Are Human Rights and Christianity Strange Bedfellows?

Over the course of the last several months, the Caymanian community has been intensely engaged in a discussion on human rights.  This came to a head during the recently concluded process of framing the new constitution which included a bill of rights.  Oftentimes in that conversation, the battle lines were drawn and, sadly, the Church was perceived as being “against” human rights.  Also, it appeared that the discussion was repeatedly reduced to a “one issue” debate about “gay rights”.  This put off many religious persons, much like in other jurisdictions where human rights is associated with “criminal rights” perceived as protecting criminals who actually take away “rights” from others.  So the question might correctly be asked: is the concept of human rights compatible with religion in general and Christianity in particular?

There are various perspectives which offer answers to that question.  On the one hand, some persons believe that human rights are just that [human] and, consequently, religion should not enter the discussion.  The thinking is that all humans should be welcomed to debate their rights without feeling excluded on faith grounds. For after all, the human family includes all regardless of race, faith or creed.  On the other hand, there are those who would argue that human rights are founded in secular humanism which is viewed as a religion [or philosophy of life] that sees man as the supreme being.  They would contend that since it is based on a concept that rejects the existence of God and the supernatural, it cannot be accepted as a legitimate companion to religion [and certainly not the Christian religion].

Can Christians embrace [or perhaps, more importantly, not embrace] the idea that all humans have inherent rights, regardless of nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status?  Though the apparently obvious answer might well be “yes” to embracing; for many Christians the difficulty comes about in trying to determine the nature of those rights as well as who gets to establish them.  There is widespread agreement within the Christian community that human rights laws are not authoritative merely because they are laws passed by the state. Robert Traer in the article “Christian Support for Human Rights” argues that “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.”

Christians embrace the concept of human rights and the need for human rights advocacy on the basis of their understanding of what “is right” and what “ought” to be done.  These issue from their faith assumptions.   It is this introduction [some might argue imposition] of our morality into the discussion on human rights, that makes some people uncomfortable.  Yet Christianity is not alone its in offering of a morality to the discussion on human rights.  Non-Christian humanists advocate what some call a “minimalist anthropology” of human rights that forms the presuppositions of the morality of human rights.  Rob Buitenweg “Human Rights and the Paradox of Humanism” contends that in this minimalist anthropology, human beings are “regarded as persons…that need well-being, participation and freedom, as goods that are valuable in their own right and in that they are necessary conditions for achieving goals and purposes.”

In this regard, here are three general agreements among Christians on the concept of human rights.  Firstly, human rights are grounded in what might be called “the transcendent reality of God.”  So, these rights do not simply issue from nature or “natural rights” but from God.  This represents a movement away from a purely natural law approach.   Even Roman Catholics [who once invoked natural law] base their principle of human rights on the human dignity of each person as a child of God.

Secondly, human rights are known through both reason and revelation.  Reason can help us to determine the “rights” of persons to such things as the basic minimums to support life as well as the need for freedom.  On the other hand, revelation provides the values that transcend all human cultures and societies, hence supplying the objective defense that humans were created with universal dignity.

Thirdly, “human rights” is anchored in the Christian understanding of humans as being created in the image of God.   Human dignity is not only recognized in creation but also when we meet Christ.  This helps our self-discovery and gives us an appreciation for our sisters and brothers.

Christians, therefore, cannot place ourselves in opposition to human rights.  At the very minimum, our missiological understanding bids us to struggle for a more just world order.  We strive for the creation of a world within which each person is able to achieve her God-given potential [from the right to accessing the fundamentals that support life to having the right to freedom of expression].

Christians should join with all who have an interest in human rights and bridge the gaps that exist.  If the dignity of all is to be preserved, then we have to find a “common morality” to be upheld.  And, for it to be truly “common” it cannot be restricted to one outlook on life or a particular life-stance; even though it is impossible for it to be detached from ideologies and experiences.  It is an approach where we do not discount the “place” from which people come to the discussion, as these different “life-stances” provide the very life-bed for the values which ultimately inform our common goal.