Christian Faith and Human Rights in Canada

It is clearly impossible in one article to define one’s complete belief system about such a comprehensive topic like Human Rights. I am a work in progress, like many others. However, it is important, for those of us who profess faith in God, to address these fundamental belief systems and how they relate to the challenges of functioning in a pluralistic society.

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation describes the challenge clearly in one question: “Does faith provide a vital grounding and motivation for human rights or does faith hinder and oppose the full implementation of such rights?” It begs the question: “Is a person of faith a good citizen?”

Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, said recently at the London School of Economics, “Political and legal philosophy is unlikely to arrive at complete convergence with theology in any imaginable future.” I agree. But everywhere you go, from politicians to movie stars to economists, people are using the language of human rights as the communication tool to describe morality.

Each one of us can feel the dynamic tension that exists between the right we have to hold and espouse a set of personal beliefs and the need to protect the rights of others as a religious duty. Historically, the church – more aptly, religion – has failed in doing so.

For example, Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Religion, wearing a Christian mask, violated this human right for centuries, turning people into slaves who became assets for sale.

Thankfully, history also demonstrates that Christianity, wearing the face of Christ, became the force that broke the back of slavery, and turned a nation back to Biblical principles: ie. the belief that every life has been uniquely created and has equal value before God.

Human rights law was developed after World War II. According to Professor Conor Gearty said that “the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe showed clearly that state laws could be manipulated to justify the greatest of atrocities. Some global standard of morality and law was needed to judge such practices, and so in 1948 the new United Nations passed without dissenting vote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

I write this article from the Victory Hotel in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. The government here is facing increasing international pressure to comply with the “human rights” requirements under the UN’s Universal Declaration. This is a sensitive issue because nations and corporations decide to do business, or withdraw from doing business, based upon a society’s record on human rights.

Because of the work done to protect human rights, no nation can claim today with any legal justification, that it has the right to do with its citizens as it likes. Gearty went on to say that, “each citizen of the world can assert that she, or he, has human rights that transcend the authority of every government.”

Canada faces its own challenges. Recently, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) introduced a very controversial policy on Faith and the Human Rights Code warning physicians to “set aside their personal beliefs.” For example, they inferred that a physician’s refusal to perform procedures like abortion may be considered “professional misconduct.”

Reaction was quick and to the point. General surgeon John E. Kraulis said failing to respect “the ethical and moral perspectives” of physicians would result in “a spiritual castration of the medical profession.” Even though the College backed off somewhat, they still left the Christian medical profession with some lingering doubts concerning their protection under the Hippocratic Oath.

We all have a lot of growing up to do, a lot of listening heart to heart with our fellow travelers. No person, business leader, nation or church is exempt from the need to develop a clear position when it comes to the protection of human rights and liberties.

I sincerely believe that the Christian community is being called upon to repair the mistakes of the past and rebuild the foundations of a merciful and just society.