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Supplements » God-Given Rights and (August 2003)
God-Given Rights and by David Holloway
British Airways and Gay Pride
On Monday 28 July  The Times newspaper had the headline reporting the words of Rod Eddington, the British Airways' chief executive: "We have no God-given right to survive." He issued this warning and referred to "God-given rights" after the walk out by check-in staff and the loss of millions of pounds-worth of business.
The day before newspapers were reporting the Gay Pride event in London. For the first time, with the blessing of the police authorities, "gay police came out with pride." Prominent in the event was Commander Brian Paddick, Britain's highest ranking openly gay officer. Paddick, you may remember, was removed from his post at Lambeth after the Metropolitan Police Authority wrote to him saying he "demonstrated lack of judgment". This was following allegations by his ex-boyfriend that he allowed cannabis to be used at his home.
But - it is claimed - there are gay "rights". So, of course, the Commander should get top billing. Others undoubtedly claim a "right" to take cannabis. Indeed, many activities that others classify as wrong or immoral are today being claimed as "rights". Laws are then being annulled or passed to enforce these "rights" while often proposals to underline "God-given rights" are not passed. For example, in July in the wake of the Government's determination to repeal Section 28 - the law banning local councils from promoting homosexuality - the House of Lords failed to pass a proposal of Lady Blatch to give strong safeguards for parents in place of Section 28 (of the two bishops present the Bishop of Newcastle voted against and the Bishop of Manchester voted for the proposal).
What, therefore, are "rights"? How do they differ from "moral" or "God-given rights"? Is there a difference? Can you claim "a right" to anything? People, today, are certainly trying!
God-given or moral rights
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the English utilitarian philosopher, described the idea of moral rights as "nonsense upon stilts". To such people rights are mere human conventions. To them there are no moral rights or absolute rights as a divine gift because there is no divine giver.
Now this is not to deny there may be legal rights. These, of course, come from enactments of Parliament; and because they have the backing of the courts and the police, they can be enforced. So in reality they just come from the wishes (or whims) of MPs. Such rights are human creations and nothing more, unless, as believers claim, they coincide with God-given rights.
The concept of "human rights", as it has developed in the Western democratic world with its rule of law, was rooted in a firm belief in an absolute, God-given moral law. This, if you like, is a "primary law" behind all human laws. Paul's words in his letter to the Romans (chapter 2.14-15) have been crucial in this thinking:
"when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them."
Theologians refer to this as part of God's general revelationwhich comes through nature and in the human conscience. This parallels God's common grace - "your Father in heaven," said Jesus, "causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Mt 5.45).
General revelation and common grace, however, are to be distinguished from God's special revelation found now in the Bible and his saving grace seen at the Cross and received through faith in Christ alone. So the good news (or the "gospel") relates to that special revelation and saving grace. But it has to preached in the context of God's general revelation and common grace.
Greek and Roman formulations of "natural law"
Paul, in all probability, knew the consensus of the Greeks and the Romans over what they termed "natural law" or "the law of nature". Cicero, Seneca and the Roman jurists were clear and so was the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Referring to this natural law, Cicero says
"it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting ... It is a sin to try to alter this law, nor is it allowable to attempt to repeal any part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it entirely. We cannot be freed from its obligations by senate or people, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and ruler, that is, God, over us all, for He is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge. Whoever is disobedient is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature, and by reason of this very fact he will suffer the worst penalties, even if he escapes what is commonly considered punishment."
With Paul confirming this pagan consensus, the early post-apostolic church accepted the concept of a universal standard of conduct, morally binding on all men, and intuited potentially by all. It then came to be a fundamental part of jurisprudence and political philosophy. And Christians saw that God had made this eternal law clearer in the Ten Commandments after sin had dulled human perceptions. But there was no fundamental disagreement. It all seemed obvious to the majority of Christians. At the Reformation for the most part the Reformers accepted much of the inherited teaching of the Roman Catholic church on natural law. They gave, however, different emphases.
