Charity and Human Rights

Is charity a duty? Human Rights Day helps us realize the importance of extending hospitality to refugees

Fresno Bee, December 10, 2016

On Dec. 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Human Rights Coalition of the Central Valley is commemorating Human Rights Day with an event at Fresno State focused on the rights of refugees.

Tens of millions of refugees roam the globe. California’s Central Valley often has been a place of refuge for those without a stable home. Our community includes Armenians, Hmong and others. Today we are welcoming Syrians.

Not every migrant is a refugee. Economic migrants seeking jobs are not refugees. Nor are criminals avoiding punishment. But women who fear genital mutilation are refugees, as are members of minority groups who fear slaughter and persecution.

Refugees are flung upon the mercy of the world. They are homeless strangers. What moral obligations do we have for them?

The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights asserts, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” It is wrong to force refugees back into countries where they are persecuted. Once offered asylum, refugees have the same rights as other immigrants. They should be free to speak, work and go to school.

U.N. Declaration of Human Rights

Two different ethical ideas guide our thinking here. A negative form of morality focuses on avoiding harm. But a more proactive morality calls for hospitality, compassion and love. These ideas apply in thinking about refugees and other cases: our treatment of the poor, the homeless and those in need.

Negative morality requires us to do no harm. On this view, it might be OK to close the door to a refugee, so long as you do so politely. It is immoral to pile more misery on the back of refugees. It is wrong to mock them, steal from them, exploit them or further persecute them. Negative morality views rights as protections – not as positive entitlements.

Hospitality goes further. It requires positive aid, compassion and care. This proactive ethic often is associated with Jesus, who explains it in the story of the Good Samaritan. It is not enough to avoid causing harm. We also ought to go the extra mile. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.”

There are deep disagreements about whether proactive hospitality is morally required or whether it is something extra. Is charity a duty? Or is giving to the needy something saintly – nice but not necessary?


Certainly it is important to avoid harm. There would be fewer refugees if the countries of the world respected basic rights and just left people alone. But war, intolerance and hate continue to plague humankind.

In our hot, crowded and interconnected world, we are all neighbors. And the world’s moral traditions teach us to love our neighbors as ourselves. The ethic of love is proactive. It calls for caring action that goes beyond avoidance of harm. Victims of hate need our compassion. And homeless people need shelter from the storm.

And yet we wonder, “Who should help, and how much?” Perhaps those who are nearest have the greatest obligation to help. But it might be that those who have the most to give should give the most.

If help begins at home, then neighboring countries with a common culture ought to help local refugees. From this perspective, Arab and Islamic countries ought to help Syrian refugees, Asian countries ought to help Asian refugees, and so on.

Others will maintain that the richest countries ought to help the most, since they have the most to give. If you can help, you should: the greater your blessings, the greater your responsibilities.

Unfortunately, some people respond to the needy with fear and loathing. Some have argued that terrorists will sneak in along with refugees. Others worry that refugees will disrupt cultural homogeneity.

But fear is a poor guide for morality. Any time you invite a stranger into your home, there are dangers. But minor risks are outweighed by major needs. And let’s be honest, displaced children are not terrorists.

Respect for human rights is fundamental. Let’s avoid harm. But let’s also offer hospitality. We build a better world by loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Hospitality and Civility at Thanksgiving

Take 10 steps to defuse post-election tension that threatens a family Thanksgiving

20090914_anger_politicsMore than one person has told me they will avoid relatives this year at Thanksgiving because of political disagreements. Someone suggested segregating Thanksgiving by political party, with a Trump table and a Clinton table.

How sad! Thanksgiving should bring us together in celebration of liberty, civility and hospitality. We should agree about these values at Thanksgiving.

The Thanksgiving myth commemorates religious liberty in the image of the Puritans escaping religious persecution. It describes civil relations between native peoples and the early colonists. It revolves around the act of sharing food and giving thanks.

Hospitality is an ancient virtue, celebrated in all of the world’s traditions. We are vulnerable beings, who depend upon the kindness of strangers. We are dependent social beings, who enjoy sharing food, song, and laughter. We thrive when we live together in shared community. And we discover wisdom by opening our doors, our hearts and our minds.

Unfortunately, in a world of fast food and Facebook, civility and hospitality are often forgotten. Parents have little time to teach manners. And rude internet trolls normalize repugnant behavior.

So in the hope of a Happy Thanksgiving, here are a few basic principles of hospitality:

Give thanks. Hospitality and gratitude are closely related. Hosts and guests should say “please,” “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” A hospitable host is thankful for those who arrive. A good guest is grateful for the invitation. Enmity is easily dissolved by a welcoming handshake and a grateful smile.

Respect liberty. Everyone has a right to think and speak freely. Do not be surprised when people think differently. Liberty gives birth to nonconformity. Enjoy the unique individuals who share our world. And recognize diversity of opinion as a sign of a flourishing democracy.

Be modest. No one is perfect – including you. You might be mistaken. Modest people don’t insist. They don’t expect much. And they are thankful for what they receive. Wait for your turn. Defer to others. Let others speak. Serve your neighbor before you serve yourself. And find satisfaction in helping strangers feel at home.

Seek peace. Anger, rudeness, and abuse have no place in civil society. They destroy hospitable relations. Gracious hosts and polite guests avoid aggressive words and contentious topics. Mediate conflict with humor. Express goodwill. Do not give in to a bully. But do not become a bully yourself.

