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Human Rights: The Fulfillment of Life in the Social Order

Adopted by the General Board, November 17, 1995


The General Assembly of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America (NCCCUSA) adopted a policy statement on Human Rights in 1963 in which the Council outlined its basic position on this important area of concern in its life and in the nation and world. We strongly reaffirm this 1963 statement.

Since then several hundred policy statements and resolutions have elaborated on the human rights commitments of the Council. Extensive developments since the adoption of the 1963 Policy Statement lead the General Board of the National Council of the Churches of Christ to adopt the following statement renewing its commitment to human rights and setting new directions and new priorities.

Theological and Biblical Understanding

"Christians believe that human beings are made in the image of God, that every person is of intrinsic worth before God, and that every individual has a right to the fullest possible opportunities for the development of life abundant and eternal. Denial of rights and freedoms that inhere in an individual's worth before God are not simply a crime against humanity; they are a sin against God” (1963 Statement, using inclusive language.)

Human rights deal with what it means to be human. For Christians, human rights have to do with God's intentions for human beings, God's relations with created beings, God's order for society, God's purpose in creation. In and through the Biblical witness God has made known what is good, what is loved and what is required of us: the protection, fulfillment and honoring of human life in all its manifestations. That which violates life, denying or limiting its fulfillment, violates God's intention for life.

Human rights involve the relationships of individuals, groups, and social structures. Human rights violations are committed by individuals driven by a variety of motives. Violations also are often deeply rooted in social systems.

Actions in the name of religion frequently codify and legitimize violations of human rights particularly of persons living in multi-faith communities and persons of differing sexual orientation.

Freedom, justice and peace are central Biblical themes. While the Bible is not a catalogue of rights, these themes are critical. Human rights are at issue as the scriptures reflect on the principalities and powers that seek to separate women and men from God in Jesus Christ and to enslave them. Human rights are implied as the scriptures express what it means to be assured of life in all its fullness. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights reflects the linkage of the Biblical themes: "…the recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

Biblically, freedom, justice and peace also are terms about relationships between individuals, groups and the structures of society. The Bible values relationships based on free will and freedom of choice and not coercive power or fear.

While the Bible gives guidance for just and merciful relations, it also deals with relationships in which even the concepts of freedom, justice and peace are perverted.

The Biblical creation narrative reminds us of our basic nature. Male and female, we are created in the image and likeness of God. We are equal in God's sight and in God's care, yet each of us is unique. We are finite, limited in power and knowledge, with physical needs and with our survival dependent on others in community. Given responsibility to be stewards of the earth, we are to tend, care for, guard and protect it, to ensure its preservation for future generations.

The gift and burden of freedom enables us to choose between good and evil, right and wrong, to shape our own destinies and that of others by our choices. We are responsible for our actions, held accountable and by God judged on the basis of whether we have been faithful to the Creator's intent.

The Sinai narratives reveal that the covenant people are called not for special privilege but for special witness. That special calling entails obedience to God rather than to self-centered or nationalistic traditions, whether religious or secular. It does not allow for imposition of a parochial will on others. Faithfulness to the covenant entails responsibility for the compassionate ordering of our societies. The community of faith is charged with the responsibility to care for those in need, particularly the widow, the orphan, the sick, the poor, the powerless, the stranger in our midst.

The Commandments reinforce the value and sacredness of life. While we have the capacity to kill, we do not have the ability to restore life. IN taking life, we diminish creation, usurping the prerogatives of the giver of life. If we steal, we violate another's well-being and security. Anything that intentionally deprives another of that well-being is indeed a theft. By bearing false witness, by stereotyping, by prejudging, we denigrate or dehumanize others. Covetousness manifests itself as jealousy, greed and the desire for that which belongs to others. These are the motives that lead to the violation of other commandments.

The prophets call us to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God. They admonish those who govern to do justice and righteousness, to do no wrong or violence, and to protect those who are weak within the society.

