Why Baptists Should Be Advocates for Human Rights


Eleanor Roosevelt with a Spanish-language version of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949.

Voltaire's formulation about the indispensability of God has been applied frequently to the United Nations, "If the United Nations did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it."

The U.N.'s charter was signed in June 1945 and went into effect the following October. Its purpose was to promote peace following World War II.

It was a different time with new post-war boundaries and alliances setting the stage for the following decades of competing political systems.

Former allies waged a Cold War. Colonies broke away from the Northern and Western powers, though self-determination has yet to be fully realized because of the legacy of colonialization now manifest in its offspring globalization.

These new realities created more, not less tension.

International bodies like the U.N. continue to be the gathering place for states and stakeholders interested in peace to work together toward common goals or reach compromises when common ground cannot be found.

Similarly, the U.N. plays a vital role on the issue of human rights.

Within six months of the U.N.'s founding, the newly formed international body of countries sets out to articulate a basic set of statements describing the rights of all persons.

The Commission on Human Rights, chaired by former United States First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, gathered documentation from various stakeholders including member states and nongovernmental organizations in order to draw up the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The adoption of the Universal Declaration at the third session of the U.N. meeting in Paris on Dec. 10, 1948, was a watershed moment.

These fundamental human rights were, for the first time, considered universal rights that all U.N. member countries were committed to protect.

However, it is still legitimate to ask, what does the U.N. have to do with me?

Criticism about exploding budgets, unwieldy and burgeoning organizational structures and questionable effectiveness is valid.

Calls for reform of the U.N. are becoming more common and not only among fiscal conservatives.

As important as these points are, they are beyond the scope of this article. The two questions I want to address are: What impact does the Universal Declaration have? And do we as Baptist Christians have any business involving ourselves in advocating for human rights?

What impact does the Universal Declaration have? The Universal Declaration is not able to guarantee equality to every person. It is, however, a standard that all countries have agreed represents minimum rights belonging to every person.

It is telling that the influence of the declaration has been greater in more recent times than it was immediately after its adoption. It was only in 2006 that the U.N. Human Rights Council was established.

One way the council monitors human rights is through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a regular assessment of every country's record on protecting the rights articulated in the Universal Declaration.

I was present at a recent training session for representatives from Central Asia on the topic of human rights, specifically the Universal Declaration's Article 18 that guarantees freedom of religion or belief for all.

A majority of the Christians at the meeting learned for the first time that international law, embodied in the Universal Declaration, provided for them a right that their own countries regularly violate.

For this group of believers, some of whom had suffered violent abuse and intense oppression because of their faith, the Universal Declaration was an inspiration and source of encouragement.

Let me be clear: For each of these Christians, their hope was clearly in Jesus Christ as Lord.

Still, their experience of persecution for their faith and the knowledge that the Universal Declaration not only addresses their situation but also provides remedies via the UPR process instilled a renewed hope that they will be able to improve their situation.

Such testimony reminds us that we still have work to do; many organizations are involved in the pursuit of human rights, which we can support and participate within these efforts.

The Baptist World Alliance's (BWA's) Division of Mission, Evangelism and Justice has compiled a list of more than 700 organizations involved with human rights and justice work. BWA worship resources for Human Rights Day 2017 are available here.

The BWA also addresses critical situations on a case-by-case basis when members of our global Baptist family are wrongly imprisoned for practicing their faith.

The United States Committee for International Religious Freedom is an independent, bipartisan commission charged with monitoring freedom of religion or belief internationally. The committee makes recommendations to Congress and the president about U.S. policy.

This brings us to our second question: Do we as Baptist Christians have any business involving ourselves in advocating for human rights?

Returning to the recent conference in Central Asia, the issue of evangelism was brought up.

Specifically, "Is it a violation of human rights if we preach against certain sins?" Let me assure you that the conversations that followed were filled with passion.

My involvement in advocacy for human rights, specifically freedom of religion or belief for all, certainly influences my response. Yet, I am convinced that Baptists' leadership in defending human rights has a rich historical basis.

A short litany of Baptist voices includes:

  • Thomas Helwys' 1612 publication of "A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity" advocating for freedom of conscience for everybody.
  • George W. Truett's proclamation in 1920 in Washington, D.C., including, "Our fundamental essential principles have made our Baptist people, of all ages and countries, to be the unyielding protagonists of religious liberty, not only for themselves, but for everybody else as well."
  • Jimmy Carter's inclusion of the promotion of religious liberty indicative of "unanimous commitment to traditional Baptist values" among those who convened the first meeting of the New Baptist Covenant in 2008.

Baptists have been involved in human rights, particularly freedom of religion or belief for all, for as long as we have existed. Our Baptist commitment to human rights remains strong today.

A prime example is the BWA's Denton and Janice Lotz Human Rights Award, which is annually "given for significant and effective activities to secure, protect, restore or preserve human rights as they are stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or in other declarations on human rights."

Clearly, we Baptist Christians have identified the struggle for human rights as an integral part of what it means to give witness to Jesus Christ as Lord.

Our continued identity as Baptists is related to how we faithfully defend human rights.

Shane McNary, along with his wife, Dianne, are Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel serving in Slovakia. His writings also appear on the McNary's blog. You can learn more about the McNarys here and can follow Shane on Twitter @RShaneMcNary.

Editor's note: This article is part of a series for Human Rights Day 2017 (Dec. 10). The previous article in the series is:

Series Examines Need to Push for Human Rights for All

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Tags: Baptists, Freedom of Religion, Human Rights, Shane McNary, United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights


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