One good definition of human rights is “opportunities and safeguards that ought to be available to all humans, simply by virtue of their being human.” There is plenty of disagreement about which things fall in this category, but some of the rights that most people agree on include the right to life, safety, and freedom; the right to food, shelter, clothing, and basic medical care; the right to basic education and to work; and the right to be treated justly before the law.
Rights Among Humans
Hopefully it’s no surprise that Christians generally agree with these rights. All these things are good, and we owe it to our neighbors to respect their human rights and to provide for their needs when necessary. That falls under what Jesus meant when he said, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12).
Rights Before God
It may surprise you to learn that we believe that with regard to God, we have NO rights—none at all. We are created beings, not the Creator; and God has the right to do with us as he chooses.
Please don’t freak out! We believe that we have something much BETTER than rights before God—we have God’s promises, which are rooted in his very nature. That means that when God promises something, we don’t have to worry about it ever changing. It is guaranteed, because God himself never changes. Nothing is more safe and certain than a promise of God.
So what are those promises, then? There’s a whole raft of them. To those who trust in him, Jesus has promised never to desert us or leave us alone (Hebrews 13:5). He has promised to be with us always, and to hear us when we cry out for help (Psalm 10:17, Psalm 34:17). He has not promised to give us whatever we want, but he has promised that God cares about us (1 Peter 5:7), that he never forgets us (Isaiah 49:15), that he knows everything we need and takes care of us (Matthew 6:32-34), and that nothing can ultimately harm or destroy us, even death itself (John 11:25-26, Romans 8:37-39).
To be sure, we would love it if God promised we would never be hungry or thirsty or homeless or in danger of death. It would be awesome if God would guarantee to us by miracle all those things we think of as human rights. But he doesn’t. We are not God’s pets; we are his children, and that means that he gives us the dignity of allowing us to make choices—even dangerous choices, even wrong choices, even right choices that turn out to be sacrificial and painful. And because we live together in community, the choices that one person makes affect everybody else. That’s a big part of why we have famine and injustice and homelessness and other great evils; someone, or a whole lot of someones, have made choices that result in other people suffering. Human rights violations among people almost always involve problems with human choice.
But why doesn’t God…
You may be asking, “But why doesn’t God enforce right choices? He could just force all the evil or lazy or unthinking people to do the right thing.” But that comes right back to God treating us as people, not as pets. God allows us an astonishing amount of freedom—far more than most of us really want, at least for our neighbors to have! And with freedom comes the ability to choose wrongly—to violate the rights of others.
What God DID Do
“Then what is God doing about it?” you may wonder. It’s a good question. The Bible tells us that against this evil God has set Jesus Christ. Jesus is God himself, who came down into this world, so filled with wrongdoing. During his life of service, Jesus spent himself caring for other people—healing, teaching, listening, caring. And then he laid down his own human rights—to say nothing of his rights as God!—and allowed his own creation to put him to death.
Why would he do such a thing? Because he knew that was the way to break the power of evil—by giving up his own rights, and instead allowing his own innocent suffering to transform the world. All the evil of the world spent itself attacking Jesus—and destroyed itself against him. His goodness, his innocence and integrity, swallowed it up. All the evil of the world could do no more than kill him. It could not keep him in the grave. For on the third day he rose from the dead, never to die again. Many people were eyewitnesses of this fact. They saw him, and he talked and ate with them. And he promises to share this same victory over evil and death with everyone who trusts in him.
It is a great thing to struggle for human rights, and to do our best to assure the human rights of others. It is an even greater thing to occasionally lay down our own rights, voluntarily, in order to serve the people we love who need us—just as God himself did, in Jesus Christ.