Human Dignity: New Paradigm for Religious Liberty **

Precis: Human rights circumscribe the limits of legitimate authority (including majority rule) and are inalienable for any individual, that is, they cannot be taken from any individual. Since human rights are inalienable and are inherent possession of every individual, they are not given by authorities. Human rights are the pre-political possession of the individual rather … Continue reading “Human Dignity: New Paradigm for Religious Liberty **”


Human rights circumscribe the limits of legitimate authority (including majority rule) and are inalienable for any individual, that is, they cannot be taken from any individual. Since human rights are inalienable and are inherent possession of every individual, they are not given by authorities. Human rights are the pre-political possession of the individual rather than a gift or concession from governing authorities. Otherwise, the state may claim the right to take rights back from citizens. Such a proposition is consistent with the understanding that human rights is not a matter of state policy, it is a matter of universal moral principle…

Man as a being created in God’s image is as such inherently entitled to equal regard regardless of race, gender or social position. It demands impartiality in how persons are treated. Acknowledgment of human equality entails protection from harm and along with it the range of inalienable human rights including the right to respect, the right to life, and the right to certain freedoms exemplified by fundamental liberties or bill of rights enshrined in modern constitutionalism.   In this regard, rights cannot be lost or taken away.

In summary, recognizing human beings as created in the image of God entails (1) equal dignity and interdependence of man and woman; (2) personal rights such as equality, freedom and dignity of the individual; (3) social rights arising from interdependence of  community members in matters of justice; and (4) stewardship of creation.



I. Presuppositions and Social Realities
This paper is premised on three theses about the logical outcome of conventional Malaysian politics.

Thesis 1 – So long as Malaysian politics is negotiated on racial/religious terms, political discourse and public policies will increasingly become more Islamic. Only an Islam that undertakes a process of Ijtihad which reforms the Shariah Law can prevent the eventual emergence of an Islamic state. Itjihad is unacceptable to Sunni Islam practiced in Malaysia.

Thesis2 – Non-Muslims must reject the myth of monolithic identity of race and religion based politics (c.f. rebuttal by Amatya Sen, (Identity and Violence) and shift the terms of politics to one based on the human rights and equal citizenship in a modern pluralistic democracy.

Thesis 3 – Democratic rights are not just ideals but the outcome of political power, law and public policies enforced through social institutions. Furthermore, democracy practices can flourish only if it is supported by a strong civil society that nurtures democratic culture and democratic discipline.

This situation calls for a new paradigm of public discourse based on human rights and equal citizenship that can provide a robust social and moral critique of Islamic hegemony in a pluralistic society. It is important, however, that non-Muslim social critique goes beyond general rhetoric about the Islamic state. Muslims conveniently ignore such rhetoric by stigmatizing it and labeling it as so-called ‘Islamophobia’ and condescendingly suggest that non-Muslims have merely misunderstood Islam and should avoid confrontational political rhetoric.

The stigmatization is an obvious attempt to evade, if not, preclude genuine debate on a significant public policy. Hopefully, a new initiative with a positive agenda to strengthen the inalienable basic rights of all citizens as enshrined in the Constitution will encourage a genuine public debate that brings together Christian and Muslims.

Unfortunately, the Constitution as it stands is not sufficiently robust to guarantee the inviolability of equality and fundamental liberties of citizens. One can envisage how the provisions for fundamental liberties may – with one stroke – be seriously curtailed in the event Parliament under a dominant Islamic majority decides to insert a clause to prescribe that rights and liberties may be exercised only within the bounds of the Quran and Sunnah.

The current Constitutional provisions for fundamental liberties need to be supplemented by stronger guarantees such as a bill of rights (USA) or basic/fundamental law (Grundgesetz, cf. Germany) or a freedom charter (South Africa) to ensure the inviolability of human rights and fundamental liberties. Constitutional fundamental liberties would only then be truly inviolable, that is, they cannot be altered, diminished or removed by any government, even one that enjoys an absolute majority in Parliament.

