THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK: Human rights and God’s grace

Rev David Clarke.
Rev David Clarke.

‘Teenagers have rights too, you know!’ announced one of the young characters in the irreverent new television comedy ‘Derry Girls’.

The human rights industry has flourished in recent years, with endless groups claiming endless benefits as their indisputable entitlement. Surely I am not alone in thinking that much of this has gone too far.

Some years ago Alistair Cooke, the veteran commentator on all things American, suggested an alteration to the American constitution. He was likewise troubled by the mushrooming human rights industry. The Constitution said that citizens were entitled to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, but Cooke suggested that it ought to read, ‘life, liberty and the discharge of responsibility.’ In any orderly society, rights need to be balanced by a corresponding emphasis on responsibilities.

It is ironic that in an age when emphasis is being placed on rights, society seems to be turning away from that which brought forth the idea of human rights, i.e. the Christian religion. In a courageous recent article, the journalist David Quinn pointed out that the concept of human rights does not derive from nature. Nature teaches the very opposite. Every television wildlife programme simply underlines the truth that the powerful rule, and that the slow or weak are the victims of predators.

The Christian religion teaches the equal value of every human life, with its assertion that all are made in the image of God (Genesis 1;27). This is a message, wrote Quinn, which gives Christianity its universalism, since it applies to the peasant in the field as well as the king in the castle.

He went further and argued that this daring teaching proved the source of all social reforms, based on Jesus words, ‘I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you came to me; I was in prison and you visited me.’(Matthew 25;35,36). I do not deny that many who cannot share the Christian creed are caring and altruistic. I do contend that the intellectual basis for such action is in the Christian teaching about human dignity. It was the great Indian leader, Nehru, who lamented the fact that centuries of Indian religion had never moved individuals to build a hospital or drain a swamp.

The Christian religion is concerned with something even greater than rights, namely grace. C.S. Lewis published a book entitled, ‘The great divorce’, in which he envisaged a bus trip to heaven made by the citizens of hell. What they found there astonished them, notably a former murderer living in luxury.

When someone complained, he declared that he had confessed his crime, been forgiven and reconciled to his victim. The visitor was furious, shouting repeatedly, ‘I want my rights! I want my rights!’. ‘You won’t get your rights’, came the response, ‘You’ll get something far better.’

That’s God’s amazing grace, giving us better than we deserve.