Tag Archives: Human Rights

Modern Slavery

November 2017 Pulse

Despite the incredible leaps that our species have made in the last couple of centuries, one of the oldest scourges that has accompanied us throughout our history still remains alive and well today: slavery.

In the modern world, slavery is the primary human rights issue that has attracted international attention and aroused global concern. Yet, despite universal condemnation and numerous international efforts, slavery continues to flourish in many parts of the world.

Modern slavery is a complex phenomenon that covers a variety of practices. This includes traditional slavery and slave trades, child prostitution, child labour, human trafficking (for sexual exploitation), children in armed conflict, debt bondage, etc.

A United Nations document entitled, ‘Contemporary Forms of Slavery’ presents the enormity of the problem of modern slavery thus: ‘Slave-like practices may be clandestine. This makes it difficult to have a clear picture of the scale of contemporary slavery, let alone to uncover, punish or eliminate it’.

It adds that ‘[t]he problem is compounded by the fact that the victims of slavery-like abuses are generally from the poorest and most vulnerable social groups. Fear and the need to survive do not encourage them to speak out’.

A quick glance at slavery across the world would help us to appreciate just how grim the current situation is.

In Albania, 90 percent of girls in rural areas do not attend school because they are afraid of being abducted and sold as sex-slaves. One study estimated that about 80 percent of women traded as prostitutes in Western Europe may be from the Republic of Moldova, a landlocked country in Eastern Europe.

Muslim tribesmen from northern Sudan conduct slave raids on non-Muslim Dinka people in the south, taking with them thousands of women and children. And the United Arab Emirates (UAE) receives a constant supply of women trafficked from the former Soviet Union.

In India, debt slavery is prevalent in certain sectors of society. For example, Dalits are forced to accept loans from their landlords to perform social duties associated with death or marriage.

But as Justin Campbell explains: ‘These loans are designed to be impossible to pay back, and because Dalits are traditionally denied education, they are left with little recourse but to accept the loans and become indebted to their landlords. So just as one’s position in the caste social hierarchy is inherited, so debts are passed from one generation to another’.

Christianity has been woefully slow to condemn slavery. Many Christians have found justification for keeping the practice alive in the way in which certain passages in the Bible are interpreted.

Far from condemning slavery and urging its abolition, the Bible appears to take the practice – so prevalent in the Ancient Near East – for granted as an acceptable social norm. A number of passages from the OT even seem to sanction the buying and selling of slaves, both male and female, by the Israelites.

For example, in Leviticus 25, we read: ‘As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. And you may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property’.

In the NT, we find instructions on how slaves should behave towards their masters and how the latter should treat the former (E.g., 1 Timothy 6:5-6; Ephesians 6:5-6; 1 Peter 2:18-29). But there is no specific injunction for Christians to free their slaves or to oppose this dehumanising practice.

The great theologians of the Church appear to hold the view that slavery is in some sense necessary in the sinful world in which we inhabit. While both Augustine in the fifth century and Aquinas in the thirteenth insisted that slavery should never be understood as part of natural law – that is, as part of God’s intention for human beings – they maintain that it is an appropriate concession in a world crippled by original sin.

It must be stressed, however, that although Christians are slow in condemning slavery, the Gospel that they embrace has forced them to look at slaves very differently. For example, if all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore enjoy equal dignity and value, the Christian cannot look upon slaves as mere property for their masters to do as they wish.

And if in Christ there is neither slave nor free (Galatians 3:27-28), the Christian must no longer treat his believing slave as merely a slave, but as a brother or sister in Christ. Thus, we find in the canon of the NT the remarkable letter that Paul wrote to Philemon, which exhorts him to treat his runaway slave Onesimus ‘no longer as a bondservant, but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother’ (Philemon 16).

It was on the basis of the Christian understanding of the dignity and value of the human being that the abolitionists of the 18th and 19th century conducted their campaign to end the transatlantic slave trade and to abolish the chattel slavery in the United States.

Although slavery today is vastly different from previous centuries, modern abolitionists must receive inspiration from their predecessors – Frederick Douglass, William Wilberforce, the Grimke sisters, William Lloyd Garrison and Elizabeth Candy – and follow in their footsteps in the fight against this ancient crime and in doing so restore the dignity and humanity that slavery has stolen from its victims.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.


The Seed of the Church

October 2017 Feature

For the seventh year in a row, Asia Bibi, a Christian mother, has spent Christmas in a dark and dingy prison cell in Pakistan.  Isolated from her husband and five children, she has been on death row for allegedly insulting the prophet Muhammad following an argument with a group of Muslim women in a small village in Punjab where she used to live.

During the argument, Bibi reportedly challenged the women by saying, “I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Muhammad ever do to save mankind?” The question drew their ire.

The women gathered a local mob and beat up Asia Bibi. She was subsequently imprisoned for over a year before being formally charged with blasphemy, and has been languishing in prison ever since the incident took place in 2009.

Politicians who have tried to defend her or repeal the controversial law have been threatened, and some assassinated.  Pakistan’s blasphemy law prescribes a fixed death penalty for all those who are found guilty.

Her appeal to the Supreme Court has been delayed, amidst renewed Islamist calls for her death. Bibi’s fate now hangs on the court, and if her appeal to the Supreme Court fails, she will be the first woman to be executed under the country’s controversial blasphemy law, which according to critics has been used to target and persecute minorities.

Bibi is just an example of a rising global trend of persecution against Christians that is daily being played out not only in Asia but around world. According to Open Doors, nearly 215 million Christians experience high, very high, or extreme persecution, and the number is likely to increase in 2017.

The World Evangelical Alliance adds that over 200 million Christians in at least 60 countries are denied fundamental human rights solely because of their faith. Consequently, Christians in the Middle East, Africa and Asia are being tested, and paying the price for their faith at the hands of Islamic State in the Middle East, and the militant Islamic group Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Research conducted by the Pew Foundation concludes that more believers were martyred in the 20th century than in all other centuries combined.

The Oxford dictionary defines persecution “Hostility and ill-treatment, especially because of race or political or religious beliefs. “

Asia is no different from any other region in the world. Persecution of Christians is sharply increasing in India, Bangladesh, Laos, Bhutan, and Vietnam to name a few countries. Much of it is driven by religious nationalism.