Analytic theory of rights (in contrast to substantive theories of rights) since the ground-breaking work of Wesley Hohfeld focuses on conceptual analysis and formalizing rules and criteria of rational agency in contrast to traditional philosophy that seeks to derive human rights from understanding of human nature or natural law.

A helpful starting point is provided by Joseph Raz who highlights two important aspects of rights:

Definition: ‘X has a right’ if and only if X can have rights, and, other things being equal, an aspect of X’s well-being (his interest) is a sufficient reason for holding some other person(s) to be under a duty.
Capacity for possessing rights: An individual is capable of having rights if and only if either his well-being is of ultimate value or he is an ‘artificial person’ (e.g. a corporation). /1/

Alan Gewirth elaborates the formula “A has a right to ? against B in virtue of Y” the using following procedure: /2/

1) The agent to whom the rights are ascribed.
2) The feature of the agent which justify the ascription of such rules.
3) The nature of the objects, resources, states of affairs, forbearance, and the performance of duties which rights are rights to.
4) The range of individuals of institutions who have duties or obligations which correspond to the rights of other agents; that is to say, who and what has the duty to respect, implement or satisfy the rights which individuals have.

Ronald Dworkins additionally describes rights as ‘trumps’: To have a right to x is to be entitled to x. And if x is threatened or denied, right-holders are authorized to make special claims that ordinarily “trump” utility, social policy, and other moral or political grounds for action. /3/

When Dworkins uses the metaphor ‘trump’ he has in mind a situation when unjust practices are so embedded in the structures and practice of state authority that it has become necessary to invoke moral claims of the highest order represented by human rights. Human rights in this regard trump any other legislation in the event of conflict of interest. That is to say, human rights are the highest moral criteria to judge any legislation that claims to offer justice and welfare for any citizen.

Human rights are premised on a moral claim that everything must be done to ensure that people be supported in finding dignity and self-fulfillment. In other word, when we say someone is entitled to “x” , we mean that having “x” is essential for achieving a life that is more fully, if not truly human. Conversely, to deny someone of his human rights is to alienate him from his deepest moral nature. Put as a moral maxim: “You should treat a person as a human being so that the person becomes a full human being.”  The maxim then gains moral clarity when it gives a list of the rights that should be granted unconditionally to the person.

This leads to the third (operational) definition of human rights: Human rights are the legally codified recognition of the freedoms which must be allowed to and the resources which must be protected for each person in the society, which are to be arrived at by a just adjudication of competing legitimate claims in recognition of the independent responsibility and authority of human persons to pursue their callings. /4/

Human rights circumscribe the limits of legitimate authority (including majority rule) and are inalienable for any individual, that is, they cannot be taken from any individual. Since human rights are inalienable and are inherent possession of every individual, they are not given by authorities. Human rights are the pre-political possession of the individual rather than a gift or concession from governing authorities. Otherwise, the state may claim the right to take rights back from citizens. Such a proposition is consistent with the understanding that human rights is not a matter of state policy, it is a matter of universal moral principle.

II. Human Dignity [imago dei] and Human Vocation – The Basis for Individual Right
The rigor of the discussion given above can be impressive. However, it cannot be denied that for all the rigorous analysis, there is no agreement on how the condition of rational agency is adequate in supporting claims of rights and how one defines the goods that presumably accompany these rights. Alasdair McIntyre gives a succinct analysis of the problem with analytical philosophy of human rights.

One reason why claims about goods necessary for rational agency are so different from claims to the possession of rights is that the latter in fact presuppose, as the former do not, the existence of a socially established set of rules. Such a set of rules only come into existence at particular historical periods, under particular social circumstances. They are in no way universal features of the human condition. . . . Lacking any such social form, the making of a claim to a right would be like presenting a check for payment in a social order that lacked the institution of money. Thus Gewirth has illicitly smuggled into his argument a conception which does not belong, as it must do if his case is to succeed, to the characterization of a rational agent. /5/

A more disturbing question remains unanswered, “Why should we respect the person’s nature in the first place?”  Jack Donnelly admits to the problem in answering this question without recourse to theological language when he writes,

