MLK Day – Human Rights, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties

Our ultimate authority, the Word of God, teaches that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).” Combined with other Biblical testimony, this means that we are equally created, equally sinners, and equally eligible to receive God’s grace. Jesus Christ sacrificed Himself for us all, rose again for us all, and those who believe in Him are united in the Body of Christ. As the old hymn reads, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.”

From a political standpoint, the US Declaration of Independence holds that all men are created equal; meaning equal before God and equal before the Law. While people differ in their abilities and their character, their God-given rights and responsibilities are recognized and protected by the law. Minorities are no worse, and no better, than majorities. Neither is any other group. Franklin Roosevelt noted “No democracy can long survive which does not accept as fundamental to its very existence the recognition of the rights of minorities (Letter, 25 June 1938, to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).”

Despite this truth, man is notorious for denying rights to people who are not like him, and even in denying rights to people who are not him. Everyone does this in ways large or small, whether they do it intentionally or not. No man or group of men is uniquely bad or good, and every person, compared to the perfect nature of God, is a racist, sexist, ageist, bigot, or whatever other term we wish to use. We may not see it and we often deny it, but lurking just beneath the surface in every man, woman, and child is a selfishness and wickedness that none of us ever want to acknowledge (Romans 3:10, 23).

Muslims have oppressed Christians, Chinese have oppressed Tibetans, Europeans have oppressed colonials, and everybody has oppressed everybody else whenever they had the power to do so throughout history. Closer to home in America, whites enslaved blacks and then denied them basic human rights even after they had been freed from slavery. Martin Luther King Jr. a black Baptist preacher named after Martin Luther, the Architect of the Protestant Reformation, was an important leader in the fight for equal rights, and responsibilities, for African Americans.

God Is the Foundation of All Just Law

As King noted in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas taught that “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” Eternal law and natural law are rooted in the character and personality of God the Creator. How could it be otherwise? If the universe has anything to say about law and justice, it says that only the fittest, those individuals best adapted to their environment, survive. Even if one considers not the individual but the community, those that survive are those that out-compete others in their environment. In a universe without God, inequality and competition, not equality and cooperation, are the lessons written in the stars. Mankind’s sense of justice is rooted in the Lord, not in ourselves or the created world (Romans 1:18-22).

Those who reject God reject this truth, but even their rejection cannot mask the fingerprints of the Holy One. In light of the recent massacre of kindergarteners at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, the Washington Post ran an article entitled “Atheist parents discuss death”. One atheist parent said “As far as morality and how to behave, when it comes up I say ‘You don’t have to be religious to know right from wrong; the Golden Rule is what we go by.’” This atheist parent may have been shocked to find that the Golden Rule, “do unto others what you would have them do unto you,” is found in the Bible (Matthew 7:12). For those who would argue that these words of Jesus merely reflect what is found in other religions that predate Christianity such as Buddhism and Hinduism, the root concept is found in Leviticus 19:18, written around 1400 BC and long before Buddha ever roamed the earth. The universe could never reveal the Golden Rule – someone outside the universe needed to do so.

God Is the Foundation of All Human and Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

Since law is derived from God, and since humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28), human rights are also derived from God. Human rights are generally defined as “inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being.” The Bible is clear that men are equal in having been created, equal in being sinners, and equal in being eligible for God’s grace. From these truths are derived the universal human rights noted in the US Declaration of Independence; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These God-given human rights provide the foundation for the civil rights, such as the right to vote, that we enjoy in America today.

There is no genetic or environmental reason why humans should have any rights. If, as Darwin suggested, only the fittest survive in nature, then human rights as we know them do not exist. Individuals have only what they can take. Those who can take nothing get nothing.

Neither is there historical justification for universal human rights because for millennia the only ones with such “rights” were those who could seize them by force. Kings did whatever they had the power and legitimacy to do with their subjects, whether rape, murder, or plunder. Women, the poor, and foreigners often had no rights at all. The caste system in India, the concept of dhimmi in Islam, and the ideas of a “master race” are built on the ideological foundation that all people are not created equal. Concern for universal human rights did not become widespread until the 18th century, and then primarily in Christendom. Because of the inherent sense of right and wrong that God has placed into man, most people feel guilty about doing wrong to others, but history suggests that “thou shalt not kill” has more traction than “all men are created equal”.

“Civil rights” are commonly defined as those rights which are granted by a government to its citizens to promote equality. They are political, social and economic rights that the government must monitor and protect. People who believe that individuals have rights but refuse to believe in God may argue that human rights and civil rights are the same thing. Logically this would mean that in truly democratic countries, those in which the people hold the reins of power, the citizens grant rights to themselves. In non-democratic countries, citizens would receive only such rights as the rulers gave them. In such situations rights might differ between countries or cultures. The end of the story is that without God, human rights and civil rights are neither universal nor irrevocable.

“Civil liberties” are fundamental freedoms that the government must stay out of in the lives of its citizens. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press are examples. One government professor summarized that civil liberties are about freedom and civil rights about equality.

A Christian Approach to Human Rights, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

As Christians approach the issue of human rights we must remember that man has no rights before God. He creates us and sustains us, and the Lord is never in our debt. His character, His will and His laws are the ultimate authority in the universe. The Bible clearly teaches that all people are equal. Certain universal rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are the logical consequences of such Bible truths. Civil rights are not granted by governments but are derived from the God-given human rights which are themselves derived from God’s Law. Civil liberties, likewise, are based on the freedoms that God provides his creatures as revealed in the Bible. As such, human rights, civil rights, and civil liberties are universal and irrevocable.

Once a people abandon the Biblical basis of human and civil rights, so called “rights” can arise which are not rights at all and which can even deny real human and civil rights to certain groups. Controversies masquerade as human rights issues which have more to do with sin and selfishness than real human rights. In the infamous Roe v. Wade decision on abortion in 1973, the US Supreme Court decided that a woman’s “right to privacy”, a tenuous “right” based at most on inference from the Constitution, takes precedence over her baby’s right to life. Christians must have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16) and must utterly reject such reasoning. The Bible is our guide, and we must be transformed by it.

Ensuring that we know the issues and know the Scriptures intimately, followers of Jesus Christ must advance the cause of Biblically based civil rights wherever and whenever we live. Jesus did no less. But we must also oppose sin and selfishness masquerading as civil rights wherever and whenever we live. Jesus did no less.

Believers should advocate for civil rights in the name of social justice to advance social equality. It is also important for followers of Jesus to advocate for civil liberties to advance freedom in society. We must keep these in balance; taking money from the rich to help the poor may advance social equality but it also hinders civil liberty. Limiting freedom of speech to protect one group necessarily harms another.

Conclusion

Human rights, civil rights and civil liberties ultimately begin at the throne of God. Those who would promote equality and freedom must begin there. In our messy world, however, the fruits of human rights, civil rights and civil liberties are poorly distributed and incomplete. The final solution to these problems lies in the heart of each man. Government can help but can also hinder, whether by ham-handed intervention or by tyranny. Businesses and other organizations can do the same. The best hope of “liberty and justice for all” is found in “one nation under God”, and even more in each man under God. James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers (#51):

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

When each man is under God he becomes a better man, more like an angel, and more able to safeguard human rights, civil rights, and civil liberties for all.

2 thoughts on “MLK Day – Human Rights, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties

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