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Why A Christian Declaration of Universal Rights?
Many Christians will question the legitimacy of a Declaration of Universal Rights. Some will object that the notion of rights is foreign to the message of the gospel. Supposedly, Christians have no rights, or at least are under a duty to lay down their rights. This belief naturally leads to the conclusion that Christians have no business participating in discussions about rights, or being involved in formulating declarations of rights. To speak the language of "rights" is to speak the language of selfishness and carnality.
Others will assume that such a declaration reflects the spirit of our age. Over the past few decades various declarations of "human rights" have been put forth. Much of the content and philosophy of some of these declarations has been clearly humanistic, at odds with scriptural principles and with fundamental precepts of Christian teaching.
Still others will insist that talk about rights leads to revolution and anarchy. To focus on rights is to make a wrong emphasis which plays into the hands of people's bent to rebelliousness. In any case, to speak of rights is to speak of things "of this world," and the sole vocation of the Christian is to witness to the lost and bring them into the kingdom of God which is not of this world. Christians should shun involvement with such worldly things and should concern themselves only with matters of redemption.
Finally, many Christians have been taught that all talk of "rights" traces to the eighteenth century Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that rejected the Bible and Christianity. They see the West's heritage of rights as anti-Biblical and anti-Christian, a product of deism and rationalism rather than of Christian culture. Thus, when Christians make declarations of rights they depart from the true faith to follow the path of those who rejected Christianity. Their Christian activism loses it Biblical integrity. They compromise their faith and subvert it with worldly goals.
The Bible has much to say about rights. In the Hebrew Old Testament the word mishpat, ordinarily translated justice, is also the word for rights. In the Greek New Testament the word for rights is exousia (ex oo see ah), which is ordinarily translated authority. Both testaments speak repeatedly of rights, both God's and man's. The linguistics of scripture presents a comprehensive picture of rights which is too often ignored by Bible teachers today.
Second, the Western heritage of rights traces to the impact of the Bible and Christianity on Western culture. It was birthed and developed by Christian law scholars of the canon law era (11th through 13th centuries A.D.), by medieval Christian theologians, and by civil law teachers working from a Christian intellectual framework.
For these scholars, the message of the Bible was "unalienable rights"—rights of the person, which are God-given, and which a man is not permitted to transfer or surrender.* These rights are "universal" in that they belong to every person, in every land, regardless of circumstance or situation. They are "immutable" because they are God-given, and cannot be reduced or restricted by any government or any man for any reason. No man is free under God to surrender these universal, immutable, unalienable rights, but must exercise them as a steward under duty to God who gave them.
This concept of rights has no parallel either in ancient Greek or Roman thought. That is why the intellectual heritage of Western rights traces almost exclusively to Christianity and the Bible. Yet it was rejected by Quattrocento Renaissance humanists and by Enlightenment rationalists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Christians do not need to be ashamed of the Western heritage of rights, even though it is being perverted and secularized in our time. Nor do they need to apologize for it or be antagonistic to it as though it were unbiblical and anti-Christian. Christians need to be salt and light by reasserting the biblical principles and Christian witness which birthed the Western theory of rights and upon which it developed.
*The term "unalienable rights" was first used by Christian scholars who wrote glosses and commentaries on the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX which were issued in 1254. See Richard Tuck, Natural Rights Theories (1979) at 15 and note 27; and Harold Berman, Law and Revolution (1983) at 203, and intro.-254. Five hundred years later, "unalienable rights" became the cornerstone of the American Declaration of Independence.
One of those principles is the Creator/Redeemer distinction. God ordained some things in the beginning at creation and other things at the cross and resurrection. The coming of the gospel does not suspend, annul, overturn, or destroy what God established at creation. One of the leading purposes of redemption is to more fully restore the creation order to what God had originally ordained it to be.
In the act of creation, God established the laws of the moral and physical universe. He also created man in His own image and commissioned him to live in this world as a human being. God established the principles of justice for human society in the Garden. The creation account is the starting point for any discussion of rights.
Many believers who do speak of rights speak only of "Christian rights" as though 'unbelievers have no rights. They think that the notion of rights is linked only with the preaching of the gospel and the forgiveness of sins. They fail to understand that the concept of rights is established as part of God's creation law scheme. In human terms all men have rights, even nonChristians, because all men are created in the image of God. Humanly speaking, Christians only have the rights that all other men have because of what God has established in the way He created all things.
The Western heritage of rights—tracing from the languages of Scripture, through the Catholic and Protestant churches, to the development of Western culture, in Europe, Britain, and America— needs to be defended and promoted by Christians everywhere who want to challenge the authoritarian and totalitarian movements that are encircling the world and enslaving nations. Ungodly men are flooding the nations of the world with false ideologies which promise freedom but bring bondage. In third world countries particularly, masses of people are ripe for being deceived by false hopes and false promises.
Many will simply find themselves victims of terror and oppression without help from God's people. False ideologies will lead whole nations into darkness and political bondage. A declaration of universal rights based on biblical principles rather than secularized, denatured counterfeit principles is desperately needed that people may properly and biblically resist tyranny. They will embrace either a declaration based upon godly principles or have to settle for the pallid mush of so-called "human rights" theories. Human rights theories fall short of the biblical model of unalienable rights and ultimately provide inadequate ground for desperate and oppressed people to stand upon.
Christians need to assert these principles, not in ecclesiastical language or the language of redemption, but in ordinary human speech, the language of creation. This is not a declaration of the articles of redeeming faith but of truths about simple justice and human dignity which God ordained from the beginning of man's creation. God's gospel message liberates men's souls. This message deals with man created in God's image living in God's world. Although this is not a message designed to evangelize souls, it is nevertheless God's truth. Because it is God's truth, Christians have a responsibility to proclaim it along with the rest of God's truth.