Be gentle in conversation. Conversations are not competitions. They are opportunities to build relationships. Listen carefully and speak kindly. “Listen” is an anagram for “silent.” So allow time for silence. Ask questions and wait for a reply. Say what you mean. Mean what you say. But always speak with open ears.

Seek wisdom. Speak the truth to the best of your ability. And work to understand what others think. Avoid idle talk, gossip and rumors that sink into the muck. Think more than you speak. Be curious and contemplative. Create moments for mindful concentration, uplifting words, and shared attention to enlightening thought.

Acknowledge what you cannot control. The world frustrates our desires. Things rarely turn out according to our plans. There is much that is beyond our control, including the opinion of others. But you can control your emotions, attitudes, and words. So give up the illusion of control and stop being irritated by the inevitable.

Celebrate common ground. People disagree about much. But everyone loves children and family, music and laughter, food and drink. We all grieve and suffer. The need for sympathy is universal. And we all value liberty and peace. Explore those common values. Share nurturing goods. And downplay difference.

Offer and ask for forgiveness. We all make mistakes. Relationships grow when we admit and forgive them. Defensiveness and denial are natural. But they are unproductive. Be honest about your failures. And be generous to others who are as flawed and fragile as you are.

Have hope. Civility and hospitality depend upon the hope that wisdom and virtue will prevail. Nothing is perfect. One obnoxious boor can hijack a conversation. But fear and distrust undermine freedom and happiness. Have courage to expect the best from others. Hope that decency is common. And have faith that hospitality can create a world you can be thankful for.

Read more here:

Religious Pluralism

Today, It’s Impossible to Ignore Religious Diversity

Shreveport Times, Sunday Feb. 21, 2016

It may have once been possible to ignore religious diversity. But globalization, immigration, and the Internet have ended the illusion of homogeneity. We disagree about religion. In fact, people have always disagreed about religion. The best solution for living well in the midst of radical religious disagreement is an open-mind, a compassionate heart, and a political system that provides for extensive religious liberty.

FialaShreveOpEdWhile the candidates slug it out on campaign trail, President Obama has been actively reaching out to diverse religious communities. He has offered insight into the problem of religious diversity—and created an opportunity for philosophical reflection on this crucial topic.

Obama spoke as the Israeli embassy in January. He visited a mosque in early February. Two days later, he spoke to a multi-faith assembly at the National Prayer Breakfast. Obama is spreading a message of inclusion, tolerance, and hospitality.

At the Prayer Breakfast, Obama said we should pray, “that our differences ultimately are bridged; that the God that is in each of us comes together, and we don’t divide.” That’s an important idea at a time when religious violence is on the rise and mainstream parties are flirting with intolerance.

We certainly need more tolerance and hospitality. But we also need to understand that behind these important values there are deep and substantial disagreements. And we need to see the value of secular systems of government, which protect religious liberty, while permitting substantial disagreement about fundamental things.

Some people affirm a light and breezy kind of pluralism, which holds that all religions point in the same direction. That’s a nice idea. But it is not true. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and atheists disagree about fundamental truths.

We should admit these disagreements. Indeed, the fun of studying religion lies in discovering new and interesting ideas about fundamental reality. Our differences are important. But we can agree to disagree and thereby avoid violence, hatred, and bigotry.

Tolerance is a value for mature people, who are brave enough to acknowledge that disagreement is not a threat. Hospitality is a value for people who are curious about the wild and wonderful ideas that strangers have. Inclusion is a value for those who feel compassion for the excluded and abused.

The way forward is to cultivate courage, curiosity, and compassion. We need to understand the depth of religious diversity, while affirming the importance of toleration, inclusion, and hospitality.

At the Israeli embassy Obama stated, “An attack on any faith is an attack on all of our faiths.  It is an attack on that Golden Rule at the heart of so many faiths…” He is right. We need to imagine ourselves as “the other”—as a stranger in a strange land, where people believe strange things—and imagine how we would like to be treated.

This is a deceptively simple solution to intolerance. The Golden Rule is part of a common ethical core found in the world’s religious traditions. That ethical core is shared despite radical disagreement about other things.

The Golden Rule provides a basis for hospitality and inclusion. But political toleration rests on slightly different grounds. The First Amendment to the Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Behind this idea is an entire philosophy of politics and religion. The political philosophy of secular states holds that government should stay out of the religion business and that each person should be free to find their own answers to questions of ultimate concern. Related to this is a conception of religion, which holds that religion is something private and internal to persons.

External conformity has little to do with sincerity of belief. And religious faith cannot be subject to coercive force. I could torture you and force you to make a confession of faith. But a coerced confession does not indicate what you truly believe.

If the state uses its power to enforce religious conformity, all we end up with is violence and misery—but no increase in faith. Indeed, coercion often backfires in the realm of ideas, since it discredits the ideas of those who resort to force.

At the National Prayer Breakfast Obama pointed out that “fear does funny things.” Fear, he said, can lead us to lash out against people who are different. And it can erode the bonds of community. When we are fearful we resort to coercion. We want to destroy the thing we fear and we learn to hate.

The solution is an education that creates curiosity and compassion. Martin Luther King, Jr. once explained that “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated.”

King is right. The more you know, the less you hate. The foundation for a better world rests upon toleration, hospitality, and inclusion. Our ongoing task is to strengthen that foundation and build upon it—in our schools and institutions, and in our hearts and minds.