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  • A Mounting East-West Tension: Buddhist-Christian Dialogue on Human Rights, Social Justice, and a Global Ethic
  • John D'Arcy May
A Mounting East-West Tension: Buddhist-Christian Dialogue on Human Rights, Social Justice, and a Global Ethic. By Keith Soko. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2009. 253 pp.

That there is tension between Western notions of universally valid rights and so-called "Asian values" is undeniable, but this problem is usually discussed in political contexts. It is relatively rare to find a detailed study of religious approaches to justice in traditions as radically diverse as Buddhism (here treated generically) and Christianity (focusing on the evolution of Roman Catholic social teaching). That the study foregrounds the human relationship to the natural environment and the emergence of an ecological ethic makes it all the more valuable. The author makes clear from the beginning that he intends to examine recent developments and current thinking in both traditions, "not a historical or scriptural analysis per se" (p. 14). While he is aware that neither tradition uses the terminology of human rights in its traditional literature, [End Page 167] he wishes to discern the intentionality of traditional language to see whether it converges with what is now subsumed under the modern term "human rights." While looking for ways to include ecological justice in this perspective, he also assures us: "I will not be arguing for the rights of other living beings" (p. 15). Within these parameters, Soko sets out to discuss the concept of human rights itself, its possible equivalents in Buddhist thought, its emergence in the relatively recent development of Catholic social teaching, and the prospects for its expansion to embrace ecological justice. He concludes by endorsing recent attempts to formulate a global ethic.

In setting out the evolution of human rights as a development of liberal modernity, culminating in the UN Declaration and Covenants, Soko rightly points out that such documents are deliberately couched in the religiously neutral language of secular humanism (though it is known that the committee that drafted the declaration was religiously diverse and discussed the contributions of different religions intensively). In presenting human rights as rational, the UN made use of a secularized version of the natural law tradition, which in previous ages was regarded as deriving from divine law. The commonly accepted understanding of human rights thus achieved the appearance of universality at the price of seeming to favor the individualism of Western liberal thought. In discussing Roman Catholic resistance to human rights, Soko points out how the modern tendency to derive rights from the consent of individuals in a social contract, rather than from nature, had the effect of pitting the individual against society (or, perhaps more properly, the state; see pp. 119-123).

The more fundamental issue, however, is the ultimate grounding of human rights in a viewpoint that, even if not theistic, is in some sense "religious" or "transcendent." Giving priority to rights in the abstract disturbs the complementarity of rights and duties and needs to be corrected by concepts such as human dignity and respect, even reverence, for the person. Though he tends to assign duties predominantly to "Eastern" and rights to "Western" thinking, Soko modifies this oversimplification by warning that "the disparity between rights and duties is not such a clear-cut contrast as is often assumed, but is rather a more fluid symbiotic relationship that is severed artificially by a Western, modern, secular approach" (p. 48). He also observes that the Hebrew prophetic idea of justice for the poor (sedaqah) comes from a source that is markedly different from Greco-Roman culture (p. 56). A brief excursus into the Hindu concept of dharma with its connotations of not-harming (ahi&1E43ā) and being true to reality (satya, hence Gandhi's svadharma, "the dharma which is inherent in every being," Raimon Panikkar, p. 63) confirms his conviction, which is also the central thesis of the book, that "the language of human rights can express the intent of many religions" (p. 66).

The real interest of this line of argument becomes apparent when Soko turns his attention to Buddhism, noting that, while it is anything but one monolithic tradition and has never...


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