What Does God Think of Human Rights?
On December 10, 1948 the United Nations accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt was the chair person of the Commission on Human Rights and representatives of many countries had worked for a long time to develop this document affirming the human rights of all citizens of the world.
In the years that followed individual nations developed strategies to promote and build human rights within their own countries. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was passed on March 29, 1982. Manitoba established The Manitoba Human Rights Commission in July 1987.
The preamble of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states, “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law…” This made me wonder, “What does God think of this matter of human rights?”
A few weeks ago I asked the ministerial what we need to preach on and someone suggested the concept of Human Rights, so this morning I would like to think with you about what the Bible has to say about Human Rights.
I. The Biblical Foundation for Human Rights
A. Distinguishing Between Humanism and Human Rights
One of the predominant philosophies which is held by many people today is secular humanism. The foundation of secular humanism is that there is no God and what is right and good is determined by human beings.
Humanism is not a new philosophy, but is found already in Genesis in the story of the Tower of Babel. Genesis 11 tells the story of the determination of the people of that time to build a tower. Their intention, as revealed in Genesis 11:4 was, “so that we may make a name for ourselves.” That is humanism. The idea that people determine all things and the highest good and highest right is what human beings decide. It is life without reference to God.
“Human rights” is not humanism. Although humanists defend human rights, they are not the same thing. I wonder if as Christians, we have sometimes been hesitant to embrace human rights because of this confusion. Let us be clear that they are not the same thing. Fundamentally human rights refer to the worth of each human being and the right of each human being to be accorded dignity. Although we could talk about the problems which can occur if we demand our rights, I believe the intent of human rights is not so much about what we demand for ourselves, as about the honor we give to others.
B. The Foundation of the United Nations Declaration
We discover this foundation in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The preamble of the declaration begins with a series of “whereas” statements which reveal the foundation. There we read such phrases as: “inherent dignity,” “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” “foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” “contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts.” The declaration promotes: “freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want,” “the development of friendly relations between nations,” “the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women,” “social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,” “universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
These are all things that I believe we agree are good things. If that is what human rights are all about, then we would certainly agree with them. As citizens of this world, who would not want to be valued and who would not agree that every person should be given dignity? Who on earth would not agree that contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts and who of us would not want to make sure that such violations of human rights need to be stopped. Who would not want to see the development of friendly relations between nations? So from the perspective of any human person, we would agree that these are good things and we would agree that we would like to see them implemented.
C. The Biblical Foundation
Yet historically the Christian church has been one of the worst offenders of human rights. An article on Christianity and Human Rights states, “This is contrary to traditional Christian teaching, which holds that not everyone is borne free and that some have more legal rights than others.” The article goes on to point out some of the ways in which the church has violated human rights in the past. “For example, under the avowedly God-given feudal system, explicitly sanctioned by the Church, most people were born into serfdom. Again, under cannon law ("God's Law") illegitimate children suffered numerous legal disabilities…For many centuries almost all females in Christendom were literally owned by their fathers, husbands or other male relatives (if not by slave masters). For slaves the position was worse still. The Bible clearly sanctioned the idea that people could be born into slavery, and the Church sanctioned slave owning for many centuries.” (http://www.heretication.info/)
It is unfortunate and really quite terrible that these things have happened with the approval of the church and with supposed support from the Word of God. In reality, the Bible actually provides an even more powerful and significant foundation for human rights than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That foundation arises right out of creation. We read in Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The dignity, freedom and equality which today are being presented as a human right of all people of the world was given by God right at the beginning in the fact that God created people in His own image, male and female, as equal before Him. So the reason why we as Christians should be in favor of human rights is because every human being is someone who has been created in the image of God, no matter what their economic status, their gender or their place of birth. Psalm 8:5 gives a similar foundation for honoring all people when it states about human beings, "You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor."
It is interesting and encouraging that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms declares this foundation when it states that “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God.” Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the commission which wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, had a strong Christian background. In a 1940 essay titled, “The Moral Basis of Democracy,” she repeatedly asserted that a “Christ-like” way of life was essential for democracy.” (http://www.anglicanexaminer.com/ER2.html)
II. Christians Supporting Human Rights
With that kind of a foundation, it is surprising that Christians have not always been on the forefront of promoting and supporting human rights. With that kind of a foundation it seems clear to me that as Christians we ought to be the first ones who not only accord others human rights, but the first ones who encourage all people to give dignity to one another.
And it isn’t only the foundation of being in the image of God that invites us to be leaders in promoting human rights. There are so many other Scriptures which also promote living with and leading in human rights.
The call of Jesus in Matthew 5:43–48 which commands us not only to love our friends and those close to us, but even our enemies, puts the dignity of even our enemy in a significant light. The basis for this kind of action is “that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” So if we want to be like God and if we want to follow Jesus, then as Christians we should be those who are foremost in extending human rights.
In a similar way, Matthew 22:37–40 calls us to the great commandment. It says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If we could rewrite the declaration of human rights, perhaps we would want to rewrite it the way Jesus did when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Paul put it a little differently but maintained the importance of according human dignity to all people when he said in Romans 13:10, “Love does no harm to its neighbor.” I do not think you could get a better declaration of the intention of human rights than that.
James is hard on those who violate human rights when they give preferential treatment to those who are rich in James 2:1–9 and Paul also instructs the church in Ephesians 6:9 that slave owners should treat their slaves with dignity and honor. In fact, the foundation of the abolition of slavery is found in Scripture in such passages.
