Book excerpts, Book Reviews, History, Human Rights, Politics
The bad king that prompted the Great Charter
How Robin Hood’s nemesis Prince John was the impetus behind the Magna Carta
In this excerpt from “A Christian Citizenship Guide” by André Schutten and Michael Wagner, we go way back to the time of the fictional Robin Hood and the very real Prince John to learn about the development of the Magna Carta, which has been described as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”
Once upon a time there was a king named Richard the Lionheart. He became king of England in 1189. The time before this date, in English law, is known as “time immemorial.”1 Important legal and political developments occurred in this “time out of mind” and contributed to the development of the system of law and government that we have today.2 While important and formational, those developments can’t be covered in detail here. However, we must begin the story of our constitution somewhere, and so we will begin the day after time immemorial.
Most storybooks suggest that Richard the Lionheart was a good king, but that’s really quite debatable. All we know for sure is that his brother John was worse. Richard was a military man and mainly used England to fund his military exploits. He spent all but 6 months of his 10-year reign outside of England fighting various battles and pursuing various exploits. Once, on his way back to England, King Richard was kidnapped in a German territory and held for ransom. His brother John, temporarily ruling England in his place, not only refused to pay the ransom but offered the kidnappers money to keep his brother in custody! (You get a sense of John’s character, don’t you?) King Richard eventually returned to England but died shortly thereafter and, because he had no children, his younger brother John officially took the throne in the year 1199.
King John ruled as an absolute monarch, as had most of the kings preceding him. He was the ultimate law maker and the final judge of any legal dispute, and he set himself above the law. King John was also a particularly cruel and greedy king, which is where the tales of Robin Hood come in. His excessive taxation impoverished the people and united the factions opposed to him. All sectors of society rose up: the barons, church leadership, merchants, and commoners.
Signed not just twice or thrice
In early 1215, a group of 39 barons (out of a total of 197) openly revolted against the king, with the blessing of Stephen Langton, the archbishop of Canterbury. The barons successfully took over the city of London and more barons came to their side. By midyear, King John knew he had to negotiate. And so, on the 15th day of June, 1215, in an open meadow known as Runnymede, the barons and the king signed a truce negotiated and drafted by archbishop Langton. That truce is known as the Magna Carta, or the Great Charter, and it is quite possibly the most significant legal document in the history of English law. Lord Denning, one of the greatest English judges in history, once described the Magna Carta as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”3 Lord Chief Justice Bingham wrote that “the sealing of Magna Carta was an event that changed the constitutional landscape in and, over time, the world.”4
The Magna Carta stands for the rule of law that all free men must be treated fairly and that no one is above the law, not even the king.5 By signing the Magna Carta, King John swore that he, and subsequent kings, would not be able to order the execution of his political enemies or any other citizens that displeased him without a proper criminal trial, heard by an impartial jury. Nor could he exact taxes from the people without first consulting with a council of barons (the very beginnings of a Parliament). And, often overlooked in modern political textbooks, the very first clause of the Magna Carta guaranteed the freedom and protection of the church.6 This was particularly important because King John wanted the power to appoint only those who agreed with him to be bishops of the church. The ecclesiastical leaders were known to speak out against the excesses and abuses of the king and often paid a steep price for doing so. King John’s father, King Henry II, infamously had archbishop Thomas Becket murdered inside Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 for standing up to the king on matters of church independence.
While most parts of the Magna Carta have since been replaced or repealed by subsequent statutes, the ancient Charter has enduring value. One clause still in force today is Clause 40 which states: “To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.” This clause is an expression of the principle of equality before the law, cemented into Canada’s Constitution in section 15(1) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms 767 years later. The Canadian version reads, “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection of the law and equal benefit of the law without discrimination.”
