Human Rights: Is The Language Too Limited?

I must confess that the language of “human rights” makes me uneasy.

Not because I’m politically conservative (because I’m not) nor be cause I disagree with the concept of a fair go (because I don’t).

I’m uneasy with the language of “human rights” because (1) it focusses attention on humans, (2) is awfully legalistic and yet (3) seems founded on modernist language, the universality of which is highly questionable.

Take something like literacy. Is literacy a “human right”? I can’t help noticing that for most of human history, universal literacy has been a practical impossibility. Yet is universal literacy something we should aim for? In our society, absolutely! Why? Because in Jesus we discover that God seeks to empower the powerless.

But is this a right … or a gift?

I’m uneasy with the language of “human rights” because it tends to leave the Creator (and the rest of creation!) behind in the conversation. I’m uneasy with the language of “human rights” because it can all too easily be twisted into talk of personal entitlement and me-ism. I’m uneasy with the language of “human rights” because it undermines the language of generosity and grace.

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for this. I agree that the term “human rights” is definitely founded on modernist ideas. As we move into more and more of a post-modernist culture, our language should shift as well. I’m glad you are challenging this idea and not just uncritically continuing to use a term that may be out of date. What do you suggest though, in response? It seems that what we need is not a better phrase, but an entire new way of thinking about these things in general.

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  2. Heather, absolutely! We definitely need a new way of thinking. Even amongst Atheists we can find differences of opinion between “humanists” and those who reject human-centrism. How do we deal with such pluralism? How do we work through the problem of “universal” rights that are not universally accepted? Is it enough to seek the (lowest) common denominators that everyone can agree on? Sounds like a recipe for the moral equivalent of musak. Personally I wonder if Christian activists need to start thinking more in terms of covenant instead of contract, of unconditional commitment instead of mutual commitment.
    Take the issue of torture. In working through the ethics of torture should the USA lower itself to the standard of its enemies (to maximise its international competativeness) or raise itself to its highest ideals (and walk the talk of American exceptionalism). Is a universal declaration of human rights the be all and end all in ethical excellence?

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  3. I have struggled with the idea of ‘rights’ for a long time; both the political football of human rights and the things that each and every one of us seem to insist on on a daily basis.
    My vocabulary has turned to privileges and responsibilities since first starting to think about this stuff back in the 80s. I have come to a point where I don’t think rights exist apart from being ideas to which we subscribe.
    My understanding of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 when he speaks of the meek leads me to believe that he calls us (and expects us) to forgo our rights. Mind you, he expects us to acknowledge the rights of other when he talks about going an extra mile!
    In our pluralist society I think it is our call as followers of Jesus to be different in all the right ways and for all the right reason and to provide a glimpse of the eternal lived out in faith. We don’t have to come to some sort of consensus with the world around us.
    Just thinking out loud.
    Brian

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  4. There is much fuzzy thinking when the word “rights” crops up. But that need not lead to a theological dumping of the baby with the bathwater. Actually the term rights takes us way back to ancient times with the “natural law” tradition. The use of the term was given fresh impetus by the Christian philosopher John Locke whose seminal ideas played a big part in the formation of the US as a political republic. Rights came out of the cradle of theology not modernity-thinking which has subsequently developed a rubbery understanding.
    The modern rights movement was spurred on by the denial of human dignity and the relegating to non-person status of people under the Third Reich’s programme of genocide.
    The European Convention on Human Rights was framed in light of the Holocaust, and Arthur Henry Robertson (a Christian) was one of its principal architects. Rene Cassin, who won the Nobel Prize and established the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, was a Jew and he said that the Ten Commandments are the basis for all human rights.
    The way people use the word “rights” to squabble and complain or to lobby does not evacuate meaning from the word but points to how self-centrism is often confused with legal titles that are guaranteed full protection and recognition. For clarity we need to define rights as “titles”, which means you are entitled to something because of a relationship.Rights are not claims. However, the only ultimate grounding for defining and justifying any rights that would have binding obligations and duties on everyone would require a revelation by a Transcendent God who knows our weaknesses and can see the whole of time. A case can be made that in the person and teaching of the resurrected Christ we have access to that transcendent perspective.
    Thus any kind of “rights” be they civil, political, economic, environmental to be enshrined in a legal statute or covenant would require careful reflection theologically.
    It’s worth noting that the Canadian Bill of Rights (1960) begins by acknowledging that the rights in that Bill come from recognizing there is a God.
    I’d recommend as a starting point for theological reflection on human rights this book by theologian-lawyer-human rights specialist John Warwick Montgomery, Human Rights & Human Dignity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986). His book can still be obtained via http://www.ciltpp.com/stud_jwl.htm
    Incidentally, three evangelicals in YWAM in the mid 1980s in Greece found themselves under criminal prsecution for proselytising (violating a Greek law against converting people). As Greece was a signatory to the European Convention the evangelicals had their case heard at the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Greek prosecution case of the evangelicals was deemed by the Strasbourg Court as unlawful and a violation of religious rights guaranteed under the convention.
    A similar case involving an evangelical Christian was heard before the same court in 1998 concerning anti-proselyting laws being used against the man; and yet another case on behalf of the Bessarabian Orthodox Church vs Moldova.
    It would be sad and awful if because of bad-word associations (Marxist argue for rights; gays argue for rights) that we forget that the Holocaust motivated Christians after WW2 to help contribute to the creation of human rights conventions that came in its wake. It would also be rather bad if we ignored the protections of the European system (far superior to the UN system) in ensuring people are not turned into “non-persons” as did the Nazis.

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