A Biblical Understanding of Human Rights
Having established justice as an indispensable element of God’s character, the next task is to build a biblical perspective on human rights. At first glance, this is a thankless task since, as Jack Mahoney notes, “neither the Hebrew Bible nor the Christian New Testament makes any reference to the subject of human rights” (4). However, while there is no specific mention of the phrase ‘human rights,’ this does not necessarily mean that the concept of human rights is unbiblical. Instead, an understanding of human rights can be gleaned from and built upon the biblical corpus regarding justice, just as our understanding of the Trinity has been gleaned from and built upon what is explicit in Scripture.
As mentioned previously, God created humankind “in his image … male and female he created them” (1:26-27); they were the pinnacle of God’s creation, sharing something of the very person of God—even to the point of resembling him (Goldingay: 98). It is upon this foundation that Catholic social tradition built its doctrine of the dignity of the human person, and it is a valid one. It is because every human being, male and female, is made in the image of God that every human being has innate worth. As Rich Nathan notes, “Human sin has not erased the divine image” (242). Translating this to a human rights framework, advocating human rights is a practical and tangible way of recognizing the worth which God has given to people.
When Jesus is asked which of the commandments is the greatest, he responds with two commandments that summed up the law and the prophets: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and the second, which is “like” the first, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:34-40). The two commandments to love God and to love neighbor are inextricably connected and related: “If we love God, then we will love all made in God’s image” (Storkey: 138). But who is our neighbor? This was the question posed to Jesus by the lawyer in Luke 10:29-37, seeking to figure out to whom he would bear an obligation, and Jesus turned the question on its head with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The issue was not about who was the priest’s neighbor or the Levite’s neighbor, but who was a neighbor to the man who had been robbed? Who would the victim have considered his neighbor? Conrad Gempf points out the allusion here to Jesus’ so-called Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31; Matt. 7:12):
Do not ask, “Who must I see as a neighbor?” Ask instead, “Who would I want to see me as a neighbor if I were in need?” … The problem isn’t that of defining who is our neighbor, it is a problem of changing our attitudes from that of limiting our obligations to that of seeking to be of service. (76-77)In fact, Jesus goes beyond the realm of ‘neighbor’ and says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). ‘Love’ in this context is clearly not the emotional feeling with which we have come to associate it as a result of the influence of Western culture. Jesus went beyond a change of perception—seeing more people as our neighbors—and demanded an active love towards all people, friends and enemies. C.S. Lewis wrote, “This is what is meant in the Bible by loving [your neighbor]: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not” (105), intending the phrase ‘wishing’ to mean more than just a desire unaccompanied by action.
How can Jesus’ radical commands to active love towards our neighbors be manifested within the contemporary landscape? Perhaps love of neighbor can be found in affirming the value of every human being as understood in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Art. 1), having “the right to life, liberty and security of person” (Art. 3), being free from the fear of “slavery or servitude … torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” (Art. 4, 5), and more. Perhaps we may love our neighbors by defending their rights, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (Art. 2). In this way, advocacy for human rights offers a concrete expression of love for neighbors and for enemies.
The sphere of human rights has been decried as overly-individualistic, and this is a genuine danger, especially in more developed countries. But the risks of too much liberty should not deter us from advocating for those who do not have even basic rights: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:8-9). The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, makes it a point to emphasize that Christians are free—“now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to [the law]” (Gal. 3:26-29); “For freedom Christ has set us free” (5:1)—but he also exhorts them not to use their freedom “as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”” (5:13-14). As Glen Stassen comments,
Based on the Christological doctrine of justification, we are freed by Christ, subject to no one’s authoritarian domination. But the “liberated freedom” in which the Christian lives is the freedom to servanthood and love. The release from all servitude to the powers of the world means empowerment to serve the well-being of others—both freedom and responsibility in one. This supports human rights of freedom, not as selfish autonomy but as mutual servanthood. (2008)
As Christians who have been saved by grace and liberated by Christ, we possess a freedom that cannot be taken from us; but it is not a freedom that we have for ourselves. It is a freedom to follow Christ, to do as he did, to love as he loved, and to affirm the dignity of every person as he did. It is a high standard that he calls us to, higher even than defending the basic rights set out in the UDHR; but the fight for human rights is a good place to start, that is, consistent with the Bible’s priorities for humanity.
It must be noted that, while advocating human rights in general is a good expression of upholding the value of every person as created in the image of God, as Christians we must maintain the perspective that love of neighbor is not divisible from love of God, and that the dignity and worth that we affirm as being innate in humankind is innate only because God put it there. “Since humans have their dignity because they have been created in the image of God, their ultimate obligation is to God, not to a state or an enterprise or a clan. Or to put it another way, even in and through their civic responsibility, humans owe that responsibility ultimately to God” (Skillen: 11). Jesus said that loving one’s neighbor was like loving God (Matt. 22:39), but he did not say they were the same thing. We must not lose sight of the centrality of God, not in the sphere of human rights nor in the broader realm of justice: as Archbishop Oscar Romero put it, “be careful not to betray those evangelical, Christian, supernatural convictions in the company of those who seek other liberations that can be merely economic, temporal, political. Even though working for liberation along with those who hold other ideologies, Christians must cling to their original liberation” (2). Stassen summarizes the biblical understanding of human rights thus:
If the greatest commandments are love of God and love of neighbor as oneself, then human rights need to be grounded in love of God who gives humans their rights rather than simply individual possession, and in obligation toward neighbors who have been given these rights rather than simply individual assertion that “I own these rights.” Furthermore, if Jesus teaches that all persons, even enemies, are to be included in the community of neighbors, then our obligation is to all persons created in the image of God and to whom God gives sunshine and rain—which is truly all persons. Human rights, then, are based in God’s universally inclusive love and in our obligation to all persons God cares about. Human rights are obligations to the basic needs of all persons. They are not merely possessive individualism; they are obligatory caring. (2008)
Therefore, defending and advocating for people’s basic human rights need not be understood as a secular glorification of the human person, but can be seen as a logical extension of what it means to be a follower of Christ, whose welcome extended to all people, especially the outcasts and misfits of society, and what it means to love God with all of our heart, mind and strength in loving our neighbors (including our enemies) as ourselves. The next section of the paper will offer some further practical suggestions for what this may look like.
Gempf, Conrad. 2003. Jesus Asked: What He Wanted to Know. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Goldingay, John. 2003. Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1: Israel’s Gospel. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Lewis, C.S. 1978. Mere Christianity. Glasgow, Scotland: William Collins Sons and Co Ltd.
Mahoney, Jack. 2007. The Challenge of Human Rights: Origin, Development, and Significance. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Romero, Oscar. 1988. The Violence of Love. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Skillen, James W. 2004. In Pursuit of Justice: Christian-Democratic Explorations. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Stassen, Glen H. 1992. Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
———. 2008. “Human Rights.” Not yet published; obtained and used by permission of the author.