All Hebrew students in our third level
(gimmel) Hebrew class this past semester were required to give a
speech to the class in Hebrew. I chose to speak on the issue of the
foundation of human rights. It was no small task for me to do this in
the Hebrew language. However, I think the points made were enlightening,
and they certainly led to a great deal of discussion in my class. Thus I
am presenting a summary to you, our dear readers.
As a preface, it should be stated that Israel is the only country in
the Middle East that really practices human rights. Yet is the most
vilified country in the Middle East in this regard! While Israel does
not have a stellar record and can be faulted for some
failures1, its record
is far above all authoritarian and neighboring states. I for one am glad
to be a citizen of Israel where religious liberty and human rights are
enshrined in the founding documents of our state.
Human rights include freedom of speech and conscience; religious freedom;
freedom of the press, association; and property rights. The greatest
modern proponent of human rights in my view was the late Dr. Charles
Malik, the primary author of the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights that was adopted by the United Nations in its early years.
(Malik was the President of the American University in Beirut, Lebanon.)
Yet, most nations in the U. N. are not required to practice human rights
to be members. Authoritarian states like Russia, China, Cuba and all the
Muslim nations do not practice full human rights. Malik argued
that the modern idea of human rights is rooted in religious freedom based
on the idea of the freedom of each person as a sacred being created in
the image of God. Only countries influenced by the Bible,
practice human rights in line with the Universal Declaration. I believe
that Malik was correct. Religious liberty is the basic right from which
flow all others. Here is a little history.
Stages of Development in Human Rights (Tribal Religion)
The first stage of human history is a tribal stage where one's tribe
or ethnic group determines religion. The tribal or national leader may be
considered divine. He is not under any law but can make the law. The
idea of suggesting other views of the nature of reality outside that
which is transmitted by tribal tradition, is unthinkable. This tribal
mentality still permeates the Muslim world, where changing religion is
seen as disloyalty to the tribe. It also brings shame or dishonor upon
the clan or family and must be avenged by killing the offender. Change
comes only when one tribe or nation is conquered by another tribe or
nation and is forced to embrace the religion of the conquering nation.
The older gods can still be accepted, but first all must bow down to the
gods of the conqueror.
Stage Two: Ancient Israel
Biblical faith is closely tied to the story of the Exodus where the
people are freed to worship God. Is their God merely the tribal God of
Israel? No; God is proclaimed as the God of all the earth and all
nations are destined to bow down to the God of Israel. Israel became the
witness people, showing the nations the reality of God and life in His
A new step was taken when Israel was scattered. Israelites sought
religious freedom to continue to practice their own faith rather than
embrace the religious beliefs and practices of the dominant nations.
By the grace of God, the Jewish people were - for the most part - granted
this freedom under the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. When
this freedom was restricted, the Jewish people went to war. In the first
century, Jewish people also sought this freedom for converts to Judaism.
Within the Roman Empire, Judaism was a protected religion even though
Jews did not worship the emperor as god.
Stage Three: The Universal Claim of the Messiah
The coming of Yeshua required a whole new quest for freedom. Indeed, as
Daniel Boyarin argues, Christianity became the first universal religion.
Why? Because Messianic Jews and Gentiles (before Gentile followers of
Yeshua were known as Christians) claimed the right to convince others
of their faith (evangelism) and that those who received the Gospel should
have the right to make a free choice to become followers of Yeshua and to
abandon Roman religion and Emperor worship. The Kingdom of God had
broken into this realm of the earth, and only Yeshua was Lord. This
kingdom included religious freedom, including sharing the gospel in
public and private. It implied political rights since the government
could be criticized on the basis of the justice standards of the law of
God. This was a new reality, for faith in Yeshua transcended one's
ethnicity, though it was rooted in the Jewish people. For 280 years,
Christians laid down their lives to assert their liberty without taking
up the sword to defend it.
Constantine's conversion made Christianity a legitimate religion
(Judaism was also a legally legitimate religion). However, less than
fifty years later, Christianity had become the state religion of the
Roman Empire, and Christian doctrine was enforced by the sword. Thus
religious freedom was suppressed.
Now, of course, there are certain religious practices that have to be
precluded - such as child sacrifice and cult prostitution, but broad
freedom is still crucial since the conscience must not be coerced.
Stage Four: Laws of Toleration
The Reformation brought a new appropriation of Biblical truth, but still
sought to enforce religious conformity by state power. The Reformation
spread when rulers became Protestants and enforced Protestant doctrine in
their domains. Europe became exhausted by religious wars, especially in
England where laws of toleration began to bring about some measure of
Stage Five: Full Religious Freedom, Rhode Island and the United
Roger Williams founded Rhode Island in 1636. This Puritan Baptist
perceived the centrality of religious freedom and freedom of conscience.
His was the first civil government and territory in history that
practiced full religious liberty. From such ideas and the ideas of
political liberty in such thinkers as John Locke in England, the colonies
came into a greater and greater practice of liberty. The founding of the
United States enshrined these concepts, rooted in religious liberty, in
its very Constitution. Freedom of association, the press and assembly
were guaranteed. Eventually more and more of the Western world embraced
these ideals, even including Catholic countries. This religious liberty
must include the right to promote one's religion and the right to
change one's religion or worldview. This is now even enshrined in
the New Catholic Catechism. Along the margin of my copy of the Catechism
where it talks about religious liberty I wrote, "Roger Williams wins"!
The Attack on Human Rights Today
Today religious liberty and free speech are under attack. We are told
that we must not offend the people of other religions by seeking to
spread our faith. This strikes at the heart of the hard-won liberties of
the Western world, and in fact without the belief that human beings
are created in the Image of God, such liberties may not endure.
1. It should be noted that some on the
extreme political left and right, really do not believe in human