Human Rights and Christian Faith

Rev Prof George Newlands, Professor of Divinity at Glasgow University, raises some of the issues surrounding Human Rights and Christian Faith, explored at length in his book “Christ and Human Rights”.

What are human rights and do they exist? These questions are the subject of endless fat volumes.  When I use the term human rights, I shall be trying to speak about a human ability to enjoy certain basic capacities  which are constitutive of human living: the ability to survive and to enjoy  reasonable health and freedom of action, to express one’s views without hindrance, to associate with other people without arbitrary constraints, without  fear of torture or detention.

All highly debateable, you will say. It is. And shouldn’t we be talking about human responsibilities, or human wrongs rather than human rights? Well perhaps. But as it has been appositely said, “Outside the cocooned world of the academy, people are still victims of torture, still subjected to genocide, still deprived of basic freedoms and still dying through starvation. We should remember these people before we decide to forget about rights.” (Peter Jones, Rights, 227).

Human rights provide no panacea to the world crisis, but they are a critical part of any solution. Religions are not easy allies to engage, but the struggle for human rights cannot be won without them. (J. Witte, 1996, xviii) ”Perhaps we should stand, from the start, with the crucified Jesus and the vulnerable God he makes known to us.” (W.Placher, 1994, 128).

Human rights is perhaps the most important geo-political concept of the present era. Jesus Christ is the centre of Christian faith. Can the understanding of Christ make a significant contribution to the theory and practice of human rights? Why has Christianity so often been associated with domination rather than justice? Are fundamental shifts in Christology needed to maximise the contribution of Christianity to human rights issues? Would the cause of human rights be better served by a detachment from all religion and ideology?

It must be said that there is nothing self evident about the role of Christ in advocacy of human rights. I suggest that Jesus Christ is the basis for an urgent Christian support of human rights. It may be said that Christ has nothing to do with rights. It can be argued that Christ has been historically a figure used to counter human rights, notably in the cases of racism, slavery and the emancipation of women, and that this is a perfectly legitimate theological interpretation. Against that bleak record may be placed the impressive work of Christian NGOs of many different sorts in alleviating poverty and suffering in the contemporary world.

1. Jesus Christ and the Hope of Rights

For Christian faith, Jesus Christ in his life, death and resurrection shows us the character of God as a God  of  unconditional love, peace and justice. Christ is the crucified God, the executed God, always in solidarity with the marginalized.

But Christianity  is today often perceived as oppressive, in the past and the present.  There is  need  for more precise accounting for this contradiction, and for measures to produce more constructive outcomes in the future.

2. Rights, Cultures and Transcendence: Ambiguity and Tension

Examination of rights, culture and transcendence reveals tensions, conflicts and ambiguities.

  • Rights conflict with one another.
  • The language of rights is often used to disguise coercion.
  • Cultures in different places react differently to notions of rights, which are themselves culturally embedded notions.
  • Invocation of transcendence often seems to make dialogue on rights more difficult and more ideologically charged.
  • Rights talk can  induce ‘compassion fatigue’ as has been documented in the media.

There may be more to the protection of human agency than rights alone. One can think of generosity, love, and compassion, but rights remain an important resource.

3. Rights in the Christological Tradition

The construction of Christology in the church has many sources. Salvation is often construed in eschatological terms, as individual salvation after death. Theologians may follow dualist patterns, separating this world from the spiritual world, privileging the apocalyptic. Other thinkers favour more monist patterns, envisaging a coercive theocratic state, or a rationalist universe. In these developments the New Testament vision of a kenotic Christ who is active within this world tends to disappear.

4. The Hermeneutics of Rights in the History of Interpretation

The Christological tradition relating to justice and equity is firmly embedded in biblical interpretation. These may be interpreted in the language of rights. There are other sources too of rights language in the Bible, but there are also many biblical passages which militate strongly against human rights concepts. For instance, injunctions to genocide and the observance of numerous instances of cultural discrimination. These strands live on in the history of interpretation and may cancel out the apprehension of rights concepts.

