Social justice & human rights (2)

The following is the second part of a paper I wrote last summer (2008) for Advocating for Social Justice, adapted for this blog. The paper looks at the biblical mandate for justice and at the particular way this may be worked out with regard to human rights.

A Biblical Understanding of Human Rights

Having established justice as an indispensable element of God’s character, the next task is to build a biblical perspective on human rights. At first glance, this is a thankless task since, as Jack Mahoney notes, “neither the Hebrew Bible nor the Christian New Testament makes any reference to the subject of human rights” (4). However, while there is no specific mention of the phrase ‘human rights,’ this does not necessarily mean that the concept of human rights is unbiblical. Instead, an understanding of human rights can be gleaned from and built upon the biblical corpus regarding justice, just as our understanding of the Trinity has been gleaned from and built upon what is explicit in Scripture.

As mentioned previously, God created humankind “in his image … male and female he created them” (1:26-27); they were the pinnacle of God’s creation, sharing something of the very person of God—even to the point of resembling him (Goldingay: 98). It is upon this foundation that Catholic social tradition built its doctrine of the dignity of the human person, and it is a valid one. It is because every human being, male and female, is made in the image of God that every human being has innate worth. As Rich Nathan notes, “Human sin has not erased the divine image” (242). Translating this to a human rights framework, advocating human rights is a practical and tangible way of recognizing the worth which God has given to people.

When Jesus is asked which of the commandments is the greatest, he responds with two commandments that summed up the law and the prophets: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and the second, which is “like” the first, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:34-40). The two commandments to love God and to love neighbor are inextricably connected and related: “If we love God, then we will love all made in God’s image” (Storkey: 138). But who is our neighbor? This was the question posed to Jesus by the lawyer in Luke 10:29-37, seeking to figure out to whom he would bear an obligation, and Jesus turned the question on its head with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The issue was not about who was the priest’s neighbor or the Levite’s neighbor, but who was a neighbor to the man who had been robbed? Who would the victim have considered his neighbor? Conrad Gempf points out the allusion here to Jesus’ so-called Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31; Matt. 7:12):

Do not ask, “Who must I see as a neighbor?” Ask instead, “Who would I want to see me as a neighbor if I were in need?” … The problem isn’t that of defining who is our neighbor, it is a problem of changing our attitudes from that of limiting our obligations to that of seeking to be of service. (76-77)

In fact, Jesus goes beyond the realm of ‘neighbor’ and says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). ‘Love’ in this context is clearly not the emotional feeling with which we have come to associate it as a result of the influence of Western culture. Jesus went beyond a change of perception—seeing more people as our neighbors—and demanded an active love towards all people, friends and enemies. C.S. Lewis wrote, “This is what is meant in the Bible by loving [your neighbor]: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not” (105), intending the phrase ‘wishing’ to mean more than just a desire unaccompanied by action.

How can Jesus’ radical commands to active love towards our neighbors be manifested within the contemporary landscape? Perhaps love of neighbor can be found in affirming the value of every human being as understood in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Art. 1), having “the right to life, liberty and security of person” (Art. 3), being free from the fear of “slavery or servitude … torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” (Art. 4, 5), and more. Perhaps we may love our neighbors by defending their rights, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (Art. 2). In this way, advocacy for human rights offers a concrete expression of love for neighbors and for enemies.

The sphere of human rights has been decried as overly-individualistic, and this is a genuine danger, especially in more developed countries. But the risks of too much liberty should not deter us from advocating for those who do not have even basic rights: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:8-9). The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, makes it a point to emphasize that Christians are free—“now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to [the law]” (Gal. 3:26-29); “For freedom Christ has set us free” (5:1)—but he also exhorts them not to use their freedom “as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”” (5:13-14). As Glen Stassen comments,

