U2’s No Line on the Horizon, first impression

I love it. ☺

Standout tracks for me: “Magnificent” (track 2), “Moment of Surrender” (track 3), “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” (track 5), “Get On Your Boots” (track 6), “White as Snow” (track 9, sounding eerily like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”), and “Cedars of Lebanon” (track 11).

Yes, I know I named more than half of the album … what’s your point?

Social Justice & Human Rights (4)

The following is the fourth and final part of a paper I wrote last summer (2008) for Advocating for Social Justice, adapted for this blog. The paper looks at the biblical mandate for justice and at the particular way this may be worked out with regard to human rights.

Words of Caution

Advocacy for human rights is one way of doing justice in the world, of defending the image of God that abides in every human being. But just like every part of the work that God calls us to on earth, it will not be accomplished without opposition. “In truth,” writes Gary Haugen, “we live in an exceedingly dangerous world in rebellion against its Maker, a world filled with prideful, frightened, willful, violent people who have incrementally chosen to cut themselves off from the Creator’s goodness, love, mercy and justice” (112). There is much injustice in the world, there is much that needs to be done to participate in God’s redeeming story, and there will be many dangers and obstacles that will seek to dissuade us from pursuing God’s agenda. One such danger is to be overwhelmed by the immensity of the task: Gary Haugen names this as the church’s malady over the last century, observing that “somewhere during the twentieth century some of us have simply stopped believing that God actually can use us to answer the prayers of children, women and families who suffer under the hand of abusive power or authority in their communities. We sit in the same paralysis of despair as those who don’t even claim to know a Savior—and in some cases, we manifest even less hope” (14).

Another danger in engaging these issues is to take the messianic mantle which belongs to no person other than Jesus Christ. We are graced with the honor and entrusted with the responsibility of participating in God’s mission, recognizing that though we bear the image of God, we are also afflicted by fallibility: “the tension between what Christians are called to do and what they actually do remains a problem. Therefore, Christians should never claim that their achievements or their aims in politics or in any other arena of life represent God’s will. They should only claim that they are trying to respond obediently to God’s call to love their neighbors and to do justice” (Skillen: 3). All we can do is be faithful.

The third and final danger I will mention is to think that the structures and systems that dominate the world stage need not be addressed. While Christians have traditionally been good at rescuing individuals or helping communities, we have often failed to consider and address the various social, cultural, economic and political frameworks which influence us. Missiologist and theologian David Bosch wrote:

It was a stupendous victory of the evil one to have made us believe that structures and conditions in this world will not or need not really change, to have considered political and societal powers and other vested interests inviolable, to have acquiesced in conditions of injustice and oppression, to have tempered our expectation to the point of compromise, to have given up the hope for a wholesale transformation of the status quo, to have been blind to our own responsibility for and involvement in a world en route to its fulfillment. (quoted in Haugen: 63)

It is a daunting task to change the political, economic and social systems which ensnare people in cycles of poverty, which entrap people in forced prostitution, which allow the abuse of children, which turn a blind eye or give an approving wink to anything that devalues the image of God in any person. But we are called to nothing less.

Words of Encouragement

But we should not let the dangers—though there be many—discourage us. One of the core messages of Gary Haugen’s book Good News About Injustice is that “we can change things. Our despair, cynicism and laziness may insist to us that nothing ever really changes and that we can never really make a difference. But on high we see a great cloud of witnesses stand to their feet with a different testimony” (60). We have the witness of people like Martin Luther King, Jr., of Rosa Parks, of William Wilberforce, of Oscar Romero, of Mother Teresa, to name but a few reminders to us that where God is the propelling and compelling force, change will happen. Moreover, we can take heart in the fact that “God does not call us to a ministry that he will not empower” (Haugen: 104).