The tide is rising and gathering pace in India since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. There were four separate incidents instigated by Hindu extremists during the past Christmas season.

In one of them, six people were injured after a mob of young extremist Hindu nationalists attacked a church. They accused the pastor of allegedly forcibly converting Hindus.

Earlier in December, Christians were beaten up for singing Christmas carols. According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India’s Religious Liberty Commission there were 134 incidents recorded in the first half of 2016 in 21 of the 29 states.

The BJP advocates an ideology known as Hindutva that defines Indian culture in terms of Hindu values. Everything non-Hindu is therefore seen as a threat to the culture and identity of the country. Under this banner Hindu radicals have attacked Christians and churches with complete impunity. Complaints to the police and authorities have fallen on deaf ears.

Christians in Laos also face hostility from Buddhists with the tacit support of the government.  Christmas celebrations were restricted to two days in 2016. Anything outside this period was considered illegal. In previous years, churches were allowed to celebrate Christmas for more than a month across the country.

Christians are arrested on flimsy grounds and forced to sign a document recanting their faith.  Felix, a Lao pastor for example, has been harassed by the authorities and forced to move his home six times.  Police paid regular visits to his church, took photos and recorded names of people attending the service, and asked the pastor to stop all Christian meetings immediately.

In early October, Christians in two villages, Phone Sa’art and Thong Tae, were threatened by the village leaders to either give up their Christian faith or leave the villages. To date, no action has been taken by the government.

The Christians are still in their villages and still following Christ. The government has also started a campaign to register all house churches in the country.  House churches now have to set up a committee with members approved by the government, and leaders are required to be “trained,” or indoctrinated, by the government.

Ethnic and religious tensions are soaring in the land of the Pancasila.  The Chinese Christian Governor of Jakarta, Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama, is on trial for blasphemy for allegedly making derogatory remarks on Islam. He was tried in court on 13 December.

A day later the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) issued a fatwa (religious ruling) forbidding Muslims from participating in Christmas festivities, and wearing or displaying any Christmas trappings.  The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) was out in force, visiting shopping malls and spreading the word as police refused to intervene.

Then there is North Korea where it is illegal to be a Christian, and any religious activity is seen as subversive. The only worship that is allowed is of the “great leader,” Kim IL Sung and his son Kim Jong IL.

Christians are forced to hide their faith from family members for fear of being reported. If they are found out, authorities arrest entire families and imprison them in hard labor camps, where they are tortured, beaten, and starved to death.

In 2015, Pastor Lim Hyeon-soo, a Canadian citizen, was tried and sentenced to life in a labour camp in North Korea for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government with the “love of God,” and speaking against its Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un. Pastor Lim was involved in humanitarian projects in North Korea for over 20 years, visiting it more than 100 times.  The Canadian government says it is doing all it can to bring him home.

But those following Pastor Lim’s case are increasingly frustrated that nothing seems to be happening, and feel that Ottawa should take more direct and assertive action to secure his release.

Other Christians doing similar work in the area have also been detained by the government and compelled to make public confessions to win their release. Three South Koreans are also currently in prison, including two sentenced in June 2016 for “spying.” They are serving life sentences of hard labour.

To the average observer, China is flourishing, there is religious freedom and the church is growing at a phenomenal rate. At the same time there is concern about China’s plans to manage religion in the country. Last year the Chinese government issued a detailed set of regulations aimed at tightening government control.

The changes recommended include restrictions on religious schools and limits on access to foreign religious writings, including on the internet.  It also allows the government to monitor those who go abroad to study theology and punish landlords who rent space for house churches with heavy fines.

The draft raises many more questions than it provides answers. Believers fear it could potentially curtail the activities of China’s unregistered church. China also passed a law on non-governmental organisations operating inside the country.

Russia also took steps to tighten its grip on religion by passing the anti-terrorists “Yarovaya law.” Under the new law, evangelism is off limits to anyone not affiliated with a registered church or religious site. House churches are illegal.

The law has caused numerous problems for Protestants as well as ethnic Ukrainian and American priests, pastors and missionaries. The fines for violating these new regulations can reach up to one million rubles. Critics at home and abroad have branded it a draconian attempt to stifle religious freedom under the guise of clamping down on terrorism.

Christian populations across much of the conflict-stricken Middle East have rapidly declined in recent decades, and now many church leaders fear their presence in the region could soon disappear. War is a reality here and many children are growing up with the sounds of planes and guns wreaking havoc in the country.

With the growth of extremist Muslim groups, including the Islamic State group and al Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front, Christians are certainly among the most vulnerable. Nearly 40 per cent of the Christian population has fled the country.

Those who remain are afraid to face what the next day might bring. Aleppo was until recently a driving force for the country’s economy, providing work to 1.2 million workers and hosting 150,000 university students.

“More than half of the city’s population left over the last four or five years,” says Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart, who has served there since 1995. In the midst of the destruction in Syria, there is optimism. “The Church began in Syria and Christians should continue living in Syria until the coming back of the Lord,” he says.

It is not all bad news. Li Tien En, a renowned house church leader in China, used to say, “Persecution is two parts opportunity, one part crisis – God always brings opportunities out of a crisis.” So along with the darkness, there is also light.

About the Author

Michael Fischer has worked as a journalist in the Asia Pacific region for more than 20 years. He has been following stories of Christian persecution and has travelled to several countries to document them.

Christian Hospitality from ‘Migrant’ to Migrant

June 2017 Feature

Public discourse on issues concerning immigration and foreign workers is often carried out within the framework of “human rights,” “national interests,” and “Asian values,” with religious values having a lesser role in the discussion. While this is understandably the preferred approach in a secular and multicultural society like Singapore, the Christian community must believe it has a point of view that can make a true difference in the problem-solving efforts.

The Christian view does not necessarily contradict these contemporary categories of thinking but it can offer humane perspectives based on an alternative view of people and the world. In this article, I would like to reflect on the question, “Why should we be hospitable to new immigrants or to resident non-citizens?”

I believe the Christian perspective supplies some good answers, and deep theological meaning can be discovered in the normal hospitality that we accord to the foreigner in our midst.