Based on the Christological doctrine of justification, we are freed by Christ, subject to no one’s authoritarian domination. But the “liberated freedom” in which the Christian lives is the freedom to servanthood and love. The release from all servitude to the powers of the world means empowerment to serve the well-being of others—both freedom and responsibility in one. This supports human rights of freedom, not as selfish autonomy but as mutual servanthood. (2008)

As Christians who have been saved by grace and liberated by Christ, we possess a freedom that cannot be taken from us; but it is not a freedom that we have for ourselves. It is a freedom to follow Christ, to do as he did, to love as he loved, and to affirm the dignity of every person as he did. It is a high standard that he calls us to, higher even than defending the basic rights set out in
the UDHR; but the fight for human rights is a good place to start, that is, consistent with the Bible’s priorities for humanity.

It must be noted that, while advocating human rights in general is a good expression of upholding the value of every person as created in the image of God, as Christians we must maintain the perspective that love of neighbor is not divisible from love of God, and that the dignity and worth that we affirm as being innate in humankind is innate only because God put it there. “Since humans have their dignity because they have been created in the image of God, their ultimate obligation is to God, not to a state or an enterprise or a clan. Or to put it another way, even in and through their civic responsibility, humans owe that responsibility ultimately to God” (Skillen: 11). Jesus said that loving one’s neighbor was like loving God (Matt. 22:39), but he did not say they were the same thing. We must not lose sight of the centrality of God, not in the sphere of human rights nor in the broader realm of justice: as Archbishop Oscar Romero put it, “be careful not to betray those evangelical, Christian, supernatural convictions in the company of those who seek other liberations that can be merely economic, temporal, political. Even though working for liberation along with those who hold other ideologies, Christians must cling to their original liberation” (2). Stassen summarizes the biblical understanding of human rights thus:

If the greatest commandments are love of God and love of neighbor as oneself, then human rights need to be grounded in love of God who gives humans their rights rather than simply individual possession, and in obligation toward neighbors who have been given these rights rather than simply individual assertion that “I own these rights.” Furthermore, if Jesus teaches that all persons, even enemies, are to be included in the community of neighbors, then our obligation is to all persons created in the image of God and to whom God gives sunshine and rain—which is truly all persons. Human rights, then, are based in God’s universally inclusive love and in our obligation to all persons God cares about. Human rights are obligations to the basic needs of all persons. They are not merely possessive individualism; they are obligatory caring. (2008)

Therefore, defending and advocating for people’s basic human rights need not be understood as a secular glorification of the human person, but can be seen as a logical extension of what it means to be a follower of Christ, whose welcome extended to all people, especially the outcasts and misfits of society, and what it means to love God with all of our heart, mind and strength in loving our neighbors (including our enemies) as ourselves. The next section of the paper will offer some further practical suggestions for what this may look like.

References Cited

Gempf, Conrad. 2003. Jesus Asked: What He Wanted to Know. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Goldingay, John. 2003. Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1: Israel’s Gospel. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Lewis, C.S. 1978. Mere Christianity. Glasgow, Scotland: William Collins Sons and Co Ltd.

Mahoney, Jack. 2007. The Challenge of Human Rights: Origin, Development, and Significance. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Romero, Oscar. 1988. The Violence of Love. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Skillen, James W. 2004. In Pursuit of Justice: Christian-Democratic Explorations. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Stassen, Glen H. 1992. Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

———. 2008. “Human Rights.” Not yet published; obtained and used by permission of the author.

Social justice & human rights (1)

The following is the first part of a paper I wrote last summer (2008) for Advocating for Social Justice, adapted for this blog. The paper looks at the biblical mandate for justice and at the particular way this may be worked out with regard to human rights.


