Social justice & human rights (4)

The following is the fourth and final 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.

Words of Caution

Advocacy for human rights is one way of doing justice in the world, of defending the image of God that abides in every human being. But just like every part of the work that God calls us to on earth, it will not be accomplished without opposition. “In truth,” writes Gary Haugen, “we live in an exceedingly dangerous world in rebellion against its Maker, a world filled with prideful, frightened, willful, violent people who have incrementally chosen to cut themselves off from the Creator’s goodness, love, mercy and justice” (112). There is much injustice in the world, there is much that needs to be done to participate in God’s redeeming story, and there will be many dangers and obstacles that will seek to dissuade us from pursuing God’s agenda. One such danger is to be overwhelmed by the immensity of the task: Gary Haugen names this as the church’s malady over the last century, observing that “somewhere during the twentieth century some of us have simply stopped believing that God actually can use us to answer the prayers of children, women and families who suffer under the hand of abusive power or authority in their communities. We sit in the same paralysis of despair as those who don’t even claim to know a Savior—and in some cases, we manifest even less hope” (14).

Another danger in engaging these issues is to take the messianic mantle which belongs to no person other than Jesus Christ. We are graced with the honor and entrusted with the responsibility of participating in God’s mission, recognizing that though we bear the image of God, we are also afflicted by fallibility: “the tension between what Christians are called to do and what they actually do remains a problem. Therefore, Christians should never claim that their achievements or their aims in politics or in any other arena of life represent God’s will. They should only claim that they are trying to respond obediently to God’s call to love their neighbors and to do justice” (Skillen: 3). All we can do is be faithful.

The third and final danger I will mention is to think that the structures and systems that dominate the world stage need not be addressed. While Christians have traditionally been good at rescuing individuals or helping communities, we have often failed to consider and address the various social, cultural, economic and political frameworks which influence us. Missiologist and theologian David Bosch wrote:

It was a stupendous victory of the evil one to have made us believe that structures and conditions in this world will not or need not really change, to have considered political and societal powers and other vested interests inviolable, to have acquiesced in conditions of injustice and oppression, to have tempered our expectation to the point of compromise, to have given up the hope for a wholesale transformation of the status quo, to have been blind to our own responsibility for and involvement in a world en route to its fulfillment. (quoted in Haugen: 63)

It is a daunting task to change the political, economic and social systems which ensnare people in cycles of poverty, which entrap people in forced prostitution, which allow the abuse of children, which turn a blind eye or give an approving wink to anything that devalues the image of God in any person. But we are called to nothing less.

Words of Encouragement

But we should not let the dangers—though there be many—discourage us. One of the core messages of Gary Haugen’s book Good News About Injustice is that “we can change things. Our despair, cynicism and laziness may insist to us that nothing ever really changes and that we can never really make a difference. But on high we see a great cloud of witnesses stand to their feet with a different testimony” (60). We have the witness of people like Martin Luther King, Jr., of Rosa Parks, of William Wilberforce, of Oscar Romero, of Mother Teresa, to name but a few reminders to us that where God is the propelling and compelling force, change will happen. Moreover, we can take heart in the fact that “God does not call us to a ministry that he will not empower” (Haugen: 104).


Love God; love your neighbor; love your enemy; do justice; love mercy. I have sought to show that advocacy of human rights is a natural extension and implication of these biblical commandments, whether we choose to argue from the creation story—highlighting humanity’s creation in the image of God—or from Jesus’ instruction to love as he loved—a love which defended this very image. I have not promoted an individualistic understanding of human rights, but a perspective of human rights that focuses on “the least of these” (Matt. 25)—a perspective that mirrors Jesus’ own. “Those who read in the biblical text a sheerly personal, individualistic morality have not understood the Torah, have not sung the Psalms, have not been burned by the prophets, have not perceived the implications and the very burden of Jesus’ message, and must inevitably fast and loose with St. Paul” (Burghardt: 12). If we are to read and live Scripture faithfully, we must also work out the gospel’s implications for our lives (and for the lives of others). As I mentioned previously, truly living faithfully to the gospel will have implications for every part of life, and I have understandably not been able to explore all of these. For example, the narrow definition of human rights as found in the UDHR is not focused on non-human creation but environmental and creational issues have an enormous impact on human rights—for instance, it is the poorest who suffer most as a result of the global warming to which the richest contribute most. But I hope in brushing the surface I have begun a conversation about justice and about a broader understanding of human rights that may stimulate more conversations. And more action.


References Cited & Further Reading

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

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.

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.

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

Hertzke, Allen D. 2004. Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Hollenbach, David, S.J. 2003. The Global Face of Public Faith: Politics, Human Rights, and Christian Ethics. Washington, DC: Georgetown University 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.

Newbigin, Lesslie. 1989. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans 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.

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

Storkey, Alan. 2005. Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Traer, Robert. 1991. Faith in Human Rights: Support in Religious Traditions for a Global Struggle. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

van der Ven, Johannes A., Jaco S. Dreyer, Hendrik J.C. Pieterse. 2004. Is there a God of Human Rights? The Complex Relationship between Human Rights and Religion: A South African Case. Leiden; Boston: Brill.

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