Religion and Human Rights

·     Tuesday evening I had the privilege of being one of three speakers at a Niagara Foundation sponsored Abrahamic Dinner.  This event was held at Rochester College, and brought together members of the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian communities -- to promote dialog and understanding. Each of us, a Rabbi, an Imam, a Christian pastor, was asked to speak to the ways in which our faith traditions understand human rights, and whether this overlaps with or differs from secular understandings. We were asked to speak from the perspective of our own faith tradition, which is difficult when Christianity's 2 billion adherents are divided into thousands of denominations and sects. Nonetheless, I did my best!  As for my partners, the Rabbi went first, and I didn't find much if anything to disagree with. In fact, he set me up nicely! As for the Imam, I learned a lot about the flexibility of Islamic law, which allows for support of human rights (more so perhaps than secular American law).

Since this is an important conversation, I decided to share some of what I said. Below you will find my answer to the first question, which dealt with my traditions codes of human rights and relationship to secular codes.  Before I share below, I want to add that I agree completely with the Rabbi's statement that the Jewish tradition, and the Christian tradition following it, speaks not of rights but obligations.  That said, I invite you to consider my response:


I need to start by saying that as an individual I believe strongly that humanity has certain rights that need to be affirmed and respected. This principle stands at the foundation of the American Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
As an American citizen, I affirm these principles, even if the Founders had a much narrower view of who was covered under its umbrella. I believe that governments have a responsibility to provide a context in which human beings can flourish. I also believe that there are forces at work in our country today that are inducing fear and undermining the principles that encourage us to flourish.

            The question before us has to do with the resources present within the Abrahamic religions that can promote human flourishing. I’m going to muddy the waters a bit, but suggesting that the biblical tradition, which all Christians hold in common, doesn’t speak in terms of rights. The concept of human rights is a rather recent invention that is rooted in the Enlightenment affirmation of the rights of the individual.

Perhaps a more biblical way of speaking is to affirm the “sacredness of human life.” Christian ethicist David Gushee, suggests that human life is sacred because God has declared it to be so. Human rights have their foundation in secular legal codes, which are enforced by governments and international agencies. These are important, but they’re secular, not religious.

            As a Christian, I affirm the principles of human rights, including the freedom to worship as we please, because I believe that these rights are compatible with the declaration that human life is sacred. The foundation of this belief is rooted in scripture.

            Jesus spoke of the two great commandments, which he got from his own Jewish background.  The first commandment is that “you should love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” In the Jewish tradition, this is known as the Shema (Deut. 6:4-5).  Then Jesus spoke of a second commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This commandment is found in Leviticus 19:18. Then Jesus said that “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:34-37). That is, if you love God and you love your neighbor, and Jesus had a broad view of who was his neighbor, then you fulfill the law and the prophets.  

Christians also look to the Ten Commandments, which were the foundation of a covenant relationship between God and God’s people. These commandments speak first of our relationship with God, secondly of the way in which we should live with our neighbors. Jesus further interpreted these commands and teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.
       Although the concept of human rights is modern, I believe that there is no inherent contradiction between the teachings of the Christian faith and human rights. That is because to honor and respect the rights of another, is to love one’s neighbor. 


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