Human rights are important. Whether one agrees with them or not, it is undeniable that they are coming increasingly to the fore, in the spheres of economics, politics, and development. The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and though it is a technically a non-binding resolution, it is now considered by most to be the foundation of international customary law. On the Christian front, while the Roman Catholic Church has had a consistent tradition of social justice, of upholding the dignity of human person, of championing rights and responsibilities, and of speaking up for the poor, Protestant Christians have been slow to recognize its congruencies with a biblical understanding of justice. For some, the problem is an insufficient understanding of justice as one of the central characteristics of God; for others, it is an insufficient understanding of how human rights can serve as a manifestation of this justice. Some have discounted human rights because the phrase ‘human rights’ does not appear in the Bible; nor does it contain a systematic code of rights. However, I would argue that much of Christian faith is about working out the repercussions of what we find in Scripture, and that a value and respect for human rights is one such implication of the biblical text.

The aim of this paper is not to discuss human rights per se but to try to formulate a theology of human rights. Consequently, I will not look at the common challenges that are leveled against the sphere of human rights. Instead, in this paper, I will argue that advocating for human rights is one necessary consequence of the biblical mandate to do justice, which itself stems from the character of God. It is because God is who he is—a God of love and of justice—that he commands his people to be like him. Advocating for human rights is one way in which Christians can show their love of God in their love of neighbor. Finally, I will end by mentioning a few ways that this impacts some contemporary issues.

A Biblical Mandate to Do Justice

We begin by looking at the creation stories of Genesis, and in particular where God creates humankind “in his image … male and female he created them” (1:27). As well as being central to a biblical understanding of human rights, this verse lays the foundations for a biblical mandate to do justice. Most scholars have concluded that “the image of God reflected in human persons is after the manner of a king who establishes statues of himself to assert his sovereign rule where the king himself cannot be present. … The image of God in the human person is a mandate of power and responsibility. But it is power exercised as God exercises power” (Brueggemann: 32). As John Goldingay notes, being made in the image of God means that “humanity not only represents God but also resembles God” (98). Thus, it is important to understand the character of God in order that we might best represent him, resemble him, and exercise the power he has given us in the way that he exercises power. For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on justice as central to God’s character: Yahweh is a God of justice. But what does this mean? Walter Burghardt writes, “the biblical concept of justice is too rich, too opulent, too complex to be imprisoned in a definition” (7). In order to construct an understanding of Yahweh as a God of justice, therefore, we will look at some passages in the biblical narrative, recognizing that this is only a cross section due to the limits of this paper.

In the Exodus story, God had to shape a people who had spent years in slavery, oppressed by the Egyptians, into a people who more ably represented—imaged—their God. Moses reminds the Israelites, “Yahweh your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19). Justice is revealed in tangible acts; characteristic qualities exist only because saving actions attest to them. God’s just actions were intertwined with his just character: he rescued the Israelites from slavery not only because they were his chosen people but also because they were oppressed. This became the reason for the Israelites to do justice: “I am Yahweh your God.” And this meant having honest balances, honest measures, honest practices, because Yahweh, their God, is an honest God (Lev. 19:36; Deut. 25:15; Ezek. 45:10). This meant practicing the year of Jubilee, a year of emancipation and restoration, because Yahweh was their God, the one who had emancipated them from slavery in Egypt and restored them to the land he had promised their ancestors (Lev. 25). This meant loving their neighbors as themselves because Yahweh was their God, and love was central to Yahweh’s being (Lev. 19:18).

Similarly in the Psalms, God’s righteousness and justice (two concepts which are virtually interchangeable from an Old Testament perspective) are not intangible characteristics. Rather they are revealed most often in God’s saving actions (Ps. 71:1-2, 15-19, 21-24a). The psalmists were especially vocal in their affirmation of God’s justice, singing, “Yahweh loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones” (Ps. 37:28) and “Yahweh works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed” (Ps. 103:6). He is worshiped as the God who helps the victim and the fatherless (Ps. 10:14), whose throne is built upon righteousness and justice (Ps. 89:14), and who executes justice for the oppressed, sets the prisoners free, opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, watches over the strangers, and upholds the orphan and the widow (Ps. 146:5-9). Yahweh is the God who commands his people, “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Ps. 82:3-4).

