Religion and Human Rights






Rights Law


  Rule of Law







Christian Support for Human Rights

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Robert Traer*

Jürgen Moltmann asserts that despite the tensions in the ecumenical movement "the common faith" lives.1 Despite the differences among Christians over matters of doctrine, there is a growing consensus today in support of human rights. 

It is striking that this consensus on human rights among Christians not only bridges historic divisions in the church—between Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants and between different Protestant denominations. It also bridges the new conflicts among Christians, which divide those who believe the Bible is the inspired word of God from those who believe it is the inerrant word of God.

By a growing consensus on human rights I mean much more than agreement that violations of human rights are evil and tragic. Christians agree substantially about the justification for human rights advocacy, the content of that advocacy, and its importance for the mission of the church.

Justifying Human Rights

All Christians agree that human rights laws are not authoritative merely because they are laws passed by the state. The Nazi regime is a vivid example of the injustice that can be done through the lawful edicts of a state. Moreover, the death of Jesus, though unjust, was lawful.2 The law is to be obeyed because it is right, not simply because it is the law. The standard for the law must be sought outside the law.

This may seem obvious, but many lawyers today do not agree. Those who embrace legal positivism hold that human rights are simply what the law says they are. However, as John Warwick Montgomery has reminded us, this is merely to commit the naturalistic fallacy. The "ought" cannot be derived from the "is." The fact that people agree does not mean that they are right.

In addition to rejecting law per se as authority for human rights, Christians reject arguments claiming that humans have rights because of their intrinsic worth or attributes, if these arguments fail to acknowledge the God who created these persons and the universe in which they live. Christians agree that all affirmations of human rights are grounded in the transcendent reality of God.

Therefore, Christians do not speak of human rights as "natural rights," for this phrase suggests that human rights are merely self-evident characteristics of the natural order. Christians affirm that human beings have rights not because they are part of the natural order, but because they are loved by God.

This is not only the position of conservative Christian theologians Jacques Ellul and John Warwick Montgomery, but also of Christian historian of religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who argues that "no one has any reasonable grounds—has any 'right'—to talk about human rights who rejects metaphysics."3 Human rights, Christians agree, involve what is supernatural as well as what is natural.

In addition, for much the same reason most Christians no longer argue for human rights on the basis of a theory of natural law. Protestants have long been wary of this language. Roman Catholics, who once invoked natural law as a foundation for values in the created order, now base their doctrine of human rights on the human dignity of each person as a child of God. Today among Christian human rights advocates the long-standing controversy between Protestants and Roman Catholics over the authority of natural law is moot.

In summary, Christians are in substantial agreement that human rights cannot be justified on the basis of law alone, nor simply by invoking the notions of "natural rights" or "natural law." For Christians, human rights are grounded in God. Christians agree that all affirmations about human rights begin with faith in God, who transcends the world and yet is present within it. 

Christians assert that human rights are known through both reason and revelation. Catholic social teaching speaks of "reason enlightened by revelation," and Christopher Mooney says this teaching claims

    that all reasonable people should be able to discern a human right to minimum levels of food, clothing, and shelter, the values of work and family, the binding nature of contracts, as well as the need for both freedom and interdependence. At the same time there was also a claim, quite consistent with natural theory, that Christian faith can make a significant contribution to social morality, because in fact these moral insights of reasonable people correspond with traditional Christian values and teaching.4

Protestants often emphasize revelation over reason, but most do not deny the possibility of knowing the good through reason. As C. S. Lewis asserts, it would be disastrous "to present our practical reason as radically unsound."Protestants argue that human rights are grounded in revelation, but may be known through reason. Carl F. H. Henry writes:

    On the basis of God's scripturally revealed purpose, evangelical Christians affirm values that transcend all human cultures, societies, and human rights constituting the norms of civilization. Objectively grounded human rights are logically defensible on this foundation of the supernatural creation of man with a unique universal dignity.6

Some Christians believe they should avoid human rights advocacy involving humanists, who reject God's revelation in Christ but nonetheless affirm human rights. However, Henry urges Christians to work with all persons of goodwill in the struggle for a more just world order.