If you’re wondering whether the Magna Carta was a particularly Christian document, the answer is, “Yes!” Not only does the Magna Carta open and close with declarations about the church’s independence from state interference (the beginnings of constitutional protections for religious freedom), but the author, archbishop Langton, was the leading churchman in all of England. His legal training in Europe was in canon law (or church law), and he applied this legal training and the scriptural principles of law to his drafting of the Magna Carta. He had “a scripturally informed conscience from which emerged truth’s uninhibited voice in Magna Carta encourages proper and good government, resulting in increased justice.”7
Unfortunately, the signing of the Magna Carta didn’t restrain King John’s excesses all that long. Three months after signing it, the devious king had it annulled by the pope, and England was plunged into bloody civil war. But thankfully (for the English people anyway), King John died the next year from excessive diarrhea8 and the war came to an end.
The Magna Carta did not die with King John. John’s nine-year-old son Henry III became king and reigned for the next 56 years. With the advisors and supporters of the young king seeking stability and an end to the civil war, the Magna Carta was reinstated in 1216. And when Henry reached adulthood in 1227, he reissued the Magna Carta again as law, though a shorter version of it, in exchange for the barons’ consent to a new tax. In 1253, in exchange for another tax to fund his battles in France, King Henry III swore on pain of excommunication “and stinking in hell” to uphold the Magna Carta.9 A decade later he broke his oath, imposing yet another tax, which sparked a rebellion known as the Second Barons’ War. That war concluded in 1267 with a peace treaty that required King Henry III to reaffirm the Magna Carta yet again (if you’re counting, that’s the fourth time).10
The development of the Parliaments
King Henry III eventually died in 1272, and his son Edward I became king. Edward I (a.k.a. Edward Longshanks, because he was quite tall) did much good from a constitutional perspective, despite his depiction as a particularly cruel and cold-hearted English king in the Mel Gibson movie Braveheart. Edward I instituted a major review of political corruption and the abuse of power by citizens who held substantial power. In 1275, he passed The First Statute of Westminster to put on paper many of the existing laws in the country. He also worked to strengthen the policing system and restore public order.
One of King Edward’s biggest contributions is that he initiated the first official Parliaments in England, calling about 46 Parliaments in his reign. The first Parliament, in 1275, included members of the nobility, clergy, and the election of two county representatives and two representatives from the towns or cities to attend.11 Twenty years later, this form of representative parliament became standard practice, known as the Model Parliament, and all future Parliaments, including Canada’s, are based on it. The nobility and clergy make up the House of Lords (comparable to Canada’s Senate), and the elected representatives of counties or towns make up the House of the Commoners (or House of Commons). Importantly, before the king could increase taxes, he had to gain approval from Parliament.
Parliament was also a check on the absolute authority of the king in other respects. After another dispute over taxes between the king and Parliament between 1294 and 1297, the Magna Carta was amended and passed by Parliament as a statute for the first time and signed into law by King Edward I. This 1297 version of the Magna Carta is the officially recognized legal text in English law today and remains a part of the constitutions of Britain and Canada. Over the next one hundred years, Parliament continued to pass statutes (known later as the Six Statutes12) that clarified and expanded on sections of the Magna Carta, constantly working to restrain by law the otherwise unlimited power of the monarch. These statutes ensured that any action taken against a subject, whether taxes, fines, evictions, imprisonment, or execution, had to be done by trial or due process of the law and not at the whim of the king or his officials. Some of these constitutional principles developed in the 1300s13 are enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.14
The passing of the Magna Carta as a statute in Parliament marks a significant shift in the understanding of the power and authority of kings. The kings from the Norman Conquest (William the Conqueror in 1066) until the establishment of Parliaments believed “they ruled by means of their force and will (vis et voluntas), not by the grace of God or legal right.”15 Most people accepted this at the time, but cultural developments shifted toward “the principle of the supremacy of law.”16 The law was no longer a tool used by the king to get his way; rather the king himself was bound by the law and under the law. This shift did not happen by accident. Many of the legal rules and procedures that developed around this time were adapted from canon law (church law) which the king’s lawyers would have studied in the universities, which were also run by the churches. In the canon law tradition, “the idea that the rule of law was antithetical to the rule of men lay dormant.”17
To read the rest of the story, order a copy of André Schutten and Michael Wagner’s “A Christian Citizenship Guide” available for a suggested donation of $25. Email [email protected] or visit arpacanada.ca/CitizenshipGuide. Watch a conversation between the two authors below.