In the incarnation God's love is experienced as redemptive. Having created humans and given them freedom, God sent Jesus the Christ to show by word and deed how to have life more abundantly. In Jesus we witness a life and ministry of service, healing, helping, liberation, forgiveness. Through Jesus we hear once again the call of Isaiah embodied in the suffering servant to bring forth justice to the nations. In Christ, there is no longer male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free. All are heirs to the promise of fulfillment. We are taught that in the Last Judgment nations and peoples are to be judged on their care for the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, the stranger. We are inspired to see others in a totally new way through the eyes of Christ.

Jesus, by his sacrificial love on the cross, embodies the commandments of love. By the power of the resurrection and through the presence of the Holy Spirit, we are enabled to love as God through Jesus loved us. The Spirit renews us and empowers us to live gently and serve generously.

The revelation gives us a glimpse of a new heaven and a new earth where God's justice and righteousness will prevail. Not given to know the time and the season, nonetheless we are to be faithful and obedient until that day in the pursuit of freedom, justice and peace. We are called to be faithful stewards, selfless servants, obedient peacemakers and articulate advocates, responsive to the needs of our own society and to the needs of the world.

The Church's Witness

The Church is called to be an instrument of redemption and is itself always being redeemed. The Church must bear witness to the truth in every generation, to the best of its knowledge returning again and again to its historical and Biblical resources, seeking to perceive God's will and be faithful to that will. The Church must witness to the truth as it sees it while listening respectfully to others.

The Church through the centuries has been called to stand with the poor and the oppressed, the outcast and the violated. To this calling, it has been varyingly faithful. On the one hand, the Church has sometimes taken the role of the oppressor, working with the authorities in the forceful subjugation of peoples for self-serving peoples. Bound by limited vision and its own fears, the Church sometimes has defended its vested positions in society. When culturally captive, the Church is often unable to convey faithfully to the world God's will for human community. Reluctant to speak forcefully for the rights of the oppressed, the different, the poor, the Church becomes unable or unwilling to enable them to speak for themselves.

On the other hand, the Church has resisted repressor and oppressor. The blood of martyrs has nourished the faith and inspired hope. The Church and its leaders around the world in our day often have borne valiant witness, enduring suffering and repression, in seeking fullness of life for all.

The Contemporary Human Rights Scene

Since its founding, the United Nations has stimulated a revolution in international through and action regarding human rights. The principles adopted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) were codified in the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and elaborated in numerous other conventions dealing with the rights of women, children, minorities and indigenous people, genocide, torture, discrimination. The United Nations and regional bodies have developed international instruments for monitoring the implementation of human rights law.

Hundreds of non-governmental organizations now monitor and defend human rights, creating a world-wide network of concern. Some concentrate on particular sets of rights, others on rights within a specific country or region.

Yet violations of rights continue – manifest daily in almost every country in the world and in almost every conceivable form. Now, however, they seldom go unnoticed. Victims are increasingly unwilling to be fatalistically passive. Governments and government leaders are frequently the most systematic violators of human rights and need to be held accountable for their actions.

Human rights concerns have become part of peoples' movements the world over. These movements have toppled dictatorships, broken up empires and overturned oppressive structures. They have been effective in struggles against racism and apartheid, against totalitarian regimes, and against military dictatorships. This claiming of rights promised but often denied has sometimes been inspired by theologies of liberation learned in Christian communities. Peoples' movements, like all political movements, can in themselves become oppressive. Major struggles continue against militarism and state terrorism racism and economic exploitation.

During these decades, major differences have divided human rights advocates of these. Of these, two fundamental debates have divided states and nations. The first was between those who claimed that economic, social and cultural rights were the central concern and those who asserted that rights were civil and political in character. Advocates of the first position often argued that civil and political rights were irrelevant if economic, social and cultural rights were not assured. Advocates of the second position often argued that civil and political rights were attainable but that economic, social and cultural rights were only goals.