We live in the age of unprecedented human migration. Barring the implementing of regional plans by governments to check or reverse the trend, global mass migrations will continue to characterise present reality. As an instance, in a press release by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, it was reported that in 2013, a third or 30% of marriages in Singapore involved at least one spouse who was neither a citizen nor a permanent resident, up from 23% in 2003.[i]  The trend of marriage to foreign spouses will likely continue to rise in Singapore as the city moves toward greater cosmopolitanism.

Churches have to face the reality of rapid social change, and can expect people of an uncommon ethnicity or origin to appear at the church’s doorstep. While most churches emphasize hospitality and kindness towards strangers, and discourage cliquishness, the encouragement to do so is usually based upon the evangelistic motive.

This is certainly more laudable than promoting exclusiveness or exclusion, but we can miss the important truth that the basis for Christian hospitality towards strangers is first derived from the Scriptural understanding of God’s compassion for the vulnerable and the Church’s self-understanding as a pilgrim people.

“Because You Were Foreigners in Egypt”

Charles Van Engen, a professor emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary, noted that while the Old Testament often presents foreigners as enemies of the people of God, it also contains many commands to Israel to care for the foreigners or “strangers” who lived in their midst.[ii]

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. – Ex 23:9, NIV

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. – Lv 19:34, NIV[iii]

The commands given by God through Moses were accompanied by the reason why the Israelites must treat foreigners well and not oppress them: the Israelites were foreigners in Egypt so they knew what it had been like to experience suffering and oppression as foreigners. The Israelites and the foreigners shared a common experience of alienation and suffering, and this bond must be expressed in the dignified treatment of the less powerful group.

Van Engen traced another theological meaning in God’s demand for the Israelites to show compassion – it would serve as a constant reminder to them that they were themselves a people who were pilgrims, sojourners and immigrants in the land. This was to be an integral aspect of their calling as a people even after they entered the Promised Land.

From God’s call to Abram to leave his country and become a sojourner, through to the period of the Exile when God’s people had to learn to live in a place where they did not belong, Israel’s self-understanding continued to be that of a migrant race. This self-perception would carry into the Christian faith as Jewish and Gentile believers grasped the truth that they have inherited not only the privilege of being God’s people but also its pilgrim character.

Jesus and Neighbourliness

Jesus’ approach to the poor and dispossessed in society was built on the Old Testament tradition of mercy and compassion for the disadvantaged. His teachings re-established the spirit of the Old Testament ethic, which had been kept in the practice of the law but not in the sentiments that it was meant to evoke, and superseded it with new and radical applications. He did this particularly through reinstating “neighbourliness” as a supreme way worshipping God (Mt 22:34-40), and by redefining the word “neighbour” (Lk 10:36-37).

By introducing the command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself,’ which in the Law is never placed next to the command to love God, Jesus raised its spiritual status to a startling height and intertwined loving one’s neighbor with loving God. In his telling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, ‘neighbour’ is no longer understood in terms of geographic, ethnic or cultural proximity. The robbery victim’s ‘neighbour’ is simply ‘the one who had mercy on him.’ Christian neighbourliness therefore consists in loving the neighbour we know as much as we love ourselves, and by showing mercy to the stranger in need we do not yet know, thereby making ourselves a neighbour to him.

Jesus’ teachings shaped how the early church related to pagan society. The same spirit permeated the church leaders’ instructions to their congregations on intra- and inter-church relations (Rom 12:13, 1 Pt 4:9, 1 Tm 3:2, Ti 1:8, 3 Jn 7-9), and relations with the unbelieving world (Heb 13:2, 3). Church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Tertullian continued in the same vein, exhorting Christians to continue in the practice of love and concern for strangers and foreigners.

Encountering God in the Migrant

In his essay, “On Loving Strangers: Encountering the Mystery of God in the Face of Migrants,” Miguel Diaz spoke of how ministering to migrants and understanding the experience of migration helps us as believers to “reconceive the mystery of God.”[iv] Deliberating on the thought of Karl Rahner and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who both wrote about how we encounter the presence and mystery of God in our daily interaction with fellow human beings who may be very different from us, Diaz invites us to see how, in the Incarnation, Jesus could be conceived of as a migrant who crosses the border and experiences all the accompanying dangers of migration in order to bridge his world and ours.

Diaz concluded that “there is something about crossing over and welcoming others (especially alienated others) that mirrors how God crosses over and welcomes us in Jesus Christ. A human community that does not welcome others and their otherness—a human community that rejects and shuns identifying with the suffering of migrating strangers—does not image the mystery of God.”[v]

From ‘Migrant’ to Migrant

Singapore is a nation of immigrants, so it might be something of a surprise to the casual observer that we have not been very hospitable to entrance seekers and migrant workers residing in Singapore. This is not so surprising upon reflection. Hospitality towards others not like us is not part of the social DNA of any society. In Singapore, this has not been helped by the fact that many of our forebears were poor immigrants.

Their first concern was for their own economic survival, not the well-being of society. For them, charity began, and often ended, at home. The cautious immigrant mindset has remained, and is today encouraged by the modern myth of self-achieved success. “Since I earned my wealth and comfort through my own perspiration, why should you not do the same?” How do we practice Christian hospitality in this setting?

We often think of hospitality as something we do, whether it is preparing a meal for friends and relatives or welcoming a visitor in church. Christian hospitality is much more than outward politeness and service.

It begins with self-understanding and the inner life of worship that finds its way into our daily activities. It has to do with recognizing that we are ourselves pilgrims and foreigners who are “longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16), and understanding what it feels like to have to make a home far from home. It concerns our readiness to surrender ‘We-Them’ distinctions and to place unfamiliar others in a common space with us under the same appellation – neighbour. It has to do with welcoming others because we are imitating Christ who “crossed over” to welcome us. In more than one sense, we are migrants ministering to migrants.


[i] Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, “New Measures to Help Prospective Singaporean-Foreigner Couples Better Plan For Their Future,” Press Release, 24 October 2014.

[ii] Charles Van Engen, “Biblical Perspectives on the Role of Immigrants in God’s Mission,” Journal of Latin American Theology 3, no. 2 (2008): 17-19.

