Human Rights: What Are They?


I began working at the Buraku Liberation Center in Osaka in October, 2007, and since then my work has been focused on the issue of human rights, particularly as that relates to the problem of what is called “buraku discrimination.” I’ve learned a lot about this issue of discrimination against people of buraku background, including how it arose and why it has been so difficult to overcome. Likewise, I’ve been studying the issue of “human rights” in general, and so I want to take a look at this issue from a Christian and biblical worldview. What specifically do we mean when we use the term “human rights?” And what are those rights grounded in? Those are the questions I want to address in this sermon.

I have here a 1000-yen bill. Physically, it is just a piece of specialized paper with a specified pattern printed on it, but because it is guaranteed by the Japanese government, it has a value of 1000 yen. I also just happen to have another piece of paper that says 1000 yen on it [hand-written note], but it’s clearly different. Does it have equal value with this 1000-yen bill? Obviously not, since there is no guarantee behind it — at least not one that you’re going to put your faith in anyway! I don’t think I would have much luck trying to use this at the friendly 7-11 — at least not to buy anything with anyway. I might, however, use it to wipe up the floor if I split something. Or, if I were trying to start a BBQ fire, I can think of a good use for it as well. But you would have to be in a really desperate situation to use this other piece of paper that says 1000 yen as kindling to start a fire!

So let’s think a bit about the value of this real 1000-yen bill. As this bill is used in society, it gradually wears out and gets a bit soiled and even torn. I can also mistreat this bill on purpose by crumpling it up and stomping on or something. I won’t actually do that right, as I don’t want to mess it up, but if I did abuse like that or if it just wears out from use, how would that affect its value? When we look at such a bill, do we consider how dirty or torn it has become and then say, “Well, that’s only worth 500 yen, because it’s all crumpled and dirty?” Or, “That bill is in really bad shape. It’s worth only 200 yen now.” Of course not! The value of this bill is not determined by how clean and crisp it is. It’s still worth 1000 yen now matter how bruised and battered it becomes, as long as we can still recognize it as a genuine 1000-yen bill.

Can we apply this same principle to our value as human beings? The answer to that depends on what that value is grounded in — in other words, one’s worldview. From the standpoint of a biblical worldview, the answer is that it is entirely applicable. What is it that gives each human being value within the biblical worldview? Just as it is the guarantee of the Japanese government that gives this piece of paper a value of 1000 yen, it is the “guarantee” of the one who created each of us that gives each of us our ultimate value. When it comes to money, of course, there are different denominations, with some having more value than others, and in the changing economic circumstances, even a specific denomination, such as this 1000-yen bill, changes value in terms of its buying power. People who view human beings in a similar utilitarian way assign more “value” to certain human beings than to others. In that system, some influential person who contributes a lot to society would be viewed like a 10,000-yen bill, while the homeless tramp under the bridge might be considered to be more like a 1-yen coin.

Likewise, when it comes to how we view ourselves, it’s not at all uncommon for a person who has been treated unfairly in life to think of herself as being of little worth. Or how about a person who becomes disabled through injury or old age? Society typically views people in terms of utility, and so such a person tends to view himself the same way. “I am no good. I’m just a burden to everyone else. I’m not worth anything.”

Needless to say, that is not how God views human value. He does not value us based on how much we can accomplish for his Kingdom or on some other utilitarian basis. God values us based on who we are. And who are we? According to the Bible, we are creatures God values because we are “created in God’s image.” It is that which is the grounding for our value as human beings in God’s sight. Likewise, it is this concept that is really the only one that gives a solid basis for what we call “universal human rights.” When we consider the term “human rights,” we obviously need to define what “human” means as well as what “rights” are being referred to and what those rights are based in. So I’d like to take a few minutes to consider what “human rights” are and what principles they are grounded in. </p>Last December, most of the world commemorated the 60th anniversary of the United Nations “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” This document is claimed to be the most translated document in existence, with translations into over 360 languages and counting. Not to take away from the significance of that fact, my first thought upon reading that claim was, “What about the Bible?” A web search took me to the Wycliffe Bible Translators page, which says that the entire Bible has been translated into 438 languages, with another 1168 additional translations of the entire New Testament! On top of that, another 1953 language translation projects are currently in progress! Well, that certainly is far more than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but as a secular document, it apparently is the most translated, and so I don’t want to downplay that significant achievement.

