What is the Christian perspective on human rights?
THE modern concept of human rights is historically rooted in deism whose concept of God and human autonomy are radically at odds with the teachings of the Bible and the Christian Faith. Christian theologians have long been alert to the inadequacies and even dangers associated with the modern discourse on human rights.
The French lawyer and philosopher, Jacques Ellul, in his book, The Theological Foundation of Law (1960), speaks for many Christian thinkers when he argues that the judicial relativism on which modern concepts of human rights are established offers no protection against arbitrary power.
On the basis of this premise, Ellul argues, the all-powerful state could decide what is right or wrong based on its own criteria. This approach would lead to what is sometimes called legal positivism, the theory that law is whatever the state legislates. As the Belgian philosopher Perelman has so clearly argued, such juridical positivism has simply collapsed before the abuses of Hitlerism in the last century.
Christian theologians, however, are convinced that there are numerous passages in Scripture that address the modern concern for human dignity and rights.
Evangelical writer John Warwick Montgomery has provided an impressive list of human rights issues that the Bible addresses. This includes procedural due process rights such as impartiality of tribunal (Mal 2:9; 1 Tim 5:21), fair hearing (Exod 22:9) and prompt trial (Ezra 7:26). The Bible also addresses substantive due process rights such as non-discrimination in general (Acts 10:34; Deut 16:19), equality before the law (Matt 5:45) and racial, sexual and social equality (Gal 3:28; Amos 9:7; Ex 21:2). Montgomery also maintains that rights encompassing three generations of human rights, first proposed in 1979 by the Czech jurist Karel Vasak, can also be gleaned from the Bible. These include right to life (Exod 20:13; Ps 51:5; Matt 5:21-22; Luke 1:15, 41), and right to family life (1 Tim 5:8), to cite just a few examples.
Some of the most significant writings on human rights from the Christian perspective can be found in the documents of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church. In the Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae Personae), the Council affirms that religious freedom is the inviolable right of every human being, for it has its foundation in human dignity. Because “the right to religious freedom has its foundation, not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature”, the common welfare of society, the Council insists, requires the social conditions necessary for people to exercise that freedom responsibly and without coercion.
In another document, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church (Gaudium et Spes), the Council maintains that “there must be made available to all men everything necessary for leading a life truly human”. The following are listed as essential for human existence: “food, clothing, shelter, the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and to rightful freedom in matters religious too.”
Catholics and Protestants have approached the issue of human rights from different angles, and perhaps even different points of departure. The Catholic approach may be aptly described as “reason enlightened by revelation”, while the Protestant approach emphasises revelation over reason. Although these two approaches may appear quite different, they both lead to the same broad conclusions.
What is pertinent to note is that in both approaches, revelation and reason are involved. In the Catholic approach, reason is not autonomous but guided by a higher authority, namely divine revelation. In the Protestant approach, divine revelation is never irrational, but provides the necessary framework for rational reflection on human rights.
Christians have generally maintained that human rights are universal – every human being has a claim to these rights. The universality of human rights is established on Christological and not anthropological grounds. Because Christ died for all human beings, not just for Christians, all persons can claim these rights. In other words, by dying for all human beings Christ shows that God has given every person a special dignity that should not be violated.
Furthermore, many Christian theologians maintain that a proper understanding of human rights can only come from the revealed truths found in the Bible. Thus, for many theologians, the Ten Commandments are the basis for a Christian understanding of the rights of human beings created in the image of God. As Carl Henry put it, “In the Christian view, inalienable rights are creational rights governing the community and individual, rights implicit in the social commandments of the Decalogue.”
Broadly speaking, Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants generally accept the main tenets of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), although never without qualifications.
Finally, Christian thinkers like Ellul maintain that the Church has the responsibility to speak against the violation of human rights by the State or any other human authority. The Church is therefore summoned to speak the discerning word, to affirm the limits of the law and even judge the legal system. “This discerning word,” Ellul insists, “is part of the Church’s proclamation.”
‘The universality of human rights is established on Christological and not anthropological grounds. Because Christ died for all human beings, not just for Christians, all persons can claim these rights.’
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.