Although the idea that people have value and should be treated with dignity and respect has been with us for thousands of years, it was the twentieth century that use the language of human rights to express this.
Human rights describe the kind of life a human being should be able to expect by virtue of being human, rather than rights, which people may have by virtue of being citizens of a country or having signed a contract for sale, which are special human rights.
There are many kinds of human rights, but the two principal groups of rights are:
i. Civil rights are rights to have something not happen to us such as torture and violence.
ii. Economic rights, sometimes called welfare rights describe a right to have something such as education or food
The Bible, however, is concerned with poverty and oppression, as both are insults to God’s intentions for humanity.
THE BIBLICAL FOUNDATIONS OF HUMAN RIGHTS
It is important for Christians to ask whether they have anything distinctive to add to this debate. Some Christians have denied the whole concept of human rights, believing that we only have responsibilities and duties towards one another.
Others are concern that the notion of human rights is becoming so dominant that human responsibilities are diminishing. Yet others believe that the modern notion of human rights contains within it an essential Christian Component, which it is the duty of the church to preserve and the mission of the church to propagate. In assessing this debate we need to ask some fundamental questions:
I. Where do human rights come from?
II. What do they consist of?
III. If Christians have anything distinctive to contribute, what is it?
The origin of human rights is Creation. Human beings have never “acquired” them, nor have any government or other authority “conferred” them. We have had them from the beginning. We received them with our life from the hand of our Maker. They are inherent in our creation. They have been bestowed on us by our Creator.
Human rights language is a moral language in that it is an attempt to describe the right and the good. But it is also a political language. Appealing to human rights does not end a debate. More often than not it starts a debate.
Human rights do not represent a moral trump card. There is a need for some moral framework beyond human rights from which they can derive their authority and which provides their foundation. Without that framework they exist in a moral vacuum and are in danger of becoming self-referential.
The nature of human rights depends on our concept of what it means to be human. Why should people not be tortured and violated? Why we are concerned that people be fed and educated? What is it about being human that demands our attention whenever others live in misery?
Yet in the twenty first century, human rights do not only come into sharp focus when people are threatened or denied the means to live with an adequate quality of life. Since the bible focuses on the divine purpose for human beings, it has much to say on this topic. Three words seem to sumamrise it: DIGNITY, EQUALITY, and RESPONSIBILITY
1. HUMAN DIGNITY
The dignity of human beings is asserted in three successive sentences in Genesis 1:27-28. Firstly, “God created man in his own image” Secondly, “Male and female, he created them” Thirdly “God blessed them and said to them ….. fill the earth and subdue it” Human dignity is here seen to consist of three unique relationships which God established for us by creation, which together constitute a large part of our humanness and which the fall distorted but did not destroy.
The first is our relationship to God. Human beings are Godlike beings, created by God’s will in his image. The divine image includes these rational, moral and spiritual qualities which express something that God is. In consequence, we can learn about him from evangelists or teachers (it is the basic human right to hear the gospel); come to know, love and serve him, live in conscious, humble dependence upon him; understand his will and obey his commands. So then all those human rights we call the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion, the freedom of religion, the freedom of worship, of conscience, of thoughts and of speech, come under this first rubric of our relationship to God.
The second unique capacity of human beings concerns our relationship to one another. The God who made humankind is himself a social being, one God comprising three eternally district modes of personhood.
He said “Let us make in our image”, and “It is not good for the man to be alone”. So God made man, male and female, and told them to procreate. Sexuality is his creation, marriage is his institution and human companionship is his purpose. So then, all those human freedoms which we call sanctity of sex, marriage and family, the rights of peaceful assembly, and the right to receive respect, whatever our age, sex, race and rank, come under this second rubric of our relationship to each other.
Our third quality as human beings is our relationship to the earth and its creatures. God has given us dominion, with instructions to subdue and cultivate the fruitful earth and to rule its creatures. So then, all those human rights we call the right to work and the right to rest, the rights to share in the earth resources, the right to food, clothing and shelter, the right to life and health and to their preservation, together with freedom from poverty, hunger and disease, come under this third rubric of our relationship to the earth.
Thus all human rights are at base the right to be human, and so to enjoy the dignity of having been created in the image of God and for possessing in consequence unique relationships to God himself, to our fellow human beings and to the material world.
Christian have something important to add to this, namely that our Creator has also redeemed or re-created us, at great personal cost, through the Incarnation and Atonement of his Son. And the costliness of God’s redeeming work reinforces the sense of human worth, which his creation has already given us.
Our value then depends, then, on God’s view of us and relationship to us. As a result of this, human rights are not unlimited rights, as if we were free to be and do absolutely anything we like. They are limited to what is compatible with being the human person God made us and meant us to be. If God has not given something as a right then it cannot be claimed as a right and it is this that may cause Christians to be at odds with those who root human rights in the western ideal of the autonomous individual who has freedom to choose their own goals.
