Can Christians Defend Human Rights?
Christians understand that rights do not come from the Constitution nor are they granted to us by government. Rights are given to us by God. Government’s responsibility is to recognize and to protect those rights. — Albert Mohler
In developed countries, we are rarely met with the greatest threats to life, as was typical for our ancestors throughout history. Hunter-gatherers were met with predators when in the wild; peasants in France in the medieval ages were stricken by plagues that wiped out cities; and, the simplest ailments like a fever and wisdom teeth made life nasty, brutish, and short.
Today, we rarely send most of our young to fight our wars, we expect fair trials when accused of breaking the law, and we publicly protest when our governments do not guarantee us the freedoms that we think of as self-evident. It took a long time for these basic rights and freedoms to develop, however. And what is most troubling, is that many in the world do not have the same access to rights because either they are minorities whose expectations about their treatment in the world is met with prejudice or they are in countries that are ruled by autocrats and usurpers that do not care about their interests.
As a species, we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to guaranteeing everyone their equal share of rights without special treatment depending on race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or nationality. In this chapter, the question I want to address is whether a Christian society, one that is majority Christian, can guarantee humans rights in the best way. Once again, this topic is undoubtedly above this chapter. Still, I wanted to briefly touch on it because I believe that human rights — especially concerning displaced people groups, immigrants, and refugees — is among the most pressing concerns for the 21st century.
Refugees continuously flee from war-torn countries to Europe and other neighboring nations with more stable economies because of the promise of a better life for their families. Today, 780 million people are malnourished around the Globe, resulting in 9 million people dying annually of starvation because of war, among other things. What is most troubling is that it has been estimated that if the West collectively decided to challenge famine, they would be able to do so successfully.
Who is Human?
Any discussion of Christian human rights must begin with the Christian notion of human depravity, or “total depravity,” as Reformed Theologians put it. This doctrine teaches that we are separated from God because of the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The way God handles humans in the Old Testament (think: the flood, Pharaoh, not letting Moses into the Promised Land, the way God deals with His chosen people) was because of this depraved natural state.
For obvious reasons, the idea that humans are fatally depraved led to a lot of injustice in the name of the Church. The British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, argued that the doctrine of original sin and total depravity was the main difference between Western and Eastern philosophy. Confucius held that men are born good; Aquinas, to put it mildly, did not. For Russell, that meant that in the East, men were “more apt to submit to reason.” In the West, Martin Luther outright rejected Aristotle’s ethics because Luther could not fathom that human beings could do good or think good without God.
As I’ve pointed out before, Christianity today bears almost no resemblance to the Christianity of Luther and Calvin, let alone to that of Augustine or Aquinas. Many have even questioned the historical Jesus, stating that he resembles a somewhat foreign Christianity that, for instance, never believed in heaven. Historically, it isn’t easy to settle how much Paul and Jesus agreed upon, creating an exciting pile of scholarly research. In this chapter, I’m putting all these differences in interpretation aside and looking at whether human rights can be defended in Christianity with our understanding of the Bible today.
Christianity and Rights
Christianity certainly contributed to the rights of individuals in the world, even if it has its fair share of horror stories associated with it. Anyone that would argue that Religion has only done wrong and that, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, “poisons everything,” is generalizing and blatantly mistaken.
The historian Alvin Schmidt points out that the spread of Christianity led to an impressive number of significant achievements in society. Among which were:
[T]he outlawing of infanticide, child abandonment, and abortion in the Roman Empire (in AD 374); the abolition of the brutal battles to the death in which thousands of gladiators had died (in 404); the ending of the cruel punishment of branding the faces of criminals (in 315); the institution of prison reforms, such as the segregating of male and female prisoners (by 361); the discontinuation of the practice of human sacrifice among the Irish; the outlawing of pedophilia; the granting of property rights and other protections to women; the banning of polygamy (which is still practiced in some Muslim nations today); the prohibition of the burning alive of widows in India (in 1829); the end of the painful and crippling practice of binding young women’s feet in China (in 1912); persuading government officials to begin a system of public schools in Germany (in the 16th century); and advancing the idea of compulsory education of all children in a number of European countries.
We can take each of these at face value and assess their historical validity, but I think it is more worthwhile to accept the obvious: Christianity may have also done some good for the world. However, it is important to clarify that admitting that Christianity brought some good to society is not saying much at all about the validity and utility of religion, in this case, Christianity, or its contribution to human rights.
In the end, even World War II did some good for society, namely that it saw an increase in women’s equality, by employing them in factories and also in that it brought immense technological advances, contributing to the development of modern computers, for example. Today, these same computers are contributing to the educational advancements in developing countries around the world. Despite some of the good that the War brought to us, few would justify the War as a necessary step for humanity. The good should be mentioned, but it hardly justifies the bad.
As much as Christianity has contributed with some good to society, which is undeniable, despite the bad, we can also say that Christianity has a history of exclusive morality, at least when it comes to the beliefs of minorities.
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I write to keep you thinking and to keep me thankful and reflective. Cheers and until next time,