A Reparative Vision

‘Reimagining Human Rights’
Migrants from Central America cross a river near Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, January 21, 2020 (CNS photo/Andres Martinez Casares, Reuters).

Symbols of colonial empire across the United States and Europe were toppled in the summer of 2020, focusing global attention on sins of the past. Movements for Black liberation targeted Confederate monuments and police violence; societies reckoned with their treatment of colonial subjects and indigenous and migrant populations. King Philippe of Belgium expressed public regret to the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo for the human and financial toll of decades of colonial rule. In March 2021, the city of Evanston, Illinois, and the Jesuits of the United States and Canada announced historic reparations programs. These interventions signal new possibilities for communities to confront obligations in justice beyond narrowly legalistic approaches or amnesic tendencies.

Some scholars have begun to frame migration itself as a form of reparations. The journalist and author Suketu Mehta proposes that immigration quotas be based upon host countries’ negative impact on others. Rather than punishing migrants forced from home, he insists that host nations pay the costs of colonialism, of unjust trade and environmental degradation, of wars imposed. Approaches like these, which consider histories of relationship and transnational forces that threaten human rights, challenge paradigms and policies that render vulnerable individuals the primary sites for enforcement. In Reimagining Human Rights, William O’Neill re-theorizes human rights in ways that take memory seriously and move beyond individualistic tendencies and standard theoretical tensions. His innovative analysis attends to complex causal forces and levels of responsibility. A reconstructive interpretation of rights as observed in the testimony by victims and their advocates foregrounds recognition, restoration, and a renewed understanding of the common good.

In compact yet lyrical prose, O’Neill synthesizes and extends his scholarly reflections on political philosophy, restorative justice, refugee rights, and Catholic social thought. He integrates South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) testimony with insights from philosophers, poets, novelists, and Scripture. Indeed, the text itself exemplifies his summons to “remember the effaced,” given that the testimonies and scholarly voices incorporated span multiple continents and disciplines, often within a single page. O’Neill’s experiences beyond Berkeley’s “Holy Hill” also inform the work. In one chapter, for example, his ministry as Catholic chaplain at the Federal Women’s Prison in Dublin, California, feeds an analysis of hyper-incarceration and the plight of immigrants; he skillfully unveils how the adversarial adjudication of guilt and a rubric of “just deserts” vindicate the formal, procedural rule of abstract rights, ignoring the pervasive impact of discriminatory policing and sentencing practices and a “carceral imagination” that essentializes difference as grounds for denying rights.

For even where human dignity is affirmed in law or ostensible social consensus about what constitutes flourishing, we encounter those whose equal dignity is unequally endangered. O’Neill takes seriously the ways traditional legal and ethical reflection has served to mask and perpetuate domination, while also rehabilitating human rights in a manner that includes and empowers. A commitment to equal consideration, then, demands preferential treatment for those whose basic rights are most imperiled. In prioritizing the moral urgency of those whose equal dignity is unequally denied, O’Neill rightly insists on the epistemic privilege (and participatory rights) of the excluded to ensure the validity of policy, noting how illusory consensus can fail to account for the systematic distortions that result from coercion or bias.

Centering victims of injustice not only unmasks such dynamics but serves to help envision a different future. Weaving their narratives throughout—like that of Lukas Baba Sikwepere, blinded in a brutal police attack and later tortured in Cape Town—O’Neill indicates how in testimony, rights can reveal what has been silenced; rights become “a mouth to tell of suffering,” to use an image from one of his favored novelists, Chinua Achebe. Proposing narrative testimony as a “grammar of dissent,” his discursive rights do not emerge from an abstract philosophical thought experiment, but from the very mouths of those who remember, which invites solidarity. This deconstructive role of rights in revealing systematic injustice then sets the stage for forging collective memory and the recognition of claims and duties. O’Neill shows how, as testimony is woven into collective memory, the role of rights becomes a clearing within which new stories can be told, offering a threefold framework of rights as recognizing, redeeming, and redressing claims—a far cry from standard Western emphases on rights as immunities or entitlements. His argument thus charts a path between those who privilege a thin liberal metanarrative of rights or thick communitarian narratives of virtue to conceive of rights as “narrative grammar.” Basic human rights (and corresponding duties) are thus specified by the internal goods shown forth in such rhetorical practices of claim-making.

In advocating for this middle road, O’Neill analyzes dominant philosophical traditions that defend and that interrogate “rights talk.” He shows how in the TRC, “rights speak in victims’ stories,” not grand narratives of legitimation or “apodictic certitude.” His reconstruction of rights “from below” is reminiscent of Linda Hogan’s recent approach, published in Georgetown’s same Moral Traditions series. She draws upon scholars from the Global South to similarly critique abstract human-rights discourse, grounding respect in shared human experiences of vulnerability. For Hogan, it is cross-cultural, multireligious dialogue that re-grounds an “embedded universalism,” whereas O’Neill recontextualizes rights via the literature of testimony as the work of rights and the “grammar of remembrance.”