1. “A time out of mind” or “time immemorial” refers to a point beyond which legal authorities believed it was impossible to speak with certainty. See Ryan Alford, Seven Absolute Rights: Recovering the Historical Foundations of Canada’s Rule of Law (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020), pp. 79-80.
2. This includes the Law Code developed by King Alfred the Great (r. 871-899) which incorporated the 10 commandments into the laws of England, the tradition of the coronation oaths of the Anglo-Saxon kings, the Norman Invasion of 1066 led by William the Conqueror and the Charter of liberties his son King Henry I (r. 1100-1135) instituted.
3. Danny Danziger & John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of the Magna Carta (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2004), at p. 278.
4. Tom Bingham, The Rule of Law (Penguin Books, 2011), at p. 11.
5. Clause 39, still in force today, states: “No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by the legal judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.” The only other clauses still in force today are Clause 1, which guarantees the freedom of the church, and clause 13 (renumbered clause 9 in Magna Carta, 1297), which guarantees the ancient liberties of the City of London.
6. The first clause reads in part: “First, that we have granted to God, and by this present Charter have confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired.”
7. Brent Winters, Excellence of the Common Law (2008: self-published), p. 554, note 1383.
8. We are not 100% sure, but this may be why toilets are called “johns”. Some observe that, because King John was so despised, no king has ever been named after him. There has only ever been one King John, and he was bad enough.
9. Alford, Seven Absolute Rights, note 2, at p. 84
10. The Magna Carta was reconfirmed by various kings dozens of times, having last been confirmed by Henry VI in 1423. Ben Johnson, “The History of the Magna Carta,” Historic UK: The History and Heritage Accommodation Guide, online
11. Some might argue that King Edward’s father, King Henry III, instituted the first Parliaments. However, those earlier assemblies were more a collection of barons as advisors than a Parliament. Henry III did issue the first summons of parliamentum generalissimum to 24 barons to convene in January 1237, though only 18 attended. This evolved over time into the House of Lords. King Edward I was the first to have elected representatives from the towns and counties to attend. Those elected representatives evolved into the House of Commons.
12. See discussion on the Six Statutes in Alford, Seven Absolute Rights, note 2, at pp. 885-88.
13. These principles were developed by Parliament in the 1300s but are borrowed from canon law developed in the 1200s. For example, Pope Innocent III maintained that “a prince could not abolish the judicial process or ignore an action, because he was bound by natural law to render justice.” See Alford, Seven Absolute Rights, note 2, at p. 89.
14. These rights include the right not to be arbitrarily detained (s. 9 of the Charter), the right to a fair trial (s.11(d) of the Charter) and a trial by jury in serious offences (s.11(f) of the Charter).
15. Alford, Seven Absolute Rights, note 2, at p. 87. Alford further explains, “The expression of royal anger and ill will (ira et malevolentia) was integral to royal status. Vassals had to accept the possibility of their destruction at the king’s hands as a fact of life.”
16. Alford, Seven Absolute Rights, note 2, at p. 88.
17. Alford, Seven Absolute Rights, note 2, at p. 88.
A Christian perspective on freedom of speech
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Human Rights, Pro-life - Abortion
Do we have a “right” to life?
