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Human Rights and Christian faith

14 May 2008

When I announced that we would be blogging for human rights today, someone called Bewilderbeast commented:

Please let’s remember human rights are just that, and religion should not enter the debate. All humans should be welcomed to debate their rights – and the absence of rights for so many – without feeling excluded on faith grounds. The human family includes all regardless of race, faith, creed, etc.

Now that is a sentiment I profoundly disagree with. Or perhaps I should say that it is a sentiment that is confusing and contradictory. If you say that religion should not enter the debate, then you are ipso facto excluding people from the debate on faith grounds.

I agree rather with the Archbishop of Albania when he says, “It is clear that religious conscience and faith play a decisive role, both directly and indirectly, in the formulation of views on human rights and in people’s willingness to accept these views.”

In the light of Bewilderbeast’s comments, it might be worth saying some more about why religion cannot be excluded from the debate. People may have various kinds of religious and non-religious motives for affirming or denying the concept of human rights. Reasons that may appeal to the adherents of one religion might not appeal to the adherents of another, and almost certainly will not appeal to atheists, who deny religion altogether. Each religion therefore needs to make its own contribution to the debate.

This post, in addition to being part of a general “blogging for human rights” is also part of a synchroblog — a group of Christian bloggers who agree to blog on the same topic once a month, and so look at the topic from various points of view. In this post, therefore, I shall be looking at human rights from a Christian point of view, and more specifically from an Orthodox Christian point of view. I should also, at the outset, acknowledge my debt to Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos of Albania, one of the greatest missiologists of our times, whose essay on “Orthodoxy and human rights” has inspired much of what I have written here, though I must emphasise that Archbishop Anastasios cannot be held responsible for what I have said.[1]

For Orthodox Christians any consideration of human rights must begin with anthropology. What is man? What is human nature? What does it mean to be human?

Orthodox anthropology sees man (male and female) as made in the image of God. The most important features of the divine image in man are freedom and love. Man, like God, is a person, and can relate to other persons face to face. Though this relationship with God has been distorted by the Fall, and man has lost the likeness to God, through the reconciling work of Christ communion between God and man has been restored, and through the Holy Spirit we can grow into the likeness of God.

I can illustrate what this means for human rights by an anecdote. When I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, I went with a group of friends to visit a Pentecostal church near the university. The government had recently passed a law allowing political dissidents to be detained by the police for 90 days (after which they could be momentarily released and then re-detained). At the church we visited, the preacher took as his topic “Should the church oppose the 90-day detention clause?” and the answer he gave was a resounding no. He took as his text “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”, and said that the church should not criticise the government for the 90-day detention laws, because that was one of the things of Caesar, and not one of the things of God. My question, however was this: those who wanted to trap Jesus asked if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not, and he asked them to show him a coin, and asked whose image and superscription was on it. And they said it was Caesar’s, and so he responded “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” But in the question of 90-day detention, we have to ask in whose image the detainee is made. A coin is one thing, a human being is another. The detainee is made in the image of God, and 90-day detention renders unto Caesar the things that are God’s.

Archbishop Anastasios also says that the ideas of human freedom and equality

… have a central place in the teaching of the Fathers, who persistently speak about human equality: about homotimia (that all people have equal value) and isotimia (that all are entitled to equal privileges). Equality, in their view, lies at the very essence of human nature, and they are unconditional when they call any departure from equality a form of injustice.

If we move from doctrine to ethics, from the “is” to the “ought”, we see that Jesus said “Love your neighbour as yourself”. A lawyer, trying to interpret this legalistically to determine the minimum he could get away with asked, “And who is my neighbour?” And Jesus answered with a parable, an anecdote, of the man who fell among thieves. The lawyer never gets an answer to his question. Instead Jesus shows that it is the wrong question by asking another: “Who was neighbour to him who fell among thieves?” The question is not “Who is my neighbour?” but rather “Who can I be a neighbour to?”

Over the last couple of centuries there have been various declarations of human rights. For Orthodox Christians they all suffer from the same deficiency. Though well-intended, they try, like the lawyer who asked “Who is my neighbour?” to define the minimum. Also, for all their fine-sounding words, there have often been serious violations of the rights listed in the declarations, even by the states and others who have signed them. It has become almost fashionable to apologise for past breaches of human rights in other ages and by other people, or to demand that others do so. Anglican bishops, for example, recently demanded that Tony Blair apologise for Britain’s involvement in the slave trade; but there is far less willingness to right present wrongs.

As Christians, we are aware of the limitations of law. Laws, and quasi-legal documents like declarations of human rights, can say what is wrong, but they cannot enable people to do what is right. Love is the fulfilling of the law, but love goes beyond the law. Justice is not love, but we can say that justice is congealed love. Law does not empower people to love one another. In the Christian view, only the Holy Spirit can do that. But what the law can do is to mitigate the effects of hate, to try to limit the damage caused by our failure to love. So declarations of human rights and constitutional bills of rights have their place, but as Christians we should seek to go beyond them. As Archbishop Anastasios says

There is another human right that has never been included in any rights charter, but which is constantly singled out in Christian thought: the right to love and to be loved. This is seen as the basic defining characteristic of a human being, because human beings are complete only when they love and are loved. God himself, who loves humanity to a degree that the human mind can only struggle to fathom, gave us this right in a most awe-inspiring fashion.