The Continental Reformer Calvin defined natural law as follows:
"natural law is that apprehension of the conscience which distinguishes sufficiently between just and unjust, and which deprives men of the excuse of ignorance while it proves them guilty by their own testimony."
The Anglican Reformer Hooker sometimes used the term "the law of reason" instead of "natural law". Commenting on Romans 2.14 he says Paul's meaning
"... is, that by force of the light of reason wherewith God illuminateth everyone which cometh into the world, men, being enabled to know the truth from falsehood and good from evil, do thereby learn in many things what the will of God is; which will himself not revealing by any extraordinary means unto them, but they by natural discourse attaining the knowledge thereof, seem the makers of those laws which indeed are his, and they but only the finders of them out."
Hooker, like Calvin, knew that men could and did "suppress the truth by their wickedness" and natural law was not the gospel. But they both knew it was a fact. So did John Locke at the end of the 17th century. "It is certain there is such a law [the law of nature], and that, too, as intelligible and plain to a rational creature and a studier of that law as the positive laws of commonwealths [laws voted by parliaments]."
The early "modern" period
Then in the 18th century "human rights" came to the fore in connection with natural law - not unreasonably as many basic rights were being denied. You had the classic statement of human rights in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, the basis of which were "the Laws of Nature and Nature's God". A few years later you had the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789. Significantly it lost entirely the concept of natural law and the connection of human rights with divine law. This declaration was "deist". Deism was a religion that was anti-Christian and posited just a "supreme being" who really took little interest in the day to day world. So these French rights were merely asserted (interestingly Bentham was made a citizen of the French Republic in 1792). The Declaration was so different from the American Declaration. There Thomas Jefferson wrote:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
He subsequently wrote that this was in the tradition of "the elementary books of public right as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke ... etc." So, why the difference?
America, a few years earlier, had experienced the Great Awakening, with the ministry of men like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. The American Revolution was not anti-Christian at all. But the French Revolution was very different. It was influenced by deists or very secular Enlightenment thinkers like Diderot, the philosopher and editor of the Encyclopédie (1751-80). He was, indeed, anti-Christian. He famously wanted to "strangle the last king with the entrails of the last priest" and claimed that "posterity is for the philosopher what the other world is for the religious."
Not surprisingly, with the rejection of God-given natural law to ground God-given natural or human rights, rights theories collapsed along with an interest in natural law in continental Europe in the 19th century. This interest really only revived with the Second World War. People realized that terrible Nazi laws and executive decisions had to be judged by a higher law. This higher law could then give grounding to genuine human rights. So the Nuremberg Trials gave rise to the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights.
However, the modern concern with "civil rights" was generated by the Rev. Martin Luther King in the 1960s, not with the United Nations Declaration. Without a renewed faith in "Nature's God" the UN Declaration did not get off to a good start.
Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King was a Baptist minister who first came to national attention in 1955 as the leader of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. This began when a black passenger refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. He was also one of the organizers of the 200,000 strong march on Washington DC in 1963 to demand racial equality. A moderate (and so criticized by black militants) he was nevertheless imprisoned by the authorities for his campaigning. He was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968.
With his Christian background, King's civil rights were rooted in what he called "our Judaeo-Christian heritage". Writing from Birmingham, Alabama, gaol, he penned these words:
"One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence."
That American Dream was spelled out by Abraham Lincoln, the man who freed the slaves in 1863 and who also was assassinated. Writing in 1857 of those who had written the Declaration of Independence, he said this:
"they defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal – equal in 'certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly laboured for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colours everywhere."
Just and unjust laws
Lincoln was saying that there are objective, timeless principles of justice, by which you measure the human creation of laws and statutes, which at any given point may be less than desirable. He knew that there were just laws and unjust laws. But to distinguish the two you need a higher law by which to judge them. This was Martin Luther King's point:
"Now, what is the difference between the two [just and unjust laws]? … To put it in the terms of St Thomas Aquinas: an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust [Genesis teaching that man is made in the image of God, proves this]. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority … Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful."