If you’ve ever attended a pro-life rally or an abortion protest you’ve heard fellow Christians talking about the unborn’s “right to life.” But is this a phrase that Christians should use? Does it have a biblical basis? Can Christians claim a right to life, or for that matter, any rights at all? Rights vs. wishes It all depends on what you mean by the term “rights.” We'll sometimes hear special interest groups claim a "right" to healthcare or a "right" to a free college education but that's a trivialization of the term. They are using it in a way that is really no different than claiming a "right" to pepperoni pizza, or a "right" to free parking. These are items some might want at taxpayer expense, but describing your wishlist as rights does not make them so. Rights are better understood as that which it is wicked to deny. So, for example, if a government doesn't provide free college tuition, we aren't going to hold tribunals to investigate their human rights abuses – it is not a monstrous evil to deny citizens a tax-funded post-secondary experience. But if governments violate their citizens' right to property, then there should be an outcry because we recognize that the right to property is one that governments would be wicked to deny – this is a fundamental right. Rights before God? When it comes to the pro-life movement's "right to life" slogan, I've run across some Christians who object to the term. Since we are sinful creatures, wholly dependent on God’s grace, they argue that God doesn’t owe us anything. Are we in any position to make demands of our Maker, to make any claims of “rights” before Him? Clearly not. But as Stephen Pidgeon explains in this article, just because we have no rights before God doesn’t mean we don’t have rights given by God. In the Ten Commandments God spells out a number of prohibitions, and it is from these prohibitions that our rights spring. God has said, “Thou shall not murder” so from that we all have a God-given right to life. No man, no group, no government has the right to murder us because God has forbidden it. Since this right comes from a God-given prohibition, no authority on Earth may take this right from us. Individuals and governments can violate the right to life – they can and regularly do murder, ending the lives of one-quarter of all citizens here in the United States and Canada before they are even born. But even as they violate the right to life, and deny the unborn's claim to it, the right remains nonetheless. Governments and individuals did not award this right, so they cannot take it away. Of course, God can rightfully take our life – we are his, and He can do with us as He pleases. We have no rights before God. But we do have God-given rights that we can hold to before Man. And, made in His Image (Genesis 1:26-27, 9:6), the unborn, too, can claim a God-given right to life. And we can pray for the day when our governments start to recognize, honor, and protect that right....
Human Rights, Pro-life - Abortion
ABILITY ≠ WORTH ....but the world thinks so, and sometimes we do too
While we were at the library one of my daughters grabbed Nice Wheels, a book featuring a boy zipping across the cover in a wheelchair. I thought it was a great choice; my children don’t know anyone in a wheelchair so this seemed like it would a good way to teach them that whether we’re standing or sitting, we’re all people. But that wasn’t the moral of this story. The author wanted to teach my daughters that our value comes from what we can do. The book begins with a wheelchair-bound boy rolling into class and a second boy wanting to know, “Can he do what we can do?” By day’s end we’ve learned that the boy in the wheelchair can sing just like everyone else, and can paint, and listen, and laugh, and eat lunch, and share like everyone else too. And as the book draws to a close the second boy decides that, shucks, if this boy in his wheelchair can do everything we can do, why not be his friend? While the author’s heart was in the right place, her thinking couldn’t be more wrong. If we’re worth befriending because we can do things, what if we can’t do things? If our value is tied to what we can do, then what of a boy who can’t sing, or paint, or eat lunch with the other kids? Comedy and tragedy The world believes that our worth is tied to our ability. That’s why we have feminists arguing that women can do anything men can do, even including all that brawny stuff. No matter that men have way more muscle, feminists won’t admit men make better firefighters, soldiers or alligator wrestlers. They can’t concede that men can do more in these areas because in their worldview that means men are more valuable than women. Feminist confusion is comical, but equating ability with worth can also be deadly. It’s this same thinking behind abortion: we can kill the unborn at 10 weeks because they can’t do this yet, or at 20 weeks because they can’t do that yet. It’s also the impetus behind legalized euthanasia: if a strong healthy young man wants to commit suicide we’ll try to stop him, but if an old man requests euthanasia because his physical and mental abilities are diminishing, well, that’s supposed to be understandable. Dripping in the church In our churches we oppose abortion and euthanasia. We know our lives are valuable even when we can’t do anything at all. We know it, but daily we manage to forget it. We tie our sense of worth to how much we make, or have donated, or to the position we hold. Or we base it on how well our kids behave, how many books we’ve read, how many invitations we do or don’t get, or how many Facebook likes we’ve collected. We know better, but we still fall for the lie that our worth is somehow tied into what we can accomplish, or earn, or achieve. There can be something appealing about this lie in the short-term, particularly just after we’ve lost 20 pounds, or scored a game-winning goal. But in the long term it all fades; relying on our own strength is a dead-end. Unearned What a blessing it is to know, then, that our value doesn’t come from our abilities. Ours is a derived worth that comes from the God in whose image we are made (Gen. 1:27, 5:1 9:6, Psalm 8:5-6). Our status also comes from God’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31). But it doesn’t come from what we can do. We’re valuable because of how God made us, and because of what God commanded. So it’s all gift. Understanding that frees us from the impossible burden of trying to earn it. When we know for a fact that nothing we can give could ever be good enough for God, that frees us from worrying whether or not it will be. It frees us to simply respond in thankfulness, giving freely of ourselves and our gifts without being self-conscience about how little it is we have to offer. And understanding where our worth comes from should stop us from expecting others to earn their status. The newcomer to our church shouldn’t have to smile first before we welcome them. The lonely girl shouldn’t have to accept one of our first ten invitations before we offer her an eleventh. The awkward guy shouldn’t have to play hockey to be a part of our group. And that kid in the wheelchair doesn’t have to show he can do everything that the other boys can do before he’s worth befriending. They shouldn’t have to earn it. They can’t earn it. We can’t earn it. It’s all a gift from God....
