Human rights are important. Whether one agrees with them or not, it is undeniable that they are coming increasingly to the fore, in the spheres of economics, politics, and development. The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and though it is a technically a non-binding resolution, it is now considered by most to be the foundation of international customary law. On the Christian front, while the Roman Catholic Church has had a consistent tradition of social justice, of upholding the dignity of human person, of championing rights and responsibilities, and of speaking up for the poor, Protestant Christians have been slow to recognize its congruencies with a biblical understanding of justice. For some, the problem is an insufficient understanding of justice as one of the central characteristics of God; for others, it is an insufficient understanding of how human rights can serve as a manifestation of this justice. Some have discounted human rights because the phrase ‘human rights’ does not appear in the Bible; nor does it contain a systematic code of rights. However, I would argue that much of Christian faith is about working out the repercussions of what we find in Scripture, and that a value and respect for human rights is one such implication of the biblical text.
The aim of this paper is not to discuss human rights per se but to try to formulate a theology of human rights. Consequently, I will not look at the common challenges that are leveled against the sphere of human rights. Instead, in this paper, I will argue that advocating for human rights is one necessary consequence of the biblical mandate to do justice, which itself stems from the character of God. It is because God is who he is—a God of love and of justice—that he commands his people to be like him. Advocating for human rights is one way in which Christians can show their love of God in their love of neighbor. Finally, I will end by mentioning a few ways that this impacts some contemporary issues.
A Biblical Mandate to Do Justice
We begin by looking at the creation stories of Genesis, and in particular where God creates humankind “in his image … male and female he created them” (1:27). As well as being central to a biblical understanding of human rights, this verse lays the foundations for a biblical mandate to do justice. Most scholars have concluded that “the image of God reflected in human persons is after the manner of a king who establishes statues of himself to assert his sovereign rule where the king himself cannot be present. … The image of God in the human person is a mandate of power and responsibility. But it is power exercised as God exercises power” (Brueggemann: 32). As John Goldingay notes, being made in the image of God means that “humanity not only represents God but also resembles God” (98). Thus, it is important to understand the character of God in order that we might best represent him, resemble him, and exercise the power he has given us in the way that he exercises power. For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on justice as central to God’s character: Yahweh is a God of justice. But what does this mean? Walter Burghardt writes, “the biblical concept of justice is too rich, too opulent, too complex to be imprisoned in a definition” (7). In order to construct an understanding of Yahweh as a God of justice, therefore, we will look at some passages in the biblical narrative, recognizing that this is only a cross section due to the limits of this paper.
In the Exodus story, God had to shape a people who had spent years in slavery, oppressed by the Egyptians, into a people who more ably represented—imaged—their God. Moses reminds the Israelites, “Yahweh your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19). Justice is revealed in tangible acts; characteristic qualities exist only because saving actions attest to them. God’s just actions were intertwined with his just character: he rescued the Israelites from slavery not only because they were his chosen people but also because they were oppressed. This became the reason for the Israelites to do justice: “I am Yahweh your God.” And this meant having honest balances, honest measures, honest practices, because Yahweh, their God, is an honest God (Lev. 19:36; Deut. 25:15; Ezek. 45:10). This meant practicing the year of Jubilee, a year of emancipation and restoration, because Yahweh was their God, the one who had emancipated them from slavery in Egypt and restored them to the land he had promised their ancestors (Lev. 25). This meant loving their neighbors as themselves because Yahweh was their God, and love was central to Yahweh’s being (Lev. 19:18).
Similarly in the Psalms, God’s righteousness and justice (two concepts which are virtually interchangeable from an Old Testament perspective) are not intangible characteristics. Rather they are revealed most often in God’s saving actions (Ps. 71:1-2, 15-19, 21-24a). The psalmists were especially vocal in their affirmation of God’s justice, singing, “Yahweh loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones” (Ps. 37:28) and “Yahweh works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed” (Ps. 103:6). He is worshiped as the God who helps the victim and the fatherless (Ps. 10:14), whose throne is built upon righteousness and justice (Ps. 89:14), and who executes justice for the oppressed, sets the prisoners free, opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, watches over the strangers, and upholds the orphan and the widow (Ps. 146:5-9). Yahweh is the God who commands his people, “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Ps. 82:3-4).
When his people failed to discharge their responsibilities as images of God and his justice, he raised up prophets to point this out to them. Jeremiah pleaded with King Shallum, “Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says Yahweh” (22:16). Ezekiel also spoke out against corruption, where “the alien residing within you suffers extortion; the orphan and the widow are wronged in you … you have forgotten me, says the Lord God” (22:7, 12). Through Amos, God denounced worship devoid of justice: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (5:23-24). And Micah reminded the people, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does Yahweh require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8). Through Isaiah, God’s words to his people are most revealing:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. (58:6-10)
In Jesus, we find the fullness of God and his justice embodied in a human being. Jesus took upon himself the mantle of the Servant about whom Isaiah prophesied, anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19; cf. Is. 61:8). Yet Jesus, who was justice personified, was also characterized by love. He commanded his followers to love one another as he loved them (John 13:34, 15:12); to love not only their neighbors but also their enemies (Matt. 5:43); to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, to take care of the sick, to visit those in prison, for “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:31-46). “Jesus is not seeking distant acts of charity” (Claiborne: 158), but concrete expressions of love. Justice is one such concrete expression of love; justice is love made tangible. Love was the motivation for Jesus’ mission and love was the motivation for Jesus’ commission, and justice was demonstrated in the way that he loved. As the Apostle John asked, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:16-18).
Burghardt summarizes New Testament justice in the statement, “Love as Jesus loved. The kind of love that impelled God’s unique Son to wear our flesh; to be born of a woman as we are born; to thirst and tire as we do; to respond with compassion to a hungry crowd, the bereavement of a mother, the sorrow of a sinful woman; to weep over a dead friend and a hostile city; to spend himself especially for the bedeviled and the bewildered, the poverty-stricken and the marginalized; to die in exquisite agony so that others might come to life” (19). Jesus is God incarnate, and in him, we see the personification of the justice, compelled by love, that is evidenced throughout Scripture as a central characteristic of God. Consequently, as human beings created in the image of God—created to image God—we are called to be just people and to do justice, motivated by love and by the example of Christ.
Brueggemann, Walter. 1982. Genesis. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
Burghardt, Walter J. 2004. Justice: A Global Adventure. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Claiborne, Shane. 2006. The Irresistible Revolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Goldingay, John. 2003. Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1: Israel’s Gospel. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.