The Right to be Wrong?

December 10th 1998 saw the fiftieth anniversary of one of the truly great historical documents. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights set forth the basic civil, economic, political, and social rights and freedoms of every person on the planet, based on the premise that all people are equal in dignity and rights.

So influential has the document been that to question the notion of universal equal human rights is tantamount to suggesting that the world may not be round. For example, we have a judicial system in which perpetrators of crimes are accorded the same rights as their victims and extreme political correctness insists on the bizarre practice of positive discrimination, which can lead to the least qualified applicant for a post being accepted. Now, I'm as egalitarian as the next man (sorry, person), but you don't have to be an architect to know when the gargoyles have taken over the cathedral!

We must remember that the concept of equal human rights is a humanistic philosophy, not a biblical principle. The Bible emphasises our duties rather than our rights (Deuteronomy 29:29). Some rights have to be earned, while all duties have to be carried out. But what rights we do have are bestowed by God, not the U.N. In the Scriptures Israel has a right to the land promised to Abraham and his descendants, the innocent have a right to justice, the labourer is worthy of his wages, and those who believe on the name of Jesus have the right to be children of God. But all men have an equal duty to love the true God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love their neighbour as they love themselves.

Assumptions about equal human rights have had interesting consequences for Christian mission. For example, missionaries to the Jews are accused of not respecting either Jewish people or their religion, and one authority on anti-Semitism has stated that it impossible to say, "Jesus is Lord" without at the same time saying "and Jews be damned". If all men have equal rights to their own religious opinions is it not a violation of their inalienable rights to seek to persuade them that they should believe in Jesus? By over-emphasising human rights and downplaying men's duties we have produced a generation that knows its rights but feels no sense of duty either to God or to their fellow man.

The French Humanist Voltaire is reported to have said that though he disapproved of what a certain person said, he would defend to the death his right to say it, and no doubt some Christians would agree with him. But I personally find it impossible to respect any philosophy, idea or religion that is fundamentally flawed, nor do I believe anyone has the right to be wrong (including myself). All men have a duty to believe and to do what is right and, says James, "If anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back ... he ... will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins." Likewise, Paul, at the end of what is arguably his most forthright and powerful polemic, urges those who are spiritual to restore those "overtaken in a trespass ... in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted".

This is not an appeal for forced conversions! Apart from the ethical and moral considerations, it is impossible to force anyone to believe something against their will. Nor should we despise or disdain those who believe, firmly and sincerely, what is erroneous; respect is not based on whether people hold the right opinions. But we are not called to respect systems of thought; we are to respect the people who hold them because they are created in the the image of God. Being aware of this and knowing that they are under the same obligation as we are to obey the Truth, the greatest respect we can ever pay other human beings is to fulfil our duty of seeking to turn them from error to truth.

This article first appeared as Last Word in the Spring 1999

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