Swimming upstream

Exodus 20:12-20

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, Karl Barth argues that the sanctified Christian is not called to live a mildly respectable life; he is 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 to insist on a justice based upon and driven by 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 a 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" become the top considerations?

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 22-23, New International Version

These devotional thoughts by Howard Culbertson appeared in Standard, a take-home curriculum piece for adult Sinday school classes.

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