In March of 2017, New Zealand passed the Te Awa Tupua Act making the Whanganui River the first river in the world to be legally recognized as a human being. The Act declares that ‘Te Awa Tupua is a legal person and has all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person.’
This essentially means that those who harm the river will face the same legal consequences as if they had harmed a human being – why? Because, as a person, the river has rights.
Crazy? Perhaps. But such principles are now enshrined in law. But how did we get to this point? Is the government right? In order to understand these principles we need to consider what is actually meant by the phrase ‘human rights’.
What are rights?
There’s a lot of confusion globally about how to define ‘human rights’. For example, The Human Rights Commission of New Zealand defines ‘human rights’ as ‘the basic rights and freedoms that every person in the world should have.’ The United Nations attempt is that human rights are ‘rights inherent to all human beings.’ Helpful, isn’t it, to define a word by using that same word.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a little more helpful: Rights are entitlements to perform certain actions (or not), or to be in certain states (or not). The author goes on: ‘To accept a set of rights is to approve a distribution of freedom and authority, and so to endorse a certain view of what may, must, and must not be done.’
At first blush, Christians may think that Scripture resonates with this view.
In the Old Testament, the standards of ‘what may, must, and must not be done’ are given definition by the Law (mishpat). This term is particularly related to a covenantal relationship; and people are obligated to respond to the covenant with faithfulness (Hos 6:6-8).
A second and broader concept is that related to righteousness (tzedaq) which has to do with “the re-establishment of the ‘right order’ in a fallen world” (Seifrid, 2000). Righteousness then, is both moral and creational – it has to do with ethics (what is right) and entity (who we are). But it also includes practical matters (e.g. Lev 19:35-36), and broader principles of justice (Prov 8:15-16, 22-31).
The New Testament idea of rights comes primarily through the concept of authority and power (exousia). One of the more interesting passages here is in 1 Corinthians 9 where Paul makes an appeal to the church at Corinth. He calls attention to his ‘rights’ (translated ‘power’ in the KJV). In doing so, he appeals to the establishment of the Old Testament law as a foundation for determining what ‘may, must, and must not be done.’
This may suggest that there is overlap between Scripture’s teaching and the world’s use of terms, but in fact there is a significant difference in world views between the two: In the Bible there’s no principle of entitlement. At no point can we demand of God on the basis of our humanity that we deserve more than we’ve been given. In fact, the only thing we are truly entitled to is an eternity in hell; everything good that comes to man comes only through grace, not because we can somehow obligate him (HCQA 63).
So, on the one hand, the biblical concept of rights is foundationally different than how the world defines it. How about the other word in the phrase: “human rights”?
What does it mean to be human?
One of the major problems the world faces in defining ‘human’ is that it has an evolutionary understanding of life; If humanity is always evolving into a higher state, on what basis do you define when a pre-human actually becomes a human? And even if you can do that, on what basis can someone argue that their definition of humanity (biological, philosophical, spiritual, etc) has inherent rights? And is any of it really conclusive?
Many philosophers argue then, that human rights are not so much a way of defining current realities but pursuing our greatest good. As such, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations becomes the goal of humanity. Unfortunately, men’s conception of their greatest good changes (sometimes drastically) between cultures, religions and time-periods. This is why certain countries haven’t accepted the UN’s declaration as definitive.
Ultimately, the issue lies in the fact that the history of mankind is full of examples of the majority getting things seriously wrong. Trying to define what a ‘human’ is by a democratic process has hardly proven to be an effective way to determine truth.
Scripture gives us a very different approach to what it means to be human.
Firstly, our nature as human beings is that we’re ‘endowed’ with the image of God (Gen 1:27). On this basis, we’re intended to reflect his character in our interactions with the rest of creation. For example, we’re to be holy as he is holy (1 Pet 1:16) and to show love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). We’re also supposed to avoid killing another man because ‘God made man in his own image” (Gen 9:6). These aren’t rights so much as responsibilities regarding how we treat one another.
Furthermore, God doesn’t simply define our existence by creating us in his image, but he blesses us when we conform to our true nature. This is why blessing and obedience are so integrally combined (e.g. Gen 1:28). Our greatest good comes in being who God made us to be; by fulfilling the function he calls us to fulfill.
And this reality underscores the other principle: When humanity seeks to define its highest good aside from God’s will, Scripture calls it idolatry. After all, this was Eve’s sin – that she determined what was good for herself rather than following God’s will. And all men since the Fall have believed they have the authority to do the same (see Rom 1:18-32).
