Christian Faith and Human Rights

After engaging with Prof. Rosenak's thinking, you may want to compare what he says about people being made in the Image of God with these reflections of the Protestant theologian, Jürgen Moltmann.

“Christian Faith and Human Rights”

Fundamental Human Rights

By fundamental human rights we mean those rights and duties which belong essentially to what it means to be truly human, because without their being fully acknowledged and exercised human beings cannot fulfill their original destiny of having been created In the Image of God.

The Image of God Is Human Beings in All Their Relationships in Life.

Human beings in the fullness of their lives and in all life's relationships – economic, social, political, and personal – are destined to live "before the face of God," to respond to the Word of God, and responsibly to carry out their task in the world implied in their being created in the image of God. They are persons before God and as such capable of acting on God's behalf and responsible to him. As a consequence of this, a person's rights and duties as a human being are inalienable and indivisible.

Economy, society, and the state have to respect this dignity and responsibility of human beings, for their role as human beings, with rights and duties, comes before any constituting of society and government. Respect for freedom of conscience is the foundation of a free society. Often in monarchical folklore and in political ideologies, the king alone is called the image of God. "The shadow of God is the prince and the shadow of the prince is the people" (Babylonian Mirror of the Princes). Only the ruler can function as mediator between the gods and the people. When the Bible calls human beings the image of God, this constitutes a fundamental criticism of the divinization of the rulers and their ideologies of rule. Not the king, but the individual human being alone is mediator between God and the people. Human beings do not exist for the sake of rule; rule, rather, exists for the sake of human beings.

From this follows the democratization in principle of every kind of rule by human beings over others. The rulers and the ruled must be recognizable in like manner and in common as being human. This is possible only when there is an equality under the law for all citizens. A constitution (the covenant) must guarantee the fundamental human rights as basic rights of the citizens. It must bind together those who are ruling and those who are ruled. Only on the basis of equality under the law can expression be given to the common human identity of rulers and ruled alike. The human rights and duties implied in the image-of-God concept are honored in history through the constant, open, and incessant process of democratizing the shaping of the people's political will. The control of the exercise of rule through the separation of powers, the limitation of the mandate to rule to a stipulated period of time, and the extensive self-rule and participation of the people are the historically developed means for honoring the image of God present in human beings.

If human rights are based on God's claim upon human beings and if human freedoms are rooted in liberation by God, then we also have to formulate the fundamental human duties without which those rights and freedoms cannot exist.  Freedom and rights by themselves mean virtually nothing. Just as it is crucial to formulate the dignity and the rights of human persons over against the state in order to limit and control power and to cooperate in its exercise, so it is equally important to heed the duties which correspond to these rights and which human beings must exercise for the sake of others. Among these duties we should mention in our present discussion the right to resistance and the duty of resistance against illegal, illegitimate, and inhuman regimes in favor of the right of the neighbor.

According to the Reformed confessional writings, one is required to obey the authorities "insofar as they do not command that which is contrary to God" (Zwingli, Zurich Disputation, 1523, Summatory Articles, No. 38). "Therefore all their laws shall be in harmony with the divine will ..." (39). "But if they are unfaithful and transgress the laws of Christ they may be deposed in the name of God" (42). As a consequence of the divine covenant of freedom, human beings are called "to save the lives of innocents, to repress tyrannie, to defend the oppressed" (Scottish Confession, 1560, Article 14).

The rights which secure the freedom of the individual can only be observed if they are bound up with the corresponding duties of liberating those from whom these rights are withheld. Christian love honors the rights of the neighbor.

The Image of God Is Human Beings Together With Others.

Only in human fellowship with other people is the human person truly an image of God (Gen. 1:28). The history of freedom in Europe and North America was one-sided in emphasizing the individual rights of the human person over against economic, social and political organizations of rule. It is the error of liberalism to overlook the social side of freedom, and it is the failure of individualism to overlook the social consciousness that must correspond to the human personality. It is not against his or her fellow human beings nor apart from them but only in human fellowship with them and for them that the individual can correspond to his or her destiny as created in the image of God.

In fellowship before God and in covenant with others, the human being is capable of acting for God and being fully responsible to God.  As a consequence of this, the social rights and duties of the human community are just as inalienable and indivisible as persons' individual rights and duties. Human beings have to heed the dignity and the responsibility of community in economy, society, and state, just as the latter has to heed those of the former. It does not follow from the democratization of the rule of human beings over others that every human being is his or her own absolute ruler. Just as according to Gen. 1:27 the image of God appears in the fellowship between husband and wife, so it is also represented in larger social contexts only through human fellowship. Thus the rights of human beings to life, freedom, and self-determination always arise together with the human community's claim upon people. In principle there is no priority of individual over social rights, just as conversely there is no priority of social rights over individual rights. Both stand in a genetic context of reciprocal conditioning just as historically the processes of the socialization and the individualization of people mutually condition each other.

The rights of persons can only be developed in a just society, and a just society can only be developed on the ground of the rights of the person. The freedom of the individual can only be constituted in a free society, and a free society can only be constituted on the ground of individual freedom. Human liberation is liberation for community and human community is community in freedom.

Individual societies and states, in their social rights and duties, are responsible not only to the people who live in them but also to humanity. Human rights thus also entail humanity's claim upon individual societies and people. If particular political and social communities are bound through their constitutions to the human rights of their citizens, they must also be bound, on the other hand, to the rights of humanity. Collective egoism threatens human rights just as much as individual egoism. Thus, individual communities and states are only legitimized by human rights when they respect not only the human rights of their own citizens, but also to the same degree those of other nations and peoples. Human right is indivisible; it is no privilege. Therefore, national foreign policy can only be legitimized as the world's domestic policy. International solidarity in overcoming the horror of starvation and the threat of world military crises has, therefore, because of the rights of humanity, a precedence over loyalty to one's own people, to one's own class, race, or nation. Individual communities and states have human duties in the face of the rights of the whole of humanity to life, freedom, and community. Therefore, human rights point to a universal community in which alone they can be realized.

From Jürgen Moltmann,
On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics
(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984): pp. 23-26.

For further reading from a Catholic perspective, see the International Theological Commission, Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God at: