Two words keep popping up in almost everything you read about world politics these days; human rights. Considering the way the phrase is casually tossed off in the media’s interminable political analyses, reports and harangues, we would assume there was a settled definition of human rights. And since we all know what human rights are, we then all know when a right is being violated.
Journalists and commentators use the words “human rights” as a magical incantation designed to elicit an emotional response, but they never get around to specifically defining human rights or explaining from whence these rights are derived. Human rights, in today’s news, rate better press than mom, God and apple pie, but the fact remains that “mom,” “God,” and – “apple pie” are even less glittering generalities than “human rights.”
Unless there is real substance to the words “human rights,” then even the most brutal dictatorships can claim to uphold them and be correct. When language has no meaning, you can bet that the first petty Hitler who comes along will just ooze concern for the protection of your “human rights” while he deprives you of everything you ever earned and sends you off to his labor camps, telling you that in doing so he is protecting your “human rights” to be free from unemployment!
The world already too much resembles George Orwell’s nightmare vision of 1984, where Big Brother regulated the lives of everyone. But in addition to the dangers of totalitarianism, Orwell also warned of the corruption of language which inevitably accompanies it. The rulers of the 1984-state will tell you that they are protecting your basic human right to be their slaves. Orwell summed it up when he described the slogan of a Big Brother society. “Freedom is Slavery, War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength.”
It calls to mind the words of an Old Testament prophet: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil” (Isa. 5:20). Indeed, Isaiah’s point is essentially the same as Orwell’s. Language must have consistent and specific meaning or all manner of evil will be called good. The reluctance of world leaders to say precisely what they mean by “human rights” is a serious matter.
The primary human rights document used today in world politics is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is a list, drawn up by Anglo-American lawyers after World War II, which enumerates a series of rights as they might be enforced in, say, a court of law. The U.N. Declaration consists of 30 articles divided into four parts. Articles 1 and 2 are general articles stating that “all human begins are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and that everyone has equal rights as specified by the rest of the Declaration.
Articles 3 through 21 enumerate various civil and political rights. These are protection from what government can do to you. You have the right to life, liberty, and security of person; freedom from slavery and servitude; freedom from torture; the right to own property; freedom of religion; etc. The common denominator of these rights is that they exist independent of the existence of any government.
Articles 22 to 27 cover economic and social rights. These define benefits the government should provide for you. They include the right to social security, the right to work, the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, as well as the right to a compulsory public education. These rights require the existence of government and deal with its duty to provide its citizens with material benefits.
The rest of the Declaration states that everyone has the right to an “international order” in which he can enjoy his other rights.
There are two very serious flaws in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. The first is that the economic and social rights of one man may necessitate the deprivation of the political and civil right of another. For example, if you have the right to own property, does another man have the right to have the government take some of that property away so that he can have a “standard of living adequate for health and well-being”? or take perhaps a more glaring example: If you believe in rearing your children to respect God, what happens to your, and their, freedom of conscience and religion if the government compels them to go to a school where they are taught an evolutionary world view while God is never mentioned in the classroom except in profanity? And to make matters worse, what if the government takes some of your property in order to finance teaching your children what your conscience abhors?
But the other flaw is even more serious: The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, as the noted writer Carl F. Henry has pointed out, is “silent of the theme of the source and sanctions of human rights.” In fact, the implication is that the United Nations itself is the source of your human right. But what the United Nations gives, it may take away.
There are to other great human right documents in the history of ideas: the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1791) and the American Declaration of Independence (1776). The French Declaration contains 17 articles, which promulgate the idea that man has certain natural and inalienable rights with which he is born – namely, liberty, private property, and the inviolability of the person, and that the sole purpose of government is to protect those rights.
The Declaration of Independence also states that there are certain “inalienable rights,” and that men form governments to protect those rights, but it adds one more important idea: Those inalienable rights are derived from “nature and nature’s God” and are so “self-evident” that any reasonable man will recognize them.
The idea that man is born with certain innate “natural” rights has an illustrious history going as far back as the great Roman orator Cicero and later jurist of the Roman Empire. Most of the thinking about “natural rights,” however, has been done in more modern times. The concept’s premier expositor was John Locke. Locke used as his starting point a conception of how men would be without government and asked what rights men would have in that situation. He concluded that if men had certain rights before they formed governments, they retained those rights afterwards also. French philosophers who had similar ideas were Rousseau and Voltaire.
The hard truth is that man is the created being of God, made in His image. While there may be better or worse ways of organizing human government, unless man has certain rights from God, he has no absolute right at all, and everything he has is at the mercy of society.
Only God can be said to be the original source of human rights. If they come from nature, what “nature” says is subject to arbitrary interpretation. If they come from “society”, society can just as easily revoke a right as give it. Indeed, the whole idea of human rights, as the great 20th century political philosopher Leo Strauss has said, is there exists a law above society. This idea has been seconded by the evangelical intellectual Francis Schaeffer, who points out that if there are no absolute standards “above” society, then society is absolute. And if society is absolute then it can take away everything you have, including your life, liberty or property, and still be morally justified.
Only God can put teeth into human rights. If a dictator violates the liberties of a people wholesale, what is to stop him? Only superior force. But as Nietzsche said, if God is dead, then all is permitted. Only God always has force superior to that of all dictators in every situation. Only God has the power to judge dictators after they are dead.
Human rights come from God. And if we are to know what those rights are, we must look to God’s revelation. There is no other firm source of human rights than what God has stated in the Bible.
There are many rights delineated in the Bible, but certain basic rights are enumerated in the Decalogue:
The right to worship God, implicit in the commandment that only the true God shall be worshipped.
The right to life, protected in the commandment against murder.
The right to private property, protected in the commandment against stealing.
The right to a fair trial, implicit in the commandment against false witness.
This list is by no means a comprehensive description of the human liberties guaranteed by God, but it is a start. The main point is, if there are any absolute human rights, they come from God, if we want to know the real source of our absolute human rights; the clear lesson is we ought to be diligent in studying God’s revelation, the Bible.