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Can Human Rights Survive Secularization? Part II

Nicholas Wolterstorff

A considerable amount of the work of the twelfth centurycanon lawyers consisted of commenting on passages from the Church Fathers; and in some of the Church Fathers there is unmistakably a recognition of natural human rights. This comes out especially in what the Church Fathers have to say about the status of the poor. Let me quote a passage from a sermon of the great preacher of the Orthodox Church, John Chr ysostom. John preached the sermon in Januaryof 388 or 389, in the city of A ntioch. The passage occurs in the second of seven sermons that John preached on the New Testament parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The passage I will quote is rather long; but it’s so powerful that I think we should have the whole thing.

“This also is theft, not to share one’s possessions.” Perhaps this statement seems surprising to you, but do not be surprised. I shall bring you testimony from the divine Scriptures, saying that not only the theft of others’ goods but also the failure to share one’s own goods is theft and swindle and defraudation. What is this testimony? Accusing the Jews by the prophet, God says, ” The earth has brought forth her increase, and you have not brought forth your tithes; but the theft of the poor is in your houses.” Since you have not given the accustomed offerings, He says, you have stolen the goods of the poor. He says this to show the rich that they hold the goods of the poor even if they have inherited them from their fathers or no matter how they have gathered their wealth. And elsewhere the Scripture says, “Deprive not the poor of his living.” To deprive is to take what belongs to another, for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others… . Just as an official in the imperial treasur y, if he neglects to distribute where he is ordered, but spends instead for his own indolence, pays the penalty and is put to death, so also the rich man is a kind of steward of the money which is owed for distribution to the poor. He is directed to distribute it to his fellow ser vants who are in want. So if he spends more on himself than his need requires, he will pay the harshest penalty hereafter. For his own goods are not his own, but belong to his fellow ser vants. Therefore let us use our goods sparingly, as belonging to others….
The poor man has but one plea, his want and his standing in need; do not require anything else from him; but even if he is the most wicked of all men and is at a loss for his necessary sustenance, let us free him from hunger… . The almsgiver is a harbor for those in necessity; a harbor receives all who have encountered shipwreck; and frees them from danger; whether they are bad or good or whatever they are who are in danger, it escorts them into its own shelter. So you likewise, when you see on earth the man who encountered the shipwreck of poverty, do not judge him, do not seek an account of his life, but free him from his misfortune….
Need alone is this poor man’s worthiness; if anyone at all ever comes to us with this recommendation, let us not meddle any further. We do not provide for the manners but for the man. We show mercy on him not because of his virtue but because of his misfortune…. I beg you remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs.1

Over and over, with rich and varied language, John sounds the same theme: means of sustenance belong to the poor. They do not belong to the poor on account of some accomplishment on their part; they belong to them on account of their need. They do not belong to them on account of the laws or practices of A ntioch; they belong to them because they are human beings. They do not belong to them on account of their virtue; need alone is the poor man’s worthiness.

I see no other way to interpret what John is doing with his powerful rhetoric than reminding his audience, rich and poor alike, of the rights of the poor–that is, their natural human rights. Failure of the wealthy to share with the poor is theft on the part of the rich; they are in possession of what belongs to the poor. The poor are wronged because they do not have what is theirs by natural right.

John’s audience would have included the well-to-do; his words would have reminded them of their obligations. He says that the wealthy must “show mercy.” But John does not ground the obligation of the wealthy to the poor in their duties of charity; he does not say that failure of the wealthy to share is a failure of charity on their part. He grounds the obligation of the wealthy to “show mercy” in the misfortune of the poor man. The poor are the victims of theft, swindle, and fraud. They are wronged.

Chrysostom was not idiosyncratic in the world of Christian antiquity in speaking thus about the poor. “Not from your own do you bestow upon the poor man, but you make return from what is his,”2 said Ambrose of Milan. And here is Basil of Caesarea:

That bread which you keep, belongs to the hungry; that coat which you preserve in your wardrobe, to the naked; those shoes which are rotting in your possession, to the shoeless; that gold which you have hidden in the ground, to the needy. Wherefore, as often as you were able to help others, and refused, so often did you do them wrong.3

God’s Rights

In speaking of the plight of the impoverished in terms of justice, Chr ysostom, Ambrose, and Basil were not engaging in a feat of great moral imagination. The theme of justice is dominant in the Old Testament. And over and over when the theme is sounded, the plight of the widows, the orphans, the aliens, and the impoverished is highlighted. The Church Fathers were simply echoing what they heard in Scripture.

Or were they? In connecting the plight of the poor with justice they were certainly echoing Scripture. But in their recognition of rights were they perhaps going beyond Scripture?

I think not. Start with the fact that running throughout Scripture is the idea of rendering to God the praise and obedience that are due God. Given the account of rights that I spelled out earlier, this is just the idea of rendering to God the praise and obedience that God has a right to. “Ascribe to the Lord the glorydue his name,” says the Psalmist (96:8). Need I add that it is God’s worth that gives God a right to our praise and obedience.

