Part III – Central Themes for an Evangelical Framework
Chapter 15 – Human Rights.
By Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom, Freedom House, Washington, DC.
Marshall observes that human rights have become a central topic in evangelical public policy questions in recent years. However, nailing down exactly what right is a “human right” is a difficult task. Many use “right” in place of “should have” as in "I think everyone has a right to decent housing. "
Furthermore, getting something into the public mind as a "right" is a powerful tool for gaining its acceptance. Marshall quotes L. W. Sumner.
It is the agility of rights, their talent for turning up on both sides of an issue, which is simultaneously their most impressive and their most troubling feature. Clearly, interest groups which agree on little else agree that rights are indispensable weapons in political debate. (309)
Marshall has a wonderful quote from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.
When a religious scheme is shattered it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also, and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they are isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful… (310)
We have a proliferation of rights with out attention to personal and civic obligations.
Marshall writes that “rights” can be understood as gifts or endowments from God. We are not autonomous creatures with rights. Marshall examines a number of scripture passages pointing out that humans are made in the image of God and because they are God’s image they have certain rights.
Hence, a Christian understanding of right should flow from the recognition that, through God’s continuing justice, mercy, and provision for us, we have a claim to be in right relation with one another and we can claim what God says is right for us. (314)
Here are two paragraphs that get at what Marshall would be involved in a Christian view of human rights.
We, along with all creatures, are God’s servants. We may say that each of us has a right to be a servant of God, to fulfill our particular office and calling for God’s glory. Human beings have a claim to be able to do what God calls them to do. Our rights relate to our God-given human duties and responsibilities. Human beings have a right to the institutions and the resources they need to carry out their responsibilities. Hence, the political order must be one in which men and women can express themselves as God’s imagers, or to put it another way, there must be social space for human personality.
This necessarily implies, first of all, the right to be, the right to life itself, the right to be unharmed. This right belongs to each human life. Such human life always exists in bodies of flesh and blood and bones; hence, humans have a right to remain whole, not to be harmed, aborted, maimed, tortured, molested, place in hostage, or terrorized. The basic needs of individuals for food, nurture, shelter, and care are implicit in the right to life itself. The biblical message pointedly indicates that the fulfillment of such needs is a matter of God’s requirement of justice. This justice therefore requires an allocation of material and cultural goods such that human life is made possible, protected, and enhanced so that humans can realize their God-given tasks within human history. These tasks entail the use of “nature” and its resources. This use is not only a right of the human species or of the human “community,” for each of us is so called. The earth is the Lord’s, and persons have the right to a stewardly possession and use of it. In a differentiated society, this implies some right to privacy and, its concomitant, private property. (315)
Marshall goes on to point out that the primary difficulty with rights is when two legitimate rights come into conflict with each other. He makes a critical distinction between justice and rights.
In this situation, justice points to the manner and means of weighing and simultaneously meeting different rights. Rights, in turn, as God-given arenas of authority, point to what it is that must be related in a just fashion. (316) (Emphasis in the original.)
So how can we secure human rights? Marshall suggests Constitutional laws are critical. Democracy is important because it can act as a check on government tendencies to erode human rights. International human rights is considerably more difficult. Communities of nations often come to some agreement through treaties. However, in many places around the world like Muslim nations and in many Asian countries, what is often called human rights is often viewed as Western impositions on populations that do not share Western values on freedom of religion, family or economics. Are they universally applicable human rights?
Marshall points out that more agreement can probably be reached with regard to proscriptive restrictions on governments than on prescriptive requirements for government. He notes that the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution, the first ten Amendments, are overwhelming statements about what government must refrain from doing. “no law…not be infringed…no soldier…no person…no fact…not required…not to be construed… not delegated…” (322)
In concluding his essay, Marshall returns to the emphasis that human rights can only truly be found as endowments by the creator to those made in his image. “Hence, rights should not be multiplied endlessly according to the assertion of human will but must reflect a normative understanding of genuine human responsibility and authority.” (322) These will likely best be protected by restricting what government may not do. When add to this a laundry list of things a government should try to achieve (ex., economic prosperity, clean environment, education for everyone, healthcare for everyone) we move have moved into an alternate definition of rights that may diminish genuine human rights.
This essay was good reflection. I find especially helpful his relation of justice to rights.