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Why God believes in human rights

Western Christians have often expressed ambivalence about the language, assumptions, and practical outworking of ‘human rights’ and the extent to which it threatens to be a rival creed: God-centred ethics replaced by well-meaning but shakily-grounded humanism.

Emerging after the horrors of World War II in the form of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights1, the modern human rights movement has been characterised by the law professor John Witte Jr as an attempt to find a world faith to fill a spiritual void – ‘to harvest from the traditions of Christianity and the Enlightenment the rudimentary elements of a new faith and a new law that would unite a badly broken world order’.2

Interestingly though, the idea of human rights even for those of an agnostic disposition, is connected to faith. In an interview with the Observer in September, the playwright Tom Stoppard remarked that ‘unless there is, for want of a better term, a spiritual universe, I don’t see what is so important about anything including human rights. What I really think is that everybody who believes in human rights is unspokenly, possibly unconsciously, accepting some form of immaterial reality’. 3

For Christians this is both encouraging and humbling. It requires us to have a generous enough understanding of the Kingdom that we celebrate and value what is good where we find it. John Kinahan of Forum 18 News Service, a Christian initiative providing original reporting and analyses on violations of freedom of religion or belief, puts it like this: ‘Do we defend human rights because they are in the UDHR, or because they stand for values which existed before the UDHR and are expressed in it?’4 It is a good question.

One of the opportunities that this anniversary presents is a moment to take a serious look at the radical and holistic significance of the entire Declaration. Article 2 establishes that ‘everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration’; a foundational statement we take for granted. Yet so many of our decisions and political beliefs are, subtly or otherwise, based on the assumption that not everyone will
or can receive the same rights and freedoms as some of us.

Often, ‘human rights’ is associated either with specific issues like the death penalty and detention without trial, or more pejoratively, with an alleged ‘culture of rights’ rather than responsibilities – a kind of identity politics anchored by a consumer-shaped individualism. In fact, reading through the Declaration, what come through clearly and unapologetically are the far more radical economic implications of human rights.

Article 22 states the right of every person to ‘social security’5 and the realisation ‘of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality’ (my emphasis). This is a very different vision to the market-driven capitalism of the West where the profit motive of the few trumps the right to dignity of the many.
Interestingly, Article 29 subsequently balances this ‘free and full development’ of a person’s personality with one’s ‘duties to the community’ and the ‘limitations’ of personal freedom necessary for the protection of the ‘rights and freedoms of others’. In other words, the Declaration itself indicates that ‘rights and responsibilities’ are not mutually exclusive, but in fact complement each other, as we look to ensuring the dignity of everyone in our (local and global) community.

The understanding of a human being’s rights in the Declaration – including the right ‘to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care’ – goes far beyond both charity and a narrowly defined concept of personal freedom of expression. The emphasis on dignity in Article 22 for example, on a life where instead of merely surviving, one is allowed to develop the gifts and personality that are uniquely one’s own, resonates strongly with the Kingdom vision of a holistic, dignified, life lived ‘to the full’.

I would like to suggest that this comprehensive, deliberately inclusive understanding of human rights can also encourage us to focus less on the long-held (and in many aspects, deeply admirable) Christian sensitivity towards what we perceive as ‘religious persecution’ and more on broader struggles for justice. Let’s look at a hypothetical example.

In developing world country X, the society is racked with division and tension. There are two dominant ethnic groups, but dozens of smaller tribes, each largely based in their traditional heartland. Recently, however, because of climate change and a series of particularly meagre harvests, people groups have been moving around the country in search of good grazing for their animals.

Meanwhile, there is also an increasingly sharp wealth divide in the country, with a small, Western-educated elite, getting disproportionately richer compared to the majority of the population. Politically, there are several parties competing for influence, with different coalitions forming in every region.

Finally, there is also a religious divide, with a Christian minority living among a Muslim majority. The religious divide often breaks down along tribal, political, or sociological lines, depending on the localised conditions. Sometimes, there are sporadic outbreaks of communal violence, often pitting Christians against Muslims. The Muslims, being the majority, are usually in a stronger position to inflict the most damage, but in some places, Christians are able to get the upper hand.

When this violence breaks out, a Western Christian charity, concerned with highlighting the problems facing the persecuted Church around the world, sends out urgent appeals for prayers to their supporters: ‘Muslims attack Christians, three churches burned to the ground’. The problem with this tack is that, devoid of any kind of detailed context, the complex interplay between all the causative factors for the ‘anti-Christian violence’ – political, ecological, ethnic, and economic – are sidelined.