This document contains 30 articles that list a variety of rights inherent in being human, beginning with “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” When this document was written, the United Nations itself was only 3 years old. Actually, when the UN was being organized right after the end of WWII, the representatives of the various governments debated the question, “What does it mean to be ‘human’?” The debate, however, did not get very far, as they soon discovered that you simply cannot mix Marx with Moses or Darwin with David. The philosophical presuppositions of atheism and theism are like oil and water, and simply don’t mix together. Likewise, when it came to voting on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every country that cast a ballot voted for it, but the Soviet block countries simply abstained from voting at all. Clearly, they did not accept it, mainly because the basic worldview they followed did not support the very concept itself. Marx and Moses simply can’t be combined together with any internal consistency. When it comes to this worldview divide, the primary presupposition that, in effect, determines everything else involves how we explain our origins. Marx and Darwin would say that humankind is simply an accident of nature and that there is no Creator to whom we are accountable. According to Moses and David, however, we are no mere accident of nature. We are instead a purposeful creation of God, with a spirit that lives on after physical death.

This “worldview divide” basically comes down to two fundamental options that affect how we view everything else. On the one hand, there is the atheistic and materialistic worldview, which views matter and energy as the fundamental reality. This view is perhaps best summed up in the words of the famous astronomer, Carl Sagan, in his documentary series, “The Cosmos,” in which he said, “The Cosmos: all there is, ever was or ever will be.” </p>On the other hand, there is the broader theistic worldview, which posits that there is something non-physical beyond the cosmos that accounts for our existence. The Christian worldview is, of course, only one among many that fit into this general category, but I want to particularly focus in on what the Bible has to say about human rights. Likewise, I want us to think about what the difference is between these two basic worldviews in terms of how that difference relates to the issue of human rights.

First of all, however, I’ll just briefly mention one of the other options within the theistic camp and how people who follow that worldview see the issue. Muslims, of course, share much in common with Christians when it comes to belief in a Creator. While the Islamic countries that were part of the UN in 1948 voted for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, many later raised objections to it because they claimed it didn’t take into account the cultural and religious context of their countries. What that basically means is that Muslims cannot accept the articles that relate to freedom of religion. Most importantly, Article 18 states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” In fact, in 2000, several Islamic countries officially declared their support for what is called the “Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam,” which is an alternative document that states people have "freedom and rights to a dignified life in accordance with the Islamic Shari’ah."

Basically, what that means is that you are free to practice your religion as long as it is Islam! Other groups have also expressed reservations about particular aspects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but in my mind, the worldview that is most fundamentally incompatible with the concept of human rights as expressed in the declaration is that of atheistic materialism. This is clearly the case for communist dictatorships such as North Korea, but I would imagine that western intellectuals who fit into this camp would be rather upset by my assertion that their worldview is incompatible with human rights. After all, even so strident an atheist as Richard Dawkins would no doubt say that he is a supporter of human rights. So, I’ll need to unpack that statement a bit and give my rationale for it.

First of all, what would be the implications if Sagan’s assertion were true, that “the cosmos is all that is, ever was or ever will be?” What would it mean if there were, in fact, no supernatural entity of any kind and the universe is just a “brute fact” with no cause outside of itself? That would mean that mere chance really is our “creator,” and thus there would be no inherent purpose or goal to the universe. Random events working through natural processes alone over long periods of time would be sufficient to explain our existence. And that existence, given the fact that the universe will inevitably suffer “heat death,” will simply cease at some point, with no conscious beings such as ourselves in existence any more. That, of course, is precisely what naturalism demands to be the case. It is true, however, that some theists do hold to a type of Darwinian evolution — what is termed “theistic evolution,” which posits that God worked behind the scenes to create through the slow process of natural-process evolution. But there is no room for anything like that within a hard-core, materialistic worldview. Physical entities are all that exist, and so there is no God of any kind to direct or intervene in any way.

