Saturday, December 08, 2007

Why I Believe in Human Rights

December 10 is Human Rights Day and it will be a day that many (if not most) evangelical Christians will ignore or never even know occurred.

Having grown up in an evangelical holiness-style church and having rubbed shoulders for much of my adult life in ecclesiastical circles, it is apparent to me that many evangelicals distrust human rights language. We tend to leave the field of human rights to secularists or to our mainline church counterparts and condemned them (and the issue itself) when they mistakenly confuse religious tolerance with religious endorsement. With the spread of postmodernist thought in our society and the corresponding weakening of moral and objective truth in the minds of many, even amoung evangelicals, the role of apologetics and evangelism has increasingly been disparaged as inappropriate actions for Christians in a multicultural society such as Canada's. Evangelicals must begin to do the hard work of reclaiming a part of our legacy; the field of human rights.

As I have studied the scriptural ramifications of being created image of God over the last several years, I have come to appreciate the fact that human beings, by their very nature, are bestowed with God-given rights to respectful treatment, equality, diversity, communal relations, and freedom of belief. Human rights, rather than being opposed to a biblical worldview are a fruit of one. As Paul Marshall has pointed out in his book, Religious Liberty in the World Today, it is no accident that countries that have historically been influenced by a strong Christian worldview have consistently maintained the highest levels of religious liberty for its citizens. There is a reason why we believe that human beings should be treated with respect; they are created in image of God (cf. Genesis 9:6; James 3:9).

It is disappointing to me, therefore, that the subject of human rights is one that many evangelicals have tended to shy away from. To defend the rights of others seems, to some, to be somehow unspiritual. After all, it may be rightfully pointed out that Christians are called to give up their rights just as Christ did in His incarnation. The ugliness of witnessing followers of Jesus Christ fight for their personal rights (especially with each other) has brought disrepute upon the Body of Christ. Rather than saying "See how they love one another," the watching world has more often been able to comment, with a smirk, "See how they fight one another." Seeking to remedy this unfortunate situation by presenting a positive, alternative witness to a skeptical society, some Christians have concluded that we have no legitimate rights to fight for.

I believe a more appropriate approach would be to affirm that often neglected distinction between private and public rights. Privately, Christians are not to take the law into their own hands but this does not remove the right of the State to uphold the laws of the land. In the same way, Christians may choose to give up their rights in order to accomplish the purposes of God. This does not presuppose, however, that the rights are not legitimate and that others can (and perhaps should) uphold them. Nor does this give us the excuse to not uphold the rights of others. There are times (probably more often than we are comfortable admitting) when the call to follow Christ and to conform to His image requires that we renounce the rights that we may rightfully possess. Giving up illegitimate rights can hardly be considered a sacrifice. Similarly, to refuse to uphold the rights of others simply because we have personally chosen to renounce them is unjust and a direct violation of scriptural commands to defend the weak and oppressed and to speak on their behalf. It is a cruel person who says, "Since I refuse to uphold my rights, I will bind you to my decision as well by letting you suffer in silence and refuse to raise a finger to help you."

Nor does the separation of private and public rights imply that Christians should not, at times, stand up for their own rights as citizens. The apostle Paul exemplified this when he felt free to either forgo his rights or to use them. On at least three occasions Luke records Paul exercising his rights as a Roman citizen as a defense for his religious beliefs. The advancement of God's kingdom would seem to be the biblical criterion of whether to renounce or uphold one's rights. Unfortunately, the criterion is more often the advancement of our own personal agendas.

In the same way, exemplified by our Creator's willingness to allow false beliefs to continue unpunished for the present, Christians are to uphold the right for the individual or the group to be wrong. This is why Christians should find proselytism to be an abhorrent perversion of evangelism. Religious coercion is a violation of an individual's God-given right to choose one's own belief system, even if it is incorrect, morally repugnant and inconsistent with the general and special revelation of God in nature, scripture, and Christ. When Christianity has been faithfully practiced, its followers have allowed religious practice contrary to their own to continue so long as it does not violate the basic rights of others (e.g. child sacrifice, sexual or mental exploitation). This does not, of course, negate the importance of apologetics and evangelism. As God's image bearers, we are also His messengers, seeking to restore mankind to a rightful relationship to its Creator. Reflecting His image, even though marred by sin, we seek to win men and women to Christ through persuasion and sacrifice, not compulsion. And we will respect the rights of others to be wrong if they insist in holding on to their beliefs and rejecting the message of life and liberty.


crooked deep down said...