Human Rights, Pro-life - Abortion
Abortion supporters don't believe in equality
There are two ways society views human worth. Which leads to a better society? **** In his now famous TedTalk, author Simon Sinek unlocks the secret to how the most powerful leaders shape their messages. They start with “Why?" "Your Why", says Simon, “is the purpose, cause, or belief that inspires you to do What you do." Simon illustrates with great clarity how powerful it is when leaders of any organization or movement start their message with an explanation of their purpose, their beliefs. I thought about this yesterday as I stood on the side of Main St. in Grimsby quietly participating in the Life Chain demonstration. I wondered how many of the people driving by really understood why we were there - our purpose, our belief. I wondered too if my fellow demonstrators really understood how people with opposite views on the issue of abortion can arrive hold the position they do. You can’t really take seriously the folks who drive by yelling at you and giving your kids the finger. But putting that aside for the moment, let’s be honest; demonstrations are not the most effective format for respectful and rigorous debate. They tend to polarize groups into opposing camps and do little to create empathy between people who hold different views. We’re content to consider each other crazy. However, at one point in yesterday’s hour-long demonstration a passing motorist rolled down her window and yelled to demonstrators “It’s my body, It’s my choice!” And I thought; There it is! Her “Why.” Her belief. And as horrifying as the consequences of that belief are, it struck me how perfectly logical it was that this woman might also support the idea that she has a right to end the life of another human being. There’s nothing wrong with her logic. She’s not crazy per se. She just doesn’t believe that the human growing inside her is...well, human. And that is precisely where we differ. Two views I believe that human life starts at conception. And that belief changes everything. I’m not crazy either. Far from it. Feminist author and pro-choice advocate Mary Elizabeth Williams (also a staff writer for Salon) would agree with me. In an article that Mary wrote titled “So what if abortion ends life?” she states the following: "I know that throughout my own pregnancies, I never wavered for a moment in the belief that I was carrying a human life inside of me. I believe that’s what a fetus is: a human life.” She goes further: "When we on the pro-choice side get cagey around the life question, it makes us illogically contradictory....When we try to act like a pregnancy doesn’t involve human life, we wind up drawing stupid semantic lines in the sand.” I totally agree. Which makes Mary’s following statement so confusing. She says "And that doesn’t make me one iota less solidly pro-choice.” How can someone believing that the fetus inside them is human still claim the right to kill it? That does sound crazy to me. 1) All life is not equal But Mary explains... "Here’s the complicated reality in which we live: All life is not equal. That’s a difficult thing for liberals like me to talk about, lest we wind up looking like death-panel-loving, kill-your-grandma-and-your-precious-baby storm troopers. Yet a fetus can be a human life without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. She’s the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always." And there it is: Mary's “Why." Her belief. Mary believes that some humans are more important than others. She’s forced herself to believe that or else her pro-choice position would be, to use her own words, "illogically contradictory.” Mary also thinks she should be the one to decide whose lives, in particular, are more important and whose aren’t. And this why I (and many others) stand in silent demonstration at the corner of Main St. and Christie St. each year. 2) All are equal because all are made in God's image I believe that I am not my own (Nope. Not my body. Not my choice) ie: I do not belong to myself. Rather, I believe that in both life and in death I belong to my faithful saviour Jesus Christ. I belong to and submit to the one (and only) creator-God who made me and who alone determines the purpose of my life. Therefore I personally am not the ultimate authority on what I can or cannot do with my life or the life of others. I believe that all lives including the lives of those who stand in direct opposition to what I believe are equally sacred and worthy of protection. I believe that the protection of life is everyone’s responsibility and so also my responsibility. My purpose here on earth is to love God, love my fellow human beings and to serve them by putting their life and well-being ahead of my own. I and those who believe as I do are not fighting