Do humans have rights? Is all the talk about human rights justified? Or can we dismiss this type of discussion by saying that we should talk about divine right rather than human rights?
Provincial and national governments are often promoting human rights, and one of the worst accusation against a government is that it violates human rights. Governments therefore continue to fine-tune their rules. In June of this year the government of British Columbia, for example, proposed legislation to change the province's Human Rights Act. In a covering letter it is stated that the Act has been broadened to include family status and sexual orientation. The government wants to treat all its citizens equally regardless of race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, political belief, religion, marital status, physical or mental disability, sex, age, criminal conviction, family status, and sexual orientation. Similar legislation has been passed in many parts of the western world.
Evidence of violation of human rights is published as well. Amnesty International is a human rights organization which has as its aim to expose human rights violation wherever this happens in the world. This organization's list of violators is long. It shows that torture, discrimination on the basis of religion or political beliefs, executions, and other violations occur in many countries. The Human Rights Commission of the United Nations publishes similar evidence.
Old Testament Teachings
In many cases governments do not treat their subjects humanely. Abuse and torture, random execution and oppression still occur every day. One does not have to be surprised about this. In the era after the Fall into sin man is not only inclined to hate God, but also his neighbour. Cain killed Abel, Lamech bragged about the revenge he would take on the man who wounded him. From the Old Testament many examples can be cited in which kings and rulers transgress the rights of their subjects. David took away the right to life from Uriah, and Ahab did the same to Naboth.
The Lord knows the evil intentions of man, and therefore He commanded that justice and righteousness be done in Israel. God gave His good laws to ensure a peaceful and just life for all His children. Modern proponents of human rights can still learn from studying the Bible. So can the rulers of this world.
Not hate, but love for God and the neighbour must be the basis for man's action. God gave the Ten Commandments as the golden rule for all times and places. Other Old Testament laws speak about slavery, the rights and duties of kings, the judicial system, daily life, property, and the care for the poor.
A few laws deserve closer attention. Israelites were allowed to have slaves, but their brother slave had to be set free in the seventh year of service. When a slave was to be let go, the owner could not let him depart empty-handed. Other peoples did not have these provisions. There it was: once a slave, always a slave, without rights or dignity.
The law of Moses also included provisions for the care of the poor, the widow, and the stranger. What was left on the fields after the harvest was for them.
When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.Deuteronomy 24:21
No begging was to occur in Israel!
The king, too, was subject to the good laws of God. A king should live modestly; he was not to possess many women, horses, or money, and he must have a copy of the law handy! He must subject himself to the law, and in this way he would prevent corruption and fight the temptation to exercise absolute power.
For waging war there were laws as well. If a war was about to start, attempts should be made to prevent it. In a war trees were not to be destroyed, because they were a source of food,
Only the trees which you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down that you may build siege works against the city that makes war with you, until it falls.Deuteronomy 20:20
The Lord forbade that an army attacked the faint and weary in the rear.
The Ten Commandments are central to all moral law, and they still count for governments and citizens. This also means that governments must honour God's Name in public life and acknowledge His authority. Moreover, governments must accept the right of the citizens to live according to God's will. Does this mean that governments should accept only the Christian religion? No, a government must create freedom for all citizens to practise their beliefs. In many countries Christians profit from this freedom.
New Testament Teachings
There are differences between the Old and New Testament, but the underlying principle remains the same: love to God and the neighbour must in public life be translated into laws which are just and righteous. Such laws will protect the citizens against the arbitrariness of governments.
One major difference between the Old and the New Testament dispensations is the New Testament separation of church and state. Because of this practice, someone has called the New Testament period the era in which the wheat and the weeds grow together until the time that Jesus Christ returns and separates the two at His harvest time.
A second difference is that now the gospel is not confined to the Jews, but is to be preached to all nations. God's people are gathered from all over the world. In Galatians 3 we read that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. It is not belonging to a certain race or sex or nation which counts. The all-important distinction is between faith and unbelief!
