In our contemporary world, a great deal of cultural discussion revolves around the nature of human dignity and human rights. Sadly, there is not a day that passes in which news concerning human trafficking, gross negligence, or large-scale violent oppression/suppression of human thriving arrests attention. International organizations like Human Rights Watch make it their mission to expose and bring to justice all those who would jeopardize the rights of the weakest members of human society. They act, in part, as a result of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948 as a result of the experience of the Second World War. This Declaration called the international community to a standard that sought to prevent atrocities like those perpetrated in that conflict from happening again.
Unfortunately, conflicts and atrocities committed against the citizens of the world continue in our day. Yet, this standard assumption of basic human rights enables the international community to act when those rights are violated. And indeed, human rights—for most people—are a basic assumption in the concern for and treatment of others. One might ask from where the deep concern for human rights comes? How is it that the concern for human dignity has become a conversation—welcomed or suppressed—in all cultures? Is it simply the result of the Second World War?
In seeking to answer these questions, many would be incredulous if the suggestion came that the Judeo-Christian tradition grounds the concern for human rights today. After all, the pages of the Bible are filled with narratives of slavery and oppression, bloodshed and violence. How could this tradition be the ground for human rights?
Sadly, even those most familiar with the pages of the Bible often fail to see the significance of commands to care for the “foreigner and stranger” issued to the people of Israel. Sojourners or strangers in Israel were included in the law, and they were not to be oppressed or mistreated.(1) Given the brutalities present in the ancient world, these commands to care for strangers and sojourners are most remarkable. Indeed, to anyone familiar with the mindset of the ancient world, it is clear that Israel was to be distinctive in its treatment and care for the least in their midst: orphans, widows, and slaves.(2)
In the Roman world of Jesus’s day, slaves and servants of any kind, men and women, were classified as non habens personam—not having a persona, or more literally, not having a face.(3) Before the law, a slave was not considered a person in the fullest and most proper sense. Author David Bentley Hart notes, “In a sense, the only face proper to a slave, at least as far as the cultural imagination of the ancient world went, was the brutish and grotesquely leering ‘slave mask’ worn by actors on the comic stage: an exquisitely exact manifestation of how anyone who was another’s property was (naturally) seen.”(4) Simply stated, anyone without a noble birth was not given consideration with regard to human dignity or fair treatment as a fellow human being.
Given this reality for the weakest members of societies in Jesus’s day, it is striking that the gospel writers would record the name of a poor, blind beggar as in the case of Bartimaeus. Furthermore, a concern for human dignity shows up in the choice by the gospel writers to detail the immense grief and remorse of Peter—a common fisherman—over his betrayal of Jesus. This event is recorded in not just one, but all three synoptic gospels.
Whether we like it or not, our modern world assumes and has inherited this Judeo-Christian morality. As a result, we moderns often miss the significance of the gospel writers caring to name a blind beggar or give such intimate details of grief from a common, uneducated fisherman. “To us,” Bentley Hart argues, these details “ennoble it, prove its gravity, widens its embrace of our common humanity….To the literate classes of late antiquity, however, this tale of Peter weeping would more likely have seemed an aesthetic mistake; for Peter, as a rustic, could not possibly have been an object worthy of a well-bred man’s sympathy, nor could his grief possibly have possessed the sort of tragic dignity necessary to make it worthy of anyone’s notice….When one compares this scene from the gospels to the sort of emotional portraiture one finds in great Roman writers, comic or serious, one discovers…the image of man [sic] in the highest and deepest and most tragic sense.”(5) In contrast to the prevailing norms of the ancient world, the Judeo-Christian tradition gives dignity to the weakest, lowest members of society. Here, in the pages of the gospels, we find a revolution in human rights. Naming beggars, detailing intimate portraits of the grief of a rustic fisherman, keeping company with prostitutes, tax-collectors, and others among the “undignified” tells the story of human value and worth.
The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation offers the ground of human rights and dignity in the very God who would become weak, dependent, and human in the birth, life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. That the God of all creation would “wear” human flesh shows the value and dignity of all human life. Indeed, this man—born to poor peasants and who upheld the honor and dignity of those who would otherwise remain nameless and faceless—invites those who would follow him to honor those whom God has honored. To do so is to recognize that being made in the “image of God” is not just an abstract concept, but has a name and a face.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Deuteronomy 24:14. See also Exodus 22:21; Exodus 23:9; Leviticus 19:33–4; Deuteronomy 23:7.
(2) See for example Exodus 21:1-6, Deuteronomy 23:15-16, Exodus 22:21-27; 23:1-9, Deuteronomy 15:15.
(3) David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 168.
(4) Ibid., 168.
(5) Ibid., 167.