Christians also agree that all human rights are based on the divine right of God. Bishop Helmut Frenz of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chile asserts that "Human rights are the social execution of the divine rights."7 Moltmann says: "The human rights to life, freedom, community, and self-determination mirror God's right to the human being because the human being is destined to be God's image in all conditions and relationships of life."8 Jacques Ellul argues that, because all human rights are divine rights, Jesus Christ "alone has rights before God."9 Christians from East Germany affirm that "the inviolability of life, dignity and property are not a constitutive element of the human being," as these rights belong to God alone.10

Christians agree that human rights are rooted in the created order of the world: "There is only the divine right. From the idea of creation Christians understand the whole world as a sacred order, dominated by the idea that God is bound to rights as a just God."11 In the words of James M. Childs, Jr., "the basic freedoms and protections of human rights doctrine are divinely revealed in and through the natural order of creation."12

Of course, Christians differ in the way they describe their particular positions. Agnes Cunningham, Donald Miller, and James E. Will distinguish Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed positions in their essay, "Toward an Ecumenical Theology for Grounding Human Rights."13 These theological differences are evident in ecumenical gatherings, such as the consultation sponsored in 1980 by the World Council of Churches with the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Pontifical Commission Justitia et Pax, which identified three theological approaches to the justification of human rights:

    The first approach proceeds from the creation and considers the source for human rights to be implicit in natural law. A second approach insists upon the experience of God's covenant with his people. The New Covenant in Christ is the criterion for dealing with historically developed natural and human rights. A third approach takes the event of the justification of sinners through the grace of God to be the basis of freedom and from there proceeds to the responsibility of persons for their neighbors.14

However, the consultation affirmed that "a common understanding does exist in the basic doctrine that all theological statements on human rights derive from the Christian anthropology of the human person created in the image of God."15 This is the basis of the inviolable dignity of the human person.

Christians also agree that human rights are justified because of God's redemptive acts. Ellul and Montgomery emphasize this point, but Moltmann makes the same assertion on behalf of the Reformed Protestant tradition and the statement of the Lutheran World Federation concurs.16 Roman Catholics, too, assert that human dignity is not merely known in the created order but in "the Christ-event,"17 for "it is in the meeting of God in the man Jesus Christ that man fully discovers his dignity and the dignity of all others whom he must love as his neighbors (Luke 10:36, Matt. 5:43-48)."18

Similarly, the Handbook of Doctrine of the Salvation Army asserts that "man is more than a natural being . . . [in that] his spiritual endowments and the revelation given by the gospel of redemption concerning his place in the divine purpose, invest him with a dignity and value of his own."19 Salvationists believe with Archbishop William Temple:

    There can be no Rights of Man except on the basis of faith in God. But if God is real, and all men are His sons, that is the true worth of everyone of them. My worth is what I am worth to God; and that is a marvelous great deal, for Christ died for me.20

Because Salvationists believe in the doctrines of creation and redemption, they support human rights, for they know "what God thinks of man, what He has done for man, [and] what with God is possible for man."21

Pablo Martínez provides a succinct summary of the Christian position. He notes that human rights are not based on any notion of intrinsic goodness in human beings, or on any human attribute, or on any human act of government, but are grounded solely on the creation and redemptive acts of God. "God has a 'right' over us for a double reason: because he made us and because he ransomed or redeemed us. This act, moreover, increased the value and the worth of every person before God."22 Thus, Christians defend human rights on the basis of eternal principles: "There is no way that we can present our rights independently of God, seeing that all we are and have comes from him and his grace (Ps. 24:1; 1 Cor. 4:7; 2 Cor. 5:18)."23 Christians affirm human dignity by supporting human rights, because God has created and redeemed the human person.

Max Stackhouse argues that logically all talk of human rights involves at least the following two presuppositions:

    members of a society must believe that there is a universal moral law transcending their own culture, society, or period of history about which they can know something with relative clarity . . . [and this] universal moral law must involve an affirmation of the dignity of each person as a member, a participant, in relationship with others, in a community that extends to all humankind.24

Similarly, Methodist theologian J. Robert Nelson asserts that "Concern for the integrity, worth, and dignity of persons is the basic presupposition of human rights."25 The shift in emphasis in Roman Catholic social teaching since Pacem in Terris, from natural law to human dignity as a basis for human rights, supports the same conclusion.26

However, it is important that human dignity be understood, as Nelson suggests, in the context of Paul's vision of the corporate church. Only then will it express the notion of the common good. Robert Bellah makes the same point in arguing that human rights must be "grounded not merely in the self-preservation of the individual" but in the broader "religious context" of divine justice.27 In the words of Richard Neuhaus, Christians affirm that only "a transcendent understanding of the dignity of the person" will provide a foundation for a Christian doctrine of human rights.28 

Human Rights Advocacy

Neither the Bible nor traditional doctrines refer to human rights directly, but Christians derive human rights from both. Whether the emphasis is on grace or covenant, creation or redemption, God's action calls for human response. Christians accept as binding the commandments to love God and to love their neighbors and to keep the Golden Rule. For many Christians today, this means supporting human rights.

