Why human rights and Christian faith aren't always compatible


Is the Christian faith compatibale with modern human rights? A recent conflict between Amnesty International and the Roman Catholic Church in Northern Ireland has sparked questions as to whether the modern manifestation of human rights and the Christian faith can ever see eye-to-eye. 

Catholics in Northern Ireland don't want this human rights charity speaking in their schools because their views on abortion are in conflict with the Church's pro-life position. Their protest is not a dispute of the good that the charity does in other areas, but a challenge to the ethical system through which they operate. 

It is easy to see be sceptical of this move, seeing it as the Catholic Church shutting itself off from alternative influences, but actually the conflict here is an example which gives insight into a far broader question that is often avoided: how do Christians interact with human rights organisations and charities founded on principles that are at odds with the foundations of their faith?

"There is the notion of giving everybody a fair crack at the whip but essentially you either stand for something or you don't," said Roman Catholic Bishop Kevin Doran, who presides over an area of Northern Ireland. "When we invite groups into our schools we need to make sure that what they stand for is consistent with our ethos."

Whether or not Amnesty International should be allowed to speak at Christian schools is a moot point. However, this case hits on an interesting – and often ignored – point of contention between the Christian faith and many secular, liberal human rights organisations. 

The conversation around human rights in the mainstream is veering ever closer to basically saying that human rights equates to human autonomy and personal choice: that if I want to do something it's not up to anyone else to tell me I can't. So morality becomes free-floating, self-generated and unaccountable.

Amnesty International, for example, changed its policy towards sex work in 2015 to advocating for the decriminalisation of sex work on the grounds of personal choice. They justified their position in the proposal on the grounds that "by definition, sex work means that sex workers who are engaging in commercial sex have consented to do so". This paradigm of personal choice seemingly ignores factors like poverty, abuse and coercion that actually leave sex-workers without any real choice. Amnesty maintained that "such conditions do not inevitably render individuals incapable of exercising personal agency".

Here lies the problem. The fallen nature of this world – where power structures, pimps and child abuse exist – makes personal choice irrelevant for many. In the case of sex work, the majority of it is some form of survival sex. It simply cannot be the way to human flourishing, because – for so many – it just does not exist.

It's an awkward thing to admit that you disagree with Amnesty International. For many, that looks like you are disagreeing with human rights full stop.

This is not the case.

In fact, the whole concept of human rights was developed within and around a Christian worldview and the belief that every human being has dignity, and therefore rights.

The conflict isn't about a desire for human rights to be upheld, it's more in how that is achieved and what it actually looks like. While liberalism advocates for the absolute right of personal choice, a Christian approach has a different starting point.

Introducing God into the picture changes things: We are not autonomous individuals living independent lives, but rather people created by God in his image. Life moves from a right to a gift from God. As believers, in baptism we actively choose to die and allow Christ to live in us. This means that, as believers, our lives are going to look a little different to the average 21st century individual.

We are called to community, which knows human life to be created, reconciled and redeemed in Jesus Christ, and which protects its most vulnerable members. 

Where liberalism starts from the position of personal autonomy, Christians start from a place of personal dependence on a living God who is interested in our personal and corporate flourishing. While we have been given free will and are able to choose, we also have the Bible and the rest of Christian teaching to both guide and inform our free will for the common – as well as individual – good.

While Christians may hold different views on abortion, the decriminalisation of sex work and the more general practical outworkings of ethics, the starting point remains the same: that humans are children of God.

Both Amnesty International and the Roman Catholic Church are inherently interested in ensuring that humans flourish. They both care that human rights are upheld. It is just that how this is achieved, and, to an extent, what this would look like, is fundamentally different.