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For All Peoples and All Nations: The Ecumenical Church and Human Rights.

For All Peoples and All Nations: The Ecumenical Church and Human Rights. By John S. Nurser. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2005. 220 pages. Paper. $26.95.

The subtitle of Nurser's book is the subject of the story he tells: The Ecumenical Church and Human Rights. The title represents the hope that flamed among those who organized the World Council of Churches that human rights law might reflect God's will for all peoples and all nations.

The book begins with a chapter that explains how ecumenical Christian leaders in the West during World War II conceived of international human rights law as a secular form of "Christendom." Certainly, they were not enamored by the fourth-century understanding of Christian civilization, but they believed the spirit of Christendom could be expressed within a secular world order only by aspiring to a system of international law that protects human dignity from the overreaching power of the state.

One of these ecumenical Christian leaders, a layman named John Foster Dulles, who would play a profound role as an American statesman, came to human rights as the "soul" of the UN Charter that was fashioned in 1945 as the cornerstone for a new world order. But of greater importance for this largely unknown story is the work of an American Lutheran theologian, O. Fredrick Nolde, who led the lobbying effort that persuaded the U. S. Secretary of State to support adding human rights to the UN Charter.

With the dry irony that often characterizes fine English prose, Nurser notes that those who now defend human rights are unaware of the crucial role played by ecumenical leaders in writing these fundamental rights into the 1945 UN Charter and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Of particular interest in Nurser's account is the role that Nolde played in drafting the statement of religious freedom that would be incorporated, almost word for word, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nolde argued with other Christians, who were concerned primarily with missionary work in non-Christian cultures, that international law would have to protect the freedom of every religious tradition.

Moreover, Nolde resisted the argument put forward by Catholics as well as Protestants that the Universal Declaration should acknowledge God as the source of human rights. Jews and Muslims share this belief with Christians, but this monotheistic conviction does not reflect the religious traditions of many of the world's peoples. Also, secular governments opposed any reference to God in the UN Charter or the Universal Declaration. This was no small issue, as the Vatican and several Muslim governments were critical of the Universal Declaration because it did not acknowledge that all human rights come from God. Furthermore, many Protestant leaders believed then, as today, that international as well as national law should explicitly promote faith in God (and some would say in Jesus Christ).

Instead, however, the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights offer a secular affirmation of faith as the foundation for peace and justice in the world. Each document begins by proclaiming that the peoples of the world "reaffirm our faith in fundamental human rights." This nonreligious faith, of course, does not preclude religious faith and is more inclusive than any particular religious faith. At the heart of the international order launched after World War II is a secular faith in human dignity and in the rights required, as Catholics now teach, to ensure "the necessary social conditions for human dignity."

That ecumenical leaders were so crucial in helping to promote this secular faith is more than surprising. It is, as Nurser so engagingly tells us, a remarkable story that deserves to be more widely heard and understood.

Robert Traer

Dominican University of California
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Author:Traer, Robert
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Article Type:Book review
Date:Aug 1, 2006
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