Does Human Rights Need God?

By Elizabeth M. Bucar; Barbra Barnett | Go to book overview

10
God, the Devil, and Human Rights:
A South African Perspective

CHARLES VILLA-VICENCIO

The overt support for human rights by the Religions of the Book is a recent phenomenon. Religious leaders had hitherto, with few exceptions, condemned such rights as humanistic nonsense. Some within these traditions viewed human rights to be of the Devil, while those who early on made the link between John Locke’s secular doctrine of human rights and the affirmation of human dignity in the Scriptures (a dignity which coexists with textual sanction of human subjugation) were voices crying in the wilderness. It was a cry without the support of the church, mosque, temple, or synagogue. Perhaps it is because institutional religion failed so dismally in its humanizing task that God raised up a prophet within secular humanism to promote human rights. This secular tradition in time reminded religious institutions of a dimension of their own traditions that had hitherto lain essentially fallow.

The South African human rights crisis in theological and related debate was thrust into the public arena partly through a rather crude intervention by J. M. Potgieter, a Professor of Private Law at the University of South Africa in the late 1980s.1 Dismissing any notion of the general population having inalienable rights, he suggested that the restoration of humanity could only happen through conversion to Christ — an argument that enjoyed the tacit support of many within the established churches. The argument was, of course, but a small step from the reactionary kind of apartheid theology that located rights and privileges in the hands of whites as carriers of the gospel and civilization. Right-wing Christians picked up on the argument, contending that “an honest person needs no special rights in order to associate, disassociate, assemble, read, speak, perform, or travel.” They argued that “the rights [demanded by human rights groups] for the arrested, accused and convicted were aimed primarily at limiting the power of the police.”2

The most significant critique of this position came through the publi-

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