The source of human rights is man’s moral nature, which is only loosely linked to the “human nature” defined by scientifically ascertainable needs. The “human nature” that grounds human rights is a prescriptive moral account of human possibility. The scientist’s human nature says that beyond this we cannot go. The moral nature that grounds human rights says that beneath this we must not permit ourselves to fall. /6/

Perhaps, Donnelly’s scientific agnosticism and legal positivism veto is premature, or at least it ignores fruitful resources from his own western tradition found in Immanuel Kant’s rational capacity theory. According to Kant, human beings have the unique ability to define moral purposes of his own that ought to be respected. To use Kantian terminology, each person is an end in itself. Treating a person as an end in himself or respecting his dignity demands that the state protects the person’s moral choice or freedom. This would mean the state must set up restrictions as to how other individuals including the state, may interfere with the freedom of the moral agent. The end result would be a sufficient list of rights.

A fruitful example on how to develop the list is to work from the foundation of autonomy and well-being. On this foundation may be developed negative rights that protect the person from interference, and positive rights that ensure access to resources necessary to live a life of well-being and consistent moral action.

The Christian also rejects the positivistic veto from evident in Donnelly and seeks to appropriate the moral resources from the Kantian tradition. But bearing in mind the criticism from McIntyre, Christians would argue that reflection on human rights should go beyond philosophical analysis and make explicit the theological sources that fed the moral intuitions Kant himself drew from (after all, is not Kant merely a secularized form of Christian morality?). The Christian explicitly grounds human rights on the concept that man is created in God’s image. For the Christian, respect and regard for human life arises from the dignity that comes from the fact that God has given humans dominion over all things – investing in them the authority to represent or image his righteous rule over creation(Gen 1:26-28 and Psa. 8:4-8).

Abraham Kuyper concurs and points out that if all human life is immediately laid before God,

. . . then it follows that all men and women, rich or poor, weak or strong, dull or talented, as creatures of God, and as lost sinners, have no claim whatsoever to lord it over one another, and that we stand as equals before God, and consequently equal as man to man. Hence we cannot recognize any distinction among men, save such as has been imposed by God himself, in that He gave one authority over the other, or enriched one with more talents than the other, in order that the man of more talents should serve the man with less, and in him serve God. /7/

Man as a being created in God’s image is as such inherently entitled to equal regard regardless of race, gender or social position. It demands impartiality in how persons are treated. Acknowledgment of human equality entails protection from harm and along with it the range of inalienable human rights including the right to respect, the right to life, and the right to certain freedoms exemplified by fundamental liberties or bill of rights enshrined in modern constitutionalism. /8/  In this regard, rights cannot be lost or taken away.

In summary, recognizing human beings as created in the image of God entails (1) equal dignity and interdependence of man and woman; (2) personal rights such as equality, freedom and dignity of the individual; (3) social rights arising from interdependence of  community members in matters of justice; and (4) stewardship of creation.

III. Covenant Solidarity and Human Rights
The image of God becomes most evident in the unique human capacity to respond to God’s offer of covenant relationship. To echo Robert Jenson, human distinctiveness is simply that we are related to God as his conversational counterpart. Because God speaks to us, we know he is personal. As we answer him, we too are personal. Put in contemporary language, human rights arise not just from human nature or from human need for community. Human rights are entailment of the dignity and duty of membership in God’s covenant.

Human vocation (answering to the call of God) gains a deepening dimension with the covenantal requirement of the love command. Moral duty to fellowmen (horizontal dimension) is now informed by respect for personhood and obedience to the love command of God (vertical dimensions). That is to say, covenant membership is the presupposition of membership in a social or political community. This being the case Christian discussion on human dignity and human rights must assume a social dimension; discussion must move from personal rights to social justice.

It is granted that how human rights are conceived and implemented may be conditioned (but not created) by different forms of social life. However, this need not suggest rights are morally relative or that rights are not universal principles. The demand to choose between universal principles and particular social norms is false necessity.  There is not need to preempt the possibility that different local forms of life can more or less adequately reflect universal principles of justice so that each particular form of social life is able to protect the individual freedom and against oppression of one by another. The community may express a pattern of life that is historical situated but it should still be able to embody laws and institutions that reflect divine justice.