Sadly though, when man seeks to determine what is right from wrong himself, he loses wisdom, righteousness, and the very core of what it means to be an image-bearer of God (Rom 1:16-32). In fact, such men become ‘like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed’ (2 Pet 2:12-13).
How then can we expect humanity in that state to define itself? And given its blindness and irrationality, how can humanity ascertain what is truly good for itself? Only our Creator can do that; only someone who knows our state perfectly can provide a way to restore us and point us back in the right direction.
If we are to pursue humanity’s highest good, we must redirect mankind towards its Maker – we must remove ourselves from the throne and bow the knee to our Lord.
So where does that leave us?
A. We need to be careful about our adoption of worldly jargon.
For example, I’ve heard many Christians defend our ‘fundamental right to free speech’ as if this is a biblical principle. But this is hardly a biblical concept.
The most common legal interpretation of this right points to two principles: First, that we should have the freedom to say what we like (as long as it doesn’t cause harm to someone else); but the other side of the coin is that we shouldn’t be forced to say what we don’t want to say. (This second point became much more prominent recently when Jordan Peterson argued against the US government’s attempts to enforce the use of certain gender pronouns).
Nevertheless, God never provides us with the kind of freedom advocated in this ‘fundamental right’. On the one hand, he demands that we refrain from certain language and topics of conversation (Lev 24:13-16; Eph 4:29). On the other hand, he commands that we must speak about things we may be naturally disinclined to say (Eph 4:15). And, in fact, we must do both these things despite the fact that we will be hated for it (Prov 25:22; Rom 12:20; John 15:18-25). In fact, preaching the gospel to non-Christians is, from the world’s perspective, categorically harmful to their well-being.
Defending ‘the right to free speech’ as if it’s fundamental only backs Christians into a corner and actually discourages us to do what God calls us to do in a secular environment. The only legitimate way of appealing to such principles is to use their own weapons against them: “By your own laws I am able to have this freedom”. But should such secular rights be stripped from us, we must also stand beside Peter and John, declaring to the world: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).
B. Entitlement misunderstands the very nature of our place before God.
Given that God owes us nothing, and given that we can earn nothing from him, our appropriate response to his grace is thankfulness – both in the good times and the bad. This is why Job can profess: ‘Though he slay me, yet will I hope in Him’ (Job 13:15); and Paul in a Roman jail can say: ‘To live is Christ and to die is gain’ (Phil 1:21).
And because we owe everything to God, we can be content to give things up for the sake of his kingdom. This is why a pure conscience is not a justification to be a stumbling block to those who are weak’ (1 Cor 8:9). This is also why Paul refrains from demanding his God given ‘right’ to earn from his work from the church at Corinth: “Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right (power), but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor 9:12).
We must be thankful when God gives us good things and trusting when he takes things away – after all, he works all things, both good and bad, for the good of those who love him (Rom 8:28). Who is man to give him counsel? (Isa 40:13).
C. We have a God-given responsibility to uphold what is right.
Despite the fact that we do not have rights as the world seeks to define them, that does not mean that Christianity isn’t concerned with people’s wellbeing. After all: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8). ‘If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar (1 John 4:20).
God has declared what love means in our interactions both with him and with one another. He commands that life should be protected (Gen 9:6); that the needy are to be cared for (Jer 5:28); and that we should ‘bridle our tongue’ (Jas 1:26). We are even called to care for God’s creation (Exo 20:10) rather than abuse it (Rom 8:22-24).
Just because Christianity distances itself from the world’s understanding of entitlement, doesn’t mean it has no sense of responsibility. In fact, Christ’s love compels us to help others – we know love by this, ‘that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers’ (1 John 3:16)
The United Nations declares in the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that ‘the recognition of the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom. Justice and peace in the world’. But man has no inherent dignity if they evolved out of the muck, let alone a basis for freedom and justice (Isa 59:8).
World peace and an end to poverty and pain are not found in neither human sovereignty nor philosophical pragmatism, but in bowing the knee to our Lord Jesus Christ. It is through his work, and the establishment of his kingdom, that humanity will experience freedom, justice and peace (Isa 9:7); only in him will we find rest for our souls (Matt 11:28-30); and only in him will we see a final end to death and pain and tears (Rev 21:4).
1 ishpat translated as ‘judgement’, tzedeq translated as ‘just’.
2 any modern English versions translate this word as ‘rights’ which is unhelpful. This causes the reader to inject their modern idea of legal right (determinative choices or entitlements) into a text which isn’t there.
Mr Joshua Flinn is the minister of the Reformed Church in New Plymouth, which is a church plant of the Reformed Church in Palmerston North.