for self-importance or survival. We're fighting to outdo one another in kindness. I realize that we can’t make you believe what we believe. But surely you can see that we’re not crazy either. Which kind of society do you want? And to those of you who don’t quite know what you believe consider this: What kind of society do you wish to experience? What kind of society do you wish to build for your children? What kind of leaders will you choose to support and follow? Will you follow those who believe that some lives are more important than others (who believe that their lives are more important than yours perhaps)? Or will you choose to follow those who believe all lives are of equal value, and who believe that leaders should put others ahead of themselves? Simon "Start-with-why" Sinek has another book out which may help you decide. It’s called Leaders Eat Last. This choice is indeed yours. I’m praying that you’ll choose wisely. This article was first published in October 2016. Jason Bouwman is a graphic designer and author of the utterly unique book "Still Thinking" which we review right here....
Human Rights need God
Do human rights need God? Bluntly stated, it all depends on your god. Those who reject that there is a God, say human beings are responsible for their own destiny and create our own morals… and even our own rights. What the State gives the State can take away But the standard secular account of human rights is mistaken. What is widely overlooked today is that a worldview based on godless evolution cannot provide a reasonable foundation for either the universality or the permanence of human rights. How can relativism, so prevalent in the West, guarantee human rights? Philosopher Jacques Ellul properly warned us that it cannot protect "established human rights...against arbitrary power or against totalitarian definitions of right and wrong." The truth is that human rights issues are deeply religious issues and therefore the God question cannot be avoided. But won't basing human rights on God lead to a theocracy? Not if we keep in mind what belongs to God and what belongs to the State. As the church father Tertullian (c.160-230) pointed out: "Render to Caesar money. Render to God yourself. Otherwise, what will be God's, if all things are Caesar's?" In other words, the State does not bestow human rights, but it does have a duty to recognize and safeguard these rights. It must protect not only specific political rights like (like voting) but also non-political rights such as the right to worship, freedom of association, parental choice in education, and so forth. Universal human rights only make sense when they are grounded on God We can make a compelling argument in a secular society for human rights which are originally from God and finally vindicated by God. As Christians our starting point is the Bible; it is the foundation for our thoughts and actions. So does the Bible offer a working perspective of human rights? And if so, what is it? The idea of human rights is not actually mentioned anywhere in the Bible, yet it is present everywhere. In clear language the Bible speaks to us about right and wrong, about good and evil, about God's law which is finer than gold and sweeter than honey, about doing justice to the poor, the needy, the orphans, and those who have no helper, about not withholding wages of your hired laborer, about showing mercy and doing justice to foreigners and sojourners, about doing good even to your enemies. Rights come from God's prohibitions The Bible also speaks of divinely inspired duties, including the Ten Commandments, which, when taken to their ultimate conclusion, form the basis of what we today would call human rights. The commandment, "You shall not murder," teaches that human life is sacred and implies that there is a right to life. However, the Commandments are formulated as human obligations to God and not as explicitly conferring tangible rights or benefits upon humanity. That said, the Commandments do, in fact, provide a philosophical basis for putting a high value on humans. And Jesus said that human duties to God are ultimately reduced to two: Love God with one's whole being, and love others as oneself (Matt. 22:34-40). The Bible deals with human nature and with personal relationships more than with specific problems. But much of its teaching nonetheless expressly bears on public policy concerns. This is seen in the role of the Old Testament prophets. Kings were reminded of their violation of God's law that protected the rights of weaker members of their society. The prophet Nathan rebuked King David for violating the rights of Uriah (2 Sam. 12:7-10). Elijah's rebuked King Ahab for violating the right of Naboth (1 Kings 21:17-22). Both Nathan's rebuke and Elijah's rebuke were taken seriously because