Human rights and wrongs

By Brian Edgar

In recent times the concept of human rights has become increasingly important. It is now very common for people to seek to resolve everything from the most serious to the most trivial via human rights. The first ‘dilemma’ is deciding what is meant by ‘human rights’.  Issues include: religious liberty; torture; the use of landmines; the right to self-determination; corporal punishment; dowries; the Northern Territory intervention; gay marriage; vilification laws; single sex private clubs; construction industry unionists; bikie gangs; access to justice; children and young people’s rights; disability; economic; social and cultural rights; asylum rights; terrorists and family/friends/congregation. At a structural level there are issues relating to charters and common law; the Freedom of Belief Review; the role of inter discrimination; national conventions.  What are we to make of all this?

These are notes on an address given to the Annual Conference (2009) of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations within the Uniting Church in Australia and subsequently to a seminar of the ACC in Victoria (2010)

The concept of universal human rights is not static. ‘Human rights’ as they are generally understood and discussed today are the rights of lawyers and lawmakers and not so much the rights of theologians and philosophers.  This is not necessarily bad, but it has implications!  Modern rights begin with Enlightenment influenced 18th century philosophical rights expressed in the US and French Declarations. But in the modern era they are most associated with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the two subsequent principal covenants:  The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) and subsequent treaties on various topics (including racial discrimination; torture; the rights of the child and the family). MOre recent developments have included the proliferation of national and state charters and bills.    The matter is made even more complex by the differences between these various legal rights and popular conceptions of human rights – which are very diverse – and more theological and philosophical conceptions of human rights.

The central point of human rights is that they are attributed a status as high priority convictions; they are rights of all people; they trump other laws; they are independent of law; no other, weaker norm can provide adequate protection; the costs imposed by the right are tolerable and can be distributed equitably; it is feasible in the large majority of countries. They primarily relate to claims made on societies, often governments.  The more modern rights are egalitarian and more social. These rights are not absolute, they can conflict; they are not completely transhistorical; they can be “withdrawn” at times. Christian theology has contributed hugely to the notion of human rights, and still has more to offer.

1. Preserving the foundation of human rights: Human rights need to have a theological (philosophical) foundation. It is doubtful that any purely secular theory of rights can satisfactorily demonstrate why particular human rights ought to exist. This is not to say that there cannot be a purely pragmatic reason given or that a set of rights cannot be developed simply by consensus. Indeed that is the primary way it has been operating for some time. But the loss of a substantial foundation exposes human rights to a process of deterioration.  The general understanding of human rights has been moving through stages: from the philosophical to the pragmatic and now, with some to a desire to marginalize the theological foundation on which they are built. There is something of a dilemma in finding ways to work with those who work only on the basis of pragmatics and consensus while retaining an obvious commitment to a theological approach.  Trinitarian theology is connected with social human rights. God is the source of all good. Rights arise from the reality of the creation of humanity in the divine image. Human rights reflect the communal pattern of the Trinity. Freedom and equality are central biblical concepts (eg. a right theology of baptism extends beyond the purely private to very public, social dimensions (Gal. 3:26-7 for more on this see the appendix below).

2. Developing the theology of human rights: The Christian focus is upon human responsibilities directed towards God. But in modern statements these states of responsibility are expressed as basic rights of individuals.  To say that a person has certain rights is only possible because we understand that God holds others responsible for them. This, in turn, emerges out of a covenant relationship. Talk of rights apart from both responsibilities and relationships is not really adequate. We need to consider the possibility of Christians and the gospel helping society go beyond the concept of human rights into a new way of thinking.

The great dilemma of human rights thinking, indeed of all social involvement by the Christian is how it is possible to affirm that which is right; promote the healthy; and work for common good; while at the same time saying clearly that this is not the main issue and reminding people that real life comes irrespective of the presence of economic security, good health and even the presence of human rights. There is no question that Christians should not seek the welfare of the city (Jeremiah) or the good of their neighbour (Jesus) nor is this meant to detract in any way from support for human rights, this is however a claim that the kingdom of God is not ‘of’ this world (even though it is ‘in’ this world and profoundly influencing it). There is a profound connection between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘secular’:  (1) Individually, there is no higher right than to hear the gospel and to be able to receive the salvation which God offers. This right translates in the wider community to a more general ‘religious liberty’ because the right to hear the gospel necessarily involves the right to reject it, or even to accept another.(John 1:12; Romans 1:14; 1 Corinthians 9:16). This is the foundation for both a general theory of religious liberty and subsequently for all other individual (eg political and democratic) liberties. But the greatest human right is to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. The evangelist who declares Jesus is a worker for the most fundamental human rights. (2) Corporately, it cannot be said that ‘groups’ or ‘communities’ have ‘human’ rights in the same manner as individuals. Yet the responsibility (or, if one prefers, the right) to be a part of the church of Jesus Christ can translate into a general right of community, culture, association etc.