[iii] See also Ex 22:21, 23:12; Leviticus 19:33; and Dt 10:19. The presence of these commands is remarkable when one learns that other ancient near eastern legal codes do not have statements of provision or compassion for foreigners.

[iv] Miguel H. Diaz, “On Loving Strangers: Encountering the Mystery of God in the Face of Migrants,” Word & World 29, no. 3 (2009): 235.

[v] Ibid., 240.


Dr Fong Choon Sam is Dean of Academic Studies and Interim Co-President at Baptist Theological Seminary. He teaches in the Missions, Religions, and Research areas.

Solidarity and Social Justice

April 2016 Pulse

In an article entitled, ‘Social Justice in Singapore: Some Personal Reflections’, Tommy Koh argues that Singapore is both a social just and a socially unjust society.

For Koh, Singapore is a socially just society because of the following reasons: basic human needs are met; women are not discriminated against; the rule of law is implemented with equity; the absence of racial and religious discrimination; every Singaporean has the right to education; and society is run according to the principle of meritocracy.

But these merits notwithstanding, Singapore, according to Koh, is also a socially unjust society for the following reasons: the widening inequality in income and wealth; the absence of a poverty line, resulting in some earning below a living wage; the absence of a minimum wage and the presence of poverty, especially poor and needy children in our society and schools.

Philosophers, social theorists, economists and politicians have long tried to envision and actualise a socially just world by promoting human rights (however these are conceived) and by pushing for economic egalitarianism through progressive taxation and other strategies to promote distributive justice.

For Christians, the idea of social justice is firmly rooted in the Bible. According to the Bible, the God who created the world and human beings is just (Deuteronomy 32:4). In addition, God has created human beings in his image and likeness (Gen 1:27), each of whom is equally valued by him.

God therefore clearly and repeatedly commands his people to show concern for the poor and the needy, the fatherless, the widow and the sojourner (Deuteronomy 10:18; 24:17; 27:19). The teachings of the Church on social justice are profoundly inspired by and based upon the unequivocal witness of Scripture.

According to the Christian vision, social justice has to do with much more than the possibilities of a social market economy or certain strategies in social legislation, important though they are. In the Christian account, social justice is grounded in human solidarity, a concept that captures a complex of meanings.

At its most basic core, human solidarity has to do with the indisputable fact that people are interdependent, and not only in the sense that they evidently rely on one another for their biological and emotional needs. Every conceivable human achievement – language, art, culture, education, science – testify eloquently to this interdependence.

More significantly, in the Christian account, human solidarity is seen not only as a necessary fact, but also a positive value. This paradoxically means that while solidarity is a given, an indispensable fact of human life and society, it is also something that we must work towards and cherish.

Reflecting on the significance of solidarity, the Catholic moral theologian, Thomas Massaro, S.J., writes: ‘We cannot realize our full potential or appreciate the full meaning of our dignity unless we share our lives with others and cooperate in projects that hold promise of mutual benefit’.

The virtue of solidarity begins with an inner attitude that expresses itself in concrete acts that demonstrate one’s commitment to the wellbeing of others. In this way, the virtue of solidarity is an antidote to the egoism and the selfish individualism that motivate members of modern society to obsessively pursue their own narcissistic agendas and neglect their social responsibilities.

There can be no social justice without a deep sense of social responsibility.

It is only when the concept of human rights – which has become sacrosanct in modern society – is set within the context of solidarity and concern for the wellbeing of the larger community that it will not fall prey to a rampant individualism. The virtue of solidarity enables us to see that in many cases our obligations to our neighbour must take precedence over our rights.

The virtue of solidarity also disciplines the use of power. It prohibits the concentration of power in a single individual or a single group, thereby preventing its abuse.

In addition, some theologians argue that solidarity goes a long way in ensuring that the use of power is ‘rational’. As the Catholic moral theologian Bernard Häring has perceptively put it: ‘Solidarity, expressed by consensus on basic human rights and duties and common concern for social justice and fair processes, strengthens the rationality of the use of power’.

True solidarity ensures that power is exercised according to the principles of justice, law and order.

And finally, solidarity, with its emphasis on the concern for the wellbeing of all – including the poor, the sick and the vulnerable – will not only promote the common good, but will also ensure that the language of common good will not be used to justify a utilitarian or a ‘majoritarian’ ethics (where ‘common good’ reads ‘the good of the majority’).

Social justice is the responsibility of every member of society, not just that of the government. While policies like minimum wages will certainly go a long way in making society more just, they are not enough.

A society is truly just only when there is real solidarity among its members.

Dr Roland Chia

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. 


A Good Death?

May 2015 Feature Article

Many reasons are being offered to support making euthanasia (meaning “good death”) and assisted suicide legal. Some arise from sensitivity to the suffering of terminally ill patients, who desire to end their sufferings by speeding up their death through medical intervention. On the surface, it seems the most compassionate action that society can take to allow this. However, there are serious problems that require careful consideration.

Firstly, there is the question of suicide. In assisted suicide, the patient voluntarily takes his life. Hence the term “suicide” is used, as it was by Singapore’s Minister of Health in 2008. In many societies, including Singapore, suicide is an offence. While social values may be changing, suicide is still prohibited by the law, and for good reasons. The underlying logic, whether legally, socially or religiously expressed, is that the right to life cannot be extrapolated to the right to die. Life is sacred and one does not have the freedom to take one’s own life, no matter what the extenuating circumstances might be. This was echoed in 2002 by the European Court of Human Rights in its interpretation of Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Proponents of euthanasia argue that patients have the absolute right to exercise autonomy. Even so, can a patient make a free and voluntary decision? In the first place, he depends on information regarding diagnosis and prognosis given to him by doctors whose knowledge is not perfect. Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, in his lecture to the Singapore Medical Association in 2013, rightly cited the case of Singapore lawyer Suzanne Chin who was diagnosed with brain stem death. Her husband was advised by doctors to “pull the plug” but against all odds she recovered completely and is well.

When doctors are involved in the decision making, there is potential conflict of interest. Patients may also depend on information from the internet which may be misleading. In addition, patients may make their decisions in a state of depression, and if treated, studies show that they may think differently. There is also potential pressure on the patient from family and care-givers, and society at large.

