Cause for celebration?: 25 Years of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms
It was about twenty-five years ago, on April 17 of this year to be precise, that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms became part of the Canadian constitution. This document has enshrined many rights and freedoms as inviolable. The four basic freedoms mentioned in the Charter are freedom of conscience and religion; freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression; freedom of peaceful assembly; and freedom of association (Section 2). The rights mentioned include “the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice” (Section 7). Also important is the right to equality before and under the law as well as equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination (Section 15). With all these rights and freedoms guaranteed, it is small wonder that the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Charter has occasioned much celebration and laudatory commentary.
And should we not rejoice as well? How should we evaluate this anniversary? As Christians we realize that the trend of Charter-based court rulings over the past few years has been disturbing to say the least. For example, religious freedom has been eroded while new rights such as those of gays have been created. What are we to make of this?
Good things can be said about the Charter and one can provide biblical justification for a national government to guarantee certain rights for its citizens. After all, Scripture speaks of the need for governments to defend the rights of the destitute (Proverbs 31:8-9; Jeremiah 5:28) and to exercise justice and righteousness (Jeremiah 21:12; Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). Indeed, the concern for human rights in the western world is for a large part due to our Christian heritage. Individual liberty, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion (also for those who did not profess the true faith) have always been defended by Calvinists. After all, the state is not the church.
It is the people of God who have the duty to seek the expansion of Christ’s church and kingdom. And so the concept of the state guaranteeing certain rights and freedoms is a good thing. It belongs to the task of the authorities whom God has set over us. A major contribution of the Protestant Reformation was the redefining of the nature and authority of the family, church, and state to reflect biblical teaching. In the process, the liberties of those subject to the various authorities were more clearly articulated to prevent abuse of power.
We need to realize, however, that when the Reformers defended rights, they did so on the basis of the duties that God required to Himself and to one’s neighbour. So the duty to honour and worship God alone, and to observe the Sabbath, means that one has the right to honour God and to have freedom of worship. These rights find their origin in God and his justice. Similarly, the duty not to kill your neighbour means that the neighbour has a right to life. Likewise, the duty not to commit adultery, to steal, or to bear false witness means that others have the right to property, marital faithfulness, and a good name.
The duty to raise our children in the fear of the Lord implies that we have the right to do so. Rights are based on duties owed to God and to one’s neighbour; ultimately rights have their origin in God. These teachings, among others, ultimately helped bring on Protestant revolts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in The Netherlands and Scotland against unjustly oppressive authorities.
History, however, did not stop here. This concept of rights was, so to speak, hijacked by the man-centered thinking of the Enlightenment.
The impact is still felt today.
In the thinking of the Enlightenment, human rights do not have their origin in God but in the basic goodness and potential of human nature. Each person is considered by nature to be equal in virtue and dignity and endowed with inherent and inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property. Each person is also entitled to and capable of pursuing one’s happiness. To prevent chaos, rational people form a society by entering into social contracts and ratifying constitutions. Typically such a constitution insists on the safeguarding of one’s inalienable rights. This thinking has heavily influenced the formulation of human rights in the western world from the eighteenth century on. It also undergirds the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.
Now the remarkable thing about our Charter is that it is prefaced by the statement: “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.” God’s supremacy was officially recognized because of pressure from religious groups. However, God’s presence in the Charter has been studiously ignored in judgments based on the Charter.
The results have been disastrous for Christians, for democracy, and for freedom generally. 1 With God out of the picture, man becomes the measure of justice and equity. Human rights are no longer premised on man’s duty towards God and his neighbour but on inherent rights to a host of things, whatever man imagines himself to have a right to, including sinful lifestyles and practices. In essence, God and his good law have been replaced by a false god, the idol of humanism and man’s pretensions to decide for himself what is right and wrong.
False gods and idols tend to be very cruel, for Satan, who is the power behind them, is no respecter of what is good and what makes for true happiness. For example, the worship of Molech in ancient Israel led to the sacrifice of children (cf. 2 Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 32:35) and undoubtedly many tears. The current worship of the idol of human autonomy and inherent human rights continues to fuel the ongoing slaughter of untold numbers of unborn children, the endorsement of dangerous gay lifestyles, and the robbing of our society of a common day of rest. God gives man up to his sinful desires (cf. Romans 1:21-32). If man is to be the measure of things our country and civilization have no blessed future. For whose rights or which rights are to be paramount? For example, children’s rights are generally being sacrificed for what adults want.
The latest example is the Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision of January 2, 2007 to recognize that a child may have more than two legal parents. Without God and his wisdom man is a fool and there is no end in sight for his foolishness.
With the Supreme Court consciously leaving God out of the picture, there is no outside absolute norm to govern the Charter. Nowhere does the Charter, for example, identify and define “the principles of fundamental justice” (Section 7). This means that whatever the judges determine these principles to be, they will be. Since the judges are in a sense products of our society, it is what society determines them to be. Thus, if there is to be real change, society will have to change. Herein lies the challenge for Christians to be a light and salt and influence society’s understanding of justice and righteousness.
The Charter as officially set forth and adopted could work for the good of our nation if our country still respected God and his rights. But when God’s rights are trodden under foot, and sinful human desires and self-styled rights are exalted, the path ahead is not very promising. In the end, man will take the place of God and declare himself to be God (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4).
As Christians our task is clear. By word and deed we need to affirm the sovereignty and supremacy of God. Every opportunity must be used to show that God’s will and way as summarized, for example, in the Ten Commandments, is the best route for our country and that rights presuppose the duties we owe to God and our neighbour. “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people” (Proverbs 14:34).
As Christians we also need to recognize and oppose the unbiblical individualism and self-interest that saturates talk of rights and litigation in our day. We can and in some cases must insist on our rights. The Apostle Paul, after being beaten and jailed without trial in Philippi, did so as a Roman citizen when he had demanded that the magistrates escort him and Silas out of prison. He did this not so much for Silas and himself, but to show their innocence for the benefit of the young church at Philippi (Acts 16:37).
On other occasions, Paul did not insist on his rights, again because of the gospel which he did not want to hinder (1 Corinthians 9:1-15).
There can also be times when we forgo our rights and remember the word of our Saviour that we turn the other cheek or be prepared to give up what is precious to us for the sake of the kingdom (Matthew 5:39-4; cf. 16:24; Philippians 2:3-7). After all, we are ultimately here on earth not for ourselves but to love and serve our God for the sake of his glory. Not our rights, but God’s rights are of paramount importance.