But what has happened since Martin Luther King? In the 1970's various "liberation" movements saw their chance. They sought to identify with the "race card" and played it for all it was worth. And such was the beginning of "Gay Liberation". There was, however, a significant difference between King and the Gay Liberationists. King had been asking for "human" not "black" rights. He was claiming the right of blacks to join in the human family. But the Gay Liberationists were demanding the "gay" right to a form of behaviour that was considered by the vast majority as not only deviant but dangerous. Furthermore it was clearly contrary to the Natural Law tradition which since St Paul had been infused with the basic teachings from Biblical ethics.
This is how Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University sees what has happened after Martin Luther King:
"After King's martyrdom many in the civil rights movement lost the moral compass that King's philosophy of natural law and natural rights provided. As traditional liberalism collapsed under the radical critique that has produced such phenomena as post-modernism, deconstructionism, radical feminism and the like, many veterans of the civil rights struggle bought into the moral radicalism of what … [has been] accurately labelled a 'cultural elite'. For this elite, 'natural law' is a mere euphemism for legitimizing the status quo, thus reinforcing structures of domination and power. At the same time, elite opinion rejects as, at best, benighted the idea of objective moral truth. Thus no truly rational critique of racism and other forms of unjust discrimination is possible. There is [now], quite simply, the brute struggle for power."
George does not spell out the "radical critique". To do so we must go back to continental Europe and the 19th century. Without the evangelical revival that Britain and America experienced in the 18th and 19th centuries, both France and Germany were open to spiritual attack. In Germany this came not only in the form of theological liberalism; it also came in the form of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900). He was a German philosopher who rejected the absolute moral standards of the Bible and what he called the "slave morality" of Christianity. He was the one who said "God is dead". So all is permitted and people are free to create their own values. "Let us therefore limit ourselves ... to the creation of our own new tables of values ... We, however, want to be those who we are - the new, unique, the incomparable, those who give themselves their own law, those who create themselves." He spoke about the "transvaluation of values".
Nietzsche has had a slow but pernicious effect on Western culture. He is the God-Father of post-modernism. And post-modernism with its relativity and pluralism is what the Bible and traditional theology calls "worldliness". David Wells puts it like this:
"what today we know as modernity [and especially post-modernity] is, in many ways, giving contemporary expression to what the New Testament pejoratively calls 'the world'. Worldiness is that system of values, in any given age, which has as its centre our fallen human perspective, which displaces God and his truth from the world, and which makes sin look normal and righteousness seem strange. It thus gives great plausibility to what is morally wrong and, for that reason, makes what is wrong seem normal. It is this spiritual reality that is pervasive in modernity."
A great disciple of Nietzche in more recent times was the French intellectual Michel Foucault (1926-84). In 1953 he read Nietzsche for the first time, he says, with "a great passion". He then created his own values of gay and sadomasochistic sex. He claimed sadomasochistic sex was "a kind of creation, a creative enterprise" in which participants invented new selves by exploring "new possibilities of pleasure". He eventually died of AIDS, which his lover said he saw as one of these "limit experiences". And Foucault had a great influence on the late 20th century and still influences thinking about homosexuality, which in the world (and the church) is both the focus and the symptom of wider issues, as we have seen.
The widest issue, of course, is that of submission to, or rejection of, almighty God. So what are Christians to do? We are to pray and evangelize, and where possible have our say in public life. As we do all that we must not teach (and think) about sin and salvation in a vacuum but in the context of God's moral holiness, his sovereignty, his providence and his creative purposes, with Jesus still his agent in creation (Col 1.17). It is these aspects of God's character that relate to his natural (or primary) law and those God given rights that flow from it. And we must always remember that being our loving creator his will and his plan and so his law is good, for us and for all. It is foolish to disobey.