5. Christology in Human Rights Focus: Towards a Humane Christology

For many contemporary citizens, especially in the Northern hemisphere, human rights are important. Traditional Christologies are not thought relevant to human rights, or indeed to most human aspiration. Ethics has tended to replace transcendence, a version of realpolitik, perhaps.  It would be desirable to construct a Christology which will contribute significantly to human rights issues. Engagement with philosophical discussion may often be involved. Other dimensions are rooted in the emancipatory theologies, and in illumination of more classical doctrinal concepts such as the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit and the Trinity.

6. Marginality, Memory and Solidarity

The development of emancipatory theology  provides resources for comparative reappraisal of the history of marginal groups, and the impact of contemporary Christologies on the lives of those affected. It raises in acute form the problem of undoing the past and of retrospective forgiveness and reconciliation – paradigmatically in the tragedies of anti-Semitism and the current Palestinian crisis.

We can look at some modern rights cases in individuals (Bonhoeffer, Tutu, Shepard, Aung San Suu Kyi) and community (torture, Holocaust, hunger, AIDS, ‘the clash of civilisations’) in order to consider the consequences  of a ‘new Christendom’ reaction.

7. Christology, Reconciliation and Global Human Rights Strategy

There are  countless varieties of Christologies, but all point to the particular significance of Jesus Christ for human welfare. More absolutist Christologies are concerned not to understate the vital role of Jesus Christ for the created order, in Christian understanding. More modest Christologies are concerned to safeguard the connections, not to alienate those who do not share their views by making totalising claims. Both of these dynamics are present in changing patterns in all Christian theology and practice.

Jesus is central to  Christian reflection on human rights. This centrality may be expressed traditionally, in what is often described as foundationalist categories, or it may be expressed more cautiously in terms of a web of connections concerning the nature of the divine love and relationality. But the web and the foundations share a distinctive hermeneutical envelope, which prioritises the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as the continuing source of unconditional regard and support.

Christian theology is unable to take a purist stance on this debate. The Christian gospel implies commitment to dialogue both with the secular and the religious. Both perspectives have important insights into the human condition, and both are open to distortion and abuse. Somehow we must seek to draw benefit for humanity from a web of connections and a number of different theories in  order to work together with others to deliver practical outcomes in human rights – freedom from coercion and conditions that enbale the reality of human flourishing.

Much else remains controversial. Human rights talk may be distinguished from, but not entirely separated from other social and political considerations. Talk of human rights does not take away the need for politics and diplomacy, and for wider reflection on citizenship. It is only one avenue, though an important one, to social communicative action.

A Note of Caution

Churches and other religious organisations enthusiastically and piously  support human rights causes in far away countries while continuing to discriminate systematically against members of their own communities at home.  We may be tempted to despair over the whole process.  But the weaknesses only underline the need to move forward with consistency. Where Christianity in particular is concerned, it may be that awareness of our ambiguous record can led to action in repentance, which may incorporate an effective element of humanity and provisionality into the process.

Further Reading

  • Peter Jones, Rights, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1994.
  • Roger Ruston, Human Rights and the Image of God, London: SCM Press, 2004.
  • William Placher, Jesus The SaviorThe Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. Expands  the discussion of the vulnerable God in Christology. This is a brilliant reminder of the intimate connection between doctrine and ethics and between Christology and human rights. Placher relates Christology from a classical Reformed perspective to three classical human rights issues, homosexuality, prisons and war in a highly instructive analysis- an illuminating example of the power of the combination of classical and emancipatory theology.
  • Brian Blount, Then the Whisper put on Flesh – New Testament Ethics in an African-American Context, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001. Blount argues for  the model of liberation as a lens for reconfiguring ethics. Blount ‘s narrative respects equally the value of the narratives of individual and or community suffering. Are human rights concerned with individuals or communities? The answer from the slave communities of the early United States would seem to  be emphatically both, though neither romantic individualism not romantic communitarianism will do.
  • James Alison, Knowing Jesus, London: SPCK, 1993. An excellent example of the use of an essentially classical Christological structure and an appeal to eucharistic spirituality, not to close doors but to open them unconditionally to people outside the community. Alison makes clever use of the notion of ‘the intelligence of the victim,’ who through the power of the resurrection is freed from all pressures. Knowledge of Jesus precisely excludes any pretence to victim status on our part. We have only one self-giving victim, whose self-giving was quite outside any contamination of human violence or exploitation. The rest of us are all involved with that violence.
  • George Newlands, Christ and Human Rights, Aldershot: Ashgate, August 2006.
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