Illustration of a figure reading a newspaper with a headline about Human Rights


Shifting Discourse

The tangled history of human rights and Christianity

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Harvey Cox

When I think about human rights and the history of Christianity, it is a tangled story. I want to focus on two of those tangles. One is the contradictory contribution of Christianity to human rights over the centuries and at the current crossroads, maybe even crisis, in human rights. The other is the critique that Christianity and other world religions can make at this moment in the development of human rights discourse.

First of all, we have to concede that much of what Christianity has to say about human rights and human destiny and God was all said very well by the Hebrew prophets in the Bible. There’s only one little small addendum at the end, called the New Testament, which is really kind of a postscript. Nonetheless, the prophets are part of the Christian contribution, because it was the Christians who carried this Torah to so many people. God creates all people, not just a particular people. God creates them in his own image and, therefore, the image of God is present in every single human being, regardless of gender or race or age. The Hebrew prophets had a class bias for the poor, for the marginalized, for the landless, for the orphans, for widows, for people outside the protection of networks of support. There’s a bias in the Bible; it wasn’t quite a vision of equal human rights. Some people—poor people—were more favored by God from the prophets’ point of view and, therefore, those in power had a special responsibility to such people.

When we come to the New Testament, we witness a gradual extension of this affirmation of the dignity and sacredness of human life in unexpected ways. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” of course, but who is your neighbor? According to the parable of the Good Samaritan, you become a neighbor if you show compassion to anybody who needs it. Your neighbor is not necessarily the person next door to you, but we are neighbors in a network of compassion. Neighbors are like those who show mercy and justice to the man who fell among thieves and was beaten and robbed, or to any stranger in trouble.

More radically, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus extends this to say, “You should love your enemies.” This is indeed a radical extension of the law of love. We’re not talking about the commandments. For Jesus, love is the summation of the law and the prophets, a radical expansion to include people who might not have been included in his time, including the Gentiles, and lepers, and others who were not seen as fully within the scope of the law.

Love is the unconditional and active affirmation of the whole being of the other. In human rights language, this is his or her right to the fullness of life.

I should point out that in the New Testament conception (picking up also on the Old Testament idea of justice), love is not a sentiment. Love is the unconditional and active affirmation of the whole being of the other. In human rights language, you might say this is his or her right to fullness of life. So to affirm the other is not just an ethical act, it is a spiritual religious act. In fact, it is to participate in the life of God according to the Epistle of John: “God is love.” There-fore, loving, including the neighbor, including the enemy, is an act of participation in the life of God.

In the United States, there was a combination of biblical Christianity and of Enlightenment virtue. So you have in the early founding documents the famous phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident” (an Enlightenment phrase) “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (a religious phrase). This constituted a wedding of two not completely separate traditions, because some of the founding fathers were mild Calvinists with Enlightenment leanings, some were stricter Calvinists, and others were Episcopalians.

So, what went wrong? Here is this beautiful picture of Christianity contributing to human rights, but alas, when you read the history of Christianity, you wonder whatever happened to these great insights. By the fourth century, there were a lot of people who didn’t seem to be included in the parameters of justice or indeed the rule of love. What about those heretics or the schismatics or indeed the Jews? Error, it was said at that time, does not have the same rights as truth, and government has a responsibility to uphold truth against error. It wasn’t until the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s that the Roman Catholic Church finally made a clear statement for religious freedom on the basis that faith cannot be forced and, therefore, the church should stand unequivocally for religious freedom.

Although the discourse of human rights was yet to be born, in the medieval period, of course, the Saracens (the “infidels”) were not included in the expanded version of love of neighbor or even love of enemy. There wasn’t much love of enemies during the Crusades. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the main branches of the Reformation did not improve on this, al-though some of the seeds for the eventual emergence of human rights can be found in what we call the left wing of the Reformation: the Quakers, the Anabaptists, the Mennonites, who contributed the concept of soul liberty, which was enunciated here also by Roger Williams when New England came to birth.

This brings us to what I think of as the second tangle. In many ways we are facing a crossroads, if not a crisis, in our civil rights discourse. My question is this: How does it happen that the twentieth century marked both the high water of the codification and institutionalization of human rights and also was the worst century imaginable in terms of the grotesque and excessive violation of human rights, the Shoah, the gulags, the intentional bombing of civilians, and all of that? What happened? What went wrong?

Harvey Cox is Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, where he has been teaching since 1965, both at HDS and in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. These words are adapted from a talk presented at the “Reporting Global Conflict” conference, which was sponsored by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, with HDS, held on May 9-10, 2008.

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