David and even Ahab were rulers of Israelites' society that still recognized God's law and judgment. Not from our abilities, status, or age, but from in Whose image we are made The most basic issue at stake in the concern for human rights can be phrased very simply with the question, "What is man?” The undergirding rationale for all human rights is the fact that each one of us has been created in the image of God. The Roman teacher Lactantius (c.250-325 AD) noted, "We call everyone together to the heavenly pasture, without any distinction either of sex or of age" (cf. Gal. 3:28). Each person is highly valued in the sight of God. In fact, when a person's basic right to life is violated, God's right is violated. The Bible declares that any assault on another person is taken as an assault on God Himself. And He will ultimately vindicate the innocent and punish the criminal (Gen. 9:5-6). This concept of human dignity, as well as the ideas of justice, righteousness, and human freedom (especially freedom from oppression) flows from Scripture's high view of human beings. Consequently, we insist on the universal dignity, rights, and responsibilities of all human beings. When human beings are no longer seen as God's image-bearers, they will be treated as mere objects, products of evolution, a collection of molecules. As the Christian apologist Tatian (c.160) aptly commented, "Man is not, as the croaking philosophers say, merely a rational animal, capable of understanding and knowing... Rather, man alone is the image and the likeness of God." The special status of a human being does not depend on his or her age, race, size, stage of development, or condition of dependency. Each person is made in the image of God, and endowed with dignity (Ps. 8). Each human being is, therefore, a person possessed of a dignity we are obliged to respect by virtue of being created in the likeness and image of God. And each person is both an individual and communal creature, who lives beneath God's sovereignty, answerable to his norms of justice, stewardship, and love. The right to dignity demands that we treat all human beings with dignity. This includes protecting the rights of those with whom we disagree. Rights must be tied to responsibilities In much of human rights talk today, much is said about rights to this and that – people speak of a right to free post-secondary education, or government-provided abortion – while little is said about responsibility. God makes it clear, however, that we do not have rights for rights’ sake. Rights are tied to responsibility. We must accept responsibility for what we do. Responsibility is about caring for others. And ultimately the cause of human rights is inseparably bound up with our responsibility to God (Ps.139). We cannot shirk our duty like Cain did, when he said to God, "Am I my brother's keeper?" As Ed Vanderkloet noted in his essay The Iron and the Clay in the Foundations of Human Rights: "Man is first of all responsible to his Maker; his speech, his association, and all his action must be a response to God. It is here that the Christian and the humanist world-and-life view clash. For the creed of human autonomy does not allow for the element of responsibility to a sovereign God. If man is his own master and lawgiver, he is only responsible to himself." Why do human rights so often get violated? Why are human rights so often violated? Why can't the "reasoned intentions of all men of goodwill" bring about public justice and the renewal of society? Why can’t we all just get along? This sometimes seems to be a bit of a mystery to non-Christians. But we know the reason: Adam and Eve rebelled against God. Sin now disrupts the good order and harmony of God's creation. The curse of sinful transgression, of the broken covenant, and of the estrangement from God, fellowmen, and the world, now hangs over all human relationships. But the fall could not and did not destroy our responsibility to God. God maintains his righteous claims upon us even in a broken world. Do human rights need God? Yes, as only God can counter human sin. In becoming Man, Christ showed how much God values Man At the heart of the Christian view of human rights is Jesus Christ. He is God's answer for fallen human beings. In the midst of history is the cross, the liberating power of his resurrection, and his glorious ascension to a position of regal authority. There is no righteousness apart from Him. In Christ God became man and as the God-man, the long-awaited Messiah, He reveals perfectly the divine image (Col. 1:15), restoring the image of God in us. The doctrine of the Incarnation demonstrates the ultimate worth of human beings (John 3:16). Jesus Christ, both fully God and fully human, concretely lived in the midst of time and space. Through Jesus, the New Testament shows