Secondly, there is the problem of murder. Physicians are asked to be involved in euthanasia and assisted suicide, an involvement that would contravene the nature, identity and ethics of the medical profession. For more than 2000 years, physicians have held to the principles of the Hippocratic Oath: the goal of medicine is to heal, care, and bring relief. Harming patients or killing them is strongly prohibited. The World Medical Association has, over the years, repeatedly stated that euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are unethical and contrary to the practice of medicine. In its most recent statement in 2013, it reiterates the call for “physicians to refrain from participating in euthanasia, even if national law allows it or decriminalizes it under certain conditions.” The doctor-patient relationship which is based on trust would be adversely affected if physician-assisted suicide is allowed.

The medical profession will be under pressure to attend to patients who want assisted suicide. Though the involvement of doctors is voluntary, there is no guarantee that it will be strictly so, especially if there is pressure from superiors or from one’s institution. Dr Christoph Hufeland, Goethe’s doctor, articulated it well in 1806: “The physician should and may do nothing else but preserve life. Whether it is valuable or not, that is none of his business. If he once permits such considerations to influence his actions, the doctor will become the most dangerous man in the state.”

Some argue that the practice of euthanasia can be well-regulated to prevent abuse. But actual experience proves otherwise. Sundaresh Menon notes: “These concerns are not to be dismissed as patently fanciful. One study shows that whereas legal restrictions and safeguards have been enacted wherever euthanasia or assisted suicide has been legalised, these have been ‘regularly ignored and transgressed’ often without prosecution…”

Thirdly, allowing euthanasia and assisted suicide would have negative social consequences. There would be a widening of its application.

In Belgium, legislation was passed in early 2014 to extend euthanasia to children who can request for it if they are “in great pain” and no treatment is available. Not only is this open to abuse (for studies show that many doctors have been practising euthanasia without following the rules), but it will be a door to many more applications. In the Netherlands, one need not be terminally ill to be euthanized. That one cannot have a “livable life” is ground enough, as the Groningen Protocol (which allows infant euthanasia) shows.

Recently, a court in Belgium granted the request by a prisoner for assisted suicide. He is imprisoned for murder and rape and has pleaded to be put to death because of mental anguish caused by his violent impulses. It is significant that he is not suffering from terminal illness or physical pain but from mental anguish. Will this open the flood gates to those who are in a similar situation?

Terminally ill patients would not be able to escape pressure, either imposed by others or by themselves, to seek death and not trouble their loved ones and care givers or incur significant medical costs. In the longer term, legalising euthanasia would shape our society and affect the way we look at ourselves, and how we care for the vulnerable. It has been noted, for example, that hospices are not as well developed in the Netherlands (where euthanasia is legal) as in other European nations. A social mindset that has a “cure or kill” solution would have inadequate space to explore the responsibility to care for the dying and to help them die with dignity. It would affect private and public conscience and alter our society where utilitarianism will dominate and social responsibilities will diminish.

Some use pragmatic economic reasons to argue for euthanasia. However, economic concerns should not be used to support euthanasia. Patients’ lives should not be shortened simply because they occupy hospital beds or it costs money to care for them. We cannot reduce the value of human life to dollars and cents. If we do, we reduce human dignity and value and will think likewise about those who are considered a “burden” to society.

How, then, can we care for the dying? How can we help people dying painfully and feeling that their continuing suffering is pointless and meaningless? The solution of offering euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide has many serious moral and practical problems, a situation where the medicine offered is worse than the malady. A study in Holland showed that in 10% of euthanasia and 30% of assisted suicide, untoward complications arose. They included patients who recovered from an induced coma, vomiting and fits, and technical problems with administering the lethal substance.

Our response to such patients should be one of compassion. There are two points that will help us enable people in such situations to receive compassion and care and die with dignity, without resorting to solutions that will end up with patients taking their own lives or physicians being asked to terminate their lives. It is humane to want to do something to help someone who is suffering. However, euthanasia and assisted suicide are not as humane as they may seem. Pope John Paul II observed that in reality, “what might seem logical and humane, when looked at more closely seem to be senseless and inhumane”.

We should not seek to eliminate the sufferings of a person by eliminating him. There are better and more humane and ethical ways.

Firstly, we have the Advanced Medical Directive. This allows people to express their wish that should they be terminally ill, that “heroic” but futile medicine be excluded in their treatment so that their lives are not artificially and needlessly prolonged. This is different from speeding up death through suicide or homicide. It is a decision that can be rationally and carefully taken before the storm of pain and suffering that may mark terminal illness and cloud judgement.

Secondly, palliative medicine is being significantly improved and offers dying patients relief of pain and compassionate care that enables them to travel the last stage of their lives with dignity and in the company of caregivers. As a society, we should promote palliative medicine and find ways to care for the dying, thus emphasising the dignity of persons and a society that takes responsibility to care not only for the living but also the dying.

Palliative medicine must be mainlined to become part of the normal course of health care. As a medical science and art it must be further developed and offered to all who are dying, so that they can die comfortably and in dignity as recipients of compassionate care.

As a society, we should promote palliative medicine and find ways to care for the dying, thus emphasising the dignity of persons and a society that takes responsibility to care not only for the living but also the dying.


Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. Dr Solomon has degrees in medicine, theology, intercultural studies, and a PhD in pastoral theology from the University of Edinburgh. He has contributed many articles to books, theological dictionaries and journals and authored 20 books, including ‘The Race’, ‘The Conscience’, ‘The Enduring Word’, ‘The Virtuous Life’, ‘The Sermon of Jesus’ and ‘Apprenticed to Jesus’. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.

God and the Victim

On 15 June 2012, The Straits Times published Susan Long’s interview with Ms Somaly Mam, a Cambodian sex slave-turned-anti trafficking activist. In the interview, Mam recalled her idyllic childhood among the minority Phnong tribe in Cambodia’s mountainous Mondulkiri province, even though she was abandoned as a toddler. When she was 10, she was ‘adopted’ by an elderly man –whom she calls ‘Grandfather’ – who had promised to help her to find her birth parents. Instead, he beat her into submission and sold her off several times, eventually to a brothel at Phnom Penh when she was only 16. She ran away, but was caught and gang-raped by the police. In 1996, Somaly Mam founded an organisation, Afesip, which has rescued more than 7,00 girls from prostitution and sex-slavery across Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.

