Augustine talks about, is as deep and profound and lasting enough to drive us forward. What is human rights? Some of us had a conversation this morning, didn’t we? How does one produce this human right? Where is it? Put it on the table. I think human rights is a pursuit. It is a goal, a journey, a process, that perhaps we can never quite define and yet are driven by an energy to reach for it. It is not unlike the concept God. God, in my theological training, if I recall it correctly, teaches me, is omniscient. How do I begin to talk about a notion of omniscience? Only through metaphor. Only through doxology. Only through poetry. Only through pursuit. And, I would want to argue that the human race has been sustained through millennia by that restless pursuit of something that we can’t quite grasp and that yes, I think it is a legal question, a cultural question and a theological question.
Chairperson: Yes, Dwight. This is our Professor Dwight Hopkins from the Divinity School.
Professor Hopkins: Dr. Villa-Vicencio, thank you for your insightful presentation. It is also good to see you here and hear your voice on this side of the Atlantic. My question is, could you talk about within the South African context more about the relationship between human rights and economic rights and how this fits into the process of the dynamic there? Because, I think it has implications not only for your country but also our country and other emerging countries.
Villa-Vicencio: Thanks Dwight. It is good to see you in your hometown. Dwight Hopkins, Professor Hopkins has visited South Africa on many many occasions and he knows, what most of you probably know, that the fundamental problem facing South Africa is something called economic depravity. It is the gap between the rich and the poor and if we don’t get that one right, I want to suggest that we are dealing with the situation of the revolution delayed. I would want to argue that what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other structures of transition did for us in 1994 created time. It created space within which to deal with those fundamental economic problems that brought us to the brink of confrontation and revolution and if we don’t deal with them, it is going to be a revolution delayed. And, certainly in South Africa, as you know so well, and in many other parts of Africa where I travel and work on a regular basis, there are those people who say that if there are no economic rights then there are no fundamental rights. Because to talk about so-called first generation rights in the absence of material and economic rights–a roof over my head, food, jobs, schooling for my kids–if I don’t have those things, the rest means nothing, and one can understand that. At the same time, I would want to argue that it is those so-called first generation rights that become the engine or ought to become the engine that ought to become the source, the platform, on which we address these other fundamental economic rights. I had a Professor yesterday, so you may know him from _________ University, the other day saying to me, “all this talk that you guys have about reconciliation and these things, forget about em. You gotta solve two problems in this country and you will have reconciliation. The one is crime and the other one is jobs. Stop the crime and create jobs and you will all be reconciled.” I said I think you are 99.9% right. But it is that other fraction of a percent that worries me. How are we going to do it? And, I have seen sufficient development programs in the third world collapse and come to nothing in spite of billions of dollars being pumped into it, because those people don’t know how to live together as human beings, so, indeed, you are absolutely right, we have to address the economic issue, but we cannot address the economic issue through the barrel of a gun. We have to learn to live together and to create that social contract so that we can address those fundamental economic problems and these are, indeed, problems not only in South Africa, but throughout the world.
Chairperson: We will have one more question before we adjourn.
Questioner: Thank you. I want to ask the question about AIDS. Simply, it would seem that a nation that has gone through the struggle for human rights as South Africa, would not necessarily find itself in the conflict over basic human survival that the AIDS…Discussion has been posed in South Africa in the way that it has, how those two issues co-joined and why has not the struggle for human rights in South Africa made a more strong impact on the basic considerations for human life?
Villa-Vicencio: Somehow, groups like this always have the way of keeping the most difficult questions until last. Yes, you are absolutely right, sir. We have just spoken with Professor Hopkins about the economic issue. Maybe the only issue facing Africa is the issue of HIV/AIDS. I was in Angola last week. One in four people have the HIV/AIDS virus. One in three are probably full-blown AIDS patients, AIDS people. How does one begin to deal with this? How do you begin to deal with it? This is a scourge that is only beginning to unfold in South Africa and in other African countries. The South African government has not been very helpful in addressing that one. Some would say that its policy has been a disaster. I would want to suggest to you that we are beginning to see a shift in government policy in South Africa, with the acknowledgment of the extent of the pandemic is there and where certain steps are beginning to be put in place to readdress this one. The government has not stood up, Mr. Mbeki has not stood up and said “mea culpa” I was wrong, but then, politicians don’t normally do those things. I think there is a beginning of a realization of the magnitude of the problem. I was suggesting to some students the other day, as we were grappling with this one in an ethics class that I was teaching, that maybe we need to go back and to read the plague all over again. How do you deal with it? What do you do? How do we equip ourselves, forgive me, to live with it? Because, there is no immediate solution to it, but HIV/AIDS, is a pandemic that is sweeping through Africa and sweeping through South Africa and maybe all our other struggle for other forms of human rights will be overshadowed by this fundamental affirmation of survival, so thank you for reminding us of it. I don’t know what else I can say.
Chairperson: Charles, we ended on a rather somber note, but one of your qualities, that I have learned over the years, is forthrightness and candor. You have traveled all these thousands of miles and looked us in the eye and we are the better for it. Would you please join me in thanking Charles Villa-Vicencio one more time.
We are adjourned, but I hope you will adjourn only to re-convene in the common room on the first floor for the reception. Thank you.