When his people failed to discharge their responsibilities as images of God and his justice, he raised up prophets to point this out to them. Jeremiah pleaded with King Shallum, “Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says Yahweh” (22:16). Ezekiel also spoke out against corruption, where “the alien residing within you suffers extortion; the orphan and the widow are wronged in you … you have forgotten me, says the Lord God” (22:7, 12). Through Amos, God denounced worship devoid of justice: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (5:23-24). And Micah reminded the people, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does Yahweh require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8). Through Isaiah, God’s words to his people are most revealing:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. (58:6-10)

In Jesus, we find the fullness of God and his justice embodied in a human being. Jesus took upon himself the mantle of the Servant about whom Isaiah prophesied, anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19; cf. Is. 61:8). Yet Jesus, who was justice personified, was also characterized by love. He commanded his followers to love one another as he loved them (John 13:34, 15:12); to love not only their neighbors but also their enemies (Matt. 5:43); to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, to take care of the sick, to visit those in prison, for “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:31-46). “Jesus is not seeking distant acts of charity” (Claiborne: 158), but concrete expressions of love. Justice is one such concrete expression of love; justice is love made tangible. Love was the motivation for Jesus’ mission and love was the motivation for Jesus’ commission, and justice was demonstrated in the way that he loved. As the Apostle John asked, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:16-18).

Burghardt summarizes New Testament justice in the statement, “Love as Jesus loved. The kind of love that impelled God’s unique Son to wear our flesh; to be born of a woman as we are born; to thirst and tire as we do; to respond with compassion to a hungry crowd, the bereavement of a mother, the sorrow of a sinful woman; to weep over a dead friend and a hostile city; to spend himself especially for the bedeviled and the bewildered, the poverty-stricken and the marginalized; to die in exquisite agony so that others might come to life” (19). Jesus is God incarnate, and in him, we see the personification of the justice, compelled by love, that is evidenced throughout Scripture as a central characteristic of God. Consequently, as human beings created in the image of God—created to image God—we are called to be just people and to do justice, motivated by love and by the example of Christ.

References Cited

Brueggemann, Walter. 1982. Genesis. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Burghardt, Walter J. 2004. Justice: A Global Adventure. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Claiborne, Shane. 2006. The Irresistible Revolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Goldingay, John. 2003. Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1: Israel’s Gospel. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Adding to the confusion

One of my non-Christian friends emailed me a couple weeks ago, asking me what the Bible said about killing and murder. He was alluding to the Ten Commandments, and so I told him that the Bible said, no murder (short version), and more generally spoke of a consistent ethic of life and of the value of human life. A few days later, he emailed me back.

“So you should not murder, and therefore the death penalty is abhorrent to all Christians? Sorry if this sounds simplistic.” (My paraphrase.)

I haven’t replied yet, because this could be a paper topic. I could talk about the voice of Scripture that runs throughout the Bible, the witness that says that the value for human life is tantamount, and that any judgment that comes is necessary judgment, and that God does not pleasure in meting out punishment. I could talk about contextualization and how God dealt with the people where they were, culturally and historically. I could talk about the trajectory of history and of the Bible, which reaches its climax in Jesus Christ, the full embodiment of God, and how we look to him to know what God is like and it is through him that we interpret the law.

But I’d also have to be honest with him: the death penalty is not abhorrent to all Christians, just as not all Christians seek to follow Christ with their lives, thoughts, actions, attitudes, and relationships.

My point is …

First, being a “Christian” can mean a wide range of things (and we touched on this in class). Does “Christian” connote someone who is pro-life, pro-death penalty, anti-gay marriage? (Because it does for some people.) Or does “Christian” connote the opposite? (Because I know a good few Christians whose values as gleaned from the pages of Scripture motivate them to fight for the woman’s right to choose, against the death penalty, and for gay marriage.)

Second, how do we navigate this broad swathe of Christianity? Being a Christian, at its narrowest, is to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he died for our sins, and that he is the Lord and Savior of our lives (or something similar; I’m sure we could make it even more narrower). But it’s in the working out of what it means for him to be the Lord and Savior of our lives that we can sometimes differ.

Third, should we just be okay with this? I think that Christians who differ do so because they are sincerely and genuinely trying to figure stuff out, not because they’re being disingenuous, ignorant or moronic. (Okay, some do … sometimes.) And we all think our understanding or interpretation of the gospel and the Bible is the best, at least as far as we know (and if we didn’t, we’d have great trouble living out our convictions).

So … what to do?

Wisdom & Concentration

My verses for the last couple weeks:

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. (Eccl. 12:12b)

A person’s steps are directed by the Lord. How then can anyone understand their own way? (Prov. 20:24)

Thankfully, paper #3 is done. I just have one more paper (7-page) to do by Saturday. I’m fairly impressed with myself, thankful to God and to my study-buddies for helping me concentrate. Somehow, I managed to reel out a 4-page book report in a weekend, a 15-page research paper on inerrancy in four days, and a 10-page research paper on New Testament ethics in three days.

Maybe my multitasking (i.e. writing papers while watching baseball, movies, and taking multiple breaks) really does divide my concentration …

Nah, any correlation is surely only chance. 🙂

Beckham and Being Here

I realized that I forgot to blog about one of the events of the last couple weeks … I met someone.

Haha. No, that wasn’t it—if I’ve told you about it, I’ve told you about it. If not … I might tell you about it.

Seriously, the event was, of course, David Beckham’s debut for the LA Galaxy in a friendly against Chelsea last Saturday. My friend Micah was generous enough to get me a ticket for the game (for my birthday), and so I went with him and Christie, and his dad. It was okay …

Who am I kidding? It was awesome! I got to see Becks, and Landon Donovan, and all the Chelsea players (though I would’ve preferred it if it was Arsenal, and Henry hadn’t left). And, Posh and Katie Holmes were in the box behind us, so we saw them, and … I was fairly excited the whole time.

I really hope he raises the profile of soccer in the States—it was the first sellout that the Galaxy had had in a while, and the highest rated soccer match on ESPN, so there were some positive signs. But at times it felt more like a spectacle than a soccer match, solely focused on Becks. I think, for the game to take off, people are going to have to see it as a viable career and a credible sport to keep playing after high school.

As for me, until I get my fitness back (which I hope will happen soon), I’ll keep putting my beaten-up body out on the pitch once a week (and twice a week in the summer) to kick around with Fuller folks. One of my friends invited me to try out with him for a semi-pro side, but until I can offer more than a hard sprint every two minutes, I’m going to pass.

“Be Here Now”

On another front, the first lot of Fuller folks whose admission I helped process (coz I work in the Admissions Office, for those of you who don’t know) started at Fuller this summer. I’ve been at Fuller for coming up to a year now, and I feel like part of the old guard, watching all these newbies come in, excited and looking forward to their time here.

Not that I’m not enjoying my time here. But you can tell the people who’ve been at Fuller for awhile. Well, I can tell that I’ve been at Fuller for awhile.

In many ways, it’ll be interesting to see what happens over the next couple months—to see how new friendships form and new relationships (there are always new ‘special friends’ popping up), to see what friendships last and which ones don’t. It’s been interesting, and a little sad, to note that of the people I hung out with the most when I first started at Fuller, I only still hang out with two of them.

At the end of my first week at Fuller, with Rachel, Stephen and Nikki.]

So I wonder what’ll happen with these new friends that I’ve made (and will make). I wonder what’ll happen in the coming months as surgery looms, and my second year of Fuller, and internships. Will I have any more time this year than I did last year to write music and to find a creative outlet? What will God reveal to me this year about my future?

At times like these, I often have to remind myself to chill out and trust God. Ecclesiastes 11:9 has been a regular verse for me during these last few years:

You who are young, be happy while you are young, and let your hearts give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.

In other words, as a friend said, “Be here now.”