What’s Been Happening: A Review Part 1: Christianity and Human Rights

Periodically I will be letting the subscribers of this blog in on a number of different projects (such as TV programs, interviews, papers, books) that I have had the privilege of being involved in over the years.  I think you will find these informative and hopefully you will want to engage in a conversation with the posters on this blog about the issues that are raised.

Christianity and human rights is one subject that is getting a fair bit of discussion in recent decades.  To what extent do we owe a debt to Christianity for human rights we experience in the West?  Or, have the abuses of the various forms of Christianity throughout history wiped out all goodwill to say anything on the matter of human rights?  To be sure there are extremes but should the extremes of Christianity temper our view of the religion as a whole?

If we were to listen only to commentators such as Christopher Hitchens, Christianity and its sacred text has very little redeeming qualities.  (Incidentally, I do not know if he ever spoke disparagingly or of the irony that his name “Christopher” is from the Greek Χριστοφορος (Christophoros) meaning “bearing Christ”).  He said the following of the Bible:

The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals. (God is Not Great, (Toronto:  McClelland & Stewart, 2007), p. 102)

Despite such criticisms there are other atheists like Jürgen Habermas, who observes the pivotal role Christianity played in laying the foundation of our current liberal democracy,

Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than a mere precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in the light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk. (Time of transitions (Cambridge: Polity Press 2006), p. 150-151.)

Some years ago I had the privilege of interviewing John Witte, Jr., who is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law; McDonald Distinguished Professor; and Director, Center for the Study of Law and Religion, at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.  I invite you to watch that interview by clicking here:

Then let us know what you think about Witte’s analysis and what we can learn about the ongoing debate.  I look forward to reading your comments!

 

  • What’s Been Happening: A Review Part 1: Christianity and Human Rights

Thoughts on What’s Been Happening: A Review Part 1: Christianity and Human Rights

  1. Jay

    The concepts of equality and inalienable rights are uniquely Christian. From them grow liberty. In this sense Christianity is the foundation of the Republic in the United States, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the freedoms enjoyed by Canadians subject to the unfortunate s. 1. Where the Gospel truly flourishes in the hearts of men so does liberty.

    Reply
    1. Barry W. BusseyBarry W. Bussey Post author

      Good points Jay. I was just reading former Chief Justice Brian Dickson who stated the following in the Big M Drug Mart case in 1985 (notice his emphasis on the beliefs that to compel the conscience was to dishonour God (in para. 120):

      118. With regard to freedom of conscience and religion, the historical context is clear. As they are relevant to the Charter , the origins of the demand for such freedom are to be found in the religious struggles in post‑Reformation Europe. The spread of new beliefs, the changing religious allegiance of kings and princes, the shifting military fortunes of their armies and the consequent repeated redrawing of national and imperial frontiers led to situations in which large numbers of people‑‑sometimes even the majority in a given territory‑‑found themselves living under rulers who professed faiths different from, and often hostile to, their own and subject to laws aimed at enforcing conformity to religious beliefs and practices they did not share.

      119. English examples of such laws, passed during the Tudor and Stuart periods have been alluded to in the discussion above of the criminal law character of Sunday observance legislation. Opposition to such laws was confined at first to those who upheld the prohibited faiths and practices, and was designed primarily to avoid the disabilities and penalties to which these specific adherents were subject. As a consequence, when history or geography put power into the hands of these erstwhile victims of religious oppression the persecuted all too often became the persecutors.

      120. Beginning, however, with the Independent faction within the Parliamentary party during the Commonwealth or Interregnum, many, even among those who shared the basic beliefs of the ascendent religion, came to voice opposition to the use of the State’s coercive power to secure obedience to religious precepts and to extirpate non‑conforming beliefs. The basis of this opposition was no longer simply a conviction that the State was enforcing the wrong set of beliefs and practices but rather the perception that belief itself was not amenable to compulsion. Attempts to compel belief or practice denied the reality of individual conscience and dishonoured the God that had planted it in His creatures. It is from these antecedents that the concepts of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience became associated, to form, as they do in s. 2(a) of our Charter , the single integrated concept of “freedom of conscience and religion”.

      121. What unites enunciated freedoms in the American First Amendment, s. 2(a) of the Charter and in the provisions of other human rights documents in which they are associated is the notion of the centrality of individual conscience and the inappropriateness of governmental intervention to compel or to constrain its manifestation. In Hunter v. Southam Inc., supra, the purpose of the Charter was identified, at p. 155, as “the unremitting protection of individual rights and liberties”. It is easy to see the relationship between respect for individual conscience and the valuation of human dignity that motivates such unremitting protection.

      122. It should also be noted, however, that an emphasis on individual conscience and individual judgment also lies at the heart of our democratic political tradition. The ability of each citizen to make free and informed decisions is the absolute prerequisite for the legitimacy, acceptability, and efficacy of our system of self‑government. It is because of the centrality of the rights associated with freedom of individual conscience both to basic beliefs about human worth and dignity and to a free and democractic political system that American jurisprudence has emphasized the primacy or “firstness” of the First Amendment. It is this same centrality that in my view underlies their designation in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as “fundamental”. They are the sine qua non of the political tradition underlying the Charter .

      Reply
  2. Sonia Taylor

    If we think about it, the bible or the word of God are the foundation for human life to live happy and free. It is the word of God that tell us of the higher standards of living to be able to respect humans rights, because just being “good” is not good enough. And yes having a “good society” is not enough either, therefore we need to protect our choice to have the word of God as the guide for human life.

    Reply
    1. Barry W. BusseyBarry W. Bussey Post author

      Thanks Sonia. That is certainly true. Of course, the secular world will ask – “How can you Christians say that the word of God is the foundation when the Bible has so much killing etc?” So how can we, as Christians, share respect to and for our fellow human beings? The answer, or at least part of it, is that we show love to one another; that we respect the “other”.

      Reply

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