It is also granted that the individual person achieves fulfillment in the context of interaction between individual nature and social nurture, or that personal fulfillment of a person’s “nature” develops through social action and social relationships. Since human rights flow from the demands of human nature, human rights must therefore be exercised to benefit the common good. As such, there are necessary, albeit secondary qualifications in how human rights may be exercised. The individual possesses absolute inalienable rights, but the exercise of such rights are conditioned and limited by the demands of mutual obligation and social justice. In this regard, an adequate discussion on human rights must move beyond abstract principles and analyze how social institutions both form, shape, sustain and circumscribe how human rights are exercised in a given society. /9/

As Jack Donnelly puts it, “based on a moral vision of human nature, human rights set the limits and requirements of social (especially state) action. But the state and society, guided by human rights, play a major role in realizing that “nature”. When human rights claims bring legal and political practice into line with their demands, they create the type of person posited in that moral vision.

Not surprisingly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is complemented by additional protocols that address social issues since every individual is inevitably a member of social  groups ranges from family to clubs to political society. In this regard the protocols address issues of social and political rights, discriminations of social groups and abuse of power by powerful authorities.

Donnelly gives a fitting balance between the dialectic between the individual and the social group and its significance for human rights:

The very ideas of respecting and violating human rights rest on the idea of the individual as part of a larger social enterprise. Rights-bearing individuals alone cannot effectively implement their rights. Alone, individuals cannot make for themselves a life worthy of human beings. Any plausible account of human dignity must include membership in society. . . . Nonetheless, a human rights conception of human dignity and political legitimacy rests on the fact that human beings have an essential, irreducible moral worth and dignity independent of the social groups to which they belong and the social roles that they occupy. /10/

In this regard, one of the most significant inadequacies of much Christian discussion of human rights is the failure to analyze the nature of social institution and how these institutions fulfill distributive justice in allocation of material goods and cultural resources. What is suggested is that human rights need to go beyond social ethics that elucidates criteria of good and bad and develop a political ethic of human rights that analyze how laws and social institutions shape social interactions and how society may be modeled that best promote social justice.

IV. Role of State and Limits of Government
Human rights pertain to the individual is pre-political. Still, it is vital that protocols of human rights be clearly established so to avoid conflict of interests, especially between the individual and the political institutions of society.

In claiming that human rights are pre-political we are rejecting the idea of the Hobbesian social contract where people jointly establish a political authority and give most of their rights to this authority in order to gain security absent in the state of nature where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. Obviously, the end result is an authoritarian government that is at best benevolent, but more often than not exploitative and at whose behest citizens may enjoy some measure of rights – a very precarious political existence indeed.

A more promising defence of human rights may be that proposed by John Locke and the subsequent tradition of [secularized] social contract that followed him. For Locke, God created man for the purpose of service. But man cannot serve well unless he enjoys protection for our life, liberty and property, that is, he enjoys natural rights to these goods with the understanding that he accords the same rights to other men who are also required to fulfill their own vocations. These natural rights are rights claimed on the basis of natural law, that is, God’s law prescribed to all men at creation.

Contrary to common perception that Lockean liberalism means unfettered individualism and freedom/libertarianism, Locke argues for limited freedom as the premise for responsible freedom that was already an essential form of human relationships before the social contract. In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke notes that a person is involved with various types of authority such as that of the magistrate over the citizen and the father over the family. For Locke, only state authority –exemplified by the magistrate –had its origins in the social contract.

