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The present paper is the second in a threefold series of essays entitled “The Christian Imperative” and continues the line of argumentation on the importance of Christianity as the only objective moral basis for the rule of law and basic human rights and freedoms. These essays are by no means exhaustive regarding the subject chosen; rather they are meant to raise the reader’s interest and curiosity in pursuing further study and gaining confidence, knowing the richness of resources available.
Basic Human Rights & Freedoms
As presented in the previous essay, it is necessary to assume the pre-existence of natural laws or a priori laws that transcend our existence and are therefore universal and unchangeable. These laws originate from our God-given conscience and are common to all mankind, regardless of our individual circumstances of birth, culture and time, but are overshadowed by our sinful nature. The acknowledgment of such laws is the only means of defense against arbitrary power and tyranny. However, understanding equality under the law requires another, more important question to be answered: “what is man?”.
This is arguably the most important question in the history of mankind, since the answer implies the origins of our values, individual dignity and inner worth, for which we all crave for. It is imperative to have an objective basis for human rights in order for them to stand as moral rights. This question is answered in the very first chapter of the Bible, in Genesis 1:26 and 27.
“Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness' (v. 26)
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them” (v. 27)
There is no clearer and more powerful alternative to this answer: man is created to be a reflection of his creator, and hence to possess dignity and free will. It is important to note that individual dignity and sacredness do not come from within, but are given by God himself and impossible to obtain by human endeavor. This logic is very important, since it puts Christianity in stark contrast to all other alternative cosmogonic views, where salvation and meaning are to be found within or by works performed by man himself; to violate human dignity is to revolt against God.
A famous Romanian actor and devout Orthodox Christian, Dan Puric, has subsumed this issue brilliantly, saying that “human dignity is the reflection of man in man, whereas godly dignity is the reflection of God in man”. The first assumption is dangerous, since the objectivity of human dignity cannot be proven nor measured and is therefore volatile and relative to culture, interests and preferences.
Many important philosophers such as Immanuel Kant have claimed the origin of human rights to be in the properties of human reason. Kant's idea of human rights was a reflection of the Enlightenment Zeitgeist. The proponents of the Enlightenment have erroneously presumed that natural rights, moral freedoms and human dignity were a priori conditions of human existence. Unfortunately, these rights were misused during the French revolution, when the monarchy was usurped with the same brutality the masses claimed to have endured. The change of regime after the French revolution costed many lives and contradicted the very principles that animated it.
To present our case, we need to follow the logic that the question of natural law is intimately connected with the question of human identity and origins. Human rights and freedoms require an answer to the question “what is man, to be worth these rights?”. As Sir Roger Scruton points in his book The Soul of the World: “freedom raises a question of origins, not an exercise of rational choice."
This is why it is important to understand that the Bible's unique and dissonant answer compared to any other alternative view is the only practical, objective basis for the ontology of human rights, as also proven by the historical record. Moreover, the legal difficulties emerging are only to be settled with an objective moral framework that would put limits on freedoms and rights, otherwise an unlimited freedom will eventually interfere with that of the other.
Similar to the previously presented approaches in the ontology of law, there also have been several attempts to explain the ontology of human rights in mere secular terms. Two of these approaches are:
The criticism brought to these theories is justified. Moral relativism poses a continuous threat: if there is no objective basis for human rights, there is no objective reason not to change them according to various interests and cultural influences. Moreover, it is impossible to argue for human rights based on reason alone, since we lack the knowledge of their origin and what makes human beings universally worthy of such claims; it is logically necessary to have a metaphysical base and a higher truth that has been already revealed: the Bible.
I am very certain that our readers are more than aware of the “classic” accusations brought against Christianity, two of which being most prevalent: the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades. However, these arguments can easily be used confidently by any believer to show what it means when people are ignorant of the Scriptures and make up their own religion. The real question is “how did real, scriptural Christianity influence the course of history?” and the answer is absolutely overwhelming.
Due to the nature of this short essay, it is impossible to even scratch the surface of this vast subject so it will be limited to just a few interesting examples to prove that the modern notion of human rights and freedoms stems from the Christian understanding of man's divine dignity. It is important to be reminded of the fact that these short essays are primarily thought to offer some intriguing facts and stimulate the reader's curiosity and desire for further study.
As mentioned in the previous essay, the Ancient world did not have an understanding of human rights. Before Christianity, the notion of individual rights did not exist, as the individual in the social hierarchy did not benefit from legal recognition, and, hence, did not enjoy special protection. In Roman law (a legal source for Western law) for instance, legal protection was only granted by the Roman state to the social institution of the patriarchal family, where the pater familias (the oldest man in the family) exercised autocratic authority over all members of the family. Christianity proved itself to be the only religion in history that elevated human dignity to a position of sacredness, which flows out of man's identity as a bearer of the image of God and the commandment, reinforced by Jesus Christ “[...] Love your neighbour as you love yourself'” (Mark 12:31).
The history of the Early Church is one of the most fascinating periods in history through the modern perspective of human rights, especially for women. The cultural background in the time of Jesus was characterized by a deeply anti-woman worldview, common throughout the Roman empire. In the book “The Jesus I never knew”, author Philip Yancey comments:
“For women and other oppressed people, Jesus turned upside down the accepted wisdom of His day. According to biblical scholar Walter Wink, Jesus violated the mores of his time in every single encounter with women recorded in the four Gospels.”