Good post! Christians have often led the fight for dignity and human rights in the past (in fighting slavery and child labor as well as laboring for the rights of racial minorities, women, and the mentally ill.) Lately, though, we've mostly been talking about abortion (which is important) and not much else that doesn't affect us specifically. Unfortunately, I think that much of this distaste for human rights advocacy among evangelicals is frankly because it's not Christians who are being oppressed in many places. We get off our couches not for any human being denied their God-given rights, but only Christians. The strongest causes that evangelicals have lobbied for (Southern Sudan, North Korea) have directly involved Christian persecution.

Another similar contributing factor seems to how close the oppressors are to our government. Few American Christians seem upset about our government's decision to violate basic human rights and use torture. Our foreign policy continues to prop up regimes that in the past were merely "anti-communist"; nowadays if they are with us on the "war on terror" then we are willing to overlook their oppressive faults (though this may be more uniquely American.)

Finally, I don't think that the idea of God fighting for the rights of the oppressed, the alien, the widow, and the orphan is taught very well in most traditions of the church besides the African-American one (and the hopelessly liberal one.) Evangelicals rarely think out what being created in the image of God means when it comes to human rights because the secular definition of human rights is so pervasive. Well-rounded social activism is picking up interest in evangelical circles, but for years it was mostly about getting "the right people" into power and "the right laws" passed.

Reform in this begins with much prayer and thorough study of God's Word.

Glenn Penner said...

Thanks for the comments. I am not sure, however, that I can agree with your suggestion in the first paragraph that much of the reason that evangelicals have a distaste for human rights is because it is not Christians who are being persecuted. Let me assure you as someone who has been working in this area for a number of years now that even the persecution of Christians does not compel many evangelicals to be interested in human rights. Indeed, many who are interested in persecution of Christians are also distrustful of discussion of human rights. They are much happier to see it in a context of end-times prophecy or things like that. Some Christians even see persecution as a good thing.

There are also those who would rather speak up for pretty much any other cause other than for other Christians for fear of appearing prejudiced, ignoring the admonition of Galatians 6:10 to do good to everyone but especially to those of the household of faith.

The number of Christians who actually even get off the couch to assist their own brothers and sisters is actually relatively small. Many know about the abuse of Christians around the world but far fewer ever do anything about it. Thankfully, the increase of concern in religious persecution has, however, resulted in some evangelicals also taking a greater interest in human rights in general. I don't think that we should complain about the lobbying that has gone on for Sudan and North Korea. If the persecution of other Christians is the entry level for evangelicals to gain a great concern for human rights abuses in general, it is a good, proper and biblical place to start.

Your points in the second and third paragraphs are excellent and worth more discussion.

crooked deep down said...

I think I may have been misunderstood. I totally agree with you that interest in protecting human rights among evangelicals is low; I guess that the point I was trying to make is that evangelicals generally have to feel like there's something at stake for other Christians before there's any grassroots movement of any sort. I don't mean to complain about the efforts we've seen before by any means-- just to say that it's troubling to see that it has to be other Christians involved and not just any human being in need.

I didn't realize before about the persecution/end-times stuff. That's somewhat intriguing but mostly sad.

Glenn Penner said...

Thanks for the clarification. I appreciate you getting back to me. You are probably right for the most part, although, as I said, there are some Christians whotend to avoid causes that appear to be too Christian for fear of appearing biased. This is more common amoung mainline church members, though, than amoung evangelicals

nachtwache said...

I would have thought that many Christians avoid the Human Rights issues because it's mostly driven by the left, who are often against some moral stands Christians take, but I also meet many people that just aren't interested in sad stories, there head is stuck in the sand, they keep busy with their life, maybe even some service in the church, but don't look outside of their shell. Actually I've read of some Jews wondering why western Christians aren't up in arms about some of the abuses Christians suffer in certain countries. Where Muslims have too much fervor, most Christians don't have enough. The Church in North America has been referred to as ' the sleeping giant'. That kind of says it all.