There are two ways I might approach the topic of religion and human rights. I might begin with the question of rights and stress the terrible conflicts that have been generated by religious teachings, the intolerance and exclusivity that are so deeply embedded in claims to truth and salvation. Or I might begin with the problem of the human and quote Primo Levi, who once wrote, "human beings are human insofar as they bear witness to the inhuman."
What is then the ultimate purpose of religion? Not to define our rights nor to limit them, but to bear witness to the human, to teach us that human beings are the only images of God we have in this world, and that we are to live so that each one of us is a reminder of God.
Every religion has the hope that it would like to make this a world of peace and justice, and each religion has failed to live up to its own hope. All religions include teachings that are sexist, degrading, overly demanding, even racist. Arrogance in the hands of some religious leaders can be one of the greatest man-made dangers to human life, even as the compassion and outspoken prophetic voice of religion can be one of the most powerful forces to overcome injustice, arrogance, indifference, exploitation, and war. Religions proclaim the holiness of the human and yet they also have hierarchies of human life, proclaiming some more worthy of divine concern than others. To be religious is to live in constant internal struggle.
People of faith are haunted with the awareness of human cruelty and the terrible contradiction between God’s justice and the presence of evil in human society. Yet religion also comes to remind us of our obligation to prevent human beings from defeating God. Everyone lies, the Psalmist moans, and there is no truth or kindness and no knowledge of God in the land, Hosea declares (4:1). To be a person of faith is not about sweetness, but a challenge: The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground (Gen 4:10). The message of religion is plain: "Remember," my father wrote, "that blood of the innocent cries forever. Should that blood stop to cry, humanity would cease to be."