The second debate drew distinctions between the rights of the individual and the rights of the group or community. This debate pitted those espousing the ideology of individualism and laissez-faire against those for whom the individual was subordinate to the group or community.

Our Christian understanding, rooted in scripture, is that human rights is a universal, holistic concept, inclusive of civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights. Historical circumstances may require greater attention to or remedial focus on one or another aspect of these rights. Such circumstances cannot be used to justify the denial of legitimacy and value of other rights.

Critical dilemmas arise when rights are in conflict. Does freedom of the press threaten the right of a person to a fair trial? Do the requirements of national security conflict with the freedoms of an individual to travel or to have access to the truth?

When rights are in conflict, the principles for determining priorities and the means for arbitration are at best inadequate. At a minimum, such principles should include: 1) protection of the individual within the community context; 2) a concern for the well being of the total community; 3) preservation of freedom, establishment of justice and maintenance of peace; 4)preferential bias for the poor and marginalized; 5) the long term benefit over the expediency of the moment; 6) protection for minorities; 7) opportunity for all voices, especially the oppressed and marginalized, to be heard; 8) arbitration or adjudication of disputes through independent, impartial procedures.

Requirements for the Preservation and Protection of Human Rights

Understanding the holistic nature of the concept of human rights we are called to examine the conditions for their realization in the contemporary world. Advocacy for human rights, whether narrowly or broadly defined, necessitates attention to the situations in which individuals, groups and societies exist. In that context, we affirm the following necessary requirements to preserve and protect human rights:

A. Human Rights Require World Peace

Peace remains fundamental to the security of all other rights. It is therefore the obligation of governments to preserve civil society, seek peaceful resolution of conflicts, control the proliferation of arms, work for the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, to promote general disarmament and to avoid war as a means of accomplishing their ends. War has the terrible potential for destruction not only of life but also of the environment necessary for sustaining community, or the genetic pool, and of the resources necessary for future generations. Warfare, with its awesome destructive possibilities, whether nuclear or conventional, inevitably involves the violation of human rights because of its inability to protect the innocent or to retain the principles of proportionality.

The oppressed are sometimes driven to use war to redress injustice, end oppression and secure human rights. However, revolutions and civil wars are often devastating in their conduct, help to perpetuate hatreds, make reconciliation difficult, and can result in the patterns of oppression and may lead to wider warfare. As long as justice is denied, oppressed people may be forced to consider rebellion as a means to end oppression and secure human rights. Wars fought to end injustice might be avoided if the Churches actively engaged in the promotion of justice and human rights.

B. Human Rights Require a Secure and Sustainable Environment:

The right to live in a healthy, sustainable environment is essential for human survival. The integrity of nature, part of God's creation, is to be preserved. Human survival is itself dependent on the protection of the ecosystem and careful stewardship of its resources. Human life is intended to be lived in harmony with nature – a necessity for health and productivity. Notions of private property that place material value above that of human life and community run counter to our theological understanding that the earth is God's, and the common heritage of humanity. If nature is irreparably damaged or destroyed, other rights will become irrelevant. As nature has value apart from its utility for humans, the Church must work to preserve its integrity.

C. Human Rights Require Sustainable Human Development:

The right to development has emerged as a fundamental concept that is important for the protection of other rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights. The United Nations clearly defined development as a holistic concept: "…the alleviation of poverty; secure livelihoods; good health; quality of life; improvement of the status and income of women, and their access to schooling and professional training, as well as fulfillment of their personal aspirations, and empowerment of individuals and communities.”

The rights of all people to participate in and share the positive benefits of development are far from being realized. The right of peoples to make decisions that influence their lives have often been denied.

Perpetuating a world divided between haves and have nots is contrary to our understanding of a world community in which all should have equal rights and in which all should share equitably. Development must involve the application of science and technology to human endeavors necessary for the sustaining of life; the production of goods and services necessary for human survival; the enhancement of the environment, both natural and social; the expansion of the human horizon.

