01 April 2010

Christian Economic Life - Post 3: Human Rights

I wanted to think a bit about human rights in the context of Christian economic life. This might seem like a digression, but I don't think it is because a lot of the debate about what kind of economic system is just often seems to center around the concept of human rights.

The first problem I have is about talking about human rights is that, theologically, I don't believe in them. According to Christian theology everything that human beings have is mercy or grace, including our very lives. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord. Therefore, if we are speaking strictly in Christian theological terms, we can't really speak about "rights".

However, I'm not ready to dismiss the concept of human rights out of hand. I suspect that, no matter which position one takes in regard to economics, all of us would have an instinctive problem with the "tough luck" approach. "You are poor, despite working 18 hours a day, tough luck; in the eyes of God you have no rights." Or "You worked hard for that money, but we're taking it away from you in order to help others less fortunate than you; tough luck, in the eyes of God you have no rights." I suspect that at least one of those statements will rankle you!

For me, the concept of "human rights" is a secular expression of the Arminian (and catholic) theological belief that "God is no respector of persons" (to use the KJV/AV language).

Theologically, I believe that God wants all people to come to him, regardless of rank, status, skin color, community affiliation, sexual orientation, gender or any other characteristic that people can think of. God does not love aristocrats more than peasants. He does not love rich people more than poor people. He does not love men more than women. As the African congregation I served in London often said at the beginning of the service: "Whoever you are, you are welcome here. Whatever you nationality, tribe, language, skin color or gender, everyone is welcome in the house of God."

This message seems like something so natural to many of us in the United States, that we don't even question it. Yet, it was certainly part of Jesus' original Good News, because it was taken for granted in the Greco-Roman culture that the gods did prefer some people to others and that - for example - aristocrats, men, and the freeborn were ontologically better people than peasants, women and slaves. My African readers can correct me if I'm wrong, but one of the reasons this message was so powerful in the London African congregation was that, back home, different tribal groups were often viewed as being ontologically better than others. This congregation understood this part of the Good News because the opposite reality had been part of their life experience.

I think that this theological conviction that "God is no respector of persons" can very adequately be expressed in secular language by the idea that all people are endowed with certain inalienable rights. It is actually the matter of "What are these rights?" that is probably going to be the big bone of contention. I'll try to start thinking about that in the next post.


Rev Tony B said...

Interesting set of posts and comments. Two things occur to me.

First, it is too easy to slide into caricature in order to defend your preference. My gut reaction to capitalism as an ideology is that it makes money more important than people. I do believe that to be true, but I have to recognise that behind the caricature is a layer of hard economic truth about market forces, etc. The proper question is how to find the way to make these market forces serve people, rather than reduce people to commodities who must serve the market forces.

The second thought concerns the caricature of "communism/socialism" by those who wish to keep the State at a distance. Whenever I hear phrases like "nanny state" I immediately twitch and look for the argument the speaker is trying to avoid - usually along the lines of "no sensible person would agree with such-and-such a policy" without asking whether that is in fact the case.

Next time the question is asked about whether it is right for "the State" to intervene", try rephrasing it to whether "the community" should intervene - to care for the sick, protect the weak, etc. "The State" becomes as much a loaded phrase as "Big Brother", but the Christian understanding of community is that we are tasked together to care for each other, so together we share the responsibility of care for each other. It may be that care is best exercised at local community level, or family level, or national Government level, depending on how the solution to the problem is best resourced.

Arguing that the sharing of resources is wrong is nothing less than naked greed. It is not the defence of Christian freedom against totalitarianism, it is sin, pure and simple, and entirely lacking in compassion.

The second most important commandment, inseparably linked to the first, is to love our neighbour. How can anyone do that while withholding the means to resource that care? How can anyone say that is what Jesus would do?

Doorman-Priest said...

And really helpul stuff as we approach Easter.

PamBG said...

The proper question is how to find the way to make these market forces serve people, rather than reduce people to commodities who must serve the market forces.

I agree with you and that's what I'm trying to work my way toward in this series.

I'm not so sure that this aim is obvious in an American context, though which is why I felt some apologetics were in order first. :-)

Steve Hayes said...

I'm not sure about the concept of "human rights" not being Christian. There is Poverbs 29:7 "A righteous man knows the rights of the poor; the wicked have no such knowledge". In fact the whole chapter is worth reading.

Yes, we are not to think of "rights" vis a vis God -- it's not that kind of relationship (except for legalists). But in relationships with fellow-human beings it is a different matter. God is clearly concerned with justice in human relationships, and justice is based on rights before the law -- human law.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am from Australia.

Please find set of references which provide a unique perspective on the state of the world in 2010, and how we got to here.

The first reference is on Justice & Rightness.


It is an essay from this remarkable book.


This very sobering essay is also from the same book.


Further essays by the same author


Also www.coteda.com