Mam’s story is just one among countless others. The scale of global human trafficking is truly alarming. In 2004, the U.S. study indicates that about 600,000 to 800,000 people were victims of human trafficking worldwide. Among them, 80 percent were female, 50 percent were minors, and 70 percent were trafficked for sexual exploitation. Two years after the publication of this report, the Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) citing data obtained from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) states that 12.3 million people are forced into bonded labour, child labour and sexual servitude. The most numerous victims – estimated at 9.5 million – are from the Asian region, with two-thirds of the women and children trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, human trafficking is the second most profitable form of transnational crime, after the sale of drugs. The report estimated that the annual profits of commercial sex trafficking is US$33.9 billion, based on only 1.4 million people trafficked for this purpose.

One the many factors that have led to the rise of human trafficking is globalisation. Almost every aspect of globalisation – free markets, free trade, greater economic competition, decline in state interventions, greater mobility of people and more rapid communications – has in some ways contributed to the trafficking and trade of human beings. Another factor is the end of the Cold War that had spawned numerous intrastate and regional conflicts in whose wake many are left impoverished and displaced. Disoriented and heavily dependant on handouts of foreign aid organisations, these desperate people are often ripe for the exploitation of traffickers. Within a few years of the collapse of the USSR, the Slavic successor states became the main suppliers of prostitutes to world markets, including Asia, the epicentre for the trafficking of women for the sex industry.

It is therefore not surprising that Southeast Asia, with its years of regional conflicts, high levels of corruption, and transitions from Communist regimes, is the hub for sex trafficking. Some scholars think that the geography of the region has also helped this transnational crime. For example, in the Golden Triangle region, women are trafficked from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and south China to work as prostitutes in Thailand. In Thailand, triads with connections with the Japanese yakuza run the lucrative pedophilia tourism. In some countries, the police, politicians and political parties all have a share in the revenue brought in by human trafficking. In her courageous book, Guns, Girls, Gambling and Ganja, Pasul Phongpaichit shows how human trafficking plays an important role in the Thai economy. In a recent TIP report, Singapore is given a Tier 2 ranking, which indicates that although the Republic has not complied with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, it is making ‘significant efforts’ to do so. The Singapore government has refuted the US State Department report, pointing out ‘several inaccuracies and misrepresentations’.

Christian leaders across the ecclesiastical traditions recognise that trafficking in person, either to work as unpaid labourers or as prostitutes, is a form of modern slavery. In a document entitled, Trafficking in Persons the late Pope John Paul II writes: ‘The trade in human persons constitutes a shocking offence against human dignity and grave violation of fundamental human rights’. The Church has a long history of denouncing slavery inspired by passages such as Isaiah 58:6, where the true fast is understood in terms of the liberation of victims of oppression and injustice: ‘Is not this kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?’ At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus used the words of Isaiah 61:1-2 to describe his mission, which includes the liberation of captives and the oppressed.

Christians therefore can never remain detached from the crime of human trafficking and stand aloof from its many victims. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus emphasised precisely this point in his exposition of what it really means to be a neighbour. In telling this parable, Jesus urges the self-righteous lawyer to embrace a new definition of neighbour that goes far beyond the immediacy of one’s family, friends and tribe. The story of the Samaritan helping the stranger who was the victim of a brutal crime demonstrates this process of ‘re-neighbouring’. It urges Christians to broaden their understanding of the neighbour to include the people, sometimes ‘invisible’ to society, who are suffering from disenfranchisement and violation, including the victims of trafficking. We are told that when the Samaritan saw the injured man lying in the pool of blood, he ‘took pity’ (Greek: esplanchenisthe) on him. The Greek word suggests a deep sympathy that enables the sympathiser to inwardly ‘experience’ the suffering of another. The story of the Samaritan urges the Church to learn to sympathise with those whose lives are being destroyed by trafficking. The parable urges the Church to learn to recognise the horror of victimization and to recover her ability to mourn.

The story of the Samaritan tells us that sympathy alone is not enough. It calls the Church to intervene. By stopping by the injured victim, and by nursing and binding his wounds, the Samaritan may be said to have interrupted the ‘trajectory’ of the injured victim, who would surely die if he did not receive help. Because of its complex nature, global human trafficking can only be thwarted through multilateral efforts. Churches should work with civil society groups and NGOs to meet the profound challenges posed by trafficking in repatriating victims, building shelters for returning victims, and even pressuring governments to develop laws and enforce legislation. The Church can be that welcoming community, where victims of trafficking can find a home where they feel accepted and loved, without being stigmatized. The Church can be that healing and nurturing community where people severely scarred can begin to rebuild their lives and explore promising directions for their future. Most importantly, the Church can be the community of grace where victims of abuse can experience the saving embrace of Jesus Christ.

Dr Roland Chia

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. 
This article was first published in The Bible Speaks Today (October 2012).

Gay Rights?

On 6 December 2011, the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered what has been described as her historic speech on LGBT rights in Geneva. Clinton spoke eloquently and passionately about the unconscionable atrocities that LGBT people have suffered due to societal discrimination. She spoke of lesbian or trans-gendered women who were subjected to ‘corrective rape’ or hormone treatments against their will. She spoke also of gays who had to flee their nations in order to save their lives and forced to seek asylum elsewhere. And she spoke movingly of people who are denied equal access to justice and banned from public spaces because they are gay. ‘No matter what we look like, where we come from, or who we are’, she asserted emphatically in this wide ranging speech, ‘we are all equally entitled to our human rights and dignity’.

These unjust and cruel acts against men and women because of their sexual preferences must never be countenanced by any society. They are gross human rights violations that must be condemned, and their perpetrators must be brought to justice. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights promulgated in 1948 unequivocally states that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood’ (Article 1). In Article 3 of the same document, we read: ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person’.

These principles are universal in that they should be applied to all human beings, regardless of race, gender, status, nationality, and sexual preferences. As I have argued elsewhere, Christians should have no difficulties embracing these principles because they resonate with the biblical teaching that every human being is created in the image of God, and must therefore be valued and respected (Genesis 1:26-28).

