What relevance do the Ten Commandments have for the global push for human rights?

Swimming upstream

Exodus 20:12-20

20 12 "Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
13 "You shall not murder.
14 "You shall not commit adultery.
15 "You shall not steal.
16 "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
17 "You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor."

18 When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19 and said to Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die."

20 Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning."

Week 45 (November)

The worldwide drive for human rights did not originate with the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter as U.S. president, nor with the Helsinki agreements in 1975. It did not originate in 1948 with the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, nor even with the ratification of the U.S. Bill of Rights in 1791.

The concern for human rights first found expression in the basic national law for the Israelite nation. It was revealed by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. In Exodus 21-23 God speaks clearly concerning the rights of individual persons. He gives Moses laws of justice and mercy including the punishment of criminals and restitution for wrongdoing. There are laws regarding social responsibility, including the care of the poor and the education of the young.

Interestingly enough, this whole section of basic laws for a nation is concerned almost entirely with what we call "domestic affairs." As to national security or foreign policy, the Lord tells Moses: "My angel will go ahead of you .... I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run."1

Today the priorities of most governments seem to be the reverse of those God gave to Moses. Military strength, foreign policy, and national security appear to be the Number One priorities of most modern nations.

In our world, we Christians must remember that principles of human rights -- not national security -- are at the heart of God's revealed law.

In a collection of essays titled Against the Stream, Swiss theologian Karl Barth argued that sanctified Christians are not called to live mildly respectable lives. Rather, they are called to swim against the stream, to witness to God's judgment over the status quo of this world. Indeed, even a casual glance around our globe will quickly reveal that insisting on justice based upon biblical principles is to swim upstream.

It's difficult to swim against the current. It's easier to close our eyes even when violations of human rights occur in our own backyards-and say, "It doesn't involve me; there's nothing I can do about it anyway."

Too often the church has been guilty of letting the world squeeze it into its mold. In his book The Comfortable Pew, Pierre Barton criticized the church's "abdication of leadership," its failure to call people to a life of Christian action in the world.

This doesn't mean I am espousing a particular political viewpoint. But I do think I should ask myself some questions. Are my political choices consistent with the biblical concern for human rights? What are the main topics of my political conversations with other people? Do they reflect a concern for individual rights in the spirit of Exodus 21-23? Or do I find myself being forced out of biblical principles into a worldly mold where "national interests" or something else becomes the top consideration?

What about my local church? Could it be considered a model community where every individual has the same rights? Does my local church utilize whatever clout it may have in my city or town to insist on individual rights? Do we have a reputation in the community as a church that really cares about people?

"Do not mistreat . . . Do not take advantage . . . Do not pervert justice . . . Do not show favoritism . . ."2

These are the words of the Lord. They must be the principles that guide our political choices and action.

1Exodus 23:23, 27, New International Version
2Exodus 23:1-9, New International Version

These devotional meditations by Howard Culbertson were published in Standard, a weekly take-home curriculum piece for adult Sinday school classes published by what is now called The Foundry.

    -- Howard Culbertson


Other devotional articles:    Year-long series in Standard    Reflections based on illustrations from ham radio     Are you ready for Christmas?     Come Ye Apart     Devotionals about pastors

Rookie Notebook: Our first nine months as missionaries in Italy     10/40 Window map and explanation     Seeking God's will?    African martyr's commitment     Mission trip fundraising    Ten ways to ruin mission trips   Nazarene Missions International resources