The equality of all people before God is declared by Paul in Galatians 3:28 when he says that, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
These are some of the primary passages which speak about human rights. Because these principles are so deeply rooted in The Bible, we ought to be clear in our support of human rights. Fortunately the church has picked up on that in many cases. It was because of a Christian foundation that slavery was abolished. Being supporters of human rights for these Biblical reasons is also why we are concerned for the poor and care that the poor are given the means to work their way out of poverty with dignity. This is why we should support the legal system and its promotion of the law as the means of giving everyone a fair trial and the right to defend themselves. This is why as Christians we should fight hard against any form of racial discrimination. I am concerned when I hear what Christian people think of and say about first nation’s people. God’s Word, which teaches us the way of Jesus, provides us with a foundation and the principles which teach us how to live in a Christian way and many of the principles of human rights are the same and so should find a ready “amen” within us.
III. The Challenges of Involvement
And yet we recognize that there are some statements made in the name of human rights which are challenging for us.
The Manitoba Human Rights Commission website states, "discrimination means differential treatment of an individual on the basis of the individual's actual or presumed membership in or association with some class or group of persons, rather than on the basis of personal merit; or differential treatment of an individual or group on the basis of any characteristic referred to in ‘subsection 2.’” The list in “subsection 2” includes: “ancestry, including color and perceived race; nationality; ethnic background or origin; religion or creed, or religious belief, religious association or religious activity; age; sex, including pregnancy, the possibility of pregnancy, or circumstances related to pregnancy; gender-determined characteristics; sexual orientation; marital or family status; source of income; political belief, political association or political activity; physical or mental disability or related characteristics or circumstances, including reliance on a dog guide or other animal assistant, a wheelchair, or any other remedial appliance or device.”
Now we would agree that in most cases this is something we can support and promote, but there are several issues which create a problem for us. One is our belief that Jesus is the only way of salvation. Are we guilty of discrimination because we believe this? Another is the belief that these rights should also be accorded to unborn children. We believe that an unborn child is a person and should not be discriminated against by abortion. A third issue is sexual orientation. How do we fulfill the Biblical mandate to recognize that every individual is created in the image of God and how do we love our neighbor as ourselves in these situations?
A. Live By the Truth of God
First of all, it is important that we live by the truth of God as we understand it.
In the final end, we will not need to answer to the government of Canada or to the United Nations. In the final end, we will answer to God. Therefore, it is important to live according to what we understand Him to be teaching and saying. Paul had a very clear sense of that when he said in I Corinthians 4:3, 4, "I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.” In the final end it is God’s truth which will stand and so we need to live by that truth as we understand it.
What does it mean to live by the truth of God as we understand it? It requires two things. First of all it requires a diligent study of the Word of God. We need to be careful that we are not only following the traditions which we have had handed down to us. Rather, we must always examine God’s Word in order to understand clearly what God is saying and what He requires of us. In Acts 17:11we read the story of how the gospel came to the people in Berea. There we read, "Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." We must always be examining Scripture to see what is true. The other aspect of being searchers of Scripture is that we need to be humble enough to recognize that we don’t know everything. It is possible to be firm in conviction, but humble in attitude at the same time. As we live according to God’s Word, may we do so with conviction, constant searching of Scripture and a gentle humility.
B. Treat Others with Dignity
As I have been reading the literature related to human rights one of the things I have become aware of is that it doesn’t prohibit people from having differences of opinion. What it does do is require people to treat each other with dignity no matter what we think of their ideas or no matter who they are.
Of course this may be difficult for us when it come to people who are homosexual. We accept the teaching of the Word of God that this is not what God intended. We believe that God’s intention for our human sexuality is that it be expressed exclusively in the context of a loving relationship between one man and one woman in a marriage relationship. Anything else is a violation of God’s intention. How do we accord human rights to someone who violates this intention?
I believe that it would be within God’s will to continue to relate to such people in such a way that we treat them with dignity. They are human beings created in the image of God and therefore, ought to be treated properly because of that. They are human beings who are also loved by God, since John 3:16 teaches us that God loves all people. Therefore, it is entirely inappropriate for us to hate them or to discriminate against them or to slander them or to do anything that would cause us to be accused of homophobia.
Following Christ requires us to love all and to give respect and dignity to all. May we be clear in believing God’s truth and living according to the way of Christ.
C. Proclaim the Gospel with Gentleness
In a world which declares that there are many ways to God and which gives credence to all religions, it is difficult for us to be people who believe that Jesus is the only way. How do we live in that way in our world today?
I think we have some excellent models and teachings in Scripture.
Jesus models attraction for us. One of the impressive things about Jesus is that sinners were comfortable with Him. I always ask myself, “What did He do so that sinners liked being around him.” It wasn’t only that he offered them life; it was also that He loved them. The people who will be most successful in sharing their faith are those who follow the example of Jesus and make themselves attractive to sinners by their loving ways. I think if we live in such a way that sinners are attracted to us, like they were to Jesus, we will not violate human rights.
Paul modeled appropriate engagement in Acts 17:22-34. He clearly came to Athens with a strong understanding that Jesus was the only way. As he engaged the people of Athens, he spoke to them about Jesus, but he seems to have done so with respect and by giving them dignity. He followed the advice of Peter in 1 Peter 3:15–16 when he said, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”
So even though we have a belief that would seem to be contrary to human rights, the principles of dignity based on the Biblical foundation for human rights can still be practiced. This does not mean that we will never have trouble or be challenged or perhaps at some point even persecuted for our belief that Jesus is the only way, but we need to do everything we can to make sure that it is not because we have been rude or judgmental or abrasive.
I know that this does not answer all our questions. There are many more things which we need to think about, but I hope we have seen that the foundation for human rights for us as Christians is not only because of the community of the world, but because we are created in God’s image. I hope we have understood that as Christians we can be strong defenders of human rights and can be in the forefront of according everyone dignity and respect because of the teaching in Scripture on loving our neighbor. As we negotiate the sometimes challenging path of being God’s people in this world, may we be like Jesus in all we do.