Joel Edwards explains why Christians have a sometimes ambivalent relationship to human rights.
There’s enormous tension in many Christian communities about the idea of human rights, because these are seen as antithetical to Christian faith and giving a licence to certain types of moral and ethical behaviour with which orthodox, if you like, or historic, or traditional Christian faith would disagree – issues around gay rights is the obvious example. And so there is a sense in which a lot of Christians see this as a secularist plot to overthrow the church, pure and simple, and therefore we don’t want anything to do with this.
And a lot of the work which I am now involved with, working with an agency committed to religious freedom and human rights, is about trying to remind Christians that the very ethos of human rights goes right back to the biblical idea of people made in God’s image. And that these inalienable rights which we identify in the Old Testament, in the attitudes of Jesus – that people have a freedom to choose him or not, to choose life or death – this sacredness of choice remains very, very central to Christian faith. And the fact that God has given to every human person a very high calling of dignity is quintessentially a Christian idea. It’s not exclusively a Christian idea, but it is quintessentially a Christian idea.
Therefore, the idea of rights, particularly the first-generation rights – the right to congregate, the freedom to express your thoughts, the freedom to express your worship, the freedom to change your religion, the freedom to vote, the freedom to be protected from torture, the freedom not to be killed – all of these basic rights are entirely consistent with God’s mandate and with Christian morality and Christian ethics. And therefore, I think the thing we have to understand as Christians is human rights, as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is not the starting place for Christians. When I served on the Commission of Equality and Human Rights here in the United Kingdom, I always said to my colleagues, the human right instrument is not my starting point, the Bible is my starting point, frankly. But hey, I have the benefit of both – but I do have to understand that if you do not believe in transcendence, if you do not believe in God giving a mandate and guidelines, the next best thing we have is the construction of various rights which has been put together by the international community. And even with their inadequacies, with their flaws, even those elements with which Christians may disagree, I think it gives us a very, very important place for discourse. One theologian has regarded human rights as a forum for discourse about dignity which Christians just can’t afford to be absent from. So it’s an important secondary expression of what it means to be made in God’s image, and then to put some laws and understandings and agreements around protecting human dignity in the 21st century.