“Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
I am writing this essay on human rights as a Christian, a person of faith. I am grateful for the modern concept of human rights because it gives me a framework to express my faith and give universal meaning and specific content to the new commandment that Jesus gave to us, that we love one another.
I would like to invite persons of other faiths to express the foundation of their faith in terms of human rights. This gives us a common point for dialogue about our different faiths and also gives a way for us to join hands and work for a better world in which we seek justice and reconciliation, not domination of one another.
For me as a Christian and I know that I do not speak for all Christians; I can only speak for myself about human rights as an expression of my faith. The Christian faith is not just about opinions about a book or about God. It has to do with the embodiment of the Spirit in the world. It is about walking and talking in love, because God is love. My Christian faith is about restorative justice, peace, wholeness and joy in human experience.
The two most significant Christian leaders in my Christian life beyond Jesus and the Apostles are John Wesley and Martin Luther King, Jr. These two men were apostles of love and they worked for and served the poor, marginalized and oppressed. Their definitions of love have helped me grow in my understanding of faith and human rights. John Wesley defined love as an inflamed passionate desire to remove evil, misery, and suffering from; and to procure every possible good, spiritual, mental and physical for every person born of a woman. Martin Luther King, Jr. defined love as a healing, understanding, reconciling goodwill that works and suffers for life for all people.
It was the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth that connected the power of love to build biblical restorative justice to the concept of human rights for me. When the State of Alabama outlawed the NAACP in the 1950’s Rev. Shuttlesworth began the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. The two fundamental principles of that organization were:
- There are no second class human beings; and
- It is our first responsibility to defend the civil and human rights of all people.
The Christian faith, as expressed in the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, is a demonstration of love in action that is a commitment to implementing and defending human rights.
I had the opportunity to discuss with Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth the connection between the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and Eleanor Roosevelt’s work in the United Nations in the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He affirmed that it was the work of the UN on Human Rights that led him to make the connection between his ministries of liberation of the poor and oppressed as he fought against Jim Crow in Birmingham. That was why he chose the name of his new organization, The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, and to build its work on the defense of the civil and human rights for all people.
It was this connection of Christian ministry and human rights that enabled me to see and understand that when John Wesley spoke of spreading “social holiness” across the land that could be understood as implementing human rights for all people. This understanding of faith and human rights is expressed in the United Methodist Church’s Social Creed in the following way:
“We believe in God, Creator of the world; and in Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of creation. We believe in the Holy Spirit, through whom we acknowledge God’s gifts, and we repent of our sin in misusing these gifts to idolatrous ends.
We affirm the natural world as God’s handiwork and dedicate ourselves to its preservation, enhancement, and faithful use by humankind.
We joyfully receive for ourselves and others the blessings of community, sexuality, marriage, and the family.
We commit ourselves to the rights of men, women, children, youth, young adults, the aging, and people with disabilities; to improvement of the quality of life; and to the rights and dignity of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.
We believe in the right and duty of persons to work for the glory of God and the good of themselves and others and in the protection of their welfare in so doing; in the rights to property as a trust from God, collective bargaining, and responsible consumption; and in the elimination of economic and social distress.
We dedicate ourselves to peace throughout the world, to the rule of justice and law among nations, and to individual freedom for all people of the world.
We believe in the present and final triumph of God’s Word in human affairs and gladly accept our commission to manifest the life of the gospel in the world. Amen.”
(United Methodist Book of Discipline)
For me, as a Christian, I understand the “Great Commandment” to be: To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. I have come to understand that my neighbor is every human creature and all creation, not just people that look like me and talk like me but all people, even the people I do not know or the people I have never seen, even the people who have been defined as enemy. The human rights framework provides a structure for me to fulfill my stewardship to God and love my neighbor by giving my heart, soul, mind and strength to the human rights agenda for all people. This allows me to stand against oppression and injustice with a love that strongly resist evil, and also defends the civil and human rights of those who are participating in the injustice and oppression.
The work of love seeks restorative justice and reconciliation not domination and abuse of others. To work with in the human rights framework keeps me sensitive to using means in my work for social justice that reflects the ends I desire. The human rights framework also gives me a way of expressing and measuring outcomes that and have meaning for and understood by the broader human community.
I would like to recommend some resources for further study and reflection: Christopher D. Marshall’s book, Crowned with Glory & Honor: Human Rights in the Biblical Tradition and two websites, www.humanrights.com and www.youthforhumanrights.org.