The Limitations of Human Rights

By Richard Carson

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

It’s annoying, but justice and equality are mates. Aren’t they? Justice always wants to hang out with equality. And equality is a real pain in the arse.
— Bono

The theory of human rights has made an enormously positive impact in our world. Through it, lives have been saved, injustices overcome and new beginnings realised. Both Christians and those outside the church have been central in making this happen, and there is little doubt that perspectives informed by Scripture played an enormous part in developing human rights theory and practice.

So why write an article that critiques human rights? Well, principally because there are lenses and spaces into which human rights theory alone cannot reach.



If you need to find a “basis” from Scripture for the theory you have built, then you are already in trouble. The cart is before the horse. You end up with Scripture having to play catch-up to justify this thing called a “right.”

In the language of Scripture, which says nothing of “rights” but lots about “faith,” “hope” and “love,” we find our framework to address injustice. The Texan theologian Stanley Hauerwas put it like this: “If you need a theory of rights to ground your belief that torture is wrong, then something has clearly gone wrong with your moral sensibilities.”

For example, when the language around abortion switches from life being a “right” to it being a “gift,” a whole set of possibilities open up that transcend, with richness, beauty and justice, the profound limitations that both pro-choice and pro-life campaigns offer.



Recently, a cartoon went viral. It features three young kids, each of differing heights, trying to peer over a wall to watch a baseball game. The first frame, entitled “Equality,” shows the kids standing on boxes of identical heights. This means that only the tallest can view the game. The second frame, entitled “Equity,” features the kids standing on boxes of differing heights - all three can watch the game.

However, since the cartoon went popular, the artist has added a third frame, entitled “Justice” - here, the wall has been replaced by a wire fence, allowing all three to watch the game without assistance.

God’s justice runs much deeper than ensuring that a “right” is present and enacted. It goes into the unseen dynamics of power and oppression. The lamenting, garment-ripping, table-overturning prophets give voice to this every time we open our Bibles.



When the narrative of Scripture has to keep up with a rights culture war, it inevitably suffers. Those in places of power and privilege will set the terms and conditions of how the story of injustice is told, and this will inevitably lead to an impoverished narrative.

When the narrative of Scripture has to keep up with a rights culture war, it inevitably suffers.

An impoverished narrative led to people taking sides in the recent Asher’s Bakery case, adopting ideologies to figure out whose “right” is the greater human right. This means that few Christians are present enough to hear that QueerSpace, the Belfast agency on whose behalf the infamous cake was ordered, are seeing one new LGBT young person to their doors every week who have been kicked out of their homes by their Christian parents. Many Christians have so effectively sacrificed their right to care about LGBT homelessness that they cannot hear what is really happening.

An impoverished narrative celebrates (rightly) the ending of segregation in the US but cannot see how that segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration, as one in three black men end up in jail. The legacy of slavery and racism continues, just in another form. That the key platform provider of the alt-right movement is now Chief Strategist in the White House only illustrates how deep the delusion goes.

If God’s justice is indeed a rolling river, then its currents might run deeper and wider than the theories we construct.

An impoverished narrative struggles with how to honour the story of Bethany Home, the Dublin venue where hundreds of children died through neglect. The gravesite and the city-centre memorial, incredulously, remain largely untouched sites of pilgrimage for Irish evangelicals.

These are all consequences of focusing on human rights that can and often do happen. This does not mean that human rights theory has no role. It clearly has enormous benefits. So let me propose that we hold human rights gently and with ambivalence. And let me propose that we carry this ambivalence to the margins of our churches and society where Christ already dwells. If God’s justice is indeed a rolling river, then its currents might run deeper and wider than the theories we construct.

Richard Carson is the Chief Executive of ACET Ireland, which runs a range of projects improving health at the intersections of HIV, addiction, faith, sexuality, minority ethnic groups, poverty and more.