Basic (Biblical) Human Rights
February 4, 2018 § Leave a comment
If you’re reading this and you’re human, you have rights. In fact, we seem to have certain inherent rights simply because we’re human. These fundamental human rights are different than civil rights, which are established by governments in something like the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. But in general, civil rights are informed by our understanding of human rights.
Regardless of religious belief, there is wide general agreement over the existence of basic human rights. Our nations’ founders argued for them on Biblical principals, asserting in the Declaration of Independence, that equally and self-evidentially, all people “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…” Not everyone shares this view of the origin and source of our rights.
Does the Bible inform us about basic human rights? The message of the Gospel begins with the revelation that all have sinned and fall short of God’s standard, rightly deserving eternal separation from God (Romans 3:23). It’s only by God’s mercy and grace and our humble turning to Jesus Christ in faith that we are saved—“not of yourselves lest anyone should boast.” Can we boast about rights? And what, if anything, does the Bible say about them? We won’t find a list of human rights in Scripture, but such rights can be inferred and even identified rather specifically by taking a closer look at:
1) how we are created, and
2) how we are commanded to treat our neighbor.
We can also discover that what many claim in today’s culture to be human rights are most certainly not.
HOW WE ARE CREATED
“…among these are Life…”
God’s word tells us from the beginning that all human beings are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27) and that God breathed life into Adam and he became a living being (Genesis 2:7). Since God gave us life, it’s reasonable to assume that we have a right to live it.
God also gave mankind a free will, the faculties to make choices, so we have a right to make choices—good vs. evil, true vs. false, God’s desires or our own desires, etc. God wants us to choose Him (Deuteronomy 30:19), but He doesn’t force us to believe in or trust Him, or to make any other particular choice. We have the liberty to think and act at our own discretion.
“…and the Pursuit of Happiness….”
God directed the first humans to be fruitful and multiply, to fill and subdue the earth (Genesis 1:29). This is more than a directive to have babies, but to flourish—set up communities and governments and seek fulfillment in relationships, productivity, and satisfaction in the course of living a purposeful life. So it isn’t too difficult to find a Scriptural basis for the three rights Jefferson penned in the endowments God gave humans.
HOW WE ARE COMMANDED TO TREAT OTHERS
Moral obligations, our God-given sense of right and wrong, can also be grounded scripturally in the law of God written on our hearts (Romans 2:15 and Hebrews 10:16). But moral law deals with the good we are obligated to do, not rights that we have.
As image-bearers of a moral God, all human beings are endowed with moral truth we can’t NOT know.(1) While the reality “Natural Law,” our basic moral intuition, doesn’t need to be informed by God’s word, He has nonetheless revealed in it detail about what is right and wrong. For most moral obligations, there is a moral agent obligated to some duty, and there is another agent who is a recipient or object of that obligation. Some duties are to God, and some are to other people.
The key to understanding human rights is considering the latter—moral obligations to our fellow man. Wherever God expects a certain kind of treatment toward others, He likewise expects others to receive that treatment. To be clear, any favor sinful humans receive on earth is part of God’s grace, but it’s also a logical necessity that if good is given by one, it’s received by another. Since moral law applies to all human beings equally, all human beings are also equal recipients and therefore have the same “right” to receive it.
The Ten Commandments given to Moses at Sinai (Exodus 20:7-17 or Deuteronomy 5:7-21) are a good example of God detailing His moral law. The first four commandments list obligations in our relationship to God, so they don’t lead to human rights. As Creator of everything, God has all rights that don’t contradict His character. The last five, however, deal with our relationship to other people, and this is where we will find the most obvious picture of human rights.
“Do not murder” prohibits anyone from unjustifiably killing anyone else. As a result, on the other side of it, everyone has the right to not be unjustifiably killed. This evidences the basic human right we all have to value, preserve and defend human life, and I would include in that the inherent dignity that comes with being made in God’s image.
“You shall not commit adultery” means we are obligated to keep sexual activity within our marriage and to abstain if we are single. The people we are forbidden to pursue sexually consequently have the right to not be violated in this way. It also seems those in the marriage have a right to protect the fidelity of the marriage—but of course that right would be limited to those who are married.
“You shall not steal” means that not only are we required to respect the property of others, but that everyone has the right to own things not have those things stolen from them.
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” implies that anyone we might lie to has a right to the truth and to be dealt with honestly. This takes a high view of transparency and availability of truthful information to everyone usually promoted in the context of government(2), but everyone at least claims to value truth.
The tenth commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, wife, or property,” does NOT actually lead to a human right because following or not following the command doesn’t directly affect another person. My unhealthy desire to possess something that belongs to my neighbor ultimately affects me, not my neighbor—unless that desire leads to actual theft or adultery.
I skipped the sixth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother,” because, while everyone has parents, not everyone is a parent, so the right to receive honor is limited to fathers and mothers—and even then, the honor due is from their own children. Since it isn’t equal or universal in scope, I wouldn’t consider this determinate of a basic human right (rights we have simply because we’re human).
So from the last four commandments, basic human rights—rights God apparently wants all people to have—include the right to life, dignity, sexual integrity, personal property, and honesty.
