So, for example, he says, “The proscription against murder is grounded not in God’s law but in the worth of the human being. All who bear God’s image possess, on that account, an inherent right not to be murdered.”
Today we don’t make human rights dependent on something that humans do or possess—instead, we consider them fixed or ‘inalienable’. This idea is not a modern invention; it can clearly be traced to the Jewish scriptures.
Jesus is still admired today for the care he showed to the sick, poor and dying. The gospels are peppered with too many of these stories to recount. In fact, Jesus so identified with the world’s forgotten that to feed, clothe and care for ‘the least of these’ was—in his words—to do the same for him.
For all these reasons, Wolterstorff argues that human rights ultimately trace their origins to Jesus. “Being loved by God,” he says, which was one of Jesus central teachings, “gives to each human being who bears it the worth in which natural human rights inhere.”
Or in the words of author John Ortberg, “It’s really Jesus who brought that notion of the dignity and worth of every human being from little Israel to the much larger world.”
“That bread which you keep belongs to the hungry; that coat which you preserve in your wardrobe, to the naked; those shoes which are rotting in your possession, to the shoeless; that gold which you have hidden in the ground, to the needy. Wherefore, as often as you were able to help others, and refused, so often did you do them wrong.”
John Chrysostom, living at the same time, also taught that generosity is a duty and not merely a choice. “Even if he is the most wicked of all men, let us free him from hunger. We show mercy on him not because of his virtue but because of his misfortune.”
Our next stop through the sweep of human rights history is the Middle Ages. In this period, canon lawyers of the Catholic church developed the idea of natural rights, a concept that is simply taken for granted today.
In the 1280s, for example, Godfrey of Fontaines argued that if a beggar stole a loaf of bread from his rich neighbour, he couldn’t be charged for theft since he had a natural right to that bread in order to survive:
“Each one is bound by the law of nature to sustain his life, which cannot be done without exterior goods, therefore also by the law of nature each has dominion and a certain right in the common exterior goods of this world which right cannot be renounced.”
By the year 1300, Godfrey and other Christian thinkers had recognised at least five natural rights: the right of the poor to the necessities of life; the right of self preservation; rights to property; the right to a fair trial; and the right of self-defence.
These are remarkable advances for a period often dubbed ‘the Dark Ages’.
Another momentous step towards modern human rights took place during the Reformation—a social and spiritual revolution in 16th century Europe.
The Catholic church had been selling indulgences. Put crudely, they were exchanging the promise of heaven for money. A monk called Martin Luther was enraged, believing the church had come to wield far too much power over the inner lives of its people:
“For over the soul God can and will let no one rule but Himself… therefore, where temporal power presumes to prescribe laws for the soul it encroaches upon God’s government and only misleads and destroys the souls.”
Their great vision was to see the Bible in the languages of the people so that every soul could discern God’s truth independently, so that every conscience could answer to heaven directly, and so that every heart could know God personally.
According to Joseph Loconte, Professor of History at The Kings College in New York City, “Virtually every important defence of religious freedom in the 17th century—the liberal politics of William Penn, Roger Williams, Pierre Bayle, and John Locke—took Luther’s insights for granted.”
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Evidence of this can be seen, he says, in the new Irish Constitution, drawn up in 1937, which began: “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions of both men and States must be referred.”
The constitution went on: “Seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured…” Moyn observes that never before in history had the word dignity been used this way in reference to humans.
In the same year, Pope Pius XI issued With Burning Concern, an encyclical written in German and smuggled into Germany to decry Hitler’s Nazi regime, declaring:
“Man, as a person, possesses rights that he holds from God and which must remain, with regard to the collectivity, beyond the reach of anything that would tend to deny them, to abolish them, or to neglect them.”
“In the sense that the Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t draw explicitly on any religious doctrines of course it’s thoroughly secular, but if you lift the lid you find an awful lot of Christian workings underneath the bonnet.”
The Post-War Period
The tragedies of the World War I and II kept the nations of Europe focussed on the issue of human rights over the following decades. Moyn observes that in this period, just as they had earlier, Christians once again led the charge:
“Conservative Christian thought bore the language and logic of human rights in the immediate pre-war and war years and it was generally conservative Christian thinkers and parties that nurtured it in the post-war period.”
Today the tides are shifting. English philosopher Roger Scruton has remarked that “Europe is rapidly jettisoning its Christian heritage and has found nothing to put in the place of it save the religion of ‘human rights’.
Some may call this progress. But we’ve got to ask the question: if human rights are in large measure the fruit of Christian ideas, what is their future as those Christian roots continue to die?
Maybe there’s another set of ideas that can sustain human rights in the modern world.
But that’s a big maybe. Because to date, what has sustained them through time—what has influenced them more than anything else—is Jesus.
From the earliest days of the church, through the Middle Ages and the Reformation and into the modern world, followers of Jesus have played a central role in framing human rights and making them global.
Followers of Jesus did this for the simple reason that they were following Jesus.
Let it be remembered that in his mission to earth, Jesus’ ultimate act was to lay down his life to redeem the world. In that great sacrifice, he declared the immeasurable value of every human life.
In that sacrifice, he gave up his rights entirely—so that we might have ours.
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