Conclusion

Love God; love your neighbor; love your enemy; do justice; love mercy. I have sought to show that advocacy of human rights is a natural extension and implication of these biblical commandments, whether we choose to argue from the creation story—highlighting humanity’s creation in the image of God—or from Jesus’ instruction to love as he loved—a love which defended this very image. I have not promoted an individualistic understanding of human rights, but a perspective of human rights that focuses on “the least of these” (Matt. 25)—a perspective that mirrors Jesus’ own. “Those who read in the biblical text a sheerly personal, individualistic morality have not understood the Torah, have not sung the Psalms, have not been burned by the prophets, have not perceived the implications and the very burden of Jesus’ message, and must inevitably fast and loose with St. Paul” (Burghardt: 12). If we are to read and live Scripture faithfully, we must also work out the gospel’s implications for our lives (and for the lives of others). As I mentioned previously, truly living faithfully to the gospel will have implications for every part of life, and I have understandably not been able to explore all of these. For example, the narrow definition of human rights as found in the UDHR is not focused on non-human creation but environmental and creational issues have an enormous impact on human rights—for instance, it is the poorest who suffer most as a result of the global warming to which the richest contribute most. But I hope in brushing the surface I have begun a conversation about justice and about a broader understanding of human rights that may stimulate more conversations. And more action.

***


References Cited & Further Reading

Bales, Kevin. 2004 (revised ed.). Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
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.

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.

Haugen, Gary M. 1999. Good News About Injustice: A Witness of Courage in a Hurting World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Hertzke, Allen D. 2004. Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Hollenbach, David, S.J. 2003. The Global Face of Public Faith: Politics, Human Rights, and Christian Ethics. Washington, DC: Georgetown University 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.

Newbigin, Lesslie. 1989. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans 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.

Stassen, Glen H., & David P. Gushee. 2003. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Storkey, Alan. 2005. Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Traer, Robert. 1991. Faith in Human Rights: Support in Religious Traditions for a Global Struggle. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

van der Ven, Johannes A., Jaco S. Dreyer, Hendrik J.C. Pieterse. 2004. Is there a God of Human Rights? The Complex Relationship between Human Rights and Religion: A South African Case. Leiden; Boston: Brill.

Social Justice & Human Rights (3)

The following is the third part of a paper I wrote last summer (2008) for Advocating for Social Justice, adapted for this blog. The paper looks at the biblical mandate for justice and at the particular way this may be worked out with regard to human rights.

Advocacy for Human Rights: What It Means and What It Might Look Like

Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth century Spanish mystic, wrote the poem “Christ Has No Body,” which tells us that we are the body of Christ, through which his compassion comes to the world: “Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good; yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.” This is a theme that has been repeated over the centuries, most recently by Shane Claiborne: “We are the body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus to the world. Christ is living inside of you and me, walking the earth” (85). The people of God are the conduits through whom the love and justice of God are conveyed to the world. Gary Haugen puts our call to practice justice in this way:

Unless the work of seeking justice is a category of endeavor that is completely different from every other activity on earth that is important to God, the answer to the how question has something to do with what God’s people do or don’t do. If you think about it, two truths apply to everything that God wants accomplished on earth: (1) he could accomplish it on his own through supernatural power; but instead, (2) he chooses for the most part to limit himself to accomplishing that which he can achieve through the obedience of his people. (96-97)

The just character of God is not revealed in Scripture only for our information; we are not only to be hearers (or readers) of the Word, but doers also (James 1:22-25). It is a biblical mandate to do justice, and advocating human rights—defending the image of God in every person—is one way to do this.

