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Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Christian Advocacy for Human Rights

In mid-August 2009 a website will be launched, www.IsaiahOne (the theme verse being Isaiah 1:17).

It aims to be a resource for Christians who want a positive and constructive engagement with the human rights issue. It is a complex and broad-ranging area. The focus will be primarily on the debate about whether a Charter of Rights will assist the needy in society, and especially what Christianity has to say to this question.

This is a debate on which the Christian tradition has a good deal to say but one on which voices shaped by a nostalgia for return to Christendom have so far proved to be the loudest. anyone interested in this initiative should contact: amcleay@gmail.com.

For a good book on this issue see Crowned with Glory and Honor: Human Rights in the Biblical Tradition by Christopher D Marshall Pandora Press, 2001 (Studies in Peace and Scripture Series Volume.6)

The human rights “tradition” has been taking a bit of a battering over the past few years. It has been caught between a post modern account of human life which opens the door to a corrosive form of cultural relativism on the one hand and an increasingly imperialistic approach to human rights by the emerging US empire in which human rights are defined by imperial interests.

The connection between the biblical tradition and the human rights tradition over this period has not been clearly expressed and defended particularly by activists from the evangelical tradition.

Chris Marshall a New Testament scholar currently teaching at the Bible College of New Zealand in Auckland offers something to both traditions in this slim thoughtful volume of less than 150 pages. In this brief space he has provides a systematic and readable account of the deep connections between the framework and language of human rights and the broad vision of in the biblical tradition of what makes for fully human life in God’s good creation.

The introduction provides a brief survey of some of the key philosophical issues and historical background to the emergence of human rights. This paralleled by a chapter on Christian approaches to human rights and the role and the limits of the Bible in informing discussion of human rights. With the groundwork laid out Chris outline his approach to the linkage of the two traditions in the following terms:

My strategy will be to focus on several key narrative moments in the larger biblical story or acts in the biblical drama. Each time I will be seeking to discern values and beliefs that have implications for human rights …

… my approach will be more than descriptive or historical. It will necessarily entail a degree of theological interpretation and appropriation of specific texts … an analysis of key passages or themes from the perspective of a particular faith-based construal of the direction and meaning of the overall biblical story.

That story I suggest has six main ”moments”, with human rights significance: Creation, Cultural Mandate, Covenant, Christ, Church, and Consummation. (p.53)

The biblical material relevant to understanding the claim that human rights have on Christian support and action is presented under these six headings. This form of presentation locates the discussion within the heartland of Christian systematic theology.

There is a critical edge to the author’s presentation of the engagement between the two traditions though. In a final chapter Chris presents a brief account of how the biblical tradition can give a distinctive flavour or edge to our understanding and practice of human rights.

Theologically this is a work that is both informed by both a deep familiarity with Scripture and engagement with a variety of Christian theological traditions. Themes and insights from evangelical, anabaptist and reformed traditions of theological reflection are all drawn on by the author in the course of developing his argument.

This is an exciting, challenging and accessible piece of work and it deserves a wide audience inside and outside the church. In addition to contributing to our understanding and challenging us to a form of discipleship which embodies a commitment to support human rights.

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