Or take another example. In country Y, a brutal dictator has ruled for 15 years. He has cleverly merged the nation’s identity with a narrow ideology, in order to shore up his power, and protect the privileges enjoyed by his associates and party members. Any person, or group, that opposes this ideology or is disloyal to the regime, is subject to arrest, torture, or even death. In the prison cells, Christian pastors languish alongside devout Muslims and student radical leftists.

In these two examples, the suffering experienced by Christians is no less real; but by narrowly interpreting events as ‘spiritual persecution’, our ability to understand, and thus respond correctly, is impaired. The drafters of the Declaration ‘recognised that it is impossible to isolate one human right from another,’ points out Forum 18’s Kinhan. ‘One cannot divorce freedom of religion or belief from other justice issues’.

There are many reasons why an over-spiritualized, or decontextualised, approach to the suffering endured by the global Church is commonplace. One of those factors is an incomplete reading of well-known New Testament passages where Jesus or his disciples face opposition. For example, in Acts 16, Paul and Silas liberate a demon-possessed slave-girl whose owners are exploiting her for financial gain. Once the girl’s owners realize that ‘their hope of making money was gone’, Paul and Silas are seized, stripped, whipped, and thrown into prison.

The gospel of Christ had inevitably clashed with a system of domination, bringing freedom for the slave-girl – but trouble for the apostles. Yet this kind of story is often presented as a straight case of persecution; the punishment and imprisonment meted out to the Jesus-followers an expression of ‘spiritual’ opposition or attack.

Of course, on a deeper level, in terms of the clash between the Kingdom and the Powers, it is indeed a ‘spiritual’ encounter. But it is clear that Paul and Silas put themselves in the firing line because of the way they threatened economic privilege built on injustice. A privatized, personal faith which doesn’t challenge the power structure of the status quo is not a threat.

Two main problems arise from a narrow focus on ‘spiritual’ persecution. Firstly, the danger of decontextualisation means that our efforts may ultimately be ineffective, since our practical response is based on an incomplete picture. Analysis leads to action, and flawed analysis can mean that the impact of our response is localised and minimal.
In many cases of Christian persecution by oppressive governments, it is not so much a specifically anti-Christian campaign being waged by the authorities as a wider problem of authoritarianism and inequality. In Uzbekistan, the dictatorial regime targets any perceived disloyalty or opposition – from Islamists, Christians, Marxists, and democratic reformists.

When persecution is not directly state-directed, but an outcome of localised community conditions, then, like the example above of country X, there is no reason to neglect all the factors that have contributed to Christians being targeted.

A second criticism of this approach is that as Christians we believe that every person, made in God’s image, is inherently worthy of dignity and justice – a profound truth reinforced by the mystery of the Incarnation, when God and humankind became one. Furthermore, ‘loving our neighbour’ means solidarity with those who are not ‘one of us’, offering the same risk-taking love as we would to a brother or sister in faith.

I would like to argue then for an inclusive approach to the problem of human rights and religious persecution. It means standing up for those persecuted for their beliefs, whatever they may be. It also means that when faced with the persecution of Christians, our response should be shaped by respect for human rights, concern for overall democratisation, and the wider social struggle for justice and equality.

There is a counter-argument, of course, that we are called as Christians particularly to support the parts of the body of Christ that are in need of our support (and indeed, it’s worth adding that the work of many Christian groups who stand alongside suffering Christians is courageous, admirable, and deeply appreciated by those in need). In addition, it could be argued there are plenty of secular human rights organisations that are campaigning in these societies on a more comprehensive level.

This is true but, at the very least, it doesn’t mean that we should decontextualise and distort incidents of Christian persecution. Yet even with an emphasis on human rights and democratisation, we are still offering something distinctive. For one thing, the biblical story out of which we act, leading from Eden to the New Jerusalem, is a unique, action-shaping narrative. Moreover, the way in which we, as a community, embody an alternative to the world around us, means that our Kingdom-shaped commitment to costly, indiscriminate justice will be a breath of fresh air.

These are tricky waters to navigate, avoiding the unhealthy extremes of Christian ‘tribalism’ while ensuring that the suffering members of the faith family feel our support. But a special heart, prayers and material support for the persecuted Church are not diminished by standing in solidarity with the Buddhist or socialist sharing the prison cell with the pastor.

By embracing a comprehensive rather than narrow focus on religious persecution and human rights, and by grasping the holistically radical significance of the Declaration, Christians have the chance to make a massive difference to the lives of many, and to be an example of a community intimately connected to God and intimately committed to humanity.

Published in Third Way.

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