D. Human Rights Requires the Preservation of Communities in an Open Society:

Human rights for individuals require the existence and preservation of communities in which the individual right to identity and integrity, place and belonging can be fulfilled. The denial of human rights destroys community.

The implications of this are: first, that human life is only possible through community; second, that communities must be governed through the rule of just and compassionate law; third, that communities have the responsibility to guarantee the rights of all who live in association with them; and, fourth, that communities of people, including generic groups of persons, also have rights, sometimes broader than those of individuals.

Both historic and contemporary evidence is all to clear regarding the denial of rights on the basis of group classification – of race, ethnicity, religion, caste or class, gender, sexual orientation, or physical limitation. Discrimination based upon prejudicial assumptions about such groupings limits their participation in the community. The contemporary human rights movement has raised our consciousness about conditions long ignored or accepted as normative.

Because community provides the context for the realization of human potential, the Church, a community of faith, made up of a rich diversity of races, cultures and ethnic groups, must address conditions that both violate the rights of particular communities and the essential right of individuals to belong to communities. The problems of such communities, both in and outside the Church, pose ongoing challenges.

Racial and ethnic communities continue to be victimized by racism, xenophobia and ethnocentrism. These conditions are exacerbated by voluntary and forced migration, human enslavement, political realignments and the shifting of geographical boundaries. The Church must stand with these communities as they assert their right to full acceptance and citizenship, guarantees of and protection of human rights on an equal basis with other persons in the society, and recognition of their unique worth.

Indigenous communities endeavor to preserve their culture in the midst of marginalization and denial of their stewardship of their traditional lands by the dominant culture. The Church must stand with these communities to reassert control over their own destinies, and the right to live on, care for and use their unique identities and preserve their spiritual traditions.

Refugees and displaced persons have been put to flight because of political and economic conditions. The Church must support the right of such persons to the opportunity of voluntary repatriation, or resettlement and integration in a country of asylum, with support, protection and assistance from the international community.

Ethnic, national and religious groups, involved in intra or intercommunal strife, are caught in the dynamics of ethnic cleansing and religious fanaticism. Civil wars and conflicts threaten ethnic and religious groups with genocide. Conflicting goals of ethnic, nationalistic and religious groups challenge the Church to find ways of promoting pluralistic civil societies.

Persons with mental or physical limitations have suffered abridgment of their human rights in many areas of life due to limited educational and employment opportunity, restrictive architecture and insufficient avenues of communication. The Church must stand with those who live with physical limitation, working to insure that barriers to the fullness of life in education, employment, housing, transportation and communication are eliminated.

Sexual orientation has been used, in many cultures and societies, as a basis for the systematic denial of human rights including discrimination in housing and employment. Additionally persons who are or who are believed to be lesbian, gay or bisexual are often the objects of violence and oppression. The Church must stand with those persons whose human rights are abridged or denied on the basis of sexual orientation.

Women are collectively half of humanity; nevertheless recognition of their inherent dignity has long been denied. Through long entrenched patterns virtually every society denies women equal rights and full participation in community life and also subjects them to personal and institutional violence. Women are often the ones who suffer most as refugees, as victims of economic injustice and as members of ethnic, racial or religious groups under attack. The Church is called to affirm that women's rights are human rights and to stand with women in their struggles for equal status and opportunity, including the elimination of laws and patterns of conduct that deny women and girls their rights both in the Church and in the larger society.