In the following lines, I would like to mention a few of the many milestones in the history of Christianity in regards to human rights:
I. The Magna Charta Libertatum - This treatise on law and justice is one of the earliest, most comprehensive legal acts that not only postulates the rule of law and equality under it for all including the sovereign, but also liberties of “free men”, a clause which became the foundation for modern human rights in Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence. It is generally accepted that the draft was originally drafted by Stephen Langton, who was appointed at the time See of Canterbury. According to the Australian legal scholar, Dr. Augusto Zimmermann, Archbishop Langton was “a learned theologian and his massive commentaries on the Bible contain thousands of pages of explanation about the meaning of scriptural words and phrases. He applied his knowledge of biblical hermeneutics to draw modern parallels between England and the Old Testament stories of good kings and bad kings who abused their powers by violating God’s laws.”
II. The Eastern Roman Empire - Unfortunately not as popular in general history studies, the Eastern Roman Empire, known also under the modern name of the Byzantine Empire, was the longest-lasting empire in history. Christianity became state religion and everybody, regardless of ethnical background was recognized as a citizen of the Empire as long as they shared the Christian belief. According to professor Anthony Kaldellis, it functioned more like a Republic, where people had much more influence on the political process than previously and erroneously thought by many Western historians, and the common good of the people was often decisive in overthrowing an emperor. Women could have great power, the example of Theodora, the former actress who became an empress by marrying Justinian and had a tremendous influence on the many reforms made during their reign. Justinian himself, was a peasant’s son who was later taken under the wing of his uncle, Emperor Justin I ( a former swineherd and soldier) and grew to be one of the greatest emperors, especially known for legal contributions through the Code of Justinian
III. The Declaration of Independence - “We hold these truths as self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. This is one of the most important moments in the history of human rights, pointing out both to the inherent, self-evident rights but also to their divine origin, thus implying an objective moral basis.
IV. Abolition of Slavery - The abolition of slavery could only be done based on the premise that all men are equal and created in the image of God. Although this achievement was the result of the combined forces of many (see the African abolitionists Olaudah Equiano, Quobah Ottobah Cuguano, Ignatius Sancho, Mary Prince etc.), the voice of William Wilberforce became instrumental in the movement, as he was convinced that what he was doing was a service and a duty to God.
V. The world after the two World Wars and the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights - The most devastating armed conflicts in human history, the two world wars, have shocked the world by their unprecedented gruesomeness and destructive ideologies. These ideologies (national socialism and communism) are a direct result of a systematic, oppressive pursuit to deny the existence of God in all aspects of a citizen’s life . A natural, immediate response was to reinstate the protection of the dignity of human beings. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in the UN General Assembly on the 10th of December 1948 and stated in the first article:
“All humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been developed through other documents such as the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights etc. In comparison to the classical rights that extended only to the realm of security, property and political participation, the modern concept of human rights (also known as the “second generation” of human rights) now includes socio-economic rights, rights to welfare, education etc.
The problem with modern human rights is that they lack an objective moral basis, making any epistemological criticism about their universality and objectivity perfectly justified. Unlike the Declaration of Independence, where the divine source of these inherent rights was recognized, the modern conception of human rights and freedoms relies on the shaky foundation of secularism. According to Daniel Philpott (Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies. Director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, University of Notre-Dame), human rights are only valid when these three criteria are met:
As mentioned in the previous essay, one cannot expect to enjoy inalienable rights and equality in front of the law if there is no objective moral basis and a transcendent source of human dignity. The rejection of a Creator, who made man in His own image, leaves an empty space that can be filled with any transient philosophy, often based on selfish interests, racist superiority, pseudo-scientific arguments and thirst for power.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek,there is neither slave or free, there is
neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” - Galatians 3:26-8
Christianity offers the only complete answer to the question of human identity, dignity and meaning; it also affirms at the same time the limitations of our own endeavours and capacity to understand ourselves and the universe around us. We all have in ourselves the longing for eternity and redemption, no matter how subtle or tacit. Christianity offers the only solution: salvation comes in the ultimate form of sacrifice from God Himself, by sending His only begotten Son to carry our sins and pray for our transgressions in full, for this is exactly what it was required to restore our Edenic innocence and bring us the future glory of Heaven.
In the next essay, we will explore the subject of civil authorities and their role in protecting these rights, as their governing over our society requires a guarantor. Surprisingly, the Bible covers the issue in a comprehensive, critical manner and offer clear guidelines of conduct in respect to authorities.
Suggested Literature & Resources
Kaldellēs Antōnios Emm. The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome. Harvard Univ. Press, 2015.
Moon, Sheryl, and Philip Yancey. The Jesus I Never Knew. Zondervan, 1998.
Moyn, Samuel. Christian Human Rights. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.
Zimmermann, Augusto. “The Christian Foundations of the Rule of Law in the West: a Legacy of Liberty and Resistance against Tyranny.” Creation.com, Creation Ministries International, Aug. 2005, creation.com/the-christian-foundations-of-the-rule-of-law-in-the-west-a-legacy-of-liberty-and-resistance-against-tyranny.
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