This sermon was preached at Kowloon Union Church by James D. Seymour on Sunday, November 18, 2007. The readings heard were from, Isaiah 9:6-7, 10:1-2, I Corinthians 13:8-13, and Ephesians 6:12-15.
As you know, fifty-eight years ago, the United Nations adopted an instrument entitled the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
, whose thirty articles set forth standards for humanity in the areas of civil liberties, and economic, social and cultural rights. Although it is not a religious statement, a religious person will inevitably interpret human rights in the light of his or her religion. What I ask of you today is to explore with me the relationship between the human rights about which the Declaration speaks, and our faith.
No claim can be made that the Declaration is a purely Christian document. It was, after all, the product of people of many faiths. One of the authors, 張彭春 P. C. Chang, was a Confucianist. Confucianism, of course, carries a mixed message regarding the nature of human beings, depending on which interpreter you read. Mencius 孟子argued that people are born good, but over time tend to be corrupted by their cultural environment (人本善 習相遠 ). This implies, to me at least, that the people can be trusted, so they should given lots of rights. The corrosive influence of their cultural environment is to be guarded against, not by repressing the people, but by improving the cultural environment. This is a somewhat different approach from, say, what we heard in the service in September, from the book of Romans, about how “to be controlled by human nature results in death; to be controlled by the Spirit results in life and peace” (Romans 8:6
). But I wonder if these two philosophies are really all that different. It seems to me that both approaches end up in somewhat the same place; whatever our predispositions at birth, we are now free to be, and do, good--or not. Part of “doing good” is upholding human rights, both in the sense of ourselves not being in any way responsible for violating the human rights of others, and not being passive in the face of any human rights violations of which we are aware.
Still, Christianity, too, sometimes seems to send mixed message on the subject of human rights. There are Biblical passages which call for the subordination of women (Ephesians 5:21
), indicate opposition to homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22
), oppose the lending of money for interest (Luke 6:34
, Romans 13:8
) and even seem to condone slavery
. But we take all these, which anyway were not concerns of Jesus, as statements of what was socially acceptable in the first millennium before Christ, but not as values divinely mandated for us to hold today.
What then, is the Bible’s positive message on human rights.
Let’s begin with the Old Testament. Earlier in the service you heard a reading from the book of Isaiah (10:1-3)
, condemning unjust laws and the deprivation of the rights of the poor. And I would also call our attention to Hebrews: Where it is deemed praiseworthy to stand up for those who have been “publicly exposed to insult and persecution,” and to sympathize with those in prison (Hebrews 10: 32-34
As for the Ten Commandments in Exodus
, at first glance these thou-shalt-nots do not seem anything like a list of rights, but merely a list of wrongs. But if you think about it, many of them can be “translated” into positive, rights affirming principles. “Thou shall not kill” means that everyone has a right to life. “Thou shall not steal” is an affirmation of property rights. “Thou shall not give false testimony against thy neighbor” means that everyone has a right not to be defamed. And so on. Thus stated, the Ten Commandments almost come across as precursors of modern human rights.
But our faith is based mainly the New Testament, and the teachings of Christ, sometimes as interpreted by his disciples. Thus, Paul said: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; … The whole law is summed up in a single commandment: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ … The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:1, 13-25
That list of Paul’s is rather long. What social values, in our faith, are central? Well, as you heard in the reading from Corinthians, Jesus himself had his own short list: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and ….” Now, the next word, in the translation we use, is “Love.” But in the old King James version
(1611) the word that appeared was “charity.” That’s because the Latin word was caritas. This is the same concept about which you will shortly be singing: “Ubi caritas et amor…deus ibi est.” (Where there is charity and love, God is there.) Actually, in ancient times caritas covered both love and charity. At some point, the two concepts drifted apart a bit, but we do well to remember that originally it was all the one unified concept. It is not sufficient just to love, we must also do right by people. When we hear the verse “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love
,” we must understand that love includes charity.
The minimum requirement of such love, is to behave peacefully toward other humans. Peace, of course, represents the common aspiration of decent people everywhere. In 1984 the United Nations, in adopting the Declaration on the Right of Peoples to Peace
, made peace a human right. This declaration “solemnly” proclaimed “that the peoples of our planet have a sacred right to peace.” But peace has a special place in our faith, because it was so important to Jesus. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.
” But ours is not to be a passive role. We are urged to make peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers, they will be called the children of God.
” So important a position does peace hold in our faith, that the one time when we actively and individually participate in this service is when we stand, and exchange the peace with our neighbors.
But how often self-styled Christians have missed the point on his. Recall the Crusades of a thousand years ago. Think of all the religious wars fought in pre-modern Europe, settled finally not be any commitment to social tolerance, but by establishing the nation-state system; people on my side of the new international border will have one faith; people on the other can go to hell. And think of the American government’s decision to invade Iraq, driven in no small measure by people of the fundamentalist so-called Christian persuasion.
Our faith also charges with sticking our necks out to improve the society in which we live. In English, we don’t just call our faith Christianity; that word covers many other religions. We are Protestant—an adjective derived from the word protest. That is a notion that got somewhat lost as the religion entered China, where the name is “Christian” 基督教, a term that does not include Catholicism. One can understand why the term “Protestant” was not translated as 抗議教, they would have been run out of the country. Still, in translating “Protestant” as基督教, something important got lost. Some people use the term 基督新教 to distinguish Protestantism from other versions of Christianity, but I’m not enthusiastic about this term either. It’s the other versions of Christianity, with their emphasis on hierarchy and their only guarded embrace of human rights, that sprang up were anew after Christ’s time. Ours lessons are taken from His original teachings, and the example he set.
Jesus’s life was a life of protest. But for 15 centuries the idea of protest was on Christianity’s back burner. Then came a monk named Martin Luther, who in 1517 at the German city of Wittenberg wrote his “95 Theses,” and, according to tradition, nailed them on the front door of the castle church. Protesting was back on the front burner.
Suddenly people remembered the passage from Isaiah that was read earlier (Isaiah 9:6-7
, and 10:1-3
) about unjust laws, and the message that you heard from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians about the importance of struggle against bad rulers, and evil in general (Ephesians 6:10-20
). Even (or perhaps especially) the priesthood became something of a target. (Given the choice of respecting a priest, or a more socially aware but otherwise lesser figure from a marginal ethnic minority, Jesus had unhesitatingly chosen the Good Samaritan
.) Also recalled was the story in Luke about how Jesus dealt with the problem of how one should conduct oneself when in a place where people don’t see the issues of good and evil the way we do. Jesus is quoted as saying that the thing to do was make one’s position clear. “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you
.” Protesting is not just a right, for Protestants it is an obligation.
So, with all due respect to other faiths, we believe we’ve gotten it right. We find Protestantism to be in complete harmony with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which speaks of “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Our rights must be exercised “to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”
So to summarize all of this: Our Christian faith informs our understanding of human rights, and our concern for human rights rededicates us and gives focus to our Christian faith.
Let us pray. Lord, we thank you for this wonderful church. For the lovely old building, to be sure, but even more for the fellowship and communion that we enjoy here. Empower us, so that, through our diversity and yet unity of purpose, we may serve you, by setting an example for society at large. Give us the wisdom to infuse the principles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with the teachings of Jesus Christ. May we, through this union of faith and principles, advance the human condition. Amen.