Thus, Christians affirm that human rights are derived from faith and involve duties to God and one's neighbor. Rights are relational. The human person does not have rights as an individual, but in relation to others in community and ultimately in relation to God. The right to life is derived from the value God gives to life, by creating and redeeming it.

Human rights are not only derived from divine rights but also constitute duties toward others. Christians assert that because God loves all people, all people have rights and the corresponding duties to respect the rights of all others.29 This view of human rights is at odds with the notion of individual rights that is central to the development of Western political and philosophical thought. Christians urge concern not for the autonomous individual, and his or her rights, but for the rights of persons in community and their duties as well as their rights.30

For Christians, the content of human rights transcends political ideologies and includes what have been described in international law as the three generations of human rights.31 In the words of John Paul II, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly:

    All these human rights taken together are in keeping with the substance of the dignity of the human being, understood in his entirety, not as reduced to one dimension only. These rights concern the satisfaction of man's essential needs, the exercise of his freedoms, and his relationships with others.32

These human rights may be listed, as in the recapitulation of Catholic social teaching in Pacem in Terris, or they may be described more generally as the conditions for human dignity.

Montgomery derives a lengthy list of human rights from the teachings of the Bible, which include most of the rights associated with the three generations of human rights law. Moreover, he affirms that the Bible in some instances sets standards even higher than international law. He also argues that the Bible supports the notion of a new international economic order, so long as there is protection for freedom of conscience and freedom of expression.33

Both Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders point out that the human rights supported by Christians are largely catalogued in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.34 John XXIII embraced the Universal Declaration in Pacem in Terris,35 Paul VI made it the cornerstone of his work, and John Paul II celebrated it in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. Moltmann and Stackhouse support the Universal Declaration,36 Walter Harrelson suggests it offers "a marvelous set of guidelines,"37 and Orthodox Christians also endorse it.38

Carl Henry sharply criticizes the Universal Declaration, because it "does not identify the transcendent source of rights."39 However, he does not take issue with its content.40 Moreover, Bishop Frenz of the Evangelical Lutheran Church goes so far as to affirm that:

    Through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Christ speaks much more clearly than through some synodal proclamations. This proclamation is of Christ's spirit, because it puts the concern for persons, the concern for their dignity, in the center.41

And Erich Weingärtner suggests that the Universal Declaration may be understood as a modern "Ten Commandments."42

Christians are in substantial agreement today as to the content of human rights advocacy that is justified. Christians affirm the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and covenants incorporating its basic principles into international law. 

Importance of Human Rights Advocacy

Bishop Frenz has written of the importance of human rights advocacy for Christians. At the heart of the Gospel is a concern for persons. The church

    is called to be an instrument of the kingdom of God by continuing Christ's mission to the world in a struggle for the growth of all human beings into the fullness of life. This means proclaiming God's judgment upon any authority, power or force, which would openly or by subtle means deny people their full human rights.43

Neuhaus warns us not to place our trust in the current enthusiasm for human rights, but to recall that as Christians our commitment to human rights depends "on a promise that bestows dignity upon every person and demands of every person a respect—no, a reverence—for the dignity of all others."44

What is striking is that this statement of faith cuts across the Christian community, uniting those that are divided on other issues of doctrine and practice. Liberal and conservative Protestants, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Evangelicals are remarkably united in their support for human rights advocacy in our modern world.

To be sure, there dissent exists within the Christian community. For instance, Edward Norman argues strenuously that Christians in their human rights advocacy are merely endorsing the political values of their own societies.45 Moreover, Christians differ in their particular justification for human rights, the degree of their commitment to human rights, and so forth.

Nonetheless, the agreement among Christians about human rights is striking. For instance, statements by the World Council of Churches are clearly in agreement with the assertion, by conservative theologian Jacques Ellul, that Christians must be educated about human rights; for when "it comes to speaking up and taking a stand for human rights, it must be done by the entire Christian community. . .."46 Furthermore, Roman Catholic social teaching concurs with the assertion, by evangelical John Warwick Montgomery, that the Christian doctrines of creation and redemption "provide the common denominators for all the sound human rights teaching which we have met in the classical theologians of Christendom."47

Clearly, for many if not all Christians, human rights are central to understanding both the gifts and the demands of the gospel. God has given human beings dignity and thus calls all peoples to the responsibility of protecting human rights, as the social conditions necessary for human dignity. For Christians all around the globe, human rights are as clear as God's creative and redemptive presence and as compelling as life itself. Today human rights are at the heart of what Christians believe and affirm as their common faith.

Notes for Christians and Human Rights  

*A revision of the chapter entitled "A Christian Consensus" in Faith in Human Rights: Support in Religious Traditions for a Global Struggle (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1991).

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Human rights are the social conditions necessary for human dignity.