The Enlightenment’s Lie About the Basis of Human Rights
It is all the rage to talk about how oppressive Christianity is and has always been. It’s even more troubling to see some Christians parroting similar lines. Don’t believe it. It is a myth perpetuated since the Enlightenment that Christianity’s contribution to the world is oppression and abuse. As a corollary, the myth also purports that human rights are self-evident. Some add that returning to the way of the Ancients— Greece and Rome— would set us on the path to peace and freedom. Religion in general and Christianity in particular, so the story goes, has led to nothing but wars, doctrinal squabbles, and power grabs.
The sins of the Church are indefensible— exploitation and conquest, abuse and compromise, manipulation and control and more. The critiques of the Christian justification of imperial exploitation are on-target and well-deserved. But those critiques are not original to the philosophers of the Enlightenment. It was Christians who said them first. From Alcuin to Aquinas, from Bartholome de las Casas to Benjamin Lay, it was Christians who most fervently condemned conquest and slavery. But my point here is not to balance the scales of the appraisal of Christianity’s contribution nor even to go blow for blow about its good versus its ills. The point is simply this: Not only do Christians critique their own failures, they do so on the basis of Christian teaching.
Secular historian Tom Holland writes:
“The paradox that weakness that weakness might be a source of strength, that a victim might triumph over his torturers, treat suffering might constitute victory, lay at the heart of the Gospels…The standards by which [Voltaire] judged Christianity, and condemned it for its faults, were not universal. They were not shared by philosophers across the world. They were not common from Beijing to Cayenne. They were distinctively, peculiarly Christian.” (Dominion, p. 394)
In other words, power struggles and abuses were not unique to the Church or to Christendom. What was unique, however, was the basis for condemning it: a savior who died in order to save, a king who was killed in order to conquer sin and death.
But the French never had a Reformation, so their response to the abuses of the Church was to reject Christianity wholesale in the revolt of the philosophers which came to be called in a self-congratulatory way, the “Enlightenment”. Yet the idea that they could simply return to reason as a new kind of religion was itself a myth.
Take, for example, the notion that human rights are ancient. Well, as Holland points out, the Persians were renown for perfecting the art of torture, the Greeks for raping the women of a city they conquered, and the Romans for incorporating both and adding the practices of paedophilia and infanticide to the list. It was Christianity which made the above practices criminal.
Even the French philosopher Marquis de Sade who hated Christianity taught that the “doctrine of loving one’s neighbor is a fantasy that we owe to Christianity and not to Nature” (p. 407). Sade, following what the ancients took for granted, believed some men were born to be masters, and others slaves. The inferior class of human was only slightly above a chimpanzee. When slavery was abolished in the French colonies because of their declaration of human rights in the late 1700s, they were tempted to make exceptions and delay the implementation of abolition. It was the outcry of the British public— Evangelical English men and women— who put the pressure on British diplomacy. Eventually, it took the British navy to block French slave ships from continuing the trade in Africa in the early 1800s.
What about the universality of human rights? Aren’t they self-evident? The claim that the language of human rights “…existed naturally within the fabric of things, and had always done so, transcending time and space”. Holland counters:
Yet this, of course, was quite as fantastical a belief as anything to be found in the Bible. The evolution of the concept of human rights, mediated as it had been since the Reformation by Protestant jurists, and philosophes, had come to obscure its original authors. It derived, not from Ancient Greece or Rome, but from the period of history condemned by all right-thinking revolutionaries as a lost millennium, in which any hint of enlightenment had at once been snuffed out by monkish, book-burning fanatics. It was an inheritance from the canon lawyers of the Middle Ages” (Dominion, pp. 401-02).
The notion of a human right began modestly enough with canon lawyers in the 1200s. How were the Christians to square the rampant inequality between rich and poor with the insistence of numerous Church Fathers that “the use of all things should be common to all”?’ (p. 239). After the completion of the Decretum (a compilation of church canons and teaching), they arrived at a solution: “A starving pauper who stole from a rich man did so, according to a growing number of legal scholars, iure naturali— ‘in accordance with natural law’ ” (p. 239). Thus, they were not guilty of a crime. Holland sums it up this way:
“Charity, no longer voluntary, was being rendered a legal obligation…That the rich had a duty to give to the poor was, of course, a principle as old as Christianity itself. What no one had thought to argue before, though, was a matching principle: that the poor had an entitlement to the necessities of life. It was— in a formulation increasingly deployed by canon lawyers— a human “right”’ (Dominion, p. 239).
Then, when he visited the Spanish colonies in the Americas, the friar Bartholome de las Casas began to rebuke Christians on both sides of the Atlantic for thinking that they had not merely a right but a duty to conquer and ‘prosecute’ idol-worshipping peoples (pp. 346-7). Though such a view sat easily with Aristotle’s doctrine that ‘it was to the benefit of barbarians to be ruled by “civilized and virtuous princes” ’, the Christian belief that every human had been made equally by God and had been endowed with reason made the suggestion that natives were slightly higher than monkeys blasphemy by Christian standards (p. 347). Drawing on the teaching of Aquinas, las Casas taught that “ ‘Jesus Christ, the king of kings, was sent to win the world, not with armies, but with holy preachers, as sheep among wolves’ ” (p. 308). Thus it came to be that las Casas coined the phrase ‘Derechos humanos’— human rights.
This is why, by the time the British colonies in North America declared their independence, it was clearly Christianity that fueled their dream of a new community. It is most readily apparent that the roots of such thinking was not truly Enlightenment rationalism but Christian revelation. Holland again writes:
“That all men had been created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, were not remotely self-evident truths. That most Americans believed they were owed less to philosophy than to the Bible: to the assurance given equally to Christians and Jews, to Protestants and Catholics, to Calvinists and Quakers, that every human being was created in God’s image. The truest and ultimate seedbed of the American republic— no matter what some of those who had composed its founding documents might have cared to think— was the book of Genesis.” (Dominion, p. 400)
Christians have not always gotten it right. The Church has been notoriously wrong. But when it is, it is judged to be wrong on the basis of what Jesus and Paul taught. The abuses of Christendom are contradictions of Christian teaching, not confirmations of it; they are distortions not extensions of what the Scripture says; they came as a result of ignoring canon law and Church teaching not of illuminating it.
Exploitation and abuse is the sickness of sin at work in the world. The Church is not immune to such sickness. Nevertheless, it is the Gospel that provides both the diagnosis and the cure.