3. Strengthening the practice of supporting human rights: It is precisely because of this strong theological foundation that Christians work for human rights. These fundamental gospel rights work their way out into other rights.  This extended liberty is such that not only do Christians have freedom of conscience but so do Muslims, bikies, trade unionists and even terrorists. Human Rights from a Christian perspective is not just about ourselves, or defending the church. It is about defending freedom of conscience for all people – and this is a gospel issue because God is not a God of compulsion.   Liberty derives from gospel of grace.  Christians should continue to support the notion of human rights. This means recognising the presence of gross human rights abuses in our world today. Christians have a responsibility to be engaged in care for people right around the world. One dilemma here is helping people understand that defending freedom of conscience/religion is not mere self-interest but something which is at the heart of human rights for everyone.

4. Defining fundamental concepts:  the issue of human rights actually raises important issues relating to the way that we understand our society. There are a number of intertwined issues: (1) the good of the community (there are some ’strong secularists’ whose convictions about human rights and the nature of society are more akin to social engineering); (2) the nature of a secular society (‘Human rights’ can be used as a way of enforcing secularism – as distinct from maintaining the neutrality of  a genuinely secular society); and (3) the role of religion in that society (pushing for a purely privatized role divorced from public issues).

5. Extending the moral language: the concept of human rights is very important and their influence needs to be extended. But how that occurs will be very contextual. In some places basic rights have to be developed, in places where they have already been detailed extending them does not necessarily mean ever more detail. There are differences of opinion, which is often influenced by the specific culture one comes from, as to the best general way of implementing human rights (bills, charters, common law etc). But just as Christian theology has provided a foundation for rights so too it can provide a basis for other approaches. The reality is that our public moral language is very limited. Rights is the language of law and just as to a man with a hammer everything is a nail, so to to a man with a law degree… An emphasis on a rights-based morality to the exclusion of other vocabularies will undermine understanding of public good, partly because of the perception of individual self-determination as the universal good.  The language of rights is unsuited to express the goods of many parts of community life (including marriage, sexual fidelity, the bonds and duties of family life and parental care). The dilemma here relates to the way we can help society develop a larger repertoire of moral social vocabulary including, virtue, responsibility, love, altruism and duty (which doesn’t sound very good to many because of the underlying Enlightenment view of the person as an autonomous independent being).

6. Testing and protecting rights: So far the conversation has dealt with rights in general, but there are many specific rights to be defended and extended.  The dilemma is in helping society identify genuine specific rights for all people (including, at times the ‘right’ to be wrong/rebellious/even, at times, sinful!) while seeking the good of society with behavior which is God-directed. In this Christians can be seen as (generally) taking one of two approaches to defending rights: (1) By presenting and arguing for specific rights which are Christian (eg concerning human dignity, freedom, sex, family, association, welfare etc).  (2) By defending the foundation of rights – including the freedom to be wrong – which may mean defending rights that are not ‘Christian’ (the right to be Muslim, atheist, sexually immoral from a Christian point of view) but the principles which allow for this foundation are Christian (involving grace and non-compulsion).  The view one takes on this depends on one’s view of the overall relationship of church/kingdom and society. (1) When one argues for specific Christian values it strengthens the moral state of society, but there is a danger of over-identifying church and state and trying to implement too much Christian legislation to ‘make’ people good, and also a danger in not offering to others the liberty which we expect for ourselves. (2)  Those who argue, from a Christian perspective,  for the libertarian foundation of society are defending the genuinely secular (not irreligious) nature of society and the grace of the gospel. The danger here is of allowing a re-definition of justice to mean ‘letting people do whatever they want’ and a danger of supporting the same moral vacuum which underlies secularism.

Finally, there will be differences of opinion on how rights and responsibilities are best secured in our society whether through (1) common law; (2) non-binding aspirational statements; (3) declarations which rely on enforcement by other bodies (as the UNDHR relies on the national laws of signatory countries); (4) Acts of Parliament; (5) Constitutional Declarations. The question is not whether Australia should have human rights it is how they are to be defined and defended. At this point my responsibility is to try and think biblically and theologically about the issues (rather than express personal opinion – the apostle Paul is a good example of distinguishing the two). Theology has a lot to say about rights, responsibilities and relationships but it will not always tell us everything. Is a Charter a good idea? It is such a contextual issue. Nor is it, fundamentally, really an either/or decision (no one completely rules out charters or common laws). From a theological point of view the fundamental problem doesn’t lie with a charter or common law, but with faulty (usually overly strong secularist) attitudes which lies behind pushes with regard to both laws and charters. The answer lies in changing people’s mindsets – changing their worldview – hopefully to the gospel but if not then to a view more amenable to gospel principles.

Appendix on the social and political implications of baptism

The following material is adapted from from Brian Edgar, The Message of the Trinity, IVP, 2004, pages 280-287

1. The social implications of baptism

Baptism is rarely understood as having broad public implications or a radical social agenda. It is usually understood as a personal commitment of faith, the sign of spiritual union with Christ and the point of entry into the life of the church. But when the apostle Paul expounded the meaning of baptism for the Galatians he did not just discuss its personal, experiential and ecclesial implications (Gal. 3:26-27). As Richard Longenecker comments, he addressed three pairs of relationships which ‘cover in embryonic fashion all the essential relationships of humanity, and so need to be seen as having racial, cultural and sexual implications.’[i] When he said, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” he was addressing profound social implications of three fundamental sets of human relationships which extend beyond the limits of the church. Ben Witherington has referred to Galatians 3:28 as ‘the Magna Carta of Humanity’[ii] a fundamental statement of equality before God, and a kind of constitutional statement which sets a foundation for the way life is to be lived.

Some believe that Paul’s teaching is purely about salvation (all believers have the same position in Christ) and that it does not actually have social implications. Others believe this teaching also has social implications to be addressed. But both of these positions assume that salvation is something personal and that the only question to be debated is whether it has broader, social implications. A better view is that the distinction between ‘personal’ and ‘social’ is arbitrary and that salvation is not something personal with social implications, it is both personal and social in nature. Christ came to redeem the whole world, not merely individuals from within it. He came to inaugurate a new kingdom and to transform relationships as well as enter into union with each believer. As long as we continue to understand salvation individualistically then people will have a deep suspicion of what should be an equally essential social dimension to God’s salvation of the world. The fact is that what begins with the mystical ends with the political.

2. Neither slave nor free – labor and slavery today

In the Roman empire of the first century slavery was not thought of as immoral and it is reckoned that a majority of people were actually slaves. Paul’s claim that in Christ there is neither slave nor free was, therefore a radical statement which challenged prevailing moral attitudes, although it was, no doubt, popular among slaves! It was a revolutionary step to suggest that the lowest of the low in social terms could become a son or daughter of God! Some have suggested that Paul was not very concerned about the morality, or perhaps was even a supporter, of slavery, but there is no doubt that Paul created the atmosphere for change.  He encouraged those who could to get out of it (1 Cor. 7:21) and insisted that economic and social issues were not to define participation in ministry or in relationships within the Christian community. Paul required that if there was a slave and his master in the church that Christian status should take precedence over social status (Philemon 15-16; Eph. 5:21). Note also that Paul is very careful with his terminology. Although in other contexts he speaks of ‘slaves and masters’ in the context of being ‘in Christ’ he very carefully speaks of there being neither ‘slave nor free’ because he could not suggest that in the kingdom it did not matter whether one was a slave or a master! Being a ‘master’ (that is, a slave-owner) was a state incompatible with being ‘in Christ’.

What does this mean for us? Today, despite universal condemnation both traditional slavery and related abuses still exist in many places. The United Nations reports that the sale of children, child prostitution, child pornography, the exploitation of child labour,[iii] the forced use of children in armed conflicts, bonded labour, the sale of human organs and the exploitation of prostitutes all exist today and constitute a form of slavery. In India a form of slavery exists as the Dalits (‘broken people’ formerly known as ‘untouchables’ and ‘harijan’) suffer from the officially outlawed but still operative caste discrimination. Relegated to the worst jobs they are often openly oppressed and may be assaulted if they do what is forbidden by the caste system. They are often barred from temples and they are made to live in separate areas, use separate wells for water, and be separated in shops and schools. The Christian’s responsibility is clear; it is to act in accordance with the basic principles of the gospel. Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321 A.D.), the renowned Italian poet suggested in his typically graphic and literary manner that the darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.

