Skip to main content

Christianity and Human Rights: Christians and the Struggle for Global Justice.

Frederick M. Shepherd, ed.
Published by Lexington Books in 2009

In Christianity and Human Rights Frederick Shepherd has assembled a strong collection of contributions to one of the fastest growing areas of research in international relations, political thought, development studies and the study of religion: the history, theory and future practice of human rights. Shepherd’s volume is particularly worthy of attention because of three features: a comprehensive treatment of the multiple issues that arise at the intersection of human rights and Christianity; an appreciation for the richness of theological and practical Christian resources that can refine both the theoretical foundation and concrete implementation of human rights; and a balanced recognition of both the contributions and the shortcomings in the understanding and implementation of human rights by Christian activists and institutions. As with many volumes comprised of papers originally composed for a conference (in this case a Lilly Seminar on Christianity and Human Rights), the quality of the essays is uneven, with some presenting stronger and more original arguments than others. I will focus on the ones that I have found most compelling and creative in their approach to the topic at hand.

From the very outset, Shepherd makes clear that the goal of the volume is to “assess the topic in all its complexity, pointing to both Christian failure and Christian success in understanding and protecting human rights” (ix). The introduction and conclusion are two of the strongest essays, providing thoughtful overviews of the conceptual framework of human rights and controversies surrounding the intersection of human rights and religion. Shepherd deftly outlines the tensions that constitute this encounter: between the celebration of heroic Christian defenders of human rights and failure to acknowledge the complicity of many Christian institutions in human rights violations; between increased Western Christian engagement with diverse cultures around the globe and American Christian failure to acknowledge the shortcomings of their own government in the treatment of terrorist suspects; between courageous Christian defenses of the human right to religious freedom and unfortunate excesses of Christian evangelistic zeal. The introduction reflects the well-balanced nature of the volume itself, which manages to convey the message that, while

Christianity continues to be confounded by some behavior that amounts to little more than ethnocentric attempts to convert heathens…power relations have changed and Christian cosmopolitanism has grown to the extent that an increasing proportion of Christians are deeply engaged in a genuine struggle for human rights (xvi).

The body of the volume is divided into four sections that address first the historical past and future promise of the relationship between Christianity and human rights, second the central concern with the specific right to religious freedom, third the theological and philosophical foundations for human rights, and finally case studies of the encounter between Christianity and human rights in Latin America, Asia, and Africa respectively.

The first section, comprised of essays by James Waller and John Witte, Jr., is especially strong. Waller provides a scathing historical account of religious institutions that “have been notoriously silent, or even complicit in the face of genocidal violence” (3). His examples are drawn from the Christian church in Nazi Germany, the Croatian Roman Catholic and Serbian Orthodox churches during the war in the former Yugoslavia, and the Catholic and Protestant churches of Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. In each case Waller shows that these Christian institutions failed to uphold human rights in their actions in advance of the genocide, in their silence or even complicity during the genocide, and in their post-genocidal refusal to acknowledge fully the enormity of the violations and the church’s own inadequate efforts to stop it or even participate in its commission. Though his unflinching analysis of churches’ failures ought to upset the conscience of any believer, ultimately Waller leaves us with a fair assessment of the church as a human—and therefore fallen—institution, that can either be seduced by the promises of nationalist movements or stand firm in its principled commitment to justice and encourage more believers to embrace the dedicated heroism of those exceptional Christians who lived and died to protect human rights.

Witte turns more distinctly from the lessons of the past to the promise of the future as he argues that religion and human rights can flourish only in a relationship of mutual support in which they enhance and challenge each other.

Religions inevitably help to define the meanings and measures of shame and regret, restraint and respect, responsibility and restitution that a human rights regime presupposes. … Conversely, religious narratives need human rights norms both to protect them and to challenge them (24).

In making his case for the complementarity of religion and human rights, Witte nuances and enriches our understanding of both by acknowledging both their limitations and their potential to foster human flourishing. For instance, he notes that

we need not accept the seeming infinite expansion of human rights discourse and demands. Rights bound by moral duties, by natural capacities, or by covenantal relationships might well provide better boundaries to the legitimate expression and expansion of rights (32).

At the same time, he also chastises those modern academics who “stand on their tenured liberties to deconstruct human rights without posing real global alternatives” and instead calls us to keep wrestling with the “Dickensian paradoxes” that befuddle us.