In her speech Clinton parrots the rather tired slogan that gay activists have repeatedly employed: ‘gays rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights’. There is, however, some truth in this slogan. Looked at from one angle, it simply states that gays have rights because they are human beings. But if this is true, why is there the need to speak of gay rights at all? Why not just speak about human rights? Why the need to make this distinction when gay rights and human rights mean the same thing and is nothing but a tautology? As it turns out, when gay activists speak of gay rights, they wish to emphasise certain rights that must be accorded to gays or LGBT people that society does not ordinarily recognise as a universal human right.

A case in point is the ongoing and often bewildering debate on gay marriage. For the Christian, the biblical and theological response to this issue is clear (or at least it should be). The Christian faith maintains that marriage is an institution ordained by God, and that everyone should have the right to marry (or the freedom not to). This principle is enshrined in Article 16 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which clearly states that: ‘Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family’.

Although the Christian understanding of human rights may be somewhat different from secular accounts, the Christian should have no problems with concurring fully with Article 16 of the Declaration. This basic principle surely applies to gays and lesbians.

But the Christian is opposed to replacing the traditional concept of marriage, which is the union of a man and a woman, with same-sex marriage. In the context of the discussion on human rights, we may put it this way: while everyone of full age has the right to marry, no one has the right to change the fundamental structure of marriage. The confusion in current discourse on gay marriage is that the redefinition of marriage itself – not just marriage – is presented as a right.

Thus, according to the Christian view, homosexuals have the right to marry members of the opposite sex. But no one has the right to redefine marriage, either for themselves or for a whole society. Many gays and lesbians have indeed married members of the opposite sex. No state or legal system has hitherto barred people with same sex preferences from marrying people of the opposite sex. In the same way, until very recently, no society throughout history has recognised or legalised same-sex marriage.

The traditional structure of marriage as the union between a man and a woman is older than the Church and the state. It is found in ancient societies, and, according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, it can be traced to the earliest history of man (Genesis 2:23-25). Revisionists have often failed to appreciate or ignored the fact that marriage has to do with more than the love and commitment of two people. It has primarily to do with its basic structure, namely, the union of a man and a woman.

As a result the debate on same-sex marriage is often obfuscated by invalid arguments, non sequiturs, and misleading analogies. They give the wrong impression that marriage is only about commitment and equality when in fact it has to do with much more. Just two examples of such erroneous approaches would suffice to bring this out.

The first is the argument that two adults who love each other and who have pledged their commitment to one another should be allowed to marry, even if they are of the same sex. This argument is often very persuasive, and when supplemented by the observation that heterosexual marriages sometimes end up in divorce because of lack of love and commitment on the part of the parties involved, the argument is made all the more compelling. But this argument fails because marriage is more than just love and commitment, important though they are.

The second example is inter-racial marriage, which was once despised because of racism and discrimination. Gay activists have often used this as an analogy, sometimes with good rhetorical effect. Just as the prohibition of inter-racial marriage is an inexcusable act of discrimination, so the argument goes, so is the ban against same-sex marriage. But this analogy fails because inter-racial marriage does not transgress the basic structure of marriage in the way same-sex marriage does. As Robert George, et el point out in their excellent article, ‘What is Marriage?’, in the case of inter-racial marriages, the ‘antimiscegenation was about whom to allow to marry, not what marriage is essentially about’. In both cases, the fundamental nature of marriage as the union between a man and a woman is ignored.

To conclude, if ‘gay rights are human rights’, as Clinton and many others have insisted, then there is a sense in which it is superfluous to speak of ‘gay rights’ at all. Its persistent use by gay activists, therefore, must signal that some else is afoot, a surreptitious agenda. It appears that gay activists are attempting to push the envelope through the language of rights. This is seen in the debate on same-sex marriage, where the goal is nothing short of the redefinition of marriage. Christians – and many outside the Christian community – maintain that no one has the right to do this.

Dr Roland Chia

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. 
This article was first published in The Bible Speaks Today (June 2013).

Christians generally maintain that human rights are universal

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

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.

Human Rights Declaration ideals resonate with Christian tenets

How should Christians think about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

DECEMBER 10, 2008 marked the 60th anniversary of the adoption by the General Assembly of the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is debatably the most important document in the moral, cultural and political history of the world.

Composed in the aftermath of World War II, with the unspeakable atrocities of the Nazi regime still fresh in the collective consciousness of the nations represented, the UN document is a response to the “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”.

The morality of human rights in the Declaration is established firmly and explicitly on the undeniable and inherent dignity and worth of every human being. The Preamble states that the nations have “reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom”.

The main thrust of this statement resonates with the Christian theological view of the human being as created in the image of God and therefore as having profound value and worth in the sight of God. This view espoused by the Declaration is also in tune with the Christian ethic expressed in Jesus’ injunction that we are to “love one another just as I have loved you” (John 13:34). In addition, the emphasis on mutual responsibility and communality in the Declaration resonates with Jesus’ command to love our neighbour, powerfully illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37).

As the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor pointed out, the affirmation of universal human rights in modern, liberal political culture is one of the “authentic developments of the Gospel” in modern life.

[For a more general treatment of the subject, see my article in Methodist Message Vol. 110 (8), August 2008, p. 12].

Sixty years after its formulation, the Declaration is under severe attack from different quarters. Postmodern critics of the Declaration reject the very idea of universal human rights that it espouses and promotes because they no longer believe that there is such a thing as objective truth that is accessible to all.

Postmodern multiculturalism insists that all truths – including our concepts of human rights – are cultural constructs that are specific to particular communities. This means that these critics consider the grandiose vision of universal human rights that the Declaration presents as nothing more than a sentimental delusion.

If on one front the Declaration is assaulted by the criticisms of nihilism and extreme multiculturalism, on another it is accused of “cultural imperialism”. The states that reject the ideals of the Declaration have complained that they are in fact the “imposition” of primarily Western concepts of human rights.

To be sure, the formulation of the truths about human beings and their rights that the Declaration promotes has a cultural history. But these truths are not the possession of any one culture; they are truths that all cultures recognise. Therefore, these truths cannot be seen as cultural impositions by an elite group of ideologues. Furthermore, most states that reject the ideals of the Declaration do so because of nationalism, racial pride, ideological dogmatism or political power.