3. Neither Jew nor Greek – wealth and poverty today

The implications of being baptized in Christ do not stop there. In fact the Jew–Greek distinction was probably the most important of the three.  Here Paul points out that because Jew and Gentile are united in Christ any distinction between them is now irrelevant in matters relating to salvation and any actual separation of Jew and Gentile in the church had to end. Christian Jews could not regard themselves as superior in any way or require Gentiles to embrace Jewish law even if they continued to adhere to it themselves. Jewish and Gentile believers could, and should worship together (1 Cor. 3:4) and because they shared equally in the gift of salvation there could be no distinction in ministry which would suggest that one was more competent, or that one was more restricted in what they could do, or that one was in any way superior to the other. To believe that all are ‘one in Christ Jesus’ meant that it was impossible to try and restrict the grace of God to one ethnic group or to disadvantage any particular national group. Nor could James allow for any distinction in church between the person ‘with gold rings and fine clothes’ and ‘the poor person in dirty clothes’. The instruction that there was to be no partiality in church is followed immediately by the reminder that ones’ faith is dead if it does not involve helping a brother or sister in need (James 2:1-13).  The implications of this began within the life of the church but they did not stop there (also see Acts 6:1-7). Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles could not remove discrimination and bias in terms of ministry within the church and then walk out and continue the kind of political oppression that Romans exercised over the Jews or the religious disdain that Jews had for Gentiles! Nor could the rich leave church and ignore the need for equality called for by both James (James 5:1-6; 2 Cor.8:1-15). These distinctions had to die.

Today Jews and the nation of Israel still utilize the Jew-Gentile distinction but other cultures divide up the world using other categories – different forms of racial, ethnic, religious, national and cultural distinctions. Many of our world’s problems stem from clashes concerning the way ethnic, geographic, religious and national identity should be applied. The question is, ‘What divisions would Paul address today?’ and what would James say to us? We have our identity as American, Australian or whatever, as well as ethnic and racial heritages – and often we are proud of them. But if these national or geographic distinctions mean that we treat people morally differently, and if they encourage us to feel and behave less responsibly towards people in other places than we do towards those in our own then something has gone very wrong and we need to listen to Paul, James and the other apostles (Gal.3; James 1-2; Acts 6). Should moral distinctions be made on the basis of geographic boundaries? Of course not, but the truth is that we do treat people morally differently according to geography and nationality. This occurs whenever there is an acceptance of poverty, sickness or suffering in other countries which would not be accepted in our own.

This moral dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them’ came home to me very sharply when I became aware that the clearly stated fundamental Australian government aid and development policy objective was that ‘Australian overseas aid is given in order to advance Australia’s national interests’! And this was the headline declaration of the whole program. I suppose I had naïvely assumed that the primary purpose of overseas aid was to relieve poverty and deal with injustice! Well, it was – in part. But the framers of this policy had, with surprising honesty, detailed what many governments in fact do – give aid (at least partly) on the basis of self-interest. This principle had practical ramifications. It meant a priority of aid to counties strategically useful to Australia and it meant preventing companies in recipient countries from implementing aid programs in order to give preference to Australian suppliers who could profit from it. It also diverted money into pseudo-aid programs primarily aimed at preventing terrorists using other counties to attack Australia. A noble cause, except that it is taken from the budget set aside for aiding the poorest people in other countries.  All this is consistent with what happens in most counties, and while we are used to broken promises in every political sphere is there a moral dualism in operation when for nearly 40 years almost all of the developed nations which promised in 1970 to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on development aid have consistently failed to fulfil their promise and the amount of aid has been around 0.2 to 0.4%.[iv] We cannot be like the mythical character who thoughtfully commented to a friend, ‘You know sometimes I’d like to ask God why he doesn’t do something about famine and injustice, when he could do something about it.’ His friend replied, ‘Well, what’s stopping you asking him?’ and the rather sheepish but revealing answer is, ‘I’m afraid he might ask me the same question!’ Note however, that my main point is not to debate overseas development aid but to ask whether our national borders have become moral boundaries, and whether biblical principles have anything to do with removing them.


[i] R Longenecker, Galatians, (Dallas: Word) 157.

[ii] B. Witherington III, Grace in Galatia, (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1998) 280.

[iii]. See web-site of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

[iv] See  http://www.globalissues.org/article/35/us-and-foreign-aid-assistance#Almostallrichnationsfailthisobligation

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