A Broad and Generous Interpretation of Human Rights

By Nick Park

(From the January - March 2017 issue of VOX.)

Evangelical Alliance Ireland Executive Director Nick Park sees the current abortion debate as a key issue of human rights and believes it is on this basis that Christians should argue the case. Here, he discusses the role Christians can have in advocating for the rights of others.

Ireland is in the midst of a contentious debate about abortion and the Eighth Amendment. Many in the media are attempting to paint a false narrative of this controversy as a young progressive Ireland throwing off the shackles of a backward religious dogmatism. But abortion is not a culture war – it is a human rights issue.

Human rights are rights to which everyone is entitled on account of being human. If we deny these rights to anyone, then we are treating them as if they were less than human – as if they were animals.

This idea of an inherent dignity possessed by every human being is a biblical concept. It assumes that human beings are in some way quite distinct from all species of animals. We are more than just a slightly more evolved species with a slightly different genetic code.

This idea of an inherent dignity possessed by every human being is a biblical concept.

For Christians, of course, this distinction from the animals goes back to Creation itself. It is wrong to treat human beings as if they were animals because we are more than animals – we bear the image of God.

Then God said, “Let us make man in Our image, in Our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

Obviously this image of God does not refer to our physical appearance. It is referring to some inherent quality that brings us closer to God and distinguishes us from every species of fish, bird or animal in the universe.

Later in the Old Testament, we see human beings portrayed as ranking above the material creation but slightly lower (at least for now) than wholly spiritual beings such as angels:

What is mankind that You are mindful of them, human beings that You care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honour. (Psalm 8:4-5)

Early Enlightenment thinkers waxed lyrical about the ‘natural rights’ of man, and they are often, wrongly, credited with being the originators of the concept of human rights. Yet they frequently supported slavery and spoke of Africans in the most racist terms. It took Bible-believing Christians like William Wilberforce to see slavery abolished. For Wilberforce and his colleagues, it was quite clear why an African slave should not be treated like an animal. An African, as a human being, was made in the image of God. Therefore he or she possessed a dignity and a worth that must be respected and protected.

In the 19th century, Bramwell Booth and the Salvation Army fought, and won, a battle against people trafficking and child prostitution. At that time, the age of consent in Britain was 13, and it was even lower in other Western countries such as the United States. Following a sensational public campaign, the age of consent was raised to 16 – and hundreds of thousands of children were freed from sexual slavery. Human rights were now extended to children in a meaningful way.

In the 20th century, Martin Luther King’s biblical beliefs led him to conduct the historic campaign against racial segregation and discrimination in the United States. He lost his life in this struggle, but through his efforts, laws were changed and a subsequent major international human rights treaty expanded the world’s understanding of how racial discrimination violates our very humanity.

There is a clear historical pattern at work here. Those who wield power and authority often try to restrict and limit the extent to which we recognise human rights but biblically faithful Christians have repeatedly been at the forefront in pushing the boundaries and interpreting human rights in a broader and
more generous way.

When people want to take away someone else’s human rights, the first step is to stop treating them as human.

When people want to take away someone else’s human rights, the first step is to stop treating them as human. This is why advocates of slavery, rejecting the Christian abolitionists’ portrayal of the African as a man and a brother, tried to portray blacks as less than human.

Regimes that practice torture know that it is important to make their victims seem less than human. This removes the inhibitions that might otherwise stop the torturers from being sufficiently brutal.

Leading up to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, a Hutu radio station, Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, broadcast a non-stop stream of propaganda that repeatedly referred to the Tutsi tribe as ‘cockroaches.’ After all, once you begin to view people as being insects, it becomes easier to stamp on them. Lest we pride ourselves on being too civilised in the West to fall into such a trap, consider how those opposing immigration have also used dehumanising language to compare migrants to a swarm of insects.

We see a similar process in action when abortion advocates refuse to speak about an ‘unborn child,’ preferring to refer to ‘the foetus,’ or even to ‘a clump of cells.’

Many countries still try to restrict the application of human rights, denying even the most basic right of life to unborn children. Ireland, however, is one of the few countries to interpret human rights in a broader and more generous way, providing constitutional protection for unborn children. History would suggest that this is the mark of a progressive and compassionate society, and that is something we should be celebrating.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Ireland, by affirming the clause in our constitution that protects the unborn child, set a human rights example for other nations to follow? What a testimony it would be to future generations if Christians played their part in such a process. That would be a Christian legacy worthy to follow in the footsteps of William Wilberforce, Bramwell Booth and Martin Luther King.

Nick Park is Executive Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland. His new book, ‘The Gospel and Human Rights,’ is available as a paperback from Footprints and Unbound bookshops, or online at www.evangelical.ie. It is also available as a Kindle eBook from Amazon.