There is yet another challenge to the ideals of the Declaration. As the writers of the Ramsey Colloquium on Human Rights have succinctly put it, “human rights are threatened in the name of human rights”. That is to say, the ideals espoused by the Declaration are threatened by the proliferation of the number of rights and the distorted understanding of these rights. For example, some quarters have promoted “children’s rights”, the right of children to be independent from their parents. Others have lobbied for the right to abortion, or the right to physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia.

The list of rights found in the Declaration is of course not meant to be exhaustive. But it must be emphasised that that list is not an arbitrary collection of unconnected rights either. The Declaration must be read as a whole in order to understand its coherence and the philosophical anthropology that undergirds its concept of rights.

The century in which the Declaration was formulated was a violent one. One needs to think only of that century’s mass-murdering dictators and the staggering number of people who perished under their cruel regimes: Stalin was responsible for the deaths of more than 42 million people, Mao, 37 million, Hitler, over 20 million. Almost a hundred million, and we have not considered Cambodia, Bosnia and the carnage that resulted from the two world wars! Neither have we considered the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which 800,000 people perished in 100 days, and the massacres that took place in Darfur.

“The cry of conscience against genocide,” writes David Hollenbach, “is a negative protest that takes positive form in the affirmation of the dignity and rights of all human beings.” In our violent world, the language of human rights is as close to a moral lingua franca that we human beings are likely to achieve.

As the great philosopher Jürgen Habermas has argued: “Notwithstanding their European origins, in Asia, Africa and South America, [human rights] now constitute the only language in which the opponents and victims of murderous regimes and civil wars can raise their voices against violence, repression and persecution, against injuries to their human dignity.” We must never give up on speaking this language.


‘The Preamble of the Declaration states that the nations have “reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom”.’

Dr Roland Chia

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. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.

Torture blasphemes God who created human beings in His own image

Should Christians ever condone torture?

ACCORDING to the standard dictionary definition, torture is simply the act of deliberately inflicting pain by one person on another person. There are many ways in which this can be done: beatings, electric shocks, waterboarding, etc. But this simple dictionary definition of torture must be subjected to more detailed analysis.

Most writers would agree that there are at least five basic features of torture. (1) At least two persons must be involved in torture to distinguish it from self-abuse and mutilation. (2) One person has control over the others in torture. This distinguishes torture from combat, for instance, in which the combatants fight for control. (3) The pain that is inflicted in torture must be extreme, purposeful, systematic and harsh. In other words, the pain inflicted cannot be accidental. (4) Torture dehumanises the victim with some very specific goals in mind: obtaining a confession or information, punishment, or even conversion. (5) The act of torture may be directed either immediately at the victim, or the victim may simply be the means to obtain information from a third party.

Torture has a very long and dark history stretching back thousands of years. Greek and Roman law not only allowed slaves to be tortured, but citizens as well, especially for treason. In the American colonies, those who were suspected of practising witchcraft were tortured. In recent history, torture continued to be practised in Nazi Germany, the Gulags in Soviet Union under Stalin, Cambodia and many other countries, including the United States.

Unfortunately, as any student of the history of the Church would know, Christians have used torture to force heretics to repent or convert to orthodoxy. In the Reformation era, Protestant reformers like Zwingli have used torture and physical abuse to persecute the Anabaptists or “re-baptisers”.

Can torture ever be justified? Those who answer this question in the affirmative often offer complex reasons for the justification of this practice. From the religious perspective, as we have seen above, torture is justified because it has the potential to cause a heretic to repent and therefore receive salvation. From the perspective of politics, for example, it is often argued that torture is justified if it could save the lives of citizens by obtaining vital information.

There is much debate on the use of interrogational torture to extract information from “high-value detainees” connected to terrorist networks like Al Qaeda. Many continue to support the practice even though the evidence suggests that information obtained by this means is highly unreliable. Those who support such acts fail to see that terroristic torture is fundamentally fighting terrorism by terrorism (because torture is basically a form of terrorism).

The Christian concept of human beings as the bearer of the image of God (imago dei) overwhelmingly opposes the practice of torture, regardless of the latter’s motivations and goals. According to Christian belief, every human being is part of God’s good creation, endowed with inalienable dignity and worth. Christians are called to take seriously and respect the personhood of every man, woman and child because they are in some ways bearers of the image of their Creator.

Torture is an act that dehumanises its victims, robbing them of their basic dignity, and reducing them to “nonpersons”. Torture is the tyrannical subjugation and sadistic degradation of the human being. Christians can never endorse such cruel violations of human persons created in God’s image.

The Christian appeal to the concept of the image of God also points to another important feature concerning human beings. A number of Christian theologians, including Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, came to understand the image of God in relational terms. Just as the triune God is being-in-communion, so human beings created in his image are relational creatures. In other words, the doctrine of the image of God points to the fact that human beings are created to be in communion with one another. Torture is therefore demonic in that it disrupts and destroys this communion and fellowship in a radical way.

Torture perverts the relationship between the torturer and the tortured and that of the tortured and the torturer. And in doing so, torture degrades the human being and the human community in a way that is destructive to the neighbour and self. Torture therefore ultimately blasphemes the God who created human beings in His own image and likeness.

Torture undermines both the victim and the torturer alike. The victims of torture are humiliated and subjected to intense suffering to the point that they are robbed of all dignity. But it is not just the intensity of the suffering that makes torture evil. As William Cavanaugh writes in his book, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, it is the “realisation that this is being done to me by another human being. It is the perversion and destruction of the very idea of human relationship”.

Torture not only brings out the deep urge to humiliate and hurt that resides in the breast of fallen human beings, it also justifies this expression of violence. That is why once chosen, torture cannot be contained, and quickly becomes the preferred method. As Princeton theologian George Hunsinger puts it, “Torture, once chosen, both proliferates and corrupts. Proliferation is its dimension of breadth, and corruption its dimension of depth.”

The Christian opposition to torture must therefore be categorical and unqualified.


‘Torture is an act that dehumanises its victims, robbing them of their basic dignity, and reducing them to “nonpersons” … Christians can never endorse such cruel violations of human persons created in God’s image.’

Dr Roland Chia

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.
This article was first published in the Methodist Message.