Ben White, Third Way
Western Christians have often expressed ambivalence about the language, assumptions, and practical outworking of ‘human rights’ and the extent to which it threatens to be a rival creed: God-centred ethics replaced by well-meaning but shakily-grounded humanism.
Emerging after the horrors of World War II in the form of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights1, the modern human rights movement has been characterised by the law professor John Witte Jr as an attempt to find a world faith to fill a spiritual void – ‘to harvest from the traditions of Christianity and the Enlightenment the rudimentary elements of a new faith and a new law that would unite a badly broken world order’.2
Interestingly though, the idea of human rights even for those of an agnostic disposition, is connected to faith. In an interview with the Observer in September, the playwright Tom Stoppard remarked that ‘unless there is, for want of a better term, a spiritual universe, I don’t see what is so important about anything including human rights. What I really think is that everybody who believes in human rights is unspokenly, possibly unconsciously, accepting some form of immaterial reality’. 3
For Christians this is both encouraging and humbling. It requires us to have a generous enough understanding of the Kingdom that we celebrate and value what is good where we find it. John Kinahan of Forum 18 News Service, a Christian initiative providing original reporting and analyses on violations of freedom of religion or belief, puts it like this: ‘Do we defend human rights because they are in the UDHR, or because they stand for values which existed before the UDHR and are expressed in it?’4 It is a good question.
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