What about people who are not Christians?

Again, Archbishop Anastasios says

The knowledge that millions of people do not accept the theological premises held by Christians does not lessen the importance that these premises have for the Christian conscience as the basis of our respect for human rights. The fact that others hold views different from our own in no way prevents us from respecting their freedom to believe as they wish, nor does it raise the slightest doubt in our minds that they fully possess the equality and rights that are inherent in human existence, because human existence, for us at least, has been indelibly imprinted with the image of God.

____

Notes

1. Archibshop Anastasios’s essay “Orthdoxy and human rights” may be found in Facing the world: Orthodox Christian essays on global concerns, (Crestwood, New York, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003, ISBN 0-88141-246-5).

—-
Bloggers UniteThis post is part of the May 2008 synchroblog on human rights, and below you will also find a list of the other synchroblog countributions from a group of Christian bloggers who post on the same general topic on the same day. We also join thousands of other bloggers around the world in blogging for human rights.

Other Synchrobloggers

And for a list of some of the other “Bloggers unite” posts, click here.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 May 2008 10:08 am

    Steve
    I think you have put into words the difficulty I have always found with the whole idea of “Human Rights”, when one has a perspective informed by the bible. So much so that I could not write anything on it myself.

    The idea of the “minimum” (the law) as opposed to the maximum (Love by grace) is helpful.

    The key factor that throws the christian spanner in the humanistic works is that G-d calls us to lose our rights (our souls, in fact), but to stand for the rights of others.

    Law defines Rights, but G-d Invites. Part of the invite is to willingly lay down the rights defined by law.

  2. 15 May 2008 5:57 pm

    excellent and well thought out post as usual; I agree that religion needs to be given a voice in the debate! Thanks for the introduction to Orthodox anthropology.

    I have blogged on the subject here:

    http://sallysjourney.typepad.com/sallys_journey/2008/05/if–bloggers-un.html

  3. 15 May 2008 6:08 pm

    The key factor that throws the christian spanner in the humanistic works is that G-d calls us to lose our rights (our souls, in fact), but to stand for the rights of others.

    yet, I’ve often heard this given as an excuse for why Christian’s should care about anyone’s rights. …

  4. 17 May 2008 12:46 pm

    Excellent post Steve. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child places an obligation on States Parties to ensure that children enjoy their right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 14). The Vatican and Islamic States were engaged in the formulation of the Convention. It does seem to me that religion and rights are closely intertwined. I love the quotes from Archbishop Anastasios and will try to get his book from the library.

  5. 17 May 2008 9:34 pm

    Spot on about the image of God, but then I’d expect that given the fact you are of the Orthodox faith.

    🙂

    It puzzled me to hear that someone thought there shouldn’t be an approach to human rights from a religious or spiritual viewpoint. I could argue that secularism is an ideology and atheism a religious stance and insist that neither (nor humanism either) be considered worthy option either. Then what would be left?

    One has to be looking from some vantage point to have a view.

  6. 1 September 2008 7:25 am

    Read the books, people! Most religions PRECLUDE human rights. This is a secular matter. We need HUMAN RIGHTS. That need has nothing to do with Hinduism (for example).
    One of those rights could be freedom of religion so that each individual can practice whatever faith he believes in. Anyone who honestly reads any of the main monotheist books will admit that human rights are specifically diminished or excluded at many points in religion.
    We need human rights to be formulated disregarding all religions. Religions can then add their dogma to their adherents (and only them) within those rights, but others should not have to feel threatened or bound by a religion (theirs or someone else’s) as pertains their HUMAN RIGHTS.

  7. 1 September 2008 7:38 am

    By the way, Steve, with genuine respect: Please read your comment (copied below) and see if your “ipso facto” stands up to honest evaluation:

    I said: Please let’s remember human rights are just that, and religion should not enter the debate. All humans should be welcomed to debate their rights – and the absence of rights for so many – without feeling excluded on faith grounds. The human family includes all regardless of race, faith, creed, etc.

    You said: Now that is a sentiment I profoundly disagree with. Or perhaps I should say that it is a sentiment that is confusing and contradictory. If you say that religion should not enter the debate, then you are ipso facto excluding people from the debate on faith grounds.

    Why am I excluding HUMANS when I say (in effect) “All welcome to enter the debate, but please speak only of human rights, not of religious matters, where you KNOW we’ll have to disagree on certain things”??

Trackbacks

  1. Bloggers, unite for human rights « Sotho
  2. Ravine of Light » Human Wrongs (May Synchroblog - Bloggers Unite For Human Rights)
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  6. Are Evangelicals Really Interested in Social Justice - Synchroblog « cosmic collisions of imagination and creation
  7. Oh freedom over me « Khanya
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