On the one hand, the power of the state came from an original social contract. However, only part of a person’s right is surrendered to the state in the contract, or rather, because humans themselves are able to exercise limited powers, he can only transfer limited powers to the state.
The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule. The liberty of man, in society, is to be under no other legislative power, but that established, by consent, in the commonwealth; nor under the dominion of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact, according to the trust put in it. . . . for a man, not having the power of his own life, cannot, by compact, or his own consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases. No body can give more power than he has himself; and he that cannot take away his own life, cannot give another power over it. /11/

That is to say, there are limits to what man can give away in the compact. More importantly, humans are still required to discharge his pre-political (state of nature) obligations such as neighborly love, honor of truth and belief in God. Neither can humans give power that is not theirs such as the power to kill oneself since such power belongs to God alone. If humans have limited powers themselves, they can only transfer limited power to the state. The state must always be limited. The contrast between Locke and Hobbes is only too clear since for Hobbes men in the state of nature exercised unlimited rights and consequently they also transfer all rights and power to the state. Locke provides a rationale for limited state while Hobbes envisages the state as the embodiment of all human rights transfer to it. One may note the irony that Locke’s view of the limited human pre-political powers led to a limited state and relative political freedom.

Locke may be seen as the source if not precursor of modern concept of “inalienable right” – a form of right that cannot be taken away by the state. That is to say, such rights are both inherent and cannot be separated from a person. Put in Locke’s logic, since a right is inalienable, it cannot be transferred or given up or forfeited. /12/

The conclusion of this discussion is that the legitimacy of the state is measured by how far it protects human rights. Human rights become a benchmark of political legitimacy. Conversely, human rights become a legitimate platform for activism for social change, Human rights are implicit in all political action, but politic action makes explicit the prior moral claims of human rights.

V. Religious human Rights and the Secular State
A sense of moral realism is necessary to forestall any attempt by the ruling authorities to gain unchecked power.  Christianity here has the obvious advantage of having a profound sense of human fallenness. Reinhold Niebuhr declares that “Man made in God’s image makes democracy possible. Man as fallen makes democracy necessary.” That is to say, because human beings are created in the image of God, he possesses the capacity to practice democracy.  Conversely, because of his fallenness and capacity to do evil democracy becomes a necessity. The corollary is the necessity that the power of government be limited and kept in place.

Richard Neuhaus echoes similar concerns in his argument for a limited government.

Democratic government is limited government. It is limited in the claims it makes and in the power it seeks to exercise. Democratic government understands itself to be accountable to values and truth which transcend any regime or party. . . . In addition, limited government means a clear distinction between the state and society. The state is not the whole of society, but is one important actor of society. Other institutions – notably the family, the Church, educational, economic and cultural enterprises – are at least equally important actors in the society. They do not exist or act by sufferance of the state. Rather, these spheres have their own peculiar sovereignty which must be respected by the state. /13/

The state must respect the pluralistic nature of modern society with its mingling of diverse cultures and religions. Any attempt to impose a uniform public morality can only result in injustice to minority groups. Government is limited in the enforcement of public morality, even though some common good may thereby be served. The violation of minority rights is likely to occur if the state goes beyond moral influence and applies force to coerce citizens to conform to a homogeneous culture.

The State must be reminded that its duty is to promote a social condition conducive to the common good. It is the duty of the state to restrain evil, combat violence, theft and fraud. In this regard, the rampant spread of crime in Malaysian society in recent times testifies to the dismal failure of the government in discharging its duty. If we may dare say, the Malaysian state appears guilty when measured against Augustine’s pronouncement that a state without justice is just a big band of robbers. “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? But what are robberies themselves but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by a pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on it.”

The state works through external structures, laws and institutions. It may demand conformity to its rules and policies; it may command respect but it cannot enforce love. The well-known ethicist, Charles West puts it simply yet profoundly, “The state can provide the structure of the loom but it cannot weave the cloth. Faithfulness in marriage, family responsibility, personal community across ethnic lines, integrity in business, a spirit of public service, a sense of justice above interest, concern for the poor and disadvantage can all be encouraged by laws and public policy, but they cannot be enforced.”

The state must see itself as only one institution among many institutions of wider society that also includes schools, the market, the church and NGOs of civil society. The state may sometimes adjudicate conflicts of interest when authorities from one institution transgress into another, such as when a local government denies parents the right to educate their children at home and insists that children be educated only in state-sponsored schools. Still, in the end, the state’s intervention must be minimal and the state must respect the legitimate authority of other institutions of society. We should not ask the state to do more than it ought to. It is important that we learn from history which provides many examples of the disastrous consequences of state intervention into other social institutions, whether it is economic collapse in the case of Marxism or religious persecution in the case of many authoritarian religions a few centuries ago.

