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Biblical Reflection on Human Rights

by Rev. Rannieh B. Mercado,
Philippines

The term “Human Rights” is not literally found in the Holy Bible. As Christians, we are committed to uphold and defend human rights, not for any reason but as an imperative of faith. Our giving value to human rights is deeply spiritual. It is rooted in our basic faith affirmation that human beings are God’s creatures.

I. Biblico-Theological Foundation of Human Rights

In Genesis 1:27, it appears that the human beings (male and female) are the only ones, from among all the other creatures, whom God created “in His image.” From the Christian perspective, this biblico-theological affirmation emphasizes the fact that the rights and dignity of persons are not only human but actually divine. Thus, upholding these rights and dignity is deeply spiritual; and trampling upon them is not only criminal but a divine offense.

In Genesis 2:7, it appears that from among all the other creatures, it is only the human person whom God “molded” with His own hands and breathed with His own breath. From the Christian perspective, this emphasizes furthermore the recognition of human life and dignity as sacred. Thus, to degrade human life and dignity is not only to degrade the person but to degrade the Creator as well.

II. God’s Call to Moses, A Call to Uphold Human Rights

In the course of the historical journey of the Hebrew people, God had shown His great concern for their rights and welfare as they were harshly enslaved in Egypt. Their life conditions were so inhuman and intolerable. As God himself said, “I have observed the misery of my people. I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.” (Exodus 3:7-8)

In the face of such “burning issue” of inhumanity suffered by his people, God had challenged Moses to accept the call to lead the enslaved people to freedom—into the land “flowing with milk and honey.” In a way, their exodus to the “Promised Land” is the organized means by which they regain and secure their rights and dignity as persons and as a community.

III. Jesus’ Social Agenda: Its Implication to Human Rights Work

Jesus started His ministry through a public declaration of what some biblical scholars construe as his social agenda in response to the historical realities he was confronted with. Inspired by the vision and heritage of the courageous Prophets, Jesus read the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and, after reading it, declared that that very day it is fulfilled. (Please read the passage found in Luke 4:16-21.)

According to Luke’s view, Jesus must have recognized the fact that he undertakes his ministry amidst a situation of apparent “social contradiction” a contradiction between the victimized (poor, oppressed, prisoners/captives and handicapped) on the one hand, and the victimizers (oppressors and those in power) on the other. As he affirmed the guidance of the “Spirit of the Lord,” Jesus unequivocally declared his bias or taking side with the victims. This means that in a situation where there is a clear social conflict, there is no neutrality in human rights advocacy.

Jesus was furthermore imbued with the strategic vision of hope to proclaim and bring about the “Year of the Lord’s favor” for his people and country. This “Year of the Lord’s favor” among the Hebrew people would be the time where “Shalom” reigns. Shalom concretely means peace, wholeness, well-being, harmony, abundance, justice, righteousness and freedom. Under these conditions of Shalom, the all-encompassing rights and dignity of the people can only be truly respected.

Jesus’ social agenda, therefore, was not only to advocate or assert the rights of the victims, but equally to hope and struggle to bring about the favorable conditions where these rights are truly enjoyed by all.

IV. The Deepest Motivation Why Advocates Risk and Sacrifice

Advocacy for Human Rights in the context of the Philippine realities where the State is found to employ repressive force and deceptive means is indeed a great risk and sacrifice.

As recent experience has shown, a lot of mass activists, journalists, lawyers, health workers and church people have been killed. The perpetrators are unidentified armed men believed to be identified or connected with the military and police forces. The easiest motive for these extrajudicial killings must be the victims’ selfless commitment and involvement among the poor peasants and workers in their protracted struggle for a better life and a just society, where the rights and dignity of the people would be secured.

But, as advocates and as modern prophets, why do we persist in this risky work?

In John 15:13, we find Jesus challenging and clarifying to his disciples as to the deepest motivation of service and sacrifice.

In the light of the “murderous situation” we have in the Philippines and the exigency of the prophetic challenge posed upon us, we unselfishly consider our Human Rights advocacy work as expression of love, our obedience to Christ’s commandment to love others—the least of our brethren. And we do so even if it means to sacrifice our own lives.

Jesus assuredly said: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). In our context, it is the masses, the poor, the victims of oppression, who are our true friends.

Most importantly, it is for such self-giving love ¡V as our deepest motivation—that we readily risk and sacrifice ourselves as Human Rights advocates. It is this self-giving love that conquers all our fears, including the fear of death.

Indeed, it is that great love that makes human rights work very noble and worth dying for.

This article by Rev. Rannieh B. Mercado was posted in the wesbite of the Asian Human Rights Commission last July 12, 2005. Please see the link: Back to [Vol. 07 No. 27 July 4, 2005] http://www.rghr.net/mainfile.php/0727/967/.