I am continuing in January a series of blogs on human rights that I began in December: “Towards Human Rights.” The purpose of this blog series is to make the case for the implementation and acceptance of human rights as a global values system. It is based on my Human Rights: Towards a Universal Values System?
“…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
Towards Human Rights as a Global Values System, part 19: Christianity and St. Thomas Aquinas
By Dr. Denise R. Ames
Jesus of Nazareth, the central figure of Christianity, rebelled against the state control of the Roman Empire. For punishment of his acts of defiance and preaching of a more peaceful world, the Roman state crucified him on the cross.
But Christianity did not end with Jesus’ death; for example, Christian philosophers found that the natural law principles of the Stoics were in line with their own beliefs. They connected the idea of natural law with the law of God. St. Thomas Aquinas (1223-1274 CE) is an admired Christian philosopher who expanded upon the idea of natural law.
In his writings, Aquinas called the rational guidance of creation by God the “Eternal Law.” For Aquinas, natural law is part of God’s eternal law which humans understand because of their powers of reason. Since humans are rational creatures, they can direct their own good actions and guide the good actions of others. To Aquinas this
participation in the Eternal Law by rational creatures is called the Natural Law. Thus, it was possible to distinguish good from evil by the “natural light of reason.”
Aquinas understood that reason and freedom guided human nature; it is the human ability to reason and to make free choices that sets humans apart from animals. He went on to explain that objects and animals without free will act by nature as God wills them to do, but humans may choose either to play a part in God’s plan or not. Reason can tell us what this plan is; we can discover our purpose. But with freedom comes the responsibility to do as God made us to do. Christians in Europe over the centuries agreed with Aquinas’ Eternal Law and the belief in the existence of a universal moral community.
Christianity has contributed to the concepts of human rights that we take for granted today. The teaching of Jesus, in Matthew 22:21, for example, is often cited as the origin of the separation of church and state when Jesus preaches to render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. Not only does this separation help prevent the excesses of a theocratic state, but it also gives origin to the concept of limited government by advancing the concept that state power has limits and must respect the integrity of each person.
Christianity promotes human dignity, the foundational concept of human rights. Christian teachings call for respecting those who are poor and downtrodden. Jesus’
teachings transformed values in which the last and poorest became first, and values of discrimination once scorned came to represent the loftiest human ideals. For example, in the Beatitudes a new set of Christian ideals focusing on a spirit of love and humility were preached by Jesus and known as the Sermon on the Mount. They echo Jesus’ highest ideals on mercy, spirituality, and compassion. Probably the most recited is the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.”
Christians have placed a high importance on marriage and the family. Family life changed from subordination by the state to an elevated status through the sacrament of marriage. Christianity introduced the concept of consent by both spouses as being a prerequisite of marriage, a vital instrument in promoting equality and preventing people being pressured into marriage against their will. Christian teachings of mutual love and charity contributed to institutions such as hospitals and orphanages.
Politically, Christian leaders, who consider themselves as servants of others, has provided the basis for political and social accountability. The political leader, the merchant, and the priest are called upon to serve people by attending to their needs. Through its defense of human dignity, Christianity inspired campaigns to end slavery, achieve democracy and promote self-government, as well as the first attempts to formulate a doctrine of human rights. Many modern formulations of human rights owe a lot to Christianity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 is based on the premise that all human lives have worth and that all lives count equally.
About the Author:
Dr. Denise R. Ames is a long-time educator, grade 7-university, author of seven books, and president of an educational non-profit, Center for Global Awareness, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. CGA provides books, resources, and services with a holistic, global- focused, and perspective-taking approach for their three programs: Global Awareness for Educators, books and resources for educators and students grade 9-university; Gather, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a self-organizing study and conversation program for adults focusing on seeing different perspectives of pressing global issues; and their most recent program Turn, Transformative Understanding and Reflection Network, which encourages lifelong and transformative learning to help us arrive at a place of personal and global well-being using a seven “path” approach.
For more information about the topic of human rights see Dr. Ames’ book Human Rights: Towards a Global Values System, $17.95, 225 pgs. Also available on Amazon.