Advocacy for human rights, I would suggest, is more than just speaking up for the basic and individual rights set out in the UDHR, though, as I have argued, this is not a bad place to start. Stassen critiques our culture as having a “definition of human rights [that] is too narrow. In the United States, we emphasize the freedoms of speech and press, religious liberty, and freedom from torture or arbitrary imprisonment but de-emphasize economic rights to health care, housing, food, and jobs” (1992: 138). Though the UDHR has begun to broaden its definition of human rights to include such economic rights, as seen with the ratification of the Right to Development in 1986, the Christian call to justice and human rights should be understood as an even higher calling than the UDHR definition of human dignity since “[f]undamentally, biblical justice is making things right, not simply recognizing or defining individual rights” (Burghardt: 25). If our understanding of human worth is grounded in our understanding of people as created in the image of God, then “[i]nsofar as we see men and women together as the image of God, called to serve God with all that they are and have, we must seek diligently to make it possible for every person, in community to develop and bring to light their gifts and abilities” (Skillen: 40). What practical implications might this cultivating of humanity have? Beginning with the basic rights outlined in the UDHR, I will explore briefly a few such repercussions.

The Right to Liberty (Art. 3): human trafficking and slavery
The right to individual liberty is often derided in Western culture because it is seen as allowing a person to do whatever they want to. However, the right to liberty may be put into context when we realize that in the world today, two centuries after the Slave Trade Act in Great Britain and 150 years after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in the United States, an estimated twenty-seven million slaves still inhabit the earth (Bales: 8). They are sold into bonded labor and into prostitution, among other fates, often trapped in a cycle of poverty or abuse, with no way to break out of their own accord. These are some of those who cannot speak for themselves, who are destitute, who are poor and needy; we are told to speak up for them (Prov. 31:8-9).

Kevin Bales describes slavery as “unquestionably the ultimate human rights violation short of murder” (32). It is, he continues, “exploitation, violence, and injustice all rolled together in their most potent combination. If there is one fundamental violation of our humanity we cannot allow, it is slavery. If there is one basic truth that virtually every human being can agree on, it is that slavery must end” (262). Around the world, organizations such as Anti-Slavery International, Free the Slaves, and International Justice Mission, are working to bring freedom and liberty to the twenty-seven million men, women and children who are trapped in bondage and entangled in the web of economic, social, political and cultural disadvantage. God did not intend those who bore his image to be enslaved by others; we can work to free them.

The Right to Life (Art. 3): abortion, the death penalty, and everything in between
One of the most controversial areas of human rights is the area of abortion; in particular, the conversation has developed to a point where the question of when a fetus acquires human rights has been raised. As Christians, we believe with the psalmist that God knit each one of us together in our mothers’ wombs (Ps. 139:13), and that all life is sacred, even if it is not medically “viable.” But perhaps our methods for advocating for the life of the unborn child may take a more humble approach than picketing family planning centers or condemning those who make such undoubtedly difficult and distressing decisions; Stassen and Gushee suggest seeking “to deliver people from the causes of abortions. See to it that potential mothers will have help raising their children or giving them a family through adoption. Make it possible for people to raise their babies and not to have to drop out of school, not to have to give up on a future. Help them have confidence that they can cope” (227).

At the other end of the life spectrum from birth is death. The death penalty is reserved for those who have committed the most heinous crimes, and it stands as a form of retributive, punitive, and deterrent justice. But Christians believe that every human being is created in the image of God, and that while this image has been tarnished by human sin, it has not been obliterated. For this reason, Pope John Paul II said, “The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil” (quoted in Burghardt: 67). Moreover, Stassen and Gushee observe, “Biblically … while there is a retributive dimension to justice, the focus is given to deliverance of those in bondage and restoration to community. … Jesus consistently emphasized a transforming initiative that could deliver us from the vicious cycle of violence or alienation” (212, 213). Even in the way we view legal justice, we are called to seek life and the methods and practices that affirm it.

Rights for All without Distinction (Art. 2): civil rights, immigrants, children
In the beginning, God created humankind in his image: not only those who were a certain race, color, sex, language or creed, but every human being. So the rights set out in the UDHR and the worth endowed by God belong to all people. This means that prejudice and discrimination of any kind that denigrates the dignity of a human being is not of God. Racism, for example, “violates the integrity of creatures made in the image of God and is wrong everywhere, in every institution and relationship” (Skillen: 87). Xenophobia—and its cousin, mistreatment of immigrants and foreigners—is inexcusable since it maligns the image of God in these people. Jesus treated every human being as created in the image of God, even those who were reviled by his culture. Burghardt describes Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well:

in his eyes she was a person, a woman, human, human as he was. Even more importantly, she had been shaped by God, shaped in the image and likeness of her Creator, gifted with intelligence and freedom, with a mind to know and a heart to love. And, for all her faults and fragility, she was still an image, a reflection of God. Somewhat misshapen, like the rest of us, but still awfully precious in God’s eyes, in Jesus’ eyes. (47)

As well as people of different ethnicities and nationalities, the image of God is found in people of different ages. The youngest and the oldest are often most at risk; they are often the most vulnerable and the ones who suffer the most as a result of human sin. In the halls of power, the children “have no lobby of any consequence, no influence with Congress. Guns have a powerful lobby; so too capital gains; so too tobacco; but not our children” (Burghardt: 35); and the elderly are abandoned in a culture which values self-promotion over care for family. Organizations like the Children’s Defense Fund seek to defend the youngest and most vulnerable, and to ensure that their concerns are not ignored.

***


The few aforementioned examples offer only a glimpse into what it means to actively love our neighbor—that is, to do justice—and to value every person as made in the image of God. There are far more examples that could be provided; the gospel, after all, affects—or at least, ought to affect—every part of life. Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection—his redemptive work—has implications for every human being and for all of creation; through Christ, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col. 1:20).

References Cited

Bales, Kevin. 2004 (revised ed.). Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Burghardt, Walter J. 2004. Justice: A Global Adventure. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Claiborne, Shane. 2006. The Irresistible Revolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Haugen, Gary M. 1999. Good News About Injustice: A Witness of Courage in a Hurting World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

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.

Stassen, Glen H., & David P. Gushee. 2003. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Junior

Ken Griffey Jr. is a Mariner again.

I am happy.

Social Justice & Human Rights (2)

The following is the second part of a paper I wrote last summer (2008) for Advocating for Social Justice, adapted for this blog. The paper looks at the biblical mandate for justice and at the particular way this may be worked out with regard to human rights.

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.

References Cited

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.

Social Justice & Human Rights (1)

The following is the first part of a paper I wrote last summer (2008) for Advocating for Social Justice, adapted for this blog. The paper looks at the biblical mandate for justice and at the particular way this may be worked out with regard to human rights.

Introduction

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.

References Cited

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.

Mélange

I feel kind of weird blogging again, having been away for so long. It’s been a crazy-busy few weeks since I last posted. And there’s much that I’ve wanted to write, but I’ve either had no time or no energy or no motivation. So, in no particular order:

  • Started working in the Admissions Office again (+15 hours).
  • The weekend before the beginning of quarter, my faithful MacBook died on me.
  • Four days later, I got a great deal on a new MacBook Pro to replace it (thanks, Ivan!).
  • The MacBook Pro is awesome.
  • Inauguration Day was awesome.
  • Celebrated Chinese New Year in style with Christina and family, and friends.
  • Had a phenomenal Valentine’s Day (we’re now on a roll: five consecutive good V-Days and counting): babysitting Jackson, waffle brunch with the neighbors, dim sum brunch, and then …
  • Snowboarding for the first time! I only wiped out a couple times (one of which left me with a bruise on the back of my head and minor whiplash), and had a phenomenal time. I’ll post some more pics when Judith gets around to posting them.
  • The day after Valentine’s Day was crammed with catching up on schoolwork because of all the fun I had the day before; plus, I was pretty hurting, so sitting at a computer working on papers and reading for most of the day did not help that.
  • Had two dim sum runs and a dumpling run, among a number of other culinary expeditions. Food = so good.

On a more serious note, go visit The Sold Project. My friend Rachel is the executive director of this non-profit. Go get informed about child prostitution in Thailand, just one horrible facet of human trafficking which enslaves 27 million people globally. More on this to come.

Oh, and then there’s future news …

It’ll have to wait till next time.