In Mark 12:30-31, Jesus summarized the principals of the Ten Commandments this way: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” summarizing the first six, and “Love your neighbor as yourself,” summarizing the last four. Jesus came “not to abolish, but to fulfill” the law (Matthew 5:17), and He took the Old Testament commandments further. For example, in verses 21-22 of Matthew 5, He says, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister, will be subject to judgment…”. Jesus equates hatred to murder because the hater essentially wishes death for his neighbor. But this magnifies for us the severity of our sin against God, even sins of the heart against other people. Without the outward result of a murder victim, this doesn’t seem to magnify any rights on our behalf.
This wasn’t a new command, of course. The murder-in-the-heart concept and summary of the commandments regarding our neighbor appear way back in Leviticus 19: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart… You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In context, this passage actually details a lot of practical ways we are to “love” our neighbor that result in basic human rights.
• In verse 9, “gleanings of your harvest… leave…for the poor and the stranger” implies a right to charity.
• In verse 10, “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another” implies a right to honesty.
• In verse 13, “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning” implies a right to civility.
• In verse 14, “You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind…” implies a right to decency in our weaknesses.
• In verse 15, “You shall do no injustice in court” implies a right to justice.
• In verse 15, “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” implies a right to fairness and impartiality.
• In verse 16, “You shall not go around as a slanderer” implies the right to verbal respect.
• In verse 16, “you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor” implies a right to life.
• In verse 17, “You shall not hate” implies a right to not be hated.
• In verse 18, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge” implies a right to not be a target of revenge.
And we are required to do the opposite of these things: “…but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
How do we love ourselves? We preserve our own life and do things that generally promote our own health and dignity. We seek freedom and happiness and fulfillment. We desire truth and justice. Given how we treat ourselves, we have a rule so true it’s considered golden: “Treat others the same way you want them to treat you.” (Luke 6:31). This seems to mean we have a basic human right to be treated in such a way that preserves life, dignity, personal freedom, the pursuit of happiness, fulfillment, truth and justice. In the prohibition of evil, we have a right to freedom from general tyranny and injustice.
Mutual respect for our human rights is of course not guaranteed. The presence of sin in the world virtually guarantees that all of us at some point will see our own rights violated to some extent. This doesn’t escape God’s notice or control, and our duty in those cases is to humbly submit to a righteous and just God who is never absent in trials. But in a general sense, these rights seem to be what God in His grace desires for all human beings to maintain in our dealings with one another. In a sense they mark a standard by which God distinguishes justice from tyranny.
HUMAN RIGHTS THAT ARE SO NOT
Seventy years ago, the United Nations drafted its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, listing 30 basic rights for all people of every nation(3). Most can be grounded in the same Biblical foundations. But after looking at what the God desires for us to give and receive, we can assess our culture’s claims of what specific human rights are and see if they pass the test.
Sometimes you’ll hear that abortion is a basic human right. The UN Human Rights Commission has wrongly ruled that it is. Based on a particular case in Peru where a hospital refused to terminate a pregnancy that threatened the life of the mother, the Commission declared that human beings have the right to an abortion in any situation.(4) Ironically, the UN puts it this way: “States parties must liberalize restrictive abortion legislation to realize women’s right to life.”(5) Scripture eliminates such confusion by affirming the right to life for all human beings, including the unborn (Psalm 139:13-15, Jeremiah 1:5). Since human beings are revealed in God’s word and affirmed by honest science and logic to be fully human from conception, “You shall not murder” means the unborn also have a right to life, and the absence of any form of the command “You shall abort unwanted pregnancies” excludes the possibility of a right to abortion.
The right to die, as in a right to assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia, has been proffered as a fundamental right everyone should have. This notion fails the same test as abortion. Every human being is an image-bearer of our Creator with intrinsic value and dignity, and furthermore we are not our own. We belong to God. Death, though nothing to be feared for the Christian, is still the enemy and a result of sin in the world. If we are forbidden by God to kill others without justification, we are also forbidden to kill ourselves. Therefore self-inflicted death, as a right, is also wrong.
The right to marriage equality is perhaps the most confused proposition in our modern times. First, marriage by definition is something scripture defines and human history affirms as the union of a man and a woman. LGBT advocates of “marriage equality” aren’t really demanding the right to marriage, but a very different kind of relationship. Second, given the above truth, marriage equality already exists in the reality that everyone is already free to marry any non-relative of the opposite sex they choose. Same-sex couples can’t constitute a marriage any more than a circle can be square. Third, marriage in the traditional sense is arguably not even a human right. God created it but has not required it for everyone, so marriage doesn’t quit fit in this category.
There are others of course, but in these 3 we can at least see how God’s created order and His commands reveal that some “rights” are so called simply because people just really wish they had rights to do certain things.
From the Bible we can humbly but confidently find a foundation for human rights rooted in freedoms granted at creation and the desired outcomes from God’s commands for how we treat our neighbors. God gave us life, free will, and freedom to flourish, so we have a right to exercise those. God wants us to love our neighbor, so they have a right to receive that love in a variety of ways.
Notice that God clearly presents love as a command, and not expressly as a right. While we can justify human rights Biblically, our first thought should be to choose the freedom God’s one and only Son offers, and to be the obedient giver of the good that God desires others to receive. Micah 6:8 declares that “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Our rights do include justice, but our salvation depends on God’s mercy and our humble trust in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Incidentally, we also have a basic human right to choose to follow Him, the most important one we could exercise.