FOUNDATION FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [LEV 19:1-2,11-18; PS 19:8-10,15; MATT 25:31-46 ]
Today, the world is always talking about and invoking human rights to justify its actions. We champion rights for equality of women at work and in marriage, for the poor, for freedom of religion, for justice and for life; for freedom from all forms of slavery and oppression, and to follow one’s conscience. Most of these rights are drawn directly or indirectly from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations on 10th Dec 1948. Some of the basic principles that are held as human rights include freedom and equality in dignity and rights; the right to life, liberty and security of persons; the rights of the family; freedom of religion and conscience; and the rights of the community over the individual. While some individual rights such as the right to life and freedom cannot be compromised, yet the exercise of the individual’s rights must be seen in relation to the greater good of the community. It cannot always be exercised absolutely without qualification.
Yet, the world is so divided on the application of human rights declared by the United Nations. Some of these fundamental rights have been reformulated or expanded. We no longer agree on what are human rights. The right to life is compromised by the right to abortion and euthanasia. Recently, some academics proposed that even the lives of newly born babies could be terminated if they were found to be undesirable. Why is it that in one instance we can kill and in another we cannot? The right to a traditional family is contradicted by the push for same sex union and adoption of babies. Why is it that in some countries monogamy is the law and in other countries, polygamy is allowed? Then in the name of freedom, everyone is demanding the right to do whatever they like or want.
What is the reason for the confusion about human rights? It is because we have forgotten the foundation of human rights. Whether we want to admit it or not, the human rights enshrined in the United Nations were formulated by deeply religious leaders from Christian nations from United States and Europe. Their moral values would have by and large been influenced by the Christian values that they were brought up with. The context of the Human Rights Declaration is based on the gospel values as taught in the Christian scriptures. Hence, we cannot say that human rights are secular rights without any religious influence. All human rights and morality are founded on some presupposed religious principles. We cannot deny the Christian influence on the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
Indeed, all human rights are rooted in some belief in God and absolutes and not in mere reason alone. In the face of relativism, which denies that there are absolutes, then these human rights cannot stand. Regardless, human rights presuppose faith in God, in absolutes, in truth and in the sacredness of life and the dignity of man. It is God who lays down the rules for life. This is what the first reading from the book of Leviticus wants to underscore. Three times after delineating the laws of justice and mercy towards our fellowmen, it ended by saying, “I am the Lord.” Indeed, all laws regulating the relationship between and among men are based on the laws of God. On this basis alone, all laws must be obeyed because God is the legislator of these laws. (cf Lev 19:11-18) The psalmist enjoined this truth when he says, “Your words are spirit, Lord, and they are life. The law of the Lord is perfect, it revives the soul. The rule of the Lord is to be trusted, it gives wisdom to the simple. The command of the Lord is clear, it gives light to the eyes. The decrees of the Lord are truth and all of them just.” So the laws of God are for the good of man in his relationship with each other.
Secondly, human rights are founded not just on the laws of God but Christ’s identification with us in the gospel. In the gospel, when Jesus spoke of the obligation to help the poor, the hungry, the needy, the suffering, the homeless, those in prison, it was based on the fact that He is identified with every human person. When the virtuous asked the Lord, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you?” The Lord said, “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.” (cf Mt 25:37-40)
In other words, we are the brothers and sisters of Jesus. And that is what we are. “For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, ‘I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.'” (Heb 2:11f) As the brothers and sisters of our Lord, we too share in His suffering and glory. “When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” (Rom 8:16f)
And if we are His brothers and sisters, we are children of God. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 Jn 3:1f) This is why the bible says we are created in God’s image and likeness thereby sharing His authority over creation and empowered to give life through procreation. (cf Gn 1:26-28)
Indeed, this is the foundation of all human rights. People ask ‘what about animal rights? Why is it that we can kill animals and not human beings?’ It is simply because, like the rest of creation, animals are created for the service of man. Only human beings are created in God’s image, sharing in His divine life. As such, every human person reflects God and only God who is the life-giver can take away human life and not our fellowmen, neither can we decide to end our life through suicide. If we do not subscribe to the fact that we are unique creatures created by God, we have no basis for giving special rights to human beings, and neither to each other. If we are not God’s creatures, then there is no reason why we need to perpetuate the human race, to protect the ecology or creation, to live or to care for others. If we are just like all other animals in creation, then we do not deserve any rights. Precisely, because we are created in God’s image, sharing in His truth and love, can we speak of morality, conscience, justice and truth.
Indeed, we cannot avoid the fact that the morality of the United Nations is shaped by religions, especially Christianity. It is Christianity that promotes the freedom of the individual, the freedom of conscience, the common good, and the sacredness of life from the moment of conception till death. Reason alone cannot conclude that we are the children of God and created in His image and likeness. That is why, the secular world, the State, needs religion to help it purify reason. Only faith in God can help reason to go beyond what is merely nature alone.
Truly, the task of religion is to purify the truth offered by reason. Pope Benedict clarified the role of religion with respect to politics as such, “The State must inevitably face the question of how justice can be achieved here and now. But this presupposes an even more radical question: what is justice? The problem is one of practical reason; but if reason is to be exercised properly, it must undergo constant purification, since it can never be completely free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests. Here politics and faith meet. Faith by its specific nature is an encounter with the living God – an encounter opening up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason. But it is also a purifying force for reason itself. From God’s standpoint, faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly.” (Deus Caritas est, 28)
Indeed, in the final analysis, faith and reason must meet together so that truth can be found. Only in truth can true justice be rendered to humanity. Again, this was what Pope Emeritus said in his famous Regensburg address. “While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically falsifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons… In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.” (‘Faith, reason and University’ at the University of Regensburg, 2006) Truly, only when those who champion Human Rights have their foundation on God and the gospel of Christ, can those rights be truly just and right. Otherwise, it is based on blind self-interests and ideological positions. Human rights today are reformulated against the dignity of the human person as God’s children.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
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