If we continue to follow this line of reasoning to where it logically leads, that means that as beings who have simply evolved through random-chance events from more primitive animals, our cultures and societies have also evolved according to the same principle of the “survival of the fittest.” Thus, as primitive societies developed their own rules, the basic principle would be “whatever works” to help them survive. By its very nature, “right” and “wrong” would be based on such pragmatic concerns alone, and there would be nothing transcendent to humans in which these would be based. That means that “human rights” would simply be based on what is in effect the “law of the jungle.” The “Golden Rule” in that system would be “He who has the gold makes the rules.” Or as another cliché goes, “Might makes right.”

Materialists would no doubt complain that we humans have evolved beyond the “law of the jungle,” so that we can now rationally decide rules that make society function for the benefit of all. And indeed, I have no doubt that many such people who hold a materialistic worldview are reasonably good and decent people — sometimes better than some people who call themselves Christian. But in effect, they are living off of “borrowed capital” in terms of ethics. There is nothing within their system of thought that can serve as the basis upon which human rights can be grounded. Thus, since each society’s concept of human rights developed within that culture, on what basis can one criticize another culture for not upholding human rights as one conceives of them?

I need to clarify what I mean when I say that materialists are living on “borrowed ethical capital.” Do you think that the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” would have developed at all, if an atheistic, materialistic worldview had been dominant throughout human history? While the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” is a secular document, in the sense that it doesn’t mention God or expressly ground its concepts of human rights in any religious doctrine, etc., it is clearly based in the Judeo-Christian worldview that is the foundation upon which western culture is based. Thus, while this United Nations document is careful to avoid mentioning what these human rights are grounded in and simply leaves that question unanswered, it nevertheless is implied in the concept of “human rights” itself.

We instinctively know that there really are universal human rights, because deep down, we know that we are more than mere animals. That is part of the conscience that God has written into every human heart. Romans 2:14-15 states it as follows: “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the (Jewish) law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.” But the materialist must deny all of this. For one thing, according to their worldview, there is no “heart” or mind for such transcendent laws to be written on. Our human minds are simply the chemical and electrical interactions going on in our physical brains. And, of course, “transcendent laws” would not exist in the first place, since there is no God to communicate such laws to us. According to this system of thought, all such “laws” have simply evolved within the various cultures as they evolved. If that were true, then it follows that what one culture views as “moral” is just as valid as what some other culture came up with. Of course, there is a great deal of overlap in most, if not all, cultures concerning certain acts, such as killing members of one’s own society for personal gain. But even in such cases as that, there are significant differences as to how “murder” is defined and who is included in the categories of “okay to kill” and “not okay to kill.” Thus, from the standpoint of atheistic materialism, because each set of cultural rules is equally valid (since they each naturally “evolved”), there are no grounds for saying one is superior to another. Based on their presuppositions, what principled objection can they raise against, for instance, the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews? Why would that be wrong within their philosophical framework? They may protest that everyone should just simply “know” that what the Nazis did was wrong, but in doing so, they are utilizing “borrowed capital” from a theistic worldview. There simply is no way to ground that within their own worldview, and so this is simply being intellectually dishonest. To use the illustration of these two 1000-yen “bills” again, from strictly within their own worldview, without borrowing “ethical capital” from elsewhere, they would be forced to say that either of these bills is just as good as the other. From the standpoint of how these represent human rights, it’s as though this real 1000-yen bill represents human rights based in our intrinsic value as human beings created in the image of God, while this other “bill” represents human rights that aren’t grounded in anything, and that is where you end up from within a materialistic worldview.