How then do human rights define the parameters of state authority? Negatively, it limits the scope of state interference in many areas of personal and collective lives of citizens. Positively, human rights empowers citizens with political power expressed as rights to vote, freedom to form association in civil society, free to speech and participation in the process of making public policies in government institutions.

To achieve this, the state is required to set up judicial procedures and just protocols with respect to the police, judicial and civil services. What is called for is not just negative restraints to the power of the state which is often tempted to exercise intrusive and coercive powers that intimidate citizens, but positive initiatives from the state to create an ethos that nurtures and develops an active, engaged, autonomous citizens. Indeed, the state must go further than tolerate diversity of political opinion among its citizenry. It should find ways to institutionalize diversity and even dissent against itself that includes the possibility of transfer of political power through peaceful democratic means.

When the state respects the integrity of different social institutions of society, the most fundamental outcome will be a government that accepts limits in the regulation of religious life. That is to say, government must limit its power to the secular sphere and not assume a religious mantle. The Latin term saeculum (from which the word ‘secular’ comes) means pertaining to temporal matters. The call for a secular state is to remind state authorities in a democratic society that the electoral mandate given to them in elections only pertains to temporal matters in society. Jacque Maritain, the chairman of the committee that drafted the United Nation’s Charter of Human Rights elaborates,

The body politic has the right and the duty to promote among its citizens, mainly through education, the human and temporal – and essentially practical – creed on which depend national communion and civil peace. It has no right, as a merely temporal or secular body, enclosed in the sphere where the modern State enjoys its autonomous authority, to impose on the citizens or to demand from them a rule of faith or a conformism of reason, a philosophical or religious creed which would present itself as the only possible justification of the practical charter through which the people’s common secular faith expresses itself. The important thing for the body politic is that the democratic sense be in fact kept alive by the adherence of minds, however diverse, to this moral charter. The ways and the justifications by means of which this common adherence is brought about pertain to the freedom of minds and consciences. /14/

The warning is clear: a state that demands religious allegiance turns itself into an idol since it has demanded an ultimate loyalty that is due to God alone. In any case, a faith that is coerced is a false faith.

A secular state adopts religious neutrality in a pluralistic society. Acceptance of plurality is a vital prerequisite for building overlapping consensus among citizens with different ideologies and religious beliefs. In this respect, pluralist democracy provides manageable platforms for the resolution of differences among citizens. That being the case, there should be a separation between religious and state institutions to ensure that national consensus is one that emerges from grass root interaction rather than one that is imposed from above.

The rationale for non-interference by the state is that undeniable reality that there is no consensus on adoption of a single system of belief or comprehensive way of life in the modern world. If there is no agreement and given the basic acceptance of the moral equality of all human beings, then the principle of tolerance should prevail and individual citizens should be allowed to determine what belief and religion they want for themselves. Such religious freedom should include the following components: 1) liberty of conscience; 2) freedom of religion; 3) religious equality; 4) separation of church and state; and 5) non-establishment of religion. These components cannot be reduced to just one or another but they complement one another to weave an ethos of religious freedom and religious pluralism. /15/

VI. Basic Elements of a Christian Political Perspective
Christians often look to Romans 13 to answer questions on relation between church and state. Some appeal to the passage to argue for unqualified submission to the authorities. I find this rather troubling since such a recommendation ignores the dynamic nature of the state that can swing from being God’s servant (Romans 13) to being a demonic state demanding ultimate allegiance and worship from its subjects (Revelation 13). But what is stated clearly in Romans 13 is that the state is merely a servant of God and thereby possesses only limited authority is correct. Likewise, the state – being merely one created institution amongst other divinely installed institutions (family, school, market and church) – means that it must respect and refrain from infringing other spheres of human authority.

