Human Rights and the Christian Faith: Friends or Foes?
Posted by Logan Gates on April 27, 2017
Topic: UA Summit
LGBTQ. Abortion. Euthanasia. In today’s human rights discussions, it’s often the Christian faith that’s cast as the enemy – the embodiment of all things restrictive. At the same time, prominent sociologists like Rodney Stark have argued that the very “soil” nourishing the modern concept of human rights is the Judeo-Christian tradition. Nowhere else is found the idea that humanity is sacred because we’re all made in the “image of God,” that justice matters because right and wrong are objective realities, and that we ought to build a society grounded on “love of neighbour,” because that was the example of Jesus when he walked the earth.
So which is it? Where does the Christian faith stand when it comes to “human rights?” Are they friends or foes?
Social critic Os Guinness argues the confusion stems from two fundamentally different understandings of “freedom,” each reflected in the one of the great social revolutions of our time. The American Revolution, Guinness explains, pursued a “freedom with principles.” The Declaration of Independence grounds its course of action in the “long train of abuses,” which on the basis of principle called for a deliberate response. By way of contrast, the French Revolution pursued a “freedom for freedom’s sake,” a freedom without principle, as the subsequent lawlessness and bloodbath would attest.
When it comes to the hot-button issues today, it’s no secret that Christian principles are seen as standing against the freedom championed by the modern cause for human rights. Guinness’s case is that as we’re moving more and more towards a “freedom for freedom’s sake,” we’re rejecting any and all moral restrictions, turning on the Christian soil that has given our rights their birth. The question is, where do these different courses of freedom lead?
In the second half of the 20th century, Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin coined the terms “negative liberty” and “positive liberty” – the one referring to what we’re free from, and the other what we’re free for. “Negative liberty” on its own pushes for a freedom from all constraints, while “positive liberty” aims at a freedom of another kind, based on a conformity to higher telos, or purpose. The man who eats potato chips on his couch all day may be “free” in his choices, but he is arguably not as “free” as the Olympic platform-diver, who can masterfully align his body with each dive. The first is a freedom without restrictions, the second a freedom with the right restrictions – the restrictions of years of disciplined training that enable the fulfillment of a higher purpose. Our wonder at the artistry of the diver, over the laziness of the potbelly, speaks of our true intuitions as to which freedom we find more compelling.
The Apostle Paul writes, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Christianity certainly claims to offer a freedom from – a freedom from shame, sin, meaninglessness, and despair, through faith in Christ’s work on the cross on our behalf. But the Christian’s freedom is also emphatically “positive” – with a focus on what we’re free for. The Christian is free for walking in friendship with the living God and for being gradually conformed into the likeness of Christ. This, of course, does not come easily – Jesus compared the discipline and cost of the Christian life to taking up a cross. But it is a discipline that leads to formation of the soul and a well-lived life.
Sometimes it takes catching a glimpse of the telos to spur us along the way. Just a week ago I was at a family birthday celebration for a woman nearing the end of her life. Mother to four, grandmother and great-grandmother to many, her quick laughter and focus on others exuded an orientation away from herself. It was said of her, “she has a special relationship with each member of the family.” The hugs, tears, and words of thankfulness expressed on her behalf spoke to the legacy of a life well-lived, despite it being one of deep suffering – the loss of a husband in her twenties, and an adult son in mid-life. I found myself wondering – what has made this remarkable woman who she is today? It’s a question that couldn’t be answered without mention of her faith. With humble joy she shares how over forty years ago God stepped into her life, adopted her as her daughter, and called her to live for him. It was said of her, “Whenever we would visit, the Bible would always be open on the table.” Hers is a beautiful life that is product of forty years of discipline – daily seeking after God in prayer and reading His Word, as well as sacrificially putting the needs of others before her own. One day the Olympic diver will find his muscles have grown weak, but here is a woman in her final years living with beauty and grace in all she does.
What kind of people are we becoming? What kind of society are we building? It’s one thing to board any train in the station, but another to know where it is going. Nowhere apart from the Christian faith can be found both a foundation and destination by which human rights can help grow us into the free people we were meant to be.
This summer, RZIM is coming to Winnipeg to tackle the hot-button issue of human rights. Where do they come from? Are our rights simply given to us by government? If so, can the government take them away? Or do our rights find their foundation in a transcendent being like God?
From July 12-15, RZIM’s North American Director, Abdu Murray, as well as Dr. Andy Bannister, Alycia Wood, and Logan Gates will be addressing these questions and more. We’ll also be joined by award-winning secular humanist philosopher, Dr. Christopher DiCarlo for a lively and cordial dialogue on Human Rights: by Design or Default? Bring your questions for our popular Q&A sessions where you’ll be able to interact with the speakers. People of any faith –or no faith at all – are invited to attend these timely and important events.