But of course we do not always render to God the praise and obedience that is due God; our failure to do so wrongs God. I would say that it is especially in their attribution of forgiveness to God that the biblical writers recognize that God has been wronged, deprived of what God has a right to. For notice that I can forgive you only if you have wronged me–and only for the wrong you have done me.   I would say that it is especially in their attribution of forgiveness to God that the biblical writers recognize that God has been wronged, deprived of what God has a right to. In attributing forgiveness to God, the writers of Scripture recognized that God has rights.   I cannot just scatter forgiveness hither and yon. It is commonly observed that forgiveness is a matter of mercy, not of justice; and that is certainly true. What is not so commonly observed is the point just made: that I can forgive you only if you have deprived me of what I had a right to and I recognize that you have. In attributing forgiveness to God, the writers of Scripture recognized that God has rights.

That leaves open the possibility that they recognized God’s rights but not our rights; indeed, it leaves open the possibility that they thought we have no rights. Or to put it in other words, it leaves open the possibility that they thought of justice for God in terms of rights, but thought of justice amon
g us in some other way. Though I have not up to this point mentioned it, there are a good many Christian thinkers who oppose the idea of thinking of justice in terms of rights.

This suggestion won’t do. Here’s one reason. Suppose I am right, that the ascription of forgiveness to God by the biblical writers implies their recognition of the fact that God has been wronged by us; then Jesus’ injunction to us to forgive implies Jesus’ recognition that we are wronged by each other. Jesus tells us that we are to forgive those who wrong us.

A second reason the suggestion won’t do is that just as the biblical writers ascribe worth to God, so also they ascribe worth to us. We are created in the image of God; on account of being so created, our place in the cosmic hierarchy, says the Psalmist, is just a bit below the angels. On occasion, the biblical writers explicitly connect our worth with how we are to be treated. In a well-known passage in Genesis 9:6 we read, “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.” And in his gospel, Matthew reports Jesus as justifying his healing on the Sabbath with these words: “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep?” (Matt. 12:11).

Let me summarize my counter-narrative concerning the origin of the idea of natural rights. I hold that the recognition of natural human rights has its origins neither in seventeenth century political individualism nor in fourteenth century nominalism, but in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. The biblical writers did not explicitly conceptualize natural rights; explicit conceptualization had to await the canon lawyers of the twelfth century. They did, however, recognize what you and I call “natural rights.” They assumed that, on account of God’s worth, God has a natural right to our praise and obedience. They held that we human beings have violated that natural right of God; we have wronged God. They speak of God as angry on that account. But they go on to say that God is a forgiving God; God forgives those who have wronged him.

I would say that the recognition in Scripture of God’s natural rights is somewhat more definite than is the recognition of the natural rights of human beings. But the latter recognition is unmistakably there. Jesus says that we are to forgive those who wrong us just as God forgives those who wrong God; that presupposes that we can be wronged, deprived of what we have a right to. And Jesus says that God treats us as he does because we are of worth. To this can be added Chr ysostom’s obser vation that Scripture says, “deprive not the poor of his living,” and that to deprive someone of something is to take from that person what belongs to him, what he has a right to.

The recognition of natural human rights goes from Scripture into the Church Fathers; and then in the twelfth century such rights are at last explicitly conceptualized in the writings of the twelfth century canon law yers. A n obvious question to ask at this point is whether the idea of natural human rights can also be traced back to the writings of the philosophers of pagan antiquity. Though I cannot argue the point here, I hold it cannot be, the core reason being that the ancient philosophers worked only with the idea of the worth of human lives; the worth of human beings themselves played no role in their thought.

A Secular Basis?

My analysis of rights, coupled with the counter-narrative I have presented, answers the charge that the idea of natural rights is inextricable from an ethos of possessive individualism. But the narrative raises an unsettling question of its own. Suppose it is the fate of modernized societies to become more and more secular. Suppose, in particular, that the religious convictions that gave birth to our idea of natural human rights are destined to erode and be replaced by a variety of secular perspectives. What must we then expect to happen to the idea of natural human rights? What must we expect, given our human propensity to tribalism?

I have argued that natural human rights are grounded in the inherent worth, the dignity, of each and every human being. Christianity locates the basis of that worth in the fact that each of us bears God’s image and is redemptively loved by God; that’s what gives each and every one of us the worth that grounds human rights. In principle it would be possible for the secularist to acknowledge that dignity and find an alternative basis for it, a non-theistic basis. In principle it would be possible for the originating theistic basis of human rights to deteriorate and be replaced by a secular basis.

