U23D and human rights

Why U23D is about more than music.

I’m in an enormous South American stadium pressed against the front stage barrier as U2 punch through their opening adrenalin-fuelled number, Vertigo. The fans around me throb to the beat, raising their arms and shouting in unison. I begin to raise my arms too until I remember that the frenzied mass of humanity in front of me isn’t real. The guy next to me isn’t moving; he’s lounging comfortably in a padded chair as he stares through ridiculous glasses.

I snap back to reality, I’m in a cinema, watching U2 in 3D! Then I’m glad to see another cinema- going fan getting right into it. The girl in the row ahead stands up to take a photo of the screen using her mobile. I lower the 3D shades only to be embarrassed again. She’s not real either!

U23D is a recorded performance of the band sourced from various concerts recently played across Latin America. The film offers an intense concert experience via a sensory-overloading eight storey high IMAX screen in 3D. The combination of sound, screen and 3D technology transports the viewer to a place about as close as most of us will ever get to knowing what it is like stand on stage at a huge Buenos Aires stadium accepting the adoration of 100,000 screaming Argentines.

Although it’s hard to capture everything a U2 show has to offer, with each performance being unique – the band interchanging songs and lead singer, Bono, offering a variety of embellishments on any given night, the film remains a very satisfying experience for anyone with even a passing interest in the band.

One constant of U2’s Vertigo Tour was the middle section of each concert where fans were taken on a dark journey to explore themes such as terrorism, war, torture, and famine. Bono implores co-existence of Christian, Jew and Muslim, and the promotion of human rights. As U2 complete the soothing tones of Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own, the gigantic video screen that dwarfs the band turns from a brilliant blue to a muddy crimson. Then there’s that sound. Its a terrifying ‘rattle and hum’ of both human and other worldly proportions. Bono’s indicating our descent into the abyss, he’s saying: ‘Now look what we’ve done!’ 

The band play three pounding songs that rent the sky; Love and Peace, Sunday Bloody Sunday and Bullet the Blue Sky. Then as if to heal that gaping wound in the heavens, out of the darkness emerges the haunting and very beautiful, Miss Sarajevo with Bono singing the operatic part normally reserved for Luciano Pavarotti. Holding up a blindfold in one hand, he completes the song with the replacement lyric: ‘is this the time to wear a blind? Is this the time for keeping your mouth shut?  Is this the time for human rights?' To underscore his point, the giant video screen is converted to a scrolling blackboard. The audience is educated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948. It’s a powerful moment made even more poignant as the chilling voice-over recites the Declaration, alternately advancing and fading as the graphics in 3D do the same.

For Bono and the Make Poverty History Campaign it is the Declaration of Human Rights that provides humanity with its fundamental premise to remedy the imbalance between rich and poor. Failure to remedy extreme poverty, it is argued, would be unjust, a demonstration that an African person is not as valuable as an Australian, British or American person.

One might expect the Declaration of Human Rights to be one of those things Christians would strongly support, and at one level this is true. Certainly Christians join with the authors of the Declaration in affirming the dignity and equality of all people along with the hope for freedom, justice and peace in the world.

What’s more, followers of Jesus are well and truly behind actions that support life and liberty and oppose slavery, torture and degrading punishment, as the Declaration seeks to do. But I would want to add something to the question of Human Rights as they were understood when the famous declaration was composed out of the ashes of World War Two and the holocaust in particular.

At the risk of sounding petty, a firmer foundation than that underlying the Declaration for acting on behalf of our African brothers and sisters can be found in the Bible. This is because Human Rights are ultimately anchorless, a shifting sand that will continue to evolve according to the dominant voices in society. In other words it is hard to find a really strong basis for the rights enunciated by the Declaration, other than the sorts of things any one society at any given point in history, decides is worth holding on to.

The Bible offers a secure basis for acting on behalf of our fellow humans in places like Africa. Its claim that each and every person is made ‘in the image of God’ has profound implications for the inherent value of every individual. According to the Bible and the Christian worldview, this ‘image’ is still important to God, for when Jesus was raised from the dead, God was declaring, in the most emphatic way possible, the value of every human life. Accordingly, when we see Africans suffering, we don’t see a lesser person, but a person of infinite value because they bear the image of God. They matter just as much as we do. As the famous reformer John Calvin said, we see the image of God and it drives us to compassion.

Today in certain parts of the world, it is common to see children raising families because the parents are dead. We see preventable diseases destroying life on a colossal scale. We see our wealth and privileged position and it drives us to do something. Or at least it should. It is because God values every human life equally that we are obligated to act compassionately.  

Despite this small quibble with Bono, his instincts are surely right – if we really believe African lives matter as much as ours, we need to act. The situation is urgent, and people like Bono do a good job disturbing our collective consciences, and convincing us that something actually can be done to halt the worst of the tragedies imposed by grinding poverty.

Stephen Shearsby is an Anglican minister who works with children. He is married to Heather and has three daughters.