That is why it has been essential to define human beings before defining human rights. This principle is important in considering women’s rights and gay’s right. The question this demands pose is how far feminism and homosexual practises are compatible with the humanness God has created and intends to safeguard.
2. HUMAN EQUALITY
It is a tragedy that human rights have not always meant equal rights. The good gift of the Creator is spoiled by human selfishness. The rights God gave to human being equally, easily degenerate into my right on which I insist, irrespective of the rights of others or of the common good. So the history of the world has been the story of conflict between my rights and yours, between good of each other and the good for all, between the individual and the community.
Indeed, it is when human rights are in conflict with one another that we are presented with a difficult ethical dilemma. It may be the tension between an individual landowner’s right to property and peace on the one hand, and the community’s need for a new motorway or airport on the other; or between the freedom of speech and assembly which a civil rights group claims for its demonstration and the freedom which the local inhabitants claim not to have their quiet disturbed or their patience exhausted.
The conflict of rights regularly envisaged in the Bible, however, takes a rather different form. Its emphasis is that no powerful individual may impose their will on the community and that no community may violate the rights of an individual or minority. The weak and vulnerable were carefully protected by the Mosaic Law. Far from exploiting them God’s people were to be the voice of the voiceless and the champion of the powerless including their enemies.
The equality of human beings is clearly expressed when the Authorised Version of the Bible says that God is “no respecter of person.” It is a misleading phrase, because of course persons must at all costs be respected. But what the Original Greek expression means literally is no “acceptance of faces.”
In other words, we must show no partiality in our attitude to other people, and give no special deference to some because they are rich, famous and influential. The biblical authors attach real importance to this. Moses declared, for example, “The Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality. Therefore Israelite judges were to show no partiality either, but rather give justice to small and great alike.” (Deuteronomy 10 : 17, 16:18-19)
The same emphasis occurs in the New Testimony. God is the impartial Judge. He does not regard external appearance or circumstances. He shows no favouritism, whatever our racial or social background may be. (Act 10:34; Romans 2:11) Jesus was once described in these terms “Teacher we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men because you pay no attention to who they are” (Mark 12:14.) That is, he neither deferred to the rich and powerful, nor despised the poor and weak, but gave equal respect to all, whatever their social status. We must do the same.
This principle should be even more obvious in the New Treatment community, since we have the same Saviour also. Paul regulates the behaviour of masters and slaves to each other by reminding both that they have the same heavenly master and that “there is no favouritism with him”( Ephesians 6:9;Collosians 3:25).
James seek to banish class distinctions from public worship by urging that there must be no favouritism between rich and poor among believers in Jesus Christ (James2:1-9). Yet the same truth is self evident among unbelievers. Our common humanity is enough to abolish favouritism, and privilege, and to establish equal status and rights.
All human rights violations contradict the equality we enjoy by Creation. He who expresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker (Proverbs 14:31). If God shows, and if we should show, a bias to the poor, and if such bias is not an infringement of the no favouritism rule, it must be justified either because society as a whole is biased against them, or because they have no one else to champion them.
The fact that there is no favouritism in God is the foundation of the biblical tradition of prophet protest. The prophets were courageous in denouncing tyranny in leaders, especially in the king of Israel and Judah. The fact that they were monarchs, and even the Lord anointed did not make them immune to critic and rebuke.
To be sure due respect was to be shown to rulers because of their office, but any attempts on their part to convert authority into tyranny or rule into despotism were to be strenuously resisted. David was the best known of all the Kings of Israel, but that gave him no warrant to kill Uriah and steal his wife; God sent the prophet Nathan to rebuke him. When Ahab was king in Samaria his wife Jezebel thought his power was absolute “Do you not govern Israel?” she asked contemptuously when she found him sulking because Naboth had refused to sell him his vineyard. God sent Elijah to denounce Ahab’s later murder of Naboth and seizure of his property. Jehoiakim was king of Judah in the seventh century BC, he had no right to build himself a luxurious palace by forced labour and heavy taxation. “Woe to you” cried Jeremiah. “Does it make you a King to have more and more cedar?” The prophet then reminded him of his father Josiah. “He did what was right and just so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on expression and extortion. No one would lament him when he died, Jeremiah added; he would have the burial of a donkey and would be dragged away and thrown outsides the gates of Jerusalem.
In our day dictators try to defend arbitrary arrest and detention, and even imprisonment or execution public trial, on the ground of national security. One wonders how a biblical prophet would react. Protest or denunciation within the country concerned would doubtless cost the prophet his life.
Yet history has many examples of people who stood up against injustice and suffered the consequences as a result, which in some cases included torture and martyrdom. Today we are not only fortunate in the growth of a consensus as to what is acceptable behaviour in terms of international law, but several organizations now have as their main aim the corporations and other agencies with reference to human rights. Such work is consistent with biblical precedent and with the recognition that with God “there is no favouritism “. Human rights are both universal and equal.