There have been a good many attempts to find a secular basis for the worth we human beings have that accounts for natural rights. In my judgment they all fail. For most of them, it’s not at all difficult to see why they fail. Most of them hold that human worth super venes on certain capacities that we human beings have, the most common view being that the capacities in question are our capacities for rational agency.

I have no problem in agreeing that having the capacities for rational agency gives a creature great worth. My problem is that only some human beings have those capacities. Infants don’t yet have them; Alzheimer’s patients no longer have them; those who are born with severe mental impairment never have them.

One way of responding to this problem would be to identify some capacity that everyhuman being does have. But if we keep in mind A lzheimer’s patients, it’s clear that this will have to be an exceedingly elementarycapacity; and then it turns out that some of the higher animals have the capacity in question. I think there is no way of solving this problem–no way of grounding the dignity that accounts for human rights in capacities that we have. Secular attempts at grounding don’t work.

I trust you now see an overarching irony in my discussion. I began by taking note of the distaste of many Christians for the idea of human rights. It now appears that only theism can give a basis for human rights.

In response to the claim that secularism cannot provide a basis for human rights, R ichard Rorty and others have argued that, now that a human rights culture is in place, human worth doesn’t need any grounding; maybe it needed it to get going, but no longer.   Judaism and Christianity nonetheless declare that all of us have a great and equal worth: the worth of being created in the image of God and of being loved redemptively by God. If this theological framework erodes, I think we must expect that our moral subculture of rights will eventually erode, and that we will slide back into tribalism.   All that’s necessarynow is that we cultivate sympathy for all human beings. I am dubious. If a man believes that there is something about the woman in his clutches that makes her unworthy of better treatment, hearing her voice and seeing her face is unlikely to evoke any sympathy in him whatsoever. He is more likely to take pleasure in hearing her scream, or be enraged by the fact that she isn’t taking what she’s got coming to her. The affective side of the self cannot, all by itself, expand or even sustain human rights culture. Conviction must also be engaged.

It’s not hard, not hard at all, to come to see some of one’s fellow human beings as having little if any worth. All one has to do is focus on their flaws. And flaws there will be; the misanthrope has lots to go on. It is also not hard, not hard at all, to manipulate the public into seeing some among one’s fellow human beings as having little if any worth; all one has to do is demean them, make them seem loathsome, by bringing their real or invented flaws into the light of public exposure and then to call them lice, cockroaches, animals, scum
, filth, dirt.

Our Judaic and Christian heritage neither denies nor overlooks the f laws of humankind; some strands in the heritage appear even to revel in them–witness some elements in the Reformed tradition. But in the face of all the empirical evidence, Judaism and Christianity nonetheless declare that all of us have great and equal worth: the worth of being created in the image of God and of being loved redemptively by God. If this theological framework erodes, I think we must expect that our moral subculture of rights will also eventually erode, and that we will slide back into tribalism.

One more thing. Suppose someone does eventually succeed in finding some basis for the dignity of all human beings that the secularist can affirm; I don’t expect that to happen, but suppose it does happen. I think it dubious that that framework could ever have the power over imagination and action that the theological framework has. It is one thing to treat with under-respect someone whose worth is grounded in certain natural features or capacities. It is quite a different thing to treat God with under-respect. To wrong God is to wrong someone of vastly greater worth than that of any human being. And if we are indeed God’s creatures and the objects of God’s love, then to wrong one of us is simultaneously to wrong God. I am reminded of what John Calvin said in his comments on Genesis 9:6:

Men are indeed unworthy of God’s care, if respect be had only to themselves. But since they bear the image of God engraven on them, God deems himself violated in their person. Thus, although they have nothing of their own by which they obtain the favor of God, God looks upon his own gifts in them, and is thereby excited to love and to care for them. This doctrine… is to be carefully observed, that no one can be injurious to his brother without wounding God himself. Were this doctrine deeply fixed in our minds, we should be much more reluctant than we are to inf lict injuries.4

Can human rights survive secularization? I fear that they cannot. Our moral subculture of rights is as frail as it is remarkable. If modernization does indeed produce secularization, I fear that our recognition of human rights will prove to have been a brief shining moment in the odyssey of human beings on earth.

As for myself, I do not fear. Not only is the modern world obviously not becoming secularized, I believe that God has planted the recognition of himself so deeply in the human heart that the knowledge and worship of God will never disappear from the face of the earth.


1St. John Chrysostom: On Wealth and Poverty, trans. Catharine P. Roth (Crestwood…: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1984), pp. 49-55.
2 Charles Avila, Ownership and Early Christian Teaching, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1983), p. 50.
3 Ibid, p. 66.
4 John Calvin, Commentaries on Genesis, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), pp. 295-96.

Nicholas Wolterstorff is Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Connecticut. This article was originally a lecture given at the Reformed Institute of Metropolitan Washington, Washington, D.C., 26 January 2008. Perspectives is grateful to the Institute for permission to publish this address and encourages readers to visit their website,