God's interest in people from all segments of society – Jesus demonstrated respect to the outcasts of society. So how do we practice true (James 1:26-27) religion? We turn to the Bible. It is the Word of Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). He is the Way we are to walk, the Truth we are to believe, the Life we are to live. The apostle Paul exhorts us to fulfill "the law of Christ," which means assuming the obligation "to bear one another's burdens" (Gal. 6:2). The claims of love are at the heart of the "law of Christ.” As Justin Martyr observed, "All of us pray for you, and for all men, as our Christ and Lord taught us to do. For He commanded us to pray even for our enemies, and to love those who hate us, and to bless those who curse us." Will we ever gain a world where all human rights are perfectly respected? The Bible is clear. A perfect world will only come when our Lord returns. With one eye scanning the clouds, watchful for our Lord's return, we are to fix our other eye on the needs of our fellow image-bearers around the world. Therefore, here and now we do what is right in God's sight. And Christ entrusts the Church with the great commission as the supreme "declaration of human rights" – the right and responsibility of all people to hear and believe the gospel, and the right and responsibility of his disciples to proclaim it (Matt.28: 18-20). The Church's role The Church is the community of saints from every nationality, class, and race. As public light, salt, and leaven, she can make a positive contribution to human rights, showing concern for the public good. As she presents the Gospel of salvation to a spiritually lost world, she has also the task to equip the people of God, both personally and communally, to serve as fervent advocates of justice, peace, and compassion in every sector of life. And the Church has a unique position in the world. When one part of the Church suffers, there will be voices of encouragement from other parts; when another part of the Church becomes too comfortable with status and power, a word of admonition will be forthcoming. And the Church has made a difference for the good in many parts of the world. For all the ambiguities, foibles, and outright betrayal of Christianity's own best principles, the Word and Deed Gospel has opened the door to the development of dynamic pluralistic democracies which protect human rights of both persons and groups. The record shows that the Church opened her heart to the needy, cared for the poor and hungry, ministered to the enslaved and imprisoned, established orphanages and centers of learning, generated movements for societal reform, offered diaconal assistance, and sponsored programs of world relief. Already in the first centuries of the Christian era, the Church sought the public good. For example, Lactantius wrote, "It is an equally great work of justice to protect and defend orphans and widows who are destitute and stand in need of assistance. Therefore, the divine law commands this to everyone." Christians opposed and condemned the culturally imbedded custom of child abandonment. The 2nd-century Church father Clement of Alexandria condemned the Romans for saving and protecting young birds and other creatures while lacking moral compunctions about abandoning their own children. But the early Christians did more than condemn child abandonment. They frequently took these child castaways into their homes and adopted them. Despite all the persecutions suffered, they did not relent in promoting the sanctity of human life. Their persistent efforts eventually paid off. When Emperor Valentinian outlawed infanticide in 374, he also criminalized child abandonment. Conclusion Do human rights need God? Yes. The infallible Scripture of the Triune God gives shape to human rights issues. Human rights in the biblical perspective are rights given by the grace of God, recalling us to our task to make things right in this world just as Zacchaeus did: " If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold" (Luke 19:8). As believers in the pursuit of human rights, we must maintain an independent prophetic voice. As Vanderkloet noted: "We should realize that the humanist and Christian concepts of justice and rights are as incompatible as iron and clay....To build our political order on a foundation of those ingredients is acting like the man who built his house upon the sand. Such foundations will crumble and cause the collapse of the structure when the winds and floods of new ideologies arise and beat against it." Rev. Johan Tangelder (1936-2009) wrote for Reformed Perspective for 13 years. Many of his articles have been collected at Reformed Reflections. A version of this article first appeared in the June 2008 issue....
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