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The Story of Human Rights

In Christ and Culture on October 2, 2013 at 1:05 am

Secular freedom storyWhile driving to one lecture, I was listening to another.  The one I was listening to was delivered by A. C. Grayling on CBC’s Ideas. This was the first of eight “Fragile Freedoms” lectures held at the not yet officially opened Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg (listen here).

This is an excellent lecture. It’s clear, unified, thorough and entertaining, but in his historical survey of the development of the idea of rights, Grayling begins in the wrong place.

His story beings in the 16th century. It goes like this: In the Reformation, humanity took its first step toward the freedoms that culminated in the Enlightenment and were embodied in the documents of the French and American Revolutions. Martin Luther and the other reformers freed people from the hegemony of the church by giving them direct and individual access to God without the mediation of the church. This freedom Grayling calls “liberty of conscience” and it began an “inevitable “process leading to “liberty of thought” and then “liberty of action.” These liberties led to the freedom to ask all sort of questions, first, of the natural world, which led to the scientific revolution, and then, of the social and political systems, which resulted in the revolutions in France and America.

Grayling is telling the Modern Story, the dominant story in our culture. It is a story of, among other things, the quest for individual human autonomy. Because Grayling’s story of the idea of human rights is rooted in the story of the human quest for autonomy, he starts at the point where the this quest began, 1517.

It is generally agreed upon that human freedoms and rights are a good thing. And we all like to take credit for good things. The Soviets claimed credit for the invention of the telephone, the Dutch for the sinking of the Spanish Armada and the Americans for the invention of basketball. So too, the Moderns claim credit for human rights and freedoms, and they do this by linking human rights to the modern quest for autonomy.

But the idea of human rights is not, in the first place, rooted in autonomy but rather in the idea of human worth. And this idea has a much more ancient origin.

Why should we respect the rights and freedoms of other people?

 

Because they must be free to be human or BECAUSE they are human they ought to be free?

 

Genesis 1:27 says, “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The Biblical story says that human beings–male and female–were created with inherent value.

It is likely we are not all that impressed at such a declaration. We have heard them, literally for millennia. (And this is sort of my point; we’ve heard them so long, we were bound to listen to them at some point.) But how would they would have sounded like in the ancient world–ridiculous, preposterous?

The cultures that dominated the ancient near east, Early Babylonian and Egyptian, revolved around a priest-king, who represented the gods and as such, needed to be treated like one. This idea was reinforced in the creation myths where humanity was created for the soul purpose of serving the Gods. The myth upheld the socio-political reality of the culture–inferior people are meant to serve the superior representative of the divine.  Imagine the how scandalous the idea that mankind–both male AND FEMALE–itself was the image, read “replacement for the idol.”  This idea was immediately reinforced in the next chapter (2:20) when we see Adam naming things, an activity carried out by the gods in the stories of other cultures.

The idea that human beings were not existential equivalent to the muck on the god’s celestial shoes would have been unthinkable, yet it is this radical idea of human value that undergirds the entire Bible.  Jesus summarizes the law and the prophets, which amounts to pretty much the entire Old Testament, saying love God more than anything and “your neighbour as yourself.” Further, the central event in the Bible, Christians would say in human history, is the son of God giving up his life for the world and its people.  And the reason consistently given for this sacrifice is God’s love for people.

This is a very high view of humanity, indeed.

And it is this understanding of humanity, which comes directly out of our Judeo-Christian heritage, which is the foundation of human rights. The events of the 16th century and following amount to a discovery of what faithful readers of scripture had been saying all along.

A. C. Grayling is telling the Modern Story, a story which is based and draws upon the Judeo-Christian worldview.  I hope that the new Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg will give more credit to the ultimate source of human rights as it strives to fulfill its worthy task “to explore the subject of human rights in order to enhance the publics understanding of human rights, and encourage reflection and dialogue.”