More than just 'rights'

By Simon Barrow
February 28, 2009

Christians and others are asking whether a "rights discourse" is really adequate to who and what we are as human beings.

This is an issue that was raised, obliquely but importantly, during the session on 'Faiths and Freedoms' at the Convention on Modern Liberty, and in a couple of conversations afterwards.

As I mentioned inter alia in my briefing paper on 'Religion, belief and non-discrimination law' (, there is an awkward sense in which the concept of human rights as a claim for universal values and standards is [actually] a ‘convenient fiction’, as moral philosopher Alisdair Macintyre and others have pointed out.

This is because it cannot be definitively established to irrefutable global satisfaction on indisputable philosophical or rational grounds – it can only be appealed to as a morally aspirational and juridical standard in practice, and by either social / cultural / spiritual persuasion or legal / political enforcement.

Moreover, some theologians, like Stanley Hauerwas, have been strongly critical of what he sees as the accommodation of Christian thought and practice to a concept of 'rights' bereft of the larger kind of freedom the Gospel speaks of - rediscovering ourselves as liberated persons through a community of faith, hope, love and change.

It is of course important to recognise the provenance and limits of human rights language. When we are with those we know and love most, we generally do not need the law to protect us. We do not have to claim 'rights' because we are loved and desired by the other, and reciprocate that love and desire.

But when relationships break, when corruption and abuse arises, when we become immersed in the competing demands of corporate life, and when institutions become overbearing, principle-based regulative practices become important.

They are never enough. You cannot legislate virtue - and liberal political theory restricted to autonomous individuals contracted to the state is especially weak in this regard. To do better you need active 'moral communities': people who are prepared to develop distinctive visions of 'the good' through common life, argument and association - civic groups, religion or belief-based bodies, cultural and artistic initiatives, and so on.

To talk of 'rights' in this context is to recognise a permanent obligation to one another, in spite of our differences, and to be willing to invest together in prohibitions against mistreatment and exploitation which can be a matter of life and death for those threatened with them. That is why groups like Amnesty have been a lifeline for so many.

We can only really flourish through relationship, mutual giving and shared service. This is a pattern Christians want for their communities as they seek to exemplify, and be empowered by, the overflowing, sacrifical love we meet in Christ.

Christians should be seeking to model behaviour that goes far beyond the minimum we can expect of each other politically and juridically, just as they will recognise that life is a gift - not something that can finally be claimed as a right over and against a competing right.

One way of doing this is to focus the struggle for "human rights" on humanity as gifted and inalienable. To speak of people being "made in the image of God" (as the scriptures used by Jews and Christians do) is not to say that we are god-like or that God is a human being writ large - but rather that no ideology, no process, no person, no policy and no idea can ever 'capture' what a human being is. To be human in the light of God is to be enlivened beyond such restrictions.

This mean that people of genuine faith need to resist all that dehamanises. We also have to recognise that we live in a deeply broken world (and with a deeply broken church). The need for 'rights' that have to be articulated, claimed and defended is made necessary by the extent to which we have tragically become an a-social order, "a society of strangers".

The real aim, of course, should be to become friends, to extend the practical gestures we offer to those we love to stranger and even enemy; to begin to act in ways that create the possibility of a new kind of community. That requires some real risk-taking and trust-making and needs groups of committed people to venture and dare it.

In particular, that means paying attention to the needs and conditions of the most vulnerable above all else - another biblical injunction, and one mostly observed in the breach by groups who shout loudest about the Bible.

Such actions towards what Kenneth Cracknell terms "justice, love and courtesy" together (rooted in what you could call 'virtue ethics') go beyond 'rights for strangers' - but they do not make civil liberties and social codes enshrining indivisible human dignity a "bad thing" - as some readings of Hauerwas would suggest.

A better approach is that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his Ethics he holds two perspectives together. The "incursion of a new world ... in Christ", he says "renders ancient good uncouth" - yet "for sake of the ultimate we must speak of the penultimate.” And act for it, too, as he did in the darkness and chaos of Nazi Germany.

So it may be true to say that 'rights-based discourses' are imperfect, incomplete, contested and less universal than they might wish to claim. They may be insufficient in terms of the need for a radical reformation of human persons and communities. But they can still be constructed and shared (from the Christian perspective) as real signs of hope, as an essential "intermediary good", as tokens of faith in the common humanity God embraces in the Gospel narrative - and as an opportunity for the church to become more Christlike in both its 'domestic' and 'foreign' policies.

This ought to mean a lot more than treating others as you wish to be treated and a recognition of the equal status of others (acknowledging that their God-given humanity comes first). But it cannot mean less. Sadly, to judge from institutional church behaviour, for example in relation to lesbian and gay people, sometimes it does.


These brief reflections on the theological issues raised by the conceptual and practical language of "rights" emerged from several conversations at the 2009 Convention on Modern Liberty. I have made a few revisions throughout the day (I'm rarely satisfied with what I try to express!), and will seek to improve and develop them into a proper article in due course. So they should be seen as a bit of on-the-hoof reflection; thinking in process and in response to some necessary challenges put to me today - particularly, 'Are you just baptising political liberalism with Christianity?', to which my basic reply is, 'No I'm not. I'm suggesting that the two have different horizons, but that they also share some common aspirations, and can benefit from engaging one another with a view to understanding their true limits and possibilities.' For the Christian, those possibilities cannot be restricted to what we are able to achieve through our own strength alone (they are established by transforming grace), but that does not make "the penultimate" the enemy of the "ultimate". On the contrary, it has the capacity to make fresh sense of both. Last modified at 12.34, 03 Mar 09.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.