Monday, July 31, 2006

Sin and Human Rights

A meditation starter

It has always been difficult for human beings to admit that they have both a sinful nature and are actively sinners in God’s sight. This recognition and admittance have become that much harder in the West as the ideology of human rights has become more dominant in western society and culture.

The doctrine of Human Rights works on the assumption that human beings as living persons have dignity because of their humanity. Human rights, of which the primary one is the right to live and not be murdered, include such things as the right to food, clothing, shelter, education, just treatment under the law (with no discrimination in employment, by reason of sex, orientation, race or ethnicity), freedom of movement and choice and personal happiness. However, in many quarters personhood is seen to begin not at conception but when the foetus is looking like a baby, and it is deemed to end when a human being is in a permanent coma or has lost the use of all normal senses (thus abortion and euthanasia can be justified within a human rights framework).

When the prophets of Israel, Jesus the Messiah, and the apostle Paul proclaimed that each and every one of us without exception has a sinful nature and is a sinner before God, they were not aware of human rights ideology or language. However, had they been so they would have made it abundantly clear that in terms of human standing before God as the LORD, no one, Jew or Gentile, has any rights at all. Why? Because before God, the Creator and Judge, no human being can claim anything at all by right, for he is a dependent creature and is always so even if he has not sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The very best he can ever do in relation to God is to receive humbly by faith and in trust what God as the LORD, offers to him out of divine mercy and divine grace.

Now man as creature, and as sinful creature, has always found it extremely difficult by reason of pride to submit wholly and unconditionally to the Word of the living God. From the beginning of the biblical narrative to its end, many examples are to be found of human beings refusing to submit to God and trust in him – that is to trust as an infant trusts its mother unconditionally as it lies in her arms or at her breasts.

Our generation has the problem that to its own inner natural pride, born of a sinful nature (which makes submission to the holy and merciful LORD virtually impossible), there is added this ideology of human rights which often serves to strengthen inner pride. In fact it can cause “sinners” to think that instead of submitting to God in total consecration as “sinners” they can actually negotiate or set forth a kind of contract with God, the Lord, concerning their relation[ship] with heaven. This is amazing but common.

So there has been in most forms of American Christianity since the 1960s a gradual but real dumbing-down of the biblical doctrine of sin as both “fallen nature” and as active breaking of God’s Law by omission or commission. Modern man has pride in his many achievements in technology and medicine, travel and commerce, and so humility before God, and recognizing that in and of himself he has nothing to offer to his Creator and Judge but his sinfulness, is far from his mind and religion. Thus his religion – for he still wants to be religious – has to be changed and made less offensive, to take care of his pride and his rights and be attractive to him without requiring too much repentance, faith and humility. (This is one reason why so many Episcopalians prefer the Rite Two Services of the 1979 prayer book to the traditional services of the classic BCP [e.g. of 1662 or USA 1928], even when the latter are in so called contemporary language.)

The dumbing-down does not stop, however, with the softening of the doctrine of sin. It dares to rise up Mt Sinai and Mt Hermon and to seek to change the identity of God! That is, those features and attributes of the LORD, the Blessed, Holy and Undivided Trinity, which create the “old” doctrine of sin are changed, and God becomes the God of Pure Love who affirms everyone in their natural state, in their orientation, and in their present lifestyle. Thus Jesus also loses his “pure holiness” and becomes the loving Savior who seeks out and saves the outcast and affirms them as members of his kingdom.

The loss of belief in the transcendent holiness of God has meant the loss amongst human beings of “the fear of the Lord” which is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge before God in terms of a right relation with Him. In fact the emphasis on human rights has made moderns offer paraphrases of the Bible which incorporate basic human rights doctrine and also when using traditional translations to avoid large sections of the Bible (e.g. Romans 1 – 7) which seem impossibly outdated and irrelevant.

One advantage of using the traditional liturgies of Christendom is that they were created when the teaching of the Bible was taken seriously and when there was no ideology of human rights writ large in human society. Thus, for example, I can find no examples of human rights anywhere in the classic Anglican Book of Common Prayer (e.g. the edition of 1662); but I can find plenty in the 1979 prayer book and later official worship texts from The Episcopal Church. Human rights are at the center of the “Baptismal Covenant” so often trumpeted by Episcopalians.

One real problem we have in 2006 is that we breathe the air of human rights and this makes us naturally read the Bible through this ideology; and so we miss to a large extent what the Bible is saying to us about our standing before God. Only when we study seriously say Romans 1-3 do we get to see the vast difference between where we are and where the apostolic message was/is. Here we find that genuine biblical inclusivism is (a) that we are all guilty sinners and under the wrath of God; and (b) that, in Christ Jesus, God the Father offers to us in the Gospel the gift of everlasting salvation and that we receive by offering nothing to him but total trust.

Human rights have their place in a carefully presented system of Christian ethics (as the late Pope often explained) but they have none, none whatsoever, in the standing of human creatures before their holy and righteous Creator and Judge.

The Revd Dr Peter Toon July 31, 2006

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