1) The primary social task of the church is to be itself – that is, a people who have been formed by a story that provides them with the skills for negotiating the dangers of this existence, trusting in God’s promise of redemption./16/  The church must resist two temptations:
a) Subjecting the gospel to ‘righteous’ anger, lending itself as the instrument of political/ideological struggle. Charles West has given us a pertinent challenge:

The theological affirmation of God’s right to, i.e. his claim upon human beings, as the foundation of human rights, opens the perspective of God’s free grace as the ultimate perspective, transcending all our achievements and failures. This is particularly important for our struggles in the areas of human rights. It prevents us from despairing in situations of overwhelming and frustrating setbacks, as we confront them in our contemporary world. At the same time, it prevents our involvement in the struggle for human rights from becoming a self-righteous justification by works, rather than a thorough-going repentance and self-giving investment in justice and freedom as a response to our having been justified by God’s grace alone. /17/

b) Accepting the terms on which the state allows them an undisturbed existence so long as it remains isolated from the concerns of society. The end result would be that the church legitimizes the status quo. To quote West again, “the church of Jesus Christ is called to be the church for the world, not the servant of one of the world’s powers.” /18/
We affirm the clarion call from Bonhoeffer when he insisted that the individual’s duty to obey the state is presumed until the state directly compels him to offend against the divine commandment, that is to say, until the state openly denies its divine commission to enforce social justice and protect the freedom and dignity of the individual and forcefully suppresses the gospel. At this point, Christians must choose to disobey for conscience sake and in obedience to the Great Commission.

3) Realistic Social Engagement. Christians must avoid naïve political outlook and must not pretend that they are pure and immune from the temptations of power. Still, the church cannot avoid being in the world even though it may not be of the world. The church must engage politics in a ‘secular’ manner, that is, rooted in concrete historical realities and yet, while recognizing that notwithstanding its mixed motives, it will seek to project Christ’s lordship into the search for a proper structure of justice and peace in society.

The church should acknowledge that no human form of government is perfect, and all are necessarily under constant scrutiny in terms of the processes which they have promoted and do promote, and the processes which they counter and negate. As human rights are inter-related, and are also subject to ongoing historical processes, their fulfillment, negation or violation by any group or agencies or even churches, have to be judged in a similar manner. Structures created by human beings are in constant danger of becoming self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling, and hence of becoming idols – in a truly biblical sense.

4)  A Christian approach to civic responsibility balances both Kingdom Justice and the Gospel of Peace in order to distinguish responsible from irresponsible political action. Pursuing justice without peace only perpetuates social conflict. Accepting peace without justice amounts to capitulation to a hegemonic power. Politics is judged on moral terms derived from a transcendent authority (God).

Christian political analysis must be rooted in local history and social context. This requires sensitivity to the ever changing dynamic equilibrium between the competing power groups in society. Demands for both individual rights and community rights must take into account the enduring principles that were foundational when the founding fathers of the nation agreed in a social-legal contract at Independence (1957) and formation of Malaysia (1963)

We must deal with the full reality of politics and government in the contemporary world. Public policies must be supported by public arguments that go beyond simplistic quoting of scriptures (Biblical or Quranic), naïve moralism or mindless ethnic nationalism. We cannot work for anything less than a cosmopolitan, pluralist democracy.

This calls for a hermeneutical retrieval of Christian political theory that was vigorously developed in church history. I have in mind the Christian understanding of Statecraft which is defined as the “art of careful reasoning, judging, and acting in the process of making, executing, and adjudicating public laws.” Good statecraft depends on insight into God’s creation (including human nature), which is an order unfolding through the history of countless human generations.

If the Christian community fails to pool together its intellectual resources to inform its social engagement, it will by default remain divided and confused by the conflicting political dogmas and buffeted by social currents. It will easily be intimidated by hostile political groups and passively accept a political agenda that is imposed on it and remain ineffective with its ad hoc and piecemeal participation in national politics. The challenge to develop a Christian a political perspective that is coherent, integral, and comprehensive is indeed urgent. The fruitfulness of such a project is promising. Christian witness demands nothing less than the fulfillment of a contextualized Christian political theology that can assist citizens in their defence of freedom and justice.

