Human Rights seen in Christian Context: some quotations and sources

The modern cultivation of human rights in the West began in earnest in the 1940's when both Christianity and the Enlightenment seemed incapable of delivering on their promises. In the middle of the twentieth century, there was no second coming of Christ promised by Christians, no heavenly city of reason promised by enlightened libertarians, no withering away of the state promised by enlightened socialists. Instead, there was world war, gulags, and the Holocaust - a vile and evil fascism and irrationalism to which Christianity and the Enlightenment seemed to have no cogent response or effective deterrent.

The modern human rights movement was thus born out of desperation in the aftermath of World War II. It was an attempt to find a world faith to fill a spiritual void. It was an attempt to harvest from the traditions of Christianity and the Enlightenment the rudimentary elements of a new faith and a new law that would unite a badly broken world order.

John Witte, Jr, The Spirit of the Laws, the Laws of the Spirit, in Stackhouse & Browning (eds), God and Globalization, Vol.2

'What effect does this … have upon the conception of justice? It dissolves its unity and coherence by replacing it with a plurality of 'rights'. The language of subjective rights (i.e. rights which adhere to a particular subject) has, of course, a perfectly appropriate and necessary place within a discourse founded on law… What is distinctive about the modern conception of rights, however, is that subjective rights are taken to be original, not derived. The fundamental reality is a plurality of competing, unreconciled rights, and the task of law is to harmonise them… The right is a primitive endowment of power with which the subject first engages in society, not an enhancement which accrues to the subject from an ordered and politically formed society.'

Oliver O'Donovan, The Desire of the Nations


The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human. And in view of objective political conditions, it is hard to say how the concepts of man upon which human rights are based - that he is created in the image of God (in the American formula), or that he is the representative of mankind, or that he harbors within himself the sacred demands of natural law (in the French formula) - could have helped to find a solution to the problem. The survivors of the extermination camps, the inmates of concentration and internment camps, and even the comparatively hapless stateless people could see… that the abstract nakedness of being nothing but human was their greatest danger.'

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism


Human dignity is the foundation for nurturing and protecting human rights. It is rooted in the vision of the 'fullness of life' promised in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and his identification with all humankind. We must be reminded that human dignity is something persons have, not something they must earn or be granted. Dignity is not a quality bestowed on others by the family, by society, or by a government. Rather, dignity is a reality as a consequence of God's good creation and never-ending love. This reality requires acknowledgement and respect.

Robert A. Evans, Human Rights in a Global Context


…human rights norms need a human rights culture to be effective. 'Declarations are not deed', John Noonan reminds us. 'A form of words by itself secures nothing; words pregnant with meaning in one culture may be entirely barren in another'…. As we have moved from the first generation of human rights declarations following World War II to the current generation of human rights implementation, this need for a human rights culture has become all the more pressing.'

John Witte, Jr, The Spirit of the Laws, the Laws of the Spirit, in Stackhouse & Browning (eds), God and Globalization, Vol.2


…the prominence of a certain kind of rights talk in our political discussions is both a symptom of, and a contributing factor to, this disorder in the body politic. Discourse about rights has become the principal language that we use in public settings to discuss weighty questions of right and wrong, but time and time again it proves inadequate, or leads to a stand-off of one right against another. The problem, is not, however, as some contend, with the very notion of rights, or with our strong rights tradition. It is with a new version of rights discourse that has achieved dominance over the past thirty years.

Our current American rights talk is but one dialect in a universal language that has developed during the extraordinary era of attention to civil and human rights in the wake of World War II. It is set apart from rights discourse in other liberal democracies by its starkness and simplicity, its prodigality in bestowing the rights label, its legalistic character, its exaggerated absoluteness, its hyper-individualism, its insularity, and its silence with respect to personal, civic and collective responsibilities.

This unique brand of rights talk often operates at cross-purposes with our venerable rights tradition. It fits perfectly within the ten-second formats currently preferred by the news media, but severely constricts opportunities for the sort of ongoing dialogue upon which an regime of ordered liberty ultimately depends.

Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse


Contemporary moral experience as a consequence has a paradoxical character. For each of us is taught to see himself or herself as an autonomous moral agent; but each of us also becomes engaged by modes of practice, aesthetic or bureaucratic, which involve us in manipulative relationships with others. Seeking to protect the autonomy that we have learned to prize, we aspire ourselves not to be manipulated by others; seeking to incarnate our own principles an standpoint in the world of practice,

we find no way open to us to do so except by directing towards others those very manipulative modes of relationship which each of us aspires to resist in our own case. The incoherence of our attitudes arises from the incoherent conceptual scheme which we have inherited.

Once we have understood this it is possible to understand also the key place that (the concept of rights has) in the distinctively modern moral scheme…

…the culture of bureaucratic individualism results in their characteristic overt political debates being between individualism which makes its claims in terms of rights and forms of bureaucratic organisation which make their claims in terms of utility. But if the concept of rights and that of utility are a matching pair of incommensurable fictions, it will be the case that the moral idiom employed can at best provide a semblance of rationality for the modern political process, but not its reality. The mock rationality of the debate conceals the arbitrariness of the will and power at work in its resolution.

Alister MacIntyre, After Virtue


If it is impossible, as I believe it is, to be just without love, how much more cannot justice co-exist with hate. The pure eye for an honest perspective of another's viewpoint can only accompany the loving heart. The man who hates can hardly be delicate in doing justice to his neighbour's expressions of love, to his neighbour's preferences and peculiarities. It is hard enough to be just to our friends; how then shall our enemies fare with us?… Man is not made for justice from his fellow, but for love, which is greater than justice. By including it, love supersedes justice. Mere justice is an impossibility, a fiction of analysis… Justice to be truly justice must be more than justice. Love is the law of our condition, without which we can no more render justice than a man can keep a straight line walking in the dark.

George Macdonald, 'Love Thine Enemies', Unspoken Sermons, First Series, 1867


When contemporary admirers of Plato claim that all featherless bipeds - even the stupid and childlike, even the women, even the sodomized - have the same inalienable rights, admirers of Nietzsche reply that the very idea of 'inalienable human rights is, like the idea of a special added ingredient, a laughably feeble attempt by the weaker members of the species to fend of the stronger.

As I see it, one important intellectual advance made in our century is the steady decline of interest in the quarrel between Plato and Nietzsche. There is a growing willingness to neglect the question 'What is our nature?' and to substitute the question 'What can we make of ourselves?'… We are coming to think of ourselves as the flexible, protean, self-shaping animal rather than as the rational animal or the cruel animal.

One of the shapes we have recently assumed is that of a human rights culture… We should stop trying to get behind or beneath this fact, stop trying to detect and defend its so-called 'philosophical presuppositions'… Philosophers like myself… see our task as a matter of making our own culture - the human rights culture - more self-conscious and more powerful, rather than of demonstrating its superiority to other cultures by an appeal to something trans-cultural.

Richard Rorty, Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality


What would it mean to come to a genuine, unforced international consensus on human rights? I suppose it would be something like what Rawls describes in his Political Liberalism as an 'overlapping consensus'. That is, different groups, countries, religious communities, civilizations, while holding incompatible fundamental views on theology, metaphysics, human nature, etc., would come to an agreement on certain norms that ought to govern human behaviour. Each would have its own way of justifying this from out of its profound background conception. We would agree on the norms, while disagreeing on why they were the right norms. And we would be content to live in this consensus, undisturbed by the differences of profound underlying belief….

Is this kind of consensus possible? Perhaps because of my optimistic nature, I believe that it is. But we have to confess at the outset that it is not entirely clear around what the consensus would form, and we are only beginning to discern the obstacles we would have to overcome on the way there.

Charles Taylor, Conditions of an Unforced Consensus on Human Rights


Unless the Church at all levels is an outstanding promoter of the rights of human beings in word and deed, her proclamation will be literally falsified

Richard McCormick, S.J.


[to lawyers:] Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbours to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser - in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.

Abraham Lincoln, Selected Speeches, Messages and Letters


Let us never succumb to the temptation of believing that legislation and judicial decrees play a minimal role… The habits, if not the hearts, of people have been are being altered each day by legislative acts, judicial decisions, and executive orders.

Martin Luther King jnr

For a basic reference book, read:

Scott Davidson, Human Rights, Open University Press, 1993