Christians have been at the forefront of social change for the better in society for centuries as reflected in a recent book by Sharon James entitled “How Christianity transformed the world?” The reason for this is the fundamental biblical conviction shared by all Christians that all human beings are to be respected because we are all created in the image of God. Therefore, this is where we need to begin in any and all discussions about race, refugees, and immigration.
The concept of human rights is fundamentally a Christian one. In his book ‘The reason for God’, Tim Keller argues that human rights cannot be based on nature or natural law, since nature thrives on violence and predation. The concept of the dignity of each individual cannot be derived from a world where the strong kill the weak in order to survive.
Equally, human rights cannot be created by human lawmakers. What happens when lawmakers are voted out by the majority, who decide they are going to legislate out of existence laws that protect human dignity? The problem with appealing to the majority, when it comes to secular or nonreligious grounds for human rights, is that it assumes a consensus among those who make up the human race. Issues like abortion and euthanasia suggest otherwise. Keller quotes author Michael Perry’s book ‘Towards a theory of human rights’:
There is a religious ground for the morality of human rights…it is far from clear that there is a non-religious ground.
In his brilliant book ’Issues facing Christians today’, after surveying the many abuses of human rights alongside our contradictory concerns for rights, John Stott raises the question: How is it that human beings have any rights? In answer to his own question he states the following:
The origin of human rights is creation…We have them from the beginning. We receive them with our life from the hand of our Maker. They are inherent in our creation…bestowed on us by our Creator.
In essence, human rights are the rights of human beings and therefore they depend on the nature of human beings whose rights they are. Central to the question of human rights is the question: what does it mean to be a human being.
Even though the image of God in both men and women has been corrupted (cf. Gen.chpt.3). Being God’s image-bearers is intrinsic to who we are, it is not something we have completely lost. Through Jesus, who perfectly imaged God (Col.1:15), the image of God in us is in the process of being restored through the gospel (cf. Col.3:1-2, 10-11).
Although a difficult doctrine to pin down. Glen Scrivener suggests, being made in God’s image, although connected, is not mainly about power or knowledge. We are meant to rule the world under God’s power or authority from a place of love. John Stott offers three words that summarize our purpose as human beings created in the image of God: dignity, equality, and responsibility. 'Our Dignity' as image-bearer is helpfully summed up by him like this:
…all human rights are at base the right to be human, and so to enjoy the dignity of having been created in God’s image and of possessing in consequence unique relationship to God himself, to our fellow human beings and to the material world.
Of course, as Christians, we can add to this the dignity we have in Christ who redeemed us at great personal cost to Himself further giving us a sense of how valuable we are.
As we come to 'Our Equality', our corruption has meant that humans rights have not always meant ‘equal rights.’ The history of the world has been one of my rights coming into conflict with yours, creating ethical dilemmas. For example, abortion can create tension between the rights of the mother and the rights of her unborn child. Or what about the tension between Extinction Rebellion’s right to protest and people’s right to get to work without the disruption caused by one of their protects?
The Bible’s view on this is derived from God’s character and therefore who we are as His image-bearers (cf. Deut.1:16-17; 10:17). The New Testament has a similar emphasis (cf. Mark 12:14, Ja.2:1-13). Stott puts it well when he writes:
Our common humanity is enough to abolish favouritism and privilege, and to establish equal status and rights.
When it comes to our common humanity. It is important to know that among ethologists, anthropologists and other race scientists, there is and has been no real agreement as to the number of so-called ‘races’, nor any agreement about what characteristics should determine what the different ‘races’ are. In the words of NHS doctor Guddi Singh:
Race is just a visible way that humans have decided that we are going to slice and dice different groups of people…Race is essentially just skin colour and it was used in colonial history basically to allow people to discriminate. But the fact is that race is a biological fiction that has no basis in our genetic code.
According to the table of nations in Gen.chpt.10, the human race is made up of one family. We are one race made up of many different ethnic groups, each and every person with inherent dignity and worth because each individual is created equally in the image of God Almighty Himself. And regardless of colour, creed, class, crimes, or credentials.
Finally, with respect to ‘Our Responsibility’ the Russian novelist, philosopher, and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in an interview with TIME magazine put it like this:
During these 300 years of Western Civilization, there has been a sweeping away of duties and an expansion of rights. But we have two lungs. You can’t breathe with just one lung and not the other. We must avail ourselves of rights and duties in equal measure.
According to Jesus in Mark 12, our responsibilities as God’s image-bearers can be summed up in terms of loving God and loving our neighbour. What one writer describes as the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibility. And of course, our supreme example of this is the Lord Jesus Himself (cf. Phil.2:3-8).