Of Angels and Justice


Universe Column, Sunday September 2nd 2007.

Joseph D’souza and Benedict Rogers’ new book On the Side of the Angels: Justice, Human Rights and Kingdom Mission makes the case for passionate Christian engagement in promoting human dignity.

In a wake-up call and a challenge to the Church in the free world, D’souza and Rogers combine in an inspirational way a theological argument for human rights activism, powerful stories of oppression from the front-line, and practical ideas for how ordinary Christians can pray, protest and provide for the persecuted and oppressed.

Drawing on a stirring mix of Scripture and modern day stories, the authors describe Moses as “one of the first human rights activists in human history”. Here is Isaiah courageous in “denouncing tyrants”. And they point to Christ who suffered “the world’s most flagrant case of arbitrary arrest, its most prominent instance of religious persecution, its most brutal flogging, its most blatant travesty of justice, and the most infamous execution of an innocent man.”

As a result, they argue, “mission is incomplete when it fails to confront injustice”.

D’souza and Rogers blend the theology with first-hand experiences.

As President of the All India Christian Council and the Dalit Freedom Network, Joseph D’souza is one of India’s leading voices for human rights. He has championed the cause of India’s Dalits, known as “untouchables” – 250 million people born into slavery – and been a voice on behalf of Christians and Muslims facing persecution in India too. The book contains a powerful challenge to India’s hidden slavery today. “How can a human being be ‘untouchable’ when that person is created in the image of God?” the authors ask.

Benedict Rogers, a human rights activist with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, draws on extensive experience in countries such as Burma, East Timor, Pakistan and China. He has visited Burma and its ethnic minorities in the border regions 18 times, often crossing illegally into the jungles of eastern Burma to document the atrocities perpetrated by the brutal military dictatorship. He lived in East Timor during the transition to independence, and witnessed first-hand the scars of its struggle for freedom, as well as the birth of the new nation.

The book is filled with amazing stories from other parts of the world too. And it highlights the positive example of courageous activists in the struggle for human rights – past and present. In addition to William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, the authors point to Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, Bishop Macram Gassis in Sudan, Bishop Carlos Belo in East Timor and the martyred Catholic archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero.

Sister Lourdes in East Timor is one modern day example.

In 1999, in the period preceding and immediately following the referendum to end Indonesia’s brutal occupation of East Timor, the Indonesian military and their militia gangs slaughtered thousands and destroyed most of the country. After one particularly horrific massacre, according to the authors, “most of the remaining village leaders and the priest fled … leaving many displaced, living in the church grounds, injured, sick, hungry and held captive by the Indonesian-backed militia”.

But while the leaders fled, Sister Lourdes was on her way in: “Driving, undaunted, through militia roadblocks, she revealed an extraordinary manner of communicating with the oppressors. At each roadblock she would get out of her car, fully aware that she was a target, and speak to the armed militiamen.”

According to an American doctor who witnessed her in action, “within moments she would have them laughing with her, crying with her and then on their knees praying with her.”

While both authors specialise much of the time in advocating for persecuted Christians, they argue that this is simply the starting point: the rest of humanity needs a voice too.

The book also provides practical ideas on how to get involved.

It describes ways of lobbying, letter-writing and demonstrating, and details different styles of advocacy – public and private. It challenges the reader to “pray, protest and provide” and to see the value of an integrated approach. And it moves the reader to realise that advocacy works. “Never Give Up!” is the title of the penultimate chapter, which contains the following beautiful words:

“It was midnight when the national anthem started to play for the first time. The flag was raised, and the world’s newest nation – and also Asia’s poorest – was born … The people of East Timor were free … One man in the crowd spoke for his people, though in quiet conversation with his neighbour. He had been the first of the East Timorese to have been forcibly exiled by the Indonesians. For 24 years he had been unable to return home. He was a Catholic priest, Father Francisco Maria Fernandes. Asked whether he had believed he would live to see this day, he smiled and nodded. “Yes,” he responded quietly. “Throughout our struggle, people all over the world asked me: ‘Why do you carry on? You are fighting a losing battle. Indonesia will never let you go; the world will never help you. Why don’t you just give up?’ But we had one thing those people did not know about. We trusted God. This was a victory of faith.”

On the Side of the Angels: Justice, Human Rights and Kingdom Mission, by Dr Joseph D’souza and Benedict Rogers will be published in the UK on 20 September by Authentic.