“We share a hope, if not a conviction, that human life is exceedingly valuable.”
I remember hearing the term “inalienable human rights” when I was in social studies class as a kid, usually in reference to the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which asserts that all people “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Whether in the context of inalienable rights or human rights in general, we currently live in a very activism-oriented culture that throws around these terms on the daily with great gusto.
This is especially true in moments where society experiences crises – school shootings being one pertinent example, but not the only one – that cause us pain in the realization that a human life (or many, in these situations) has been degraded and destroyed by another human. We say that people who have experienced harm and injustice have had their “rights infringed upon,” whether we mean an unborn child losing their right to live, a person of color losing their right to dignity, or a woman losing her right to education.
The thing that often gets ignored and overlooked in these discussions is that none of this even matters if our human rights are not inalienable. And the reason why it hurts us and tugs on our conscience when human rights are infringed upon is because we know that those rights are inalienable. The word inalienable, according to Merriam-Webster, means “incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred,” and the Oxford dictionary defines it similarly: “Not subject to being taken away from or given away by the possessor.” They are rights inherent to our very being as people.
So even when we say that someone “infringed upon” our rights, we don’t mean that they actually took them away from us; we mean that they disregarded and disrespected them. Inalienable rights can be suppressed. They can be ignored. The culmination or manifestation of them can be denied. But it isn’t possible for inalienable rights, as they are ascribed to the innermost being of human persons, to be taken away or destroyed by other people.
It is imperative that we understand what this means on a deeper level. If human beings cannot take rights away from themselves or from others, it means that human beings do not give themselves or others those rights, either. Human rights do not find their origin in human beings. They are not derived from human beings. If they were given or determined by human beings, it would inevitably mean they could be taken away by human beings.
So where do they come from?
In the very beginning of Genesis (the very beginning of the world itself), God made mankind in His own image. The language and tone changes from the start of this verse, contrasting the gravity of the creation of mankind with the creation of rocks, birds, light, the sea, and so on:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27 ESV)
The editors of the ESV Study Bible explain what it means to be created in God’s image: “Traditionally, the image has been seen as the capacities that set man apart from the other animals – ways in which humans resemble God, such as in the characteristics of reason, morality, language, a capacity for relationships governed by love and commitment, and creativity in all forms of art. All these insights can be put together by observing that the resemblances allow mankind to represent God in ruling.” Being created in the image of God gives human beings a certain dignity and ability to transcendentally love, reason, and act far beyond the capability of the rest of creation. This is the essential Christian doctrine of Imago Dei (“Image of God”).
A human’s inherent rights and dignity cannot be removed from them – and are well worth fighting for, as far as activism goes – because they are created and sustained by the God who created and sustains the universe. An attack on them is an attack on the image of God; and He takes it personally, which is why sinful acts against others, particular murder, are treated with severity in the law of God.
This truth is what makes rights inalienable. Firm. Stable. Immovable. And not only does it give us greater reason to champion the rights of others (though because of our sin, we so often get confused about what rights we do and do not have), but it also gives us peace in the midst of those efforts. We know that no matter how greatly the manifestations of human dignity can be suppressed, the very dignity of humanity in and of itself is not in danger. This removes power from those who think themselves capable and justified of “removing” the rights of others when they were never in a place to do so. And it also gives the rest of us a moral obligation to care when rights are infringed upon.
But I also have to say that if we don’t have this basis for human rights, we are being inconsistent when we say that we care for them. If you believe that human beings are nothing more than balls of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and phosphorus; or that our person is accidental and only a figment of imagination; or that we have no real transcendental claim of dignity and eternal purpose outside of our evolutionary potential; then you don’t get to be a champion of human rights. You may look and act like one, and you may genuinely want to be one, but you have no real way of explaining why.
You cannot say that morals are relative or that we all decide our own truth and then care when someone goes on a murderous rampage through their school. Who are you to say that it was wrong for them to do so? What basis do you have to object to murder when you believe the world progresses and adapts through the process of natural selection? It wouldn’t be inconsistent with your worldview to think that in that situation, the only significant thing that happened was that the strong survived. The shooter asserted their immediate power over the rest of the “pack.”
You cannot say that you care about the personal fulfillment of women and their ability to seek a life outside of motherhood if you believe the base instinct and purpose of humanity is to reproduce and do what it takes to survive. If that were true, why would you have a problem with it being said that women are only being good for making babies and giving birth to them?
I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you. I just think it’s absolutely ridiculous and grossly hypocritical for people to base their lives on two contradictory systems of thought and morality.
The thing is, this criticism applies to both sides of the spectrum. It applies to people who hold to secular worldviews and think themselves to be pious for not being shackled to a religion, but who devote themselves to the battle for human rights and fulfillment. And I’m also referencing people who claim to hold a Christian worldview, but who care very little about protecting and respecting the dignity of other human beings.
Neither have a way to truthfully and consistently explain themselves – either for acting on their inherent conscience or for suppressing it. Neither are being true to the worldview or philosophy they claim to revere. Both would do well to examine themselves and decide whether or not they’re willing to base their lives on such tumultuous inconsistency.
“May the name of God
be praised forever and ever,
for wisdom and power belong to him.
He changes the times and seasons;
he removes kings and establishes kings.
He gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those
who have understanding.
He reveals the deep and hidden things;
he knows what is in the darkness,
and light dwells with him.”
– Daniel 2:20-22 CSB –
More resources on this topic:
Short video explanation by Voddie Baucham – “Imago Dei: The Basis for Human Rights”