In a recent “Breakpoint” radio spot, Chuck Colson related a telling account of where this worldview inevitably leads. Here is what he said:

The Brits may be losing their marbles. The distinguished Baroness Warnock, labeled by the Daily Telegraph as Britain’s leading moral philosopher, ought to be ashamed of herself. … She says elderly people who suffer from dementia are “wasting people’s lives”—that is, the lives of those who care for them—and ought to choose to die even if they’re not suffering.

And even if they aren’t a burden on their families, they ought to “off” themselves anyway, as she puts it, because they’re a burden on the public, which, under British national health care, pays for their treatment. According to the Daily Telegraph, Warnock hopes people will soon be “licensed to put others down.”

Putting others down? That’s the kind of euphemism we use when talking about injured horses or sick dogs. It’s not how we talk about human beings—or at least, it’s not how we used to talk about them.

At age 84, Lady Warnock is old enough to remember Hitler’s Final Solution—and the thinking that drove the slaughter, not only of the Jews, but also of the handicapped, gypsies, and others the Nazis considered “defective” or “useless.” But even though Lady Warnock should remember World War II, she evidently has forgotten its terrible lessons. Given her despicable recommendation for the elderly, she ought to hope that her memory issues aren’t related to dementia.

Thankfully, at least a few Brits are outraged by Warnock’s comments, calling them—in typical British understatement—both callous and deeply ignorant. Neil Hunt, a spokesman for the British Alzheimer’s Society, says to suggest that people with dementia “have some sort of duty to kill themselves is nothing short of barbaric.”

More ominously, a spokesman for a British right to life group said Warnock’s views “are an illustration that while euthanasia is promoted as a right to choose, it pretty rapidly becomes an obligation to die.” …

Has the Western world truly sunk this low? Do we ever need a more vivid reminder of the tremendous importance of worldview? Either all human life—from unborn children to demented mothers and fathers—is created in the image of God and therefore infinitely precious, or humans are nothing but the result of mere chance, indistinguishable morally from a sand flea. The choice society makes will determine whether the most vulnerable among us will be respected and protected . . . or whether we will “put them down” when they become a burden.

We Christians must speak out as others—especially those in authority—move us closer and closer to compulsory killing. If we do nothing, it’s evidence that perhaps we’ve all lost our marbles.

So, I think this example shows just how basic worldview is to everything else. The assumptions that underlie one’s basic worldview in a very real sense dictate where you end up on any particular issue involving values. So, that is why we need to understand the concept of worldview, what “human rights” really are and what they are grounded in.

I want to close with what the Bible has to say about human rights. The actual term “human rights” is not found in the Bible as such, but the principles upon which human rights are founded are found throughout the Scriptures. As I mentioned earlier, the only real basis for having any rights as humans is in our intrinsic value. The Bible’s declaration that we are creatures created in the image of God is the only principle upon which the intrinsic value of each human individual can be based. Any other basis one could imagine would involve value that is acquired based on some other standard, such as our accomplishments, both actual and potential. But God declares that we are valuable for who we are and for no other reason. It is for this reason that all forms of discrimination are an affront to God. If we discriminate against a person based on who they are (as opposed to what they have done), this is in effect showing contempt for what God has declared to be valuable based on the “image of God.”

How much does God value us? Enough for God to temporarily empty himself of his divine attributes, take on the form of a human being and then to give his life for us on the cross. It is only that which can provide adequate grounds for true human rights. And the most important right of all is the right to become God’s children. Reading again from our Scripture reading in John 1: 12-13, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.” May God grant us the wisdom and courage to not only champion the cause of human rights in all the world but also to proclaim the greatest human right of all, the right to be accepted into his presence based only our receiving the grace God offers us in Jesus Christ.

Updated: 2011 年 03 月 16 日,07:21 午前

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