O’Neill [offers] a threefold framework of rights as recognizing, redeeming, and redressing claims.

O’Neill integrates a legitimate role for religious discourse in public reasoning and rights rhetoric, moving beyond incommensurability battles of the recent past. He argues that well-formed religious narratives can ground respect and fund adherents’ moral imagination in applying and mobilizing to protect rights. He elaborates how his own Christian tradition’s contributions consist in calls to prophecy, forgiveness, and martyrdom. Countering tendencies to oppose secular and religious approaches, he demonstrates how religion can ground and interpret public reason. For example, he emphasizes how forgiveness is compatible with redress and reparations, rather than a form of “cheap forgetting,” for “mercy is not less than just.” He carefully yet unapologetically intertwines civic and religious narratives with the integrity of civil-rights era rhetoric. Bringing together religious discourse’s presumption of rights rhetoric with ethical discourse’s systemic imperatives for juridical protection, he reminds us that “public reason is thick before it is thin.” Whereas their compatibility is convincingly established, political co-optation of religious claims and the construal of rights-bearers in certain religious traditions may pose challenges to his inclusive vision that warrant further consideration.

Practical payoffs of O’Neill’s threefold framework of rights as narrative grammar emerge in his incisive applications to mass incarceration, the politics of immigration and refugee policy, and intergenerational responsibilities to the nonhuman world. There it becomes clear how victims’ own articulation of their rights can help redress the inadequacies of formal procedural reciprocity amid not only disparities in agency, but also distortions of social truth and ostensible consensus. Centering collective memory illuminates how rights play not only regulative roles, but also constructive and reconstructive ones, helping incorporate formerly excluded groups. O’Neill identifies enslaved, female, transgendered, and disabled voices among those “sidelined” who must redress our “moral myopia.” Too often, prevailing rights regimes have masked exclusionary dynamics, rationalized by beliefs about inherent difference or the criminalization of Black bodies and “illegal aliens.” As O’Neill puts it, in both instances the will to punish

remains a potent force in polities wherein social bonds are already frayed and violence is naturalized. In a perverse dialectic, vindictive resentment, especially against frightening symbols of difference, seems to have its own cathartic rationale: difference is feared and punished, reproducing (essentializing) the very difference we fear and consequently punish.

His own approach interrupts these cycles and offers structural remedies. For example, if forced migration is not a crisis to “manage” but a longer-term consequence of systemic rights denial, an internal rights regime must address its complex push factors beyond the well-founded fear of persecution, such as generalized violence, famine, and disease, as in Syria and Yemen. Its “perpetrators” bear correlative duties of making restitution and reparation, whether through resettlement quotas, more equitable sharing of responsibility, or juridical redress of gender-based violence. These welcome shifts reflect not only the broader perspectives signaled by the 2020 protests, but also attention in the social sciences, ethics, and the current papacy to influential structures, ideologies, and incentives. Emphases on the links between exploitative structures and rights violations in Evangelii gaudium and Fratelli tutti are ecclesial advances in this vein; in a sense, the foundations of the intergenerational solidarity that Pope Francis calls for in Laudato si are theorized in O’Neill’s applications as well.

Throughout his analysis, O’Neill regularly turns readers’ attention to concrete voices and faces. Reflecting upon the Lucan parable of the forgiven woman, O’Neill contrasts the Pharisee’s retributive “moral squint” with Jesus’s restorative one by attending to her in her concrete particularity as the genuine host: “‘Do you see this woman?’ She is not a figure or cipher of transgression in this house of murmuring men, but this woman, who loves so richly, whose faith is saving, who leaves with the blessing of divine šālôm.” Taken together, O’Neill’s emphases on testimonies as constitutive of rights talk, and on unexpected voices (the woman who “loves enough to brave the censoring gaze, to see only Jesus,” the Samaritan who invites us to “take the victim’s side” as our own) as constitutive of solidarity provide an illuminating “pedagogy of seeing,” à la the Cameroonian sociologist and theologian Jean-Marc Éla.

Emerging threats to the rhetorical practices he prioritizes—whether from surveillance capitalism, “post-truth” epistemic entitlement claims, or the distractions and distortions of social media— remain troublesome. Yet O’Neill advances tools to expose and counter new risks. Prioritizing marginalized voices and truth-telling may be more important than ever, given the current landscape. O’Neill sounds a characteristic note of humility as he wraps up his book, suggesting it offers but a “flawed, humble beginning, more abandoned than finished.” Nevertheless, this ambitious and generative work is likely to shape human-rights discourse and practice for many years to come.

Reimagining Human Rights
Religion and the Common Good

William O’Neill, SJ
Georgetown University Press
$44.95 | 264 pp.

Kristin Heyer is professor of theological ethics at Boston College. Her co-edited volume Christianity and the Law of Migration (Routledge) was released in July 2021, and she is at work on Moral Agency and the Promise of Freedom (Georgetown University Press).

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