In the matter of human rights there is only one solid foundation, namely God's revelation in Jesus Christ, His promises and demands.
Why can we, as Christians, speak about human rights? Man is created in the image of God; he is God's image bearer and representative on earth. Every person is called to that original office. Certainly, as a result of the Fall God's image in man has been greatly tarnished, but Jesus Christ renews people so that they again show that image in this world. Because of man's high origin and calling, one person should respect the other, and a government should respect the status of its citizens.
Man has tried to find his own principles for human rights, and if one does not turn to Scripture the alternative authority is indeed man himself. He then has inalienable rights, which are based on his good nature. Those who believe that man's nature is corrupt understand that that foundation is unacceptable. This does not mean, however, that human rights promoted on this basis have no value. Whenever people's rights and justice are maintained in this world, it shows the LORD'S work. He wants His creation to function.
On December 10, 1948, the United Nations accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was the first international document to formulate human rights. Some of these rights the reader can find at the end of this article. When reading this declaration, one must keep in mind that these rights are not binding rules, but ideals the countries must strive to realize. Violation of these rights was and is often more the rule than the exception. If attention is drawn to such violations, the country in question almost always refers to its sovereignty. Interference is not allowed.
Some of the general rights have been further defined and formulated in conventions, for example, the rights regarding slavery, refugees, and education.
In the preamble to the UN Declaration the underlying principle is clearly stated,
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, these rights are proclaimed.
Many countries have accepted national laws which are derived from the UN declaration.
Freedom of Religion
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads,
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Most of us have freedom of religion. Religion, of course, is more than a matter of thought and conscience; it directs our whole life, and it must permeate all our actions in private and in public. Freedom of religion is a precious right. It should not be taken for granted, however, history shows that many Christians have suffered oppression, torture, and even death for their faith in Jesus Christ. The oppression of Christians in former communist countries is well-known, and Christians still suffer in communist China and in a number of other countries.
Someone has called freedom of religion the most fundamental human right. It is directly related to the calling man has received from God. Man must love God and his neighbour in everyday life. A government must respect this right, and if countries violate it, other countries must certainly point out that such a situation stands in the way of normal relations.
The Bible teaches that oppression of God's children will occur. Satan is waging a relentless war and one of his weapons is oppression. Violence is not his only means. He also employs subtle ways. For example, Christians who confess absolute truths may be ridiculed or systematically silenced.
As already indicated, a government should not respect and promote the rights of Christians only; freedom of religion should be allowed to all citizens. It is not the government's task to proclaim the gospel, but to create the environment in which this proclamation can occur.
Equality in Christ
There may be a tendency among us to speak negatively about human rights. The reason for this is perhaps that some governments have gone too far in promoting and protecting all kinds of “rights” that are contrary to Scripture. This article has attempted to show that a biblical foundation for human rights can be formulated. Man's position and task in this world result in his having rights. These rights, however, are not to find their justification in man himself, but in the biblical teachings concerning love and justice.
The list of rights is very long and it seems that more are being added every year. It is beyond the scope of this article to evaluate every one of these rights. Some are more important than others and some may not deserve a place on the list at all.
This article is placed in the Christmas issue of our magazine. The birth of Christ is remembered. In Christ everyone is equal. The gospel is for all people, regardless of race, sex, nationality, colour. Human rights can only be properly evaluated and accepted when faith in Him is professed.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Man has the right to
life, liberty, and security of person
be equal before the law and entitled without any discrimination to equal protection
a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal in the case of a criminal charge
be presumed innocent until proven guilty
freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state
leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country
seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution
marry and found a family
own property alone as well as in association with others
freedom of thought, conscience, and religion
freedom of opinion and expression
freedom of peaceful assembly and association
take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives
equal access to public service
work, to free choice of employment
equal pay for equal work
form and join trade unions
rest and leisure
an adequate standard of living
freely participate in cultural life
Three Articles are Quoted in their Entirety
Article 4: No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.
Article 26.3: Parents have a prior right to choose the education that shall be given to their children.