E. Human Rights Requires the Preservation of Religious Liberty and Freedom of Conscience.

Human rights are rooted in and require the preservation of religious liberty. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights expresses the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and upholds the right to manifest such belief in community life. This principle was reinforced in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance Based on Religion or Belief, which opposes any abridgment of human rights and fundamental freedoms based on grounds of religion or belief, reminds us of the integral nature of religious freedom and freedom of expression, communication, and assembly. Christians understand that in the exercise of conscience, accountability is to God and not to human institutions. Despite these principles we witness around the world the historical struggles in the relation of religion to state and society repeating themselves and even finding new expressions. We see states seeking by law to define, control, or limit the practice of religion; coercive efforts to impose religious law or practice on all members of a society, regardless lf belief; patterns of religious radicalism, often linked to nationalism or ethnicity, finding expression in community violence; and ongoing conflict between religious communities. We are confronted by twin challenges: to foster appropriate relations between state and religious community and to oppose the religious fanaticism that has often led to great abuses of human rights. In response to these challenges the Council affirms the twin pillars of religious liberty: no establishment of religion by the state and the right of all persons to the free exercise of religion.

The Challenge to the Churches

The National Council of Churches of Christ has declared that it is the duty of Christians "to help create a worldwide community in which governments and people treat each other compassionately as members of one human family.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which…rights and freedoms…can be fully realized.” This duty and entitlement lead us to reaffirm the holistic and universal character of human rights, to renew our efforts for freedom, justice and peace, to work for a social order in which individuals, by nature part of community, can live in harmony and wholeness.

A. Reaffirms the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as elaborated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which in turn have been expanded on specifics, of women, religion, children, race, immigrants and refugees, torture and genocide as the essential minimum basic legal framework for its understanding of human rights, it freedoms and protections in the international arena.

B. Calls for repentance wherein the church by acts of omission or commission has contributed to the violations of human rights of individuals or groups.

C. Calls for interfaith dialogue on:

  • The nature and meaning of human rights
  • The patterns of inter-religious intolerance and practices that lead to interfaith conflict.

D. Recommits itself to work with its member communions and world-wide ecumenical partners for the attainment and protection of human rights for individuals and people through:

1. Support of the human rights and social development efforts of the United Nations, including:

  • codification of human rights standards and law,
  • establishment and strengthening of international instruments for their monitoring and implementation, including appropriate costs of adjudication of individual and state sponsored violations.
  • Implementation of sustainable environmental and developmental programs and laws as they are designed to provide the context in which human rights can be fulfilled;

2. Advocacy with the administrative, legislative and judicial branches of the United States government and its several states to enlist their full support and participation in the creation of that domestic and international context for the protection and extension of human rights, including:

  • The ratification of the basic international covenants dealing with human rights and the environment
  • Efforts, as required by such law, to guarantee the applicability of those rights and protections included therein not only for all citizens of the United States, but also for those who may live within its boundaries, whatever their status might be.
  • Active and balanced participation in the international processes that will help assure the implementation of the covenants and conventions in countries with which the United States deals;

3. Advocacy on behalf of those in the United States and around the world whose rights are being violated, including:

  • Response to appeals from our ecumenical partners in situations of political or religious oppression; - response where religious freedom and liberty are threatened by the practices and policies of state, where religious coercion exists, or where religious intolerance is prevalent;
  • Judicious and critical support for people's movements wherein oppressed peoples are justly claiming and seeking control of their destinies;
  • Continued cooperation with and support for those human rights advocacy groups whose efforts are in consonance with the intent and under-standings of the human rights commitments of the National Council of Churches in Christ.

4. Support of efforts in the United States and around the world to end the practices of prejudice and discrimination and intentional violence based upon religion, race, class, caste, age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and physical limitation.

5. Development of standards and practices which ensure that the Church in its own life and witness honors the integrity, humanity and rights of its members, its employees and all with whom it come in contact, and in doing so bears witness to its own foundational beliefs;

6. Continued focused attention on human rights, while also seeking to infuse human rights concerns into all its programmatic outreach, and its ecumenical and interfaith relations.

In the furtherance of these commitments the General Board calls upon its member communions to cooperate in the spirit reflected herein, and calls upon all people of all faiths to join with others of goodwill in working and praying for fullness of life for all.


Approved unanimously