Human rights are something we mostly take for granted today. We forget that through most of history, what we now know as ‘human rights’ were merely privileges for the rich and powerful.
If human rights are to endure, we must understand where they came from. How did we moderns come to believe in the right to life, equality before the law, and freedoms like speech, conscience and religion?
Human rights are not some kind of ‘fact of nature’ that humanity was bound to discover. History shows that human rights have distinctly Christian origins and would not exist apart from the civilising power of Jesus Christ.
Keeping this message in the public square is one of many reasons to support unashamedly Christian political parties like the Australian Christians.
The story of human rights begins in the first chapter of the Bible, where God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” and then “created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” (Genesis 1:26-27).
When Jesus walked the earth, he affirmed this truth by defying ancient customs to show profound care for women, children, and society’s down-and-outs.
Though it caused controversy in his day, Jesus spoke publicly with women, healed them, taught them, praised them and involved them in his ministry. He welcomed children, embraced them, and praised their faith as the ideal for adults to imitate. Jesus so identified with the world’s forgotten that he claimed to feed, clothe and care for ‘the least of these’ was to do the same for him.
As author John Ortberg has said, “It’s really Jesus who brought that notion of the dignity and worth of every human being from little Israel to the much larger world.”
Many Early Church Fathers contributed to our notion of human rights. Basil of Caesarea claimed that the wealth of rich Christians in fact belonged to the poor. John Chrysostom taught that generosity is a duty and not merely a choice. As early as the 4th century, Gregory of Nyssa opposed slavery, asking, “Who can buy a man, who can sell him, when he is made in the likeness of God?”
In the Middle Ages, canon lawyers of the Catholic church developed the idea of natural rights, the direct forerunner of today’s human rights. By the year 1300, Godfrey of Fontaines and other Christian thinkers had recognised at least five natural rights: the right of the poor to the necessities of life; the right of self preservation; rights to property; the right to a fair trial; and the right of self-defence.
During the Reformation, Martin Luther recovered the truth that salvation is by grace alone. He levelled the playing field by affirming that all have sinned—even priests and bishops; yet all who believe are priests unto God—even beggars and outcasts.
The vision of the Reformers was to translate the Bible into the languages of the people so that everyone could read God’s Word for themselves and know God personally. While their goal was to reform the church, historians recognise that the Reformers actually went much further—they redefined the dignity of the human person, endowed the self with moral authority, and set the stage for the idea of individual freedom.
The precursors of today’s human rights documents include the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689) and the United States Bill of Rights (1789). All of these political charters arose in distinctly Christian lands, and rested on and expressed Christian ideas. Consider the famous words of the United States Declaration of Independence (1776):
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The devastation of two world wars and the horrors of the Holocaust were a cause for deep reflection on what it means to be human. Out of this cauldron came our premier human rights charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The drafters of this document used broadly secular language to give it widespread religious and cultural appeal. But some of its key framers were actually followers of Jesus, including Jacques Maritain and Charles Malik.
Nick Spencer, author of The Evolution of the West, points out that even without religious language, the document betrays its Christian roots. He says, “If you lift the lid you find an awful lot of Christian workings underneath the bonnet.”
From the earliest days of the church, followers of Jesus have played a central role in framing human rights and making them global. According to Samuel Moyn, law professor at Yale University, “No one interested in where human rights came from can afford to ignore Christianity.”
Recall that it was a despised Christian minority who ended the barbaric practice of infanticide in the Roman Empire, and stood against the ancient slave trade.
Recall William Wilberforce, who finally abolished slavery in the British empire, and Martin Luther King Jr. fought bravely for civil rights in the United States.
Recall Mother Teresa, who served the poor in India’s slums for fifty years, and Nelson Mandela who dismantled apartheid in South Africa.
For two thousand years, followers of Jesus advanced the cause of human rights for the simple reason that they were following Jesus.
Jesus’ ultimate act was laying down his life to redeem the world. At the cross, he declared the immeasurable worth of every human life, and he have up his rights so that we might have ours.
If this is a message that you support and want to make known, we invite you to stand with the Australian Christians.