Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Are Human Rights Christian? (1)

Written by Ray Pennings
I suppose that how we answer the question, "Are human rights Christian?" would depend on the context in which it was asked. Most of us celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, that symbol of totalitarian communism. We hoped that this would lead to a human-rights respecting, democratic government for former communist countries. Do we not enjoy, and celebrate, the freedom to worship according to our conscience, to freely express our opinions without fear of oppression, and to make individual choices about our occupations and lifestyle? If pressed to explain this freedom, we probably would point to the Judeo-Christian heritage on which our system of government and society is based.

Many of us, however, have also found ourselves in discussions where positions that we could not agree with were being defended on the basis of human rights. Gay and lesbian activists, for example, argue that it is on the basis of human rights that they should receive employment benefits, marriage rights, and adoption rights with their partners. Defenders of pornography also argue that it is an individual right to make their own choices about reading and viewing material, and that it is dangerous to allow governments to legislate on the basis of morality. After all, if Christians in power would censor pornography, would not the same logic justify non-Christians who consider various scriptural passages homophobic and sexist from censoring the Bible or other religious materials?

It can be difficult to counter arguments about human rights, especially as they are being interpreted today. It was recently said that "everyone seems to have rights, except Christians." What does this comment imply? Is it that Christians should line up with every other group and seek to have their rights recognized? Or is it that Christians have a special right to "impose their religion and morality" on the rest of society, as the accusation is so frequently made?

In this and subsequent articles in The Messenger, I would like to deal with the question of human rights. I would argue that it is essential to be both biblically and historically literate on this subject, if we are to speak effectively as Christian citizens to some of the challenges of our day. We recognize that theories of human rights are complex and many volumes have been dedicated to this subject, so several short articles can at best provide a simplistic overview of some of the issues.

As a preliminary comment, it is important to distinguish between human rights as they regard our relations within society (civil rights) and human rights as they affect our relationship to God. In the latter case, we have no rights to assert. We are created by God and "shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, why hast thou made me thus?" (Romans 9:20) It is true that mankind has been created to be image bearers of God, and as such, has dignity and is the crown jewel of God's creation. It is also true, however, that fallen man has alienated himself from his Creator and by nature, has only the right to eternal perdition as the just reward for his sin. When we speak of human rights, we are not speaking of any rights that man has towards God, but rather of civil rights as they affect human relationships.

Biblical Context
Our modern notion of rights finds some of its historical roots in the Protestant Reformation. Luther's emphasis on Christian freedom and Calvin's focus on the immediacy of God's rule over human beings, were significant concepts which contributed to the development of democracy. A biblical defense of rights usually turns to the creation account. Humans are created in the image of God, thereby possessing a dignity unlike any other creature. We were created male and female, as help-meets for each other, indicating that we are social beings for whom "it is not good to be alone." We were also given dominion over the earth, and called to be faithful stewards of the creation, indicating that the extreme notion of environmental rights ("a tree is a dog is a boy") advocated by some today is totally contrary to scriptural teaching.

The important conclusion which must be drawn from the biblical account of creation is that man is created with a purposeãÙ-to glorify God. Subsequent discussions about rights in Scripture must be understood against that backdrop. For example, there are many passages throughout Scripture that speak of our responsibility to defend the rights of others. There are also passages that speak of our equality before the law and in the sight of God (cf. 1 Peter 1:17, Ephesians 6:9, James 2:1-9). The biblical notion of rights stem from our origin (we have a dignity as an image-bearer of God), our rationality (we have the ability to make decisions and choices), and our responsibility before God (our rights are not entitlements owing to us, but duties for which we are accountable to God).

Reformational Origins
The modern notion of human rights, however, is more a response to historical developments than it is the application of biblical thinking. The Middle Ages were a time when absolute authority was vested in the king or in the church, with the papacy and monarchy fighting for supremacy. Feudal Lords had absolute control over their subjects and at the whim of his master, a slave's life could be taken. There were no "human" rights, but only the exercise of power, privilege, and position. This was not only true in the economic realm, but also in the religious realm. Citizens were deemed to belong to the church chosen by the political authority, and failure to agree could result in death. Bloody massacres and wars were fought in the name of religion.

It is against this backdrop that the consequences of the Proteestant Reformation need to be understood as they affected sixteenth-century Europe. For Luther and Calvin to articulate the biblical principles of sola fide, sola gratia, and sola sciptura was not only a profession of biblical religion; it was a revolution against the authorities of the day. The impact of these biblical truths were not only felt in spiritual life; they overturned the entire status quo of medieval affairs. It was a civil court at the Diet of Worms, under the leadership of Emperor Charles V, that called Luther to account and asked him to recant his views. It is no surprise that the spiritual descendants of the Reformers, including the Puritans, were at the forefront of constitutional developments that incorporated the notion of human rights in the centuries that followed.

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