Human Rights in the Light of the Gospel

When I was asked by the editor of the Petit Echo to write an article about the above topic, my first reaction was to give a negative reply. I am no more in Ghana, and even when I was there, I never had to deal with “problems to do with human rights”. When, reading again the topic, I saw the words “in the light of the Gospel” and having been a lecturer in Scripture in various formation houses, I decided that I could have a try, though it will necessarily be more theoretical than practical.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights and it was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948. It is a secular document, hence should be acceptable to everyone, though the Christian contribution to it is undeniable, as we shall see.  It sets out, for the first time, 30 fundamental human rights to be universally protected. It has been translated into over 500 languages and applied today on a permanent basis at global and regional levels. A simple definition is: Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world, from birth until death. They apply regardless of where you are from, what you believe or how you choose to live your life.” The five basic ones include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education and 25 more. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.

Its content has surely been described by other articles in this number, and for that reason I prefer to proceed with discussing the relationship between the two parts of the title.

Its origin and development

Above we stated that this declaration is basically secular and universal. However, it is undeniable that Christianity played a distinct role in its origin and development. The biblical origin is no doubt found in the Old Testament in Genesis 1:26-27: And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness… So, God created man in his own image, male and female he created them”, in this way making him infinitely superior to all other created living beings, as confirmed by Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”

This conviction was further worked out in the Mosaic Law (e.g. the Ten Commandments) and also the ancient Prophets continually insisted on the value and dignity of each human being. This conviction surely led to the abolition of infanticide in the Roman Empire, to William Wilberforce abolishing slavery in the British Empire, to Nelson Mandela bringing to an end apartheid in S. Africa and Mother Teresa taking care of the poorest of the poor in India. Well-known is the slogan of the French Revolution of 1789, affirming Equality, Fraternity and Liberty as pillars of human society. Indeed, these three words summarise in a succinct way the basic values of Human Rights,

In the Gospels, Jesus shows himself, in word and practice, the defender of the poor and the needy, and he freely socialised with people the Pharisees considered as sinners. His treatment of women, children, and society’s down-and-outs is narrated on almost every page of the Gospels, certainly remarkable in the society in which he lived, and going beyond the social conventions of his time. He involved women in his ministry and went beyond the ancient wisdom which held that children should be seen but not heard. Instead, he welcomed and embraced them and had scathing words for any who would harm a child. He frequently praised children and their faith, and invited grown-ups to imitate them. All this shows according to American theologian Wolterstorff how human rights ultimately trace their origin to Jesus. Samuel Moyn, a Harvest Law Professor, who has written books on the topic (“Christian Human Rights”, 2015 and “The Right to Have Rights”, 2017), wrote “No one interested in where human rights came from can afford to ignore Christianity.” Indeed, without any further explanations we can affirm that 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. Many Popes have written about the subject. and local Christian leaders have made and are still making great efforts to implement Human Rights in their localities.

Today’s world

Unfortunately, the reality of today’s world presents us with another picture. Numerous countries violate the basics of human rights through discrimination, repression and war. Take for example the genocide now taking place in the Darfur Region of Sudan, the atrocities in the Kivu area of DRC or in Myanmar, not to speak about numerous cases of persecution of Christians or the abominable living conditions of so-called work-migrants in Europe. Many people, ourselves included, often close their eyes to such unacceptable realities, while continuing to enjoy their comfortable houses of residence and the food that three times every day is served on their tables.

Our Founder, Cardinal Charles Lavigerie, in a conference on African slavery in 1888, emphatically cried out, “I am a man, injustice to other men revolts my heart”. Our 2022 Chapter enumerates in a vivid way the deplorable violations of basic rights in Africa today (Capitular Acts, 2.3). It renewed the Society’s commitment to Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation. But let us not too quickly accuse people around us, but also acknowledge that in our own Society deplorable things happen from time to time. Thank God, they are exceptional, but we need to acknowledge them and find ways and means to eradicate such evil from our own communities. That is why the Chapter invited “each Province and Section to reflect on the injustices within our Society and how we deal with our collaborators”.

By: André Schaminée, M.Afr.