Why We Need More than a Framework of Rights in the Struggle for Justice


Post Author: Lisa M. López Marcial


Lisa Lopez smiling, sitting at a table in a restaurant, with a menu in front of her

The author: The struggle for recovery after Hurricane Maria has eroded my confidence in using the framework of human rights for continued justice work.

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated my home island of Puerto Rico. In less than 24 hours, over 3 million people lost access to running water, electricity and telecommunications. Hundreds of families became homeless; hundreds more lost the assets that provided for their employment. Healthcare services became severely limited, and the educational system was thrust into crisis. Unable to hear the voices of loved ones immediately following the hurricane, many Puertorricans living in the continental United States began to organize for recovery, knowing that the island would need all the help it could get. What I didn’t know then was how the experience of the struggle for recovery would erode my confidence in using the framework of human rights for continued justice work.

Most of us diaspora Puertorricans organized out of a sense of responsibility towards all residents of our beloved island, but we called others to labor with us out of the conviction that we were fighting for the human right of all Puertorricans to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being. We felt compelled to call others in the United States to action because Puertorricans have been United States citizens by birthright since 1917.

Yet it didn’t matter how eloquently we implored others to recognize the people’s fundamental human right to a standard of wellbeing; many agreed with the idea of the human right, but not with the call to responsibility for that right. It also didn’t matter how insistently we asked our government and neighbors to treat residents of the island with the same respect and care our country bestowed upon victims of Harvey and Irma just a few weeks earlier. The appeal to citizen’s rights also fell on deaf ears.

“We have spent enough,” I heard, while people began to die from lack of access to treatment that could have been provided with the power grid in better shape. “They can’t expect help forever,” I heard, when it had barely been a few weeks since the disaster hit and millions were still without running water. Most interesting was how often the plight of suffering Puertorricans was dismissed by appeals to fairness that sounded more like excuses for inaction.

I heard many argue that the financial response of government and citizens had to be balanced with the concerns of the rest of the nation, yet made no effort to explain what they understood those concerns to be. Others, naming victims of subsequent disasters as reasons why aid to Puerto Rico should be limited, seem uninterested in considering scenarios where full recovery for all those affected might be possible. Still others in communities like the one I serve, where people contend with different levels of poverty as a daily reality they can’t escape, found it difficult to join in the recovery efforts for Puertorricans when it meant fighting for access to services they do not always enjoy themselves.

It became exceedingly clear to me that though the call for the defense of human rights often takes center stage in contemporary struggles for social justice, it is dreadfully insufficient for the kind of enterprise we need to undertake if we are to protect the life and dignity of every human being. To speak of justice on the basis of human rights is to speak of justice on the grounds of what people deserve, and we have never been skilled at recognizing the good for another without thinking about our own good first.

For those with power, it becomes too easy to give in to our self-preservation instincts and engage a spirit of competition. For those with less power, the language of rights requires us to recognize for others more than what we have often recognized for ourselves, which baffles our sense of self-interest. In short, the framework of rights finds its dreadful match in the human heart turned upon itself, because it lacks the power to drive change against the evils embedded in our character.

All who long for a just world owe a great debt to the language of rights. Without the framework of rights we would not have seen the repeal of Jim Crow laws or the adoption of equal opportunity employment legislation, among other advances. It has been a powerful tool against systemic injustice perpetuated in the form of public policy. Nevertheless, the legal framework can only take us so far.

Even after oppressive policies have been legally abolished, people of color tell stories of how discrimination continues, women testify about how sexual harassment continues, and individuals living with disabilities continue to experience basic toleration and grudging accommodation instead of real solidarity. All of these realities point to our needing something greater than the framework of human rights to break through the barriers of selfishness, indifference, and our own propensity toward abuse.

For me, it has been helpful to recast the framework of rights into an understanding of virtue. I want us to claim an ethics of righteousness for our society, where we cultivate a sense of moral responsibility for one another that is not dependent on what the other deserves, but on the righteous identity of our collective life.

For those of us within the Christian tradition, the concept of virtue should not be foreign, since the very teachings of Jesus Christ did not depend on a framework of recognizing rights but on the framework of practicing love. When Jesus taught us to love our neighbors, he compelled us to claim responsibility for the wellbeing of the other, to consider the other, because it is what repentant sinners and holy people do.

Indeed, the power of the gospel is that it moves us past ourselves and our instincts of competition to newly created paths of solidarity and collaboration through the crucible of claiming a new identity in the righteousness of Christ. We have much to learn from this pattern for our own approach.

I believe that character transformation through identity formation is a crucial piece to make strides towards a just world. Our hearts need to be compelled by their own instincts to offer the best of our own humanity into public life. Our minds need to be shaped to choose the attitudes and habits that create justice, being anchored in the aspiration to be just individuals and in the value of creating a just society.

The real question for me now is what it will take to make the shift, since the call to become righteous people does not in itself compel or teach anyone to behave righteously, just as the call to respect human rights is insufficient to bring it to fruition. We may need to develop a new vocabulary for justice, based on the proclamation of values and virtues, until the concepts become as familiar as breathing. We may need to be enticed and instructed by micro-communities practicing just relationships, until we want to partake ourselves. We may need to experiment intentionally with processes of relational encouragement, where we reach out to one another to grow toward justice together, discovering and practicing what it means to do what is right in the world. It may mean all of these things and more.

For now, I simply pray we will recognize the limitations of the reigning framework of rights in the struggle for justice and look towards a new way that will take the role of human character as seriously as it needs to be taken so that the journey towards justice will succeed.


Lisa has been serving as the Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Hanover Park, Illinois, since October 2012. She holds degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. When not engaged in mission and ministry alongside her multicultural church community, she is most likely at dinner with friends, racing to Zumba class, or reading something that promises a new glimpse into the complexities of the human condition.


Image by: Lisa M. López Marcial
Used with permission
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