Issues Facing Christians Today – Human Rights

Humans needing to be treated with dignity and respect has been accepted for thousands of years. However, it is in the last hundred or so years this has become a major emphasis and has started to be called human rights. There is now a general accepted truth that human rights are universal, independent of what country you live in.
It was in the aftermath of two world wars and the genocide of Jews that it became such a strong focus with Universal Declaration of human rights in 1948. This followed President Roosevelt “State of the Union” speech 1941, in which he looked forward to the emergence of “a world founded upon four essential freedoms”–freedom of speech and expression, the freedom of every person to worship God in his or her own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear–after each of which he added the words “everywhere in the world”.
Every country in the world has ratified at least one treaty on human rights.
However, still major problems – people disappearing, torture happens. People are persecuted on basis of faith, both Christians and Muslims, and because of their ethnicity.
There are two elements of human rights – rights for things not to happen to us e.g. torture and violence; rights for things e.g. education and food and civil liberties such as fair trial, freedom of expression, association, and religion.
I don’t think there is any disagreement in this between us as Christians and most other people in Luton, the UK and much of the world.
However, there are battle lines regarding human rights and as Christians we have a contribution to make.
“Human rights has become the major article of faith of a secular culture that fears it believes in nothing else.”
It has become a source of conflict between the secular world and people of faith. People who have a religious faith will look to their fundamental religious teachings for their views on human rights, whether those teachings are found in the Koran or the Bible, for instance. This is one of the reasons why Muslims have sometimes had problems with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Others say it is just a Western concept imposed on other parts of the world.
On the one hand, we cannot succumb to cultural relativism which may allow a nation to escape its human rights commitments because of its claim to have a different culture. But, on the other hand, we cannot impose the values of our own Western culture on the rest of the world.
This is where I think we have something very important to contribute as Christians.
Biblical perspective on what it means to be human.
Dignity, equality, responsibility.
Dignity – based on humans being made in image of God. Rational, moral and spiritual.
Freedom to profess, practise and propagate religion, the freedom of worship, of conscience, of thought and of speech, follow from the fact that we are made in the image of God and are rational, moral and spiritual beings.
“If God has not given something as a right, then it cannot be claimed as a right and it is this that may cause Christians to be at odds with those who root human rights in the Western ideal of the autonomous individual who has freedom to choose their own goals.”
Our value depends on God’s view of us and relationship to us. Because of this, human rights are not unlimited rights, as if we were free to be and do absolutely anything we like.
e.g. world partially understands this – puts some limits on our rights e.g. sexuality – children, animals off limits. But no obvious basis of why. People of faith recognise limits to our rights based on what it means to be a human being, with dignity, made in the image of God.
That is why it has been essential to define “human being” before defining “human rights”.
We do need to recognise that the Church has not always been true to the gospel and hasn’t always treated people with dignity, dehumanising people, even torturing them.
The rights God gave he gave to all human beings equally. However, this easily degenerate into “my rights” on which I insist, irrespective of the rights of others or of the common good. The major problem I see in the human rights debate.
The Bible focuses on equality – ALL made in image of God and the powerful upholding rights of less powerful. Not about my rights, about human rights.
e.g. Masters and slaves etc. in Paul. No favouritism with God. e.g. Rebuke to David misusing his power.
Without the concept of equality, it causes conflict, as one person asserts his or her rights against another. With the rights of the stronger prevailing. Which is great if you are the strong!
It seems also to encourage selfishness. It overlooks the fact that human beings have duties and responsibilities as well as rights, my next point.
We need to persuade people of the rights of others, especially the marginalised. We also need to acknowledge that too often in human history the church has sided with the rich and powerful and has not upheld the rights of the marginalised. Even today, we can be heard asserting our rights as Christians rather than those of everyone.
In 1989 Solzhenitsyn called for the balance between rights and responsibilities to be redressed. “During these 300 years of Western Civilization, there has been a sweeping away of duties and an expansion of rights. But we have two lungs. You can’t breathe with just one lung and not with the other. We must avail ourselves of rights and duties in equal measure.”
The Bible is radical in this respect. It emphasizes that our responsibility is to secure the other person’s rights. Loving our neighbour as well as ourselves.
We must even forgo our own rights to do so.
Jesus Christ is the supreme model. Although eternally “in very nature God”, he “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6–7). Throughout his life he was a victim of abuses of human rights. He became a refugee baby in Egypt, a prophet without honour in his own country and the Messiah rejected by the religious establishment of his own people to whom he had come. He became a prisoner of conscience, refusing to compromise to secure his release. He was falsely accused, unjustly condemned, brutally tortured and finally crucified. And throughout his ordeal he declined to defend or demand his rights, in order that by his self-sacrifice he might serve ours.
The renunciation of rights, however unnatural and idealistic it may seem, is an essential characteristic of God’s new society.
1 Corinthians 9 all about responsibilities alongside rights.
Here, then, is a Christian perspective on human rights that we can contribute into the public debate.
Firstly, we affirm human dignity. Because human beings are created in God’s image to know him, serve one another and be stewards of the earth; therefore, they must be respected.
Secondly, we affirm human equality. Because human beings have all been made in the same image by the same Creator; therefore, we must not be supportive of some and scornful to others but behave without partiality to all.
Thirdly, we affirm human responsibility. Because God has laid it upon us to love and serve our neighbours; therefore, we must fight for their rights, while being ready to renounce our own to do so.
We must create a community that models this new society, by our conduct at home and at work as individuals, but also as a local church. A people forgoing their rights, showing no partiality or favouritism; defending the poor, being active in the interests of others e.g. it is not Biblical to worry about the rights of Christians and ignore the rights of Muslims!
We seek to uphold the rights of the disadvantaged in the world – e.g. children, women, disabled.

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