Human Rights and the Gospel

Jesus’ inaugural address begins with these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” By his own definition, which should be sufficient for any of his followers, the gospel when preached must contain a passion for the poor. When the gospel is proclaimed without evident passion for the poor, it becomes an oxymoronic expression, or a contradiction of terms. The evangelist or evangelical, whose very label comes from the word for “good news” who is not committed to the wholeness of human rights, is going against the name he or she claims.

Economic freedom is an aspect of the good news in its purest form. Jubilee 2000 seeks to link soul freedom with economic freedom. Believers around the world are calling for debt forgiveness for the poorest nations. Without it we condemn millions to misery and premature death.

The very same recognition of God’s intention for all his children that moves one to intense indignation at the denial of religious freedom also makes one care about the victims of mass starvation. The very same belief that we are all made in God’s image moves me to act on behalf of Kosovars and to rage at the plight of starving Sudanese….

Thus, we struggle to keep belief and behavior consistent. We wrestle with disparities in our theology and our politics. We keep testing motives, our understanding, and our actions.

Acceptance of this high view of human rights has some immediate and obvious implications.

It is idealistic enough to keep us busy until the end of the journey. We will never perfectly realize the political, social, economic demands of this biblically based challenge.

It is holistic enough to take in all of life: freedom of conscience; freedom to choose one’s faith and to change one’s faith; freedom of thought and expression; freedom of association and travel and identification with like-minded groups; freedom from hunger and repression and torture and imprisonment for one’s beliefs.

It is comprehensive enough to go beyond caring only for our own. Any commitment to human rights worthy of the name will not be restricted to concern and action for one’s own nation, race, class, or clan. There is a wideness in God’s mercy and to the degree we are in harmony with the biblical vision we will care about all those who are treated less than humanely.

It is, then, demanding enough that all who subscribe to this strict standard will join a perpetual minority, at least as far as the eye can see. Nothing in history suggests an early victory for human rights around the world. That minority status as advocates of human rights calls for faithfulness to our goals regardless of immediate results. It calls for spiritual resources to sustain us for the long haul. It calls for grace, patience and forbearance that will deliver us from bitterness, hatred, alienation and self-pity. We are free to fail because our rightness with God is not measured by success or the bookkeeper’s bottom line at the end of the quarter. We are free to fail but we are not free to fail to act.

Christians and Jews will understand each other better and work more effectively together for justice, human dignity, and peace when we see the common soil from which our striving springs. We are not ultimately committed to the American dream or any political system or any economic philosophy. We are not and cannot be dedicated to the eradication of hunger, or to racial justice or the pursuit of peace alone on a single track, not caring about other causes. We are not operating alone in our own group or with our own objectives without a kinship with all who have caught the heavenly vision. Even though it is understandable that we specialize, even though our strivings may sometimes seem at cross purposes, those of us who seek the things that make for peace, those who respect the value of every individual and want no child to go to bed hungry tonight, those who believe that “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” and those of us who seek these human rights for the whole human family, must stick together.

That seems to have been the original intention: “So God created man in his own image… And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.”

Somehow, in ways one cannot explain, our personhood is defined in the biblical teaching that all humankind is made in the likeness of God.

This post originally appeared in Soul Freedom by Grady C. Cothen and James M. Dunn.

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