3. HUMAN RESPONSIBILITIES
Christians often have problems with the concept of human rights. It seems to suggest conflict, as one person is asserting his or her rights against another. It seems also to encourage selfishness. It overlooks the fact that human beings have duties and responsibilities as well as rights.
The Bible says much about defending other people’s right, but little about defending our own. On the contrary, when it addresses us it emphasizes our responsibilities, not our rights. We are to love God and to love our neighbour. These primary requirements comprise our whole duty, for all the law and prophets hang on these two Commandments” Jesus said (Matthew 22; 40)
The link between seeing others as our neighbour and taking action on their behalf is clear within Scripture. What is also clear is that such action is not always a matter of our generosity but of their human rights. Within our Christian world view, people have rights because God requires others to do certain things for them. Not to do them is to perpetrate injustice and disobey God. It goes far beyond secular concepts of human rights, bringing together love and justice with responsibility to God and realising that the consequences of this are not restricted to the behaviour of governments but will have personal consequences as well.
The Bible is radical in this respect. It emphasizes that our responsibility is to secure the other person’s rights. We must even forgo our own rights in order to do so. Of this responsible renunciation of rights, Jesus Christ is the supreme model. Although eternally in very nature God, he did not consider equality with God, something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6,7).
Throughout his life he was a victim of abuses of human rights. He became a refugee baby in Egypt, a prophet without honour in his own country and the Messiah rejected by the religious establishment of his own people to whom he had come. He became the prisoner of conscience, refusing to compromise in order to secure his release.
He was falsely accused, unjustly condemned, brutally tortured and finally crucified. And throughout his ordeal he declined to defend or demand his rights, in order that by his self-sacrifice he might serve ours.
Let this mind be in you which was also in Jesus Christ”, wrote Paul (Philippians 2:5). And Paul practised what he preached. He had rights as a apostle (the right to marry, the right to receive financial support), but he renounced them for the sake of the gospel, in order to become everybody’s slave and to serve their rights.
The renunciation of rights, however unnatural and idealistic it may seem, is an essential characteristic of God’s new society. In the world outside, people assert their own rights and exercise authority. “Not so with you,” Jesus said.
On the contrary in his community those aspiring after greatness must become servants, the leader the slave and the first, last. “Love is not self-seeking” Paul wrote. This fundamental stance, learned from Jesus, applies in every situation. To renounce rights is not to acquiesce in wrongs.
Here, then, is a Christian perspective on human rights. Firstly we affirm human dignity. Because human beings are created in God’s image to know him, serve one another and be stewards of the earth, therefore they must be respected.
Secondly we affirm human equality. Because human beings have all been made in the same image by the Creator, therefore, we must not be obsequious to some and scornful to others, but behave without partiality to all. Thirdly we affirm human responsibility. Because God has laid it upon us to love and serve our neighbours; therefore, we must fight for their rights, while being ready to renounce our own in order to do so.
Two main conclusions follow. Firstly, we have to accept that other people’s rights are our responsibility. We are our brother’s keeper because God has put us in the same human family and so made us related to and responsible for one another. The Law and the Prophets, Jesus and his apostles, all lay on us a particular duty to serve the poor and defend the powerless. We cannot escape this by saying they are not my responsibility.
We need then to feel the pain of those who suffer oppression. “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3.) In order to do this, we may need to inform ourselves more thoroughly about contemporary violations of human rights. Then whatever action we may believe it right to take, we need to ensure that the methods we use do not infringe the very human rights we are seeking to champion.
Secondly, we have to take more seriously Christ’s intention that the Christian community should set an example to other communities. Not only of our Christian conduct at home and work, in which husbands and wives parents or children employer or employees we are to be submissive to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21) But also particularly of the life of the local church, which is meant to be a sign of God’s rule.
The Church should be the one community in the world in which human dignity and equality are invariably recognised, and people’s responsibility for one another is accepted, in which the rights of other are sought and never violated, while our own are often renounced, in which there is no partiality favouritism or discrimination; in which the poor and the weak are defended, and human beings are free to be human as God made them and meant them to be.
In the many kinds of human rights we need to remind ourselves that we cannot just accept the secular arguments of those who believe in human rights. We need to bring each idea to Scripture and ensure that it is consistent with Christian thinking.
It is only by doing this that Christian can maintain their distinctiveness. The Christian vision of dignity, equality and responsibility means that we should surely put our weight behind such campaigns where they seek to highlight the value of each person made in the image of God.
The Church is rightly convcerned about ending poverty and oppression wherever it is found and empowering thoses who are poor and powerless to live as God intended.
[Acknowledgement: “Issues facing Christians Today” by John Stott]