This week begin celebrations of 75 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). We may not have much day to day awareness of UDHR or be able to quote any of its 30 articles, but we all have benefited enormously from its adoption by the UN General Assembly in 1948. So, what has been the Christian inspiration for the UDHR? And what might be the future global Christian contribution to protecting human rights standards around the world?
The Christian influence on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The UDHR is essentially a secular instrument which, in itself, is a strength because to have value at all it must resonate with people of all faiths and none. Yet people of faith were not absent in its development and indeed one of the key drafters, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate René Cassin, quoted scripture as the inspiration for its first Article.
The narrative of Christian scripture is a potent inspiration for the pursuit in human affairs of our equal status before God. The intrinsic worth of every human being is affirmed through recognition that all are valued by God and are equal objects of God’s love and grace. This is shown in the supreme example of Christ’s love for us. Jesus issued a new commandment; “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another”. We are to love without discrimination because that is how God first loved us.
While the Bible offers valuable perspectives on the dignity of every individual created in God’s image, the language of individual ‘rights’ is not the language of the Bible. A Church of Scotland report suggests that “Our Christian understanding is that we only have ‘rights’ under the authority of God, who alone has dominion over us”. Indeed, we are called to renounce our ‘rights’ in the cause of Christian service. Christian thought has made a valuable contribution with respect to human rights, but the church through the ages has had to learn much from secular discourse on individual and communal rights.
John Wesley grappled with the relationship between power and liberty, and for him (and no doubt other dissenting voices of his time) inalienable individual rights were most evident with respect to ‘religious liberty’ and ‘liberty of conscience’. In Wesley’s time themes of justice and the abolition of slavery were not expressed in rights language that would be familiar to us today.
Even in the early part of the 20th century, Church institutions in Europe were grappling with traditional gender roles in church life and might look with suspicion on the goal of asserting equal rights. However this changed with the end of the Second World War. The World Council of Churches exerted direct influence on the Declaration of Human Rights through its Commission for International Affairs (CCIA). The CCIA was involved directly in drafting the UDHR, especially Article 18 on Freedom of Religion or Belief. This took place against the background of a growing awareness of solidarity within the Church’s own global community, whose members in many countries in the South and East were affected by human rights violations and poverty.
A theology of liberation
As two superpowers sought to divide the world into spheres of influence, a further important impetus on rights was provided by Liberation Theology. It kicked against the paternalism of colonial mind-sets as well as the coercion and competition of major powers that sought to impose their respective ideologies. Here, the Exodus narrative of the Israelites from slavery becomes a theological archetype for understanding God’s commitment to freedom, justice, and the dignity of all people. Liberation Theology identifies structural sin and systemic injustice as impediments to human flourishing. Martin Luther King expressed well the universality of justice in 1963; “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly”. For King, there are no ‘outsiders’ in society.
Global citizenship – a concept under threat
So how might churches contribute today? Sadly, in some places people are increasingly fearful and consequently warm towards the idea of power exercised on behalf of ‘my’ community. In the past few weeks Argentina and the Netherlands have joined a succession of states that have voted in nationalist politicians. These ‘populists’ have appeal for their strong rhetoric against minorities and refugees, support for a strong military and state, and disdain for advancement of equal political and civil rights for all, particularly if this were to hold the ‘State’ and politicians to account. Human Rights defenders are needed now more than ever.
As Christians we appreciate that we are members of one body wherever in the world we live. Can we again capture the spirit of 1948? Emerging from a devastating world war and genocide, people of faith joined with others to say “never again”. The United Nations was born as a meeting of states but also as a global movement of peoples. There should be no irony here. We are global citizens who exercise citizenship through the mechanism of nation states. This makes for a messy world and, in the light of current difficult geo-political challenges and major wars, human rights standards are under increasing threat. In our next blog JPIT will highlight some aspects where we might work together. We do so as people of faith who bear witness to a God whose love for every individual transcends boundaries and whose work of creation is as yet unfinished.
 Cassin was a French jurist and judge, of Jewish descent, who fled fascism. Article 1 of the UDHR begins with the injunction that “[we] should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood [sic]”. This, he explained, corresponds to two iconic biblical injunctions: “[l]ove thy neighbour as thyself”, and “[y]ou shall not oppress a stranger, for you once were strangers”. Shared space of religion and human rights (europa.eu)
 Church of Scotland, Committee on Church and Nation, Report to the General Assembly 1999, “Human Rights”
 Matt 5:38-42, Luke 14:33-35, Hebrews 11:35-40
 Jochen Motte, Human Rights as a Challenge to the Churches, Conference of European Churches: Church and Society Commission
 “The development of Liberation Theology, Black Theology, women’s and LGBTQ theologies, Urban Theology and other liberationist approaches have enabled a deeper understanding, bringing the perspectives of marginalised communities to theological interpretation. Attention to these perspectives helps us to recognise the less constructive aspects of the history of our Church and communities, and to understand where we have colluded – and often may still collude – with inequality, injustice and oppression.” Para 73, A Justice-Seeking Church, (report to the 2023 Methodist Conference)
 Of course, we also have the United Nations, regional bodies and multilateral institutions, customary international law and Treaty Law, to which nation states are committed to greater or lesser degrees. The work of ICAN is but one demonstration of ability of global citizens to come together to build new global institutions for peace. But ultimately nation states are responsible for either building or tearing down international standards, norms and legal/institutional regimes.