In section two, the essay by Johannes van der Ven is especially noteworthy in that it tackles head-on one of the most intractable issues in the field of human rights: how to reconcile state support for the universal claims of human rights and the religious and cultural diversity that increasingly characterizes contemporary societies. Van der Ven approaches the task from an unusual angle, in that his concern is not with the state’s implementation of religious freedom but rather with the Christian church’s own commitment to support religious diversity even in societies in which it might have had a historically dominant association with the state. Van der Ven adopts a Kantian perspective and argues compellingly that human dignity and autonomy require that the church

should take the necessary further steps on the way of religious freedom: from permissive tolerance to religious freedom to separation of church and state. If it fails to do so and simply advocates human rights beyond its own domain while refusing to apply them within its own walls, it cannot escape the cynical reproach of double standards and hypocrisy (61).

Thus, rather than pointing the finger at the exclusionist policies of Islamic groups, van der Ven challenges Christians not just to defend human rights, but to embody them in a selfless refusal to claim a privileged position with regard to religious freedom.

Similar challenges are found in the essays in section three, especially in the two excellent chapters by John Sniegocki and Jonathan Warner respectively. Sniegocki addresses another of the central questions in human rights: are social and economic rights properly “human rights” that can be used to hold states accountable or are they aspirational goals that hold no enforceable status? From Catholic Social Thought (CST) Sniegocki deduces that thef ormer is the correct answer, and he provides a sophisticated and yet extremely lucid response to Michael Novak’s objections that economic rights are too amorphous to be enforceable and threaten to produce an overbearing state intrusion in individual liberty and an impediment to human flourishing. Sniegocki shows instead that one can give concrete content to economic rights and that, in the age of globalization, the greatest threat to human flourishing comes from corporate power that usurps the rights of both individuals and communities.

An even more comprehensive answer to both Novak’s and Sniegocki’s debate as to which rights most foster human flourishing emerges in the “capabilities approach” outlined by Warner with reference to the work of economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum. Warner’s original contribution grounds his interpretation of this very influential theory in the notion of shalom, which implies human flourishing, “that is, that human beings develop the gifts and talents with which God has endowed them” (163). These gifts and talents are represented best as capabilities, specific abilities (being able to have good health, being able to form attachments, to exercise practical reason, to control one’s environment) that can be used to measure the extent to which persons are able to lead the kind of lives they value. This approach, now extremely influential in human rights scholarship, aims at by-passing some of the Western cultural and conceptual baggage of rights, and at providing concrete ways to measure whether we are moving closer to or farther from ensuring the possibility of flourishing for all human beings.

One aspect of current human rights scholarship and activist engagement that remains unexamined are gender-based and women’s human rights. Recently, issues of gender and sexuality have taken center stage in human rights, as a result of controversies about issues such as the eligibility of victims of domestic and gender violence for asylum, the right to equal access to education for girls, the nature and extent of reproductive rights, the legal and civil rights of sexual minorities, the last one a topic that often sees Christians in conflict with this particular extension of rights. For instance, recently The New York Times reported that three American evangelical leaders of the ex-gay movement spoke about the immorality of homosexuality and the possibility of changing sexual orientation through reparative therapy at a conference attended by thousands of teachers, police officers and politicians in Kampala last March. Their arguments, the writer contends, might have induced the Ugandan legislature to introduce a bill that imposes the death penalty for homosexual behavior.1 This statute was repudiated by the three American Christians who participated in the Family Life Network event, but this case nevertheless raises disturbing questions about the ways in which promoting particular biblical interpretations of morality—such as the notion that homosexuality is sinful and that it can be eliminated if only individuals are willing to undergo appropriate therapy—in unfamiliar cultural contexts can produce unintended yet brutal violations of human rights. As this example suggests, many of the most intractable controversies concerning human rights involve not only religion but gender or sexuality as well, and it is imperative that Christian scholars address these issues as honestly and energetically as the scholars in this volume have addressed so many other human rights concerns.

Ultimately, this volume contains more valuable contributions than one review can acknowledge, and undoubtedly my selection of outstanding examples is influenced by my professional interests as a political theorist and gender studies scholar. Nevertheless, I believe scholars in a variety of fields will appreciate the insightful, clearly argued contributionsin this volume. It is a rare example of Christian scholarship that does justice to the strengths and weaknesses of Christian institutions and arguments while furthering the struggle for global justice.

Cite this article
Simona Goi, “Christianity and Human Rights: Christians and the Struggle for Global Justice”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:3 , 362-365


  1. Jeffrey Gettleman, “Americans’ Role Seen in Uganda’s Anti-Gay Push,” The New York Times, January 4,2010, p. A1.

Simona Goi

Calvin University
Simona Goi, Political Science, Calvin College