Social justice & human rights (3)

The following is the third 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.

Advocacy for Human Rights: What It Means and What It Might Look Like

Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth century Spanish mystic, wrote the poem “Christ Has No Body,” which tells us that we are the body of Christ, through which his compassion comes to the world: “Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good; yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.” This is a theme that has been repeated over the centuries, most recently by Shane Claiborne: “We are the body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus to the world. Christ is living inside of you and me, walking the earth” (85). The people of God are the conduits through whom the love and justice of God are conveyed to the world. Gary Haugen puts our call to practice justice in this way:

Unless the work of seeking justice is a category of endeavor that is completely different from every other activity on earth that is important to God, the answer to the how question has something to do with what God’s people do or don’t do. If you think about it, two truths apply to everything that God wants accomplished on earth: (1) he could accomplish it on his own through supernatural power; but instead, (2) he chooses for the most part to limit himself to accomplishing that which he can achieve through the obedience of his people. (96-97)

The just character of God is not revealed in Scripture only for our information; we are not only to be hearers (or readers) of the Word, but doers also (James 1:22-25). It is a biblical mandate to do justice, and advocating human rights—defending the image of God in every person—is one way to do this.

Advocacy for human rights, I would suggest, is more than just speaking up for the basic and individual rights set out in the UDHR, though, as I have argued, this is not a bad place to start. Stassen critiques our culture as having a “definition of human rights [that] is too narrow. In the United States, we emphasize the freedoms of speech and press, religious liberty, and freedom from torture or arbitrary imprisonment but de-emphasize economic rights to health care, housing, food, and jobs” (1992: 138). Though the UDHR has begun to broaden its definition of human rights to include such economic rights, as seen with the ratification of the Right to Development in 1986, the Christian call to justice and human rights should be understood as an even higher calling than the UDHR definition of human dignity since “[f]undamentally, biblical justice is making things right, not simply recognizing or defining individual rights” (Burghardt: 25). If our understanding of human worth is grounded in our understanding of people as created in the image of God, then “[i]nsofar as we see men and women together as the image of God, called to serve God with all that they are and have, we must seek diligently to make it possible for every person, in community to develop and bring to light their gifts and abilities” (Skillen: 40). What practical implications might this cultivating of humanity have? Beginning with the basic rights outlined in the UDHR, I will explore briefly a few such repercussions.

The Right to Liberty (Art. 3): human trafficking and slavery

The right to individual liberty is often derided in Western culture because it is seen as allowing a person to do whatever they want to. However, the right to liberty may be put into context when we realize that in the world today, two centuries after the Slave Trade Act in Great Britain and 150 years after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in the United States, an estimated twenty-seven million slaves still inhabit the earth (Bales: 8). They are sold into bonded labor and into prostitution, among other fates, often trapped in a cycle of poverty or abuse, with no way to break out of their own accord. These are some of those who cannot speak for themselves, who are destitute, who are poor and needy; we are told to speak up for them (Prov. 31:8-9).

Kevin Bales describes slavery as “unquestionably the ultimate human rights violation short of murder” (32). It is, he continues, “exploitation, violence, and injustice all rolled together in their most potent combination. If there is one fundamental violation of our humanity we cannot allow, it is slavery. If there is one basic truth that virtually every human being can agree on, it is that slavery must end” (262). Around the world, organizations such as Anti-Slavery International, Free the Slaves, and International Justice Mission, are working to bring freedom and liberty to the twenty-seven million men, women and children who are trapped in bondage and entangled in the web of economic, social, political and cultural disadvantage. God did not intend those who bore his image to be enslaved by others; we can work to free them.

The Right to Life (Art. 3): abortion, the death penalty, and everything in between

One of the most controversial areas of human rights is the area of abortion; in particular, the conversation has developed to a point where the question of when a fetus acquires human rights has been raised. As Christians, we believe with the psalmist that God knit each one of us together in our mothers’ wombs (Ps. 139:13), and that all life is sacred, even if it is not medically “viable.” But perhaps our methods for advocating for the life of the unborn child may take a more humble approach than picketing family planning centers or condemning those who make such undoubtedly difficult and distressing decisions; Stassen and Gushee suggest seeking “to deliver people from the causes of abortions. See to it that potential mothers will have help raising their children or giving them a family through adoption. Make it possible for people to raise their babies and not to have to drop out of school, not to have to give up on a future. Help them have confidence that they can cope” (227).

At the other end of the life spectrum from birth is death. The death penalty is reserved for those who have committed the most heinous crimes, and it stands as a form of retributive, punitive, and deterrent justice. But Christians believe that every human being is created in the image of God, and that while this image has been tarnished by human sin, it has not been obliterated. For this reason, Pope John Paul II said, “The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil” (quoted in Burghardt: 67). Moreover, Stassen and Gushee observe, “Biblically … while there is a retributive dimension to justice, the focus is given to deliverance of those in bondage and restoration to community. … Jesus consistently emphasized a transforming initiative that could deliver us from the vicious cycle of violence or alienation” (212, 213). Even in the way we view legal justice, we are called to seek life and the methods and practices that affirm it.

Rights for All without Distinction (Art. 2): civil rights, immigrants, children

In the beginning, God created humankind in his image: not only those who were a certain race, color, sex, language or creed, but every human being. So the rights set out in the UDHR and the worth endowed by God belong to all people. This means that prejudice and discrimination of any kind that denigrates the dignity of a human being is not of God. Racism, for example, “violates the integrity of creatures made in the image of God and is wrong everywhere, in every institution and relationship” (Skillen: 87). Xenophobia—and its cousin, mistreatment of immigrants and foreigners—is inexcusable since it maligns the image of God in these people. Jesus treated every human being as created in the image of God, even those who were reviled by his culture. Burghardt describes Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well:

in his eyes she was a person, a woman, human, human as he was. Even more importantly, she had been shaped by God, shaped in the image and likeness of her Creator, gifted with intelligence and freedom, with a mind to know and a heart to love. And, for all her faults and fragility, she was still an image, a reflection of God. Somewhat misshapen, like the rest of us, but still awfully precious in God’s eyes, in Jesus’ eyes. (47)

As well as people of different ethnicities and nationalities, the image of God is found in people of different ages. The youngest and the oldest are often most at risk; they are often the most vulnerable and the ones who suffer the most as a result of human sin. In the halls of power, the children “have no lobby of any consequence, no influence with Congress. Guns have a powerful lobby; so too capital gains; so too tobacco; but not our children” (Burghardt: 35); and the elderly are abandoned in a culture which values self-promotion over care for family. Organizations like the Children’s Defense Fund seek to defend the youngest and most vulnerable, and to ensure that their concerns are not ignored.


The few aforementioned examples offer only a glimpse into what it means to actively love our neighbor—that is, to do justice—and to value every person as made in the image of God. There are far more examples that could be provided; the gospel, after all, affects—or at least, ought to affect—every part of life. Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection—his redemptive work—has implications for every human being and for all of creation; through Christ, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col. 1:20).

References Cited

Bales, Kevin. 2004 (revised ed.). Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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

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

Haugen, Gary M. 1999. Good News About Injustice: A Witness of Courage in a Hurting World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

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.

Stassen, Glen H., & David P. Gushee. 2003. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

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