APPENDIX – Human Rights in Social Context
A Map of Institutional Sectors of Society Based On Universal Human Needs

Human Rights Social Context Stackhouse


1. Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom (OUP 1986), p. 166.
2. Raymond Plant, Modern Political Thought (Blackwell, 1991) p. 260.
3. Ronald Dworkins, Taking Rights Seriously (Harvard UP 1977), xi.
4. Paul Marshall, Human Rights Theories in Christian Perspective (Institute for Christian Studies 1983).
5. Alasdair McIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Duckworth 1985), p. 85.
6. Jack Donnelly, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. (Cornell UP 2005), p. 14.
7. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Eerdmans  1931), pp. 20, 28
8. Constitutionalism refers to a system of political arrangements where the political system is government by supreme law (called “constitution”). The constitution ensures separation of power, checks and balances and an independent judiciary to safeguard the supremacy of the constitution. In short, “constitution is thought of as an instrument by which government can be controlled. Constitutions spring from a belief in limited government.” See K.C. Wheare, Modern Constitutions (OUP 1966), p. 7.
Louis Henkin defines constitutionalism as comprising the following elements: (1) government according to the constitution; (2) separation of power; (3) sovereignty of the people and democratic government; (4) constitutional review; (5) independent judiciary; (6) limited government subject to a bill of individual rights; (7) controlling the police; (8) civilian control of the military; and (9) no state power, or very limited and strictly circumscribed state power, to suspend the operation of some parts of, or the entire, constitution. (See, Henkin, 2000.) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Human Rights”.
9. A helpful grid for analyzing human rights in social context is offered by Max Stackhouse in his book Creeds and Human Rights (Eerdmans 1982). See diagram in the appendix.
10. Jack Donelly, Universal Human Rights, p. 26-27)
11. John Locke Second Treatise on Government, 4, Sect. 22, 23
12. See Paul Marshall, Human Rights Theories in Christian Perspective.
13. John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square (Eerdmans, 1984), p. 90.
14. Jacques Maritain, Man and the State (Uni. Chicago Press, 1951), pp. 111-112.
15. Jacques Maritain offers a helpful perspective on religious pluralism.: “To me this principle signifies that, in order to avoid greater evils (that is, the ruin of the society’s peace and either the petrification or the disintegration of consciences), the commonweal could and should tolerate (to tolerate is not to approve) ways of worship more or less distant from the true one: the rites of the unfaithful must be tolerates, St. Thomas Aquinas taught (Sum. Theol. 11-11. 10.11); ways of worship, and then also ways of conceiving the meaning of life and modes of behavior; and that in consequence the various spiritual groups which live within the body politic should be granted a particular juridical status which the legislative power of the commonweal itself in its political wisdom would adapt on the one hand to their condition and, on the other, to the general line of legislation leading toward virtuous life, and to the prescriptions of the moral law, to the full realization of which it should endeavor to direct as far as possible this diversity of form” (Humanisme Integral, pp. 172-73; True Humanism, pp. 160-61.” Jacques Maritain, Man and the State, (Uni. Chicago, 1952), p. 170.
16. Philip Wogaman. Christian Perspectives on Politics (SCM 1988), p. 127.
17. Charles West, “Christian Witness to Political Power and Authority,” in Missiology 9 (1981) p. 439.
18. Ibid., p.436.


** This article was first published as “Human Dignity and Religious Liberty” in Religious Liberty After 50 Years of Independence (National Evangelical Christian Fellowship [NECF] 2008).

2 thoughts on “Human Dignity: New Paradigm for Religious Liberty **”

  1. Thanks Bro for this and it is much needed! How can we organize a rational and philosophical dialogue on this with our open Muslim friends?

  2. Good paper. It is first necessary to get the Christians and their leaders on the same page in order for them to be more effective in engaging the politics for a fairer and secular state. It would also be good to include the other religious groups in this discourse. The process of engaging the predominantly Muslim establishment is made harder with the PM’s statement that human rights is not for Malaysia.

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