Faith and Human Rights: Christianity and the Global Struggle for Human Dignity; The God You Have: Politics, Religion, and the First Commandment

Amesbury, Richard, and George M. Newlands. Faith and Human Rights: Christianity and the Global Struggle for Human Dignity. Minneapolis, M.N.: Fortress Press, 2008. xix + 146 pp. $9.99.

Miller, Patrick D. The God You Have: Politics, Religion, and the First Commandment. Minneapolis, M.N.: Fortress Press, 2004. x + 81 pp. $9.99. ​

[1] For anyone worried about Christianity’s effect on political engagement, the authors of these two slim volumes have good news. Christianity has ample resources to support proper participation in political life. Although the two books articulate the details of such participation in markedly different ways, both ultimately ask Christians to draw on the rich moral wisdom of their tradition as they move through the perilous world of earthly politics.

[2] Richard Amesbury and George M. Newlands are primarily concerned with rights. They probe questions relating to the philosophical justification and political potential of rights, the sense in which rights are “universal,” and also the relationship between Christian theology and the idea of human rights. Together, the two are well-suited to address this broad scope of questions in one short book. Amesbury, who works at the intersections of philosophy, religious ethics, and political theory, contributed chapters on the concept of rights, the problem of finding a philosophical grounding for this concept, and the difficulty of approaching an ostensibly “universal” category from a particular (religious) perspective. Newlands, a theologian whose previous work has explored doctrines of God, Christian concepts of love, and intellectual histories of Western Christianity, contributed chapters on the ambiguous historical record Christianity has in relation to rights and on the most fruitful theological avenues Christians might explore in support of rights. These philosophical and theological chapters are flanked by an introduction in which El Salvador’s slain Catholic bishop Oscar Romero provides exemplary Christian use of rights discourse and a very brief conclusion in which the authors suggest a few practical tasks for Christians who seek to promote rights. The authors’ scholarly backgrounds complement each other well, and bring coherence and purpose to this book.

[3] One of the strengths of this book is the discussion of philosophical grounding for rights. In particular, the authors do an excellent job of addressing critiques of rights discourse directly and clearly. They do not shy away from Alasdair MacIntyre’s notorious claim that rights are fictions, akin to witches and unicorns. Part of MacIntyre’s original argument was that the philosophical and theological grounding for a concept of rights was inadequate because it was incoherent, fragmentary, and not nearly as “universal” as its proponents suggested. Amesbury argues against this view for several reasons. One such reason is that he takes action, rather than justification, to be the starting point for moral reflection. Philosophical justification of a given course of action—or of the endorsement of a concept such as rights—is not as important as our lived moral responses to people in need. Thus, he writes, “our recognition of the humanity of others shows itself in how we respond to them, and…these reactions are not themselves the result of a prior ‘theory’ we have chosen to adopt on independent grounds” (45-46). The thrust of the argument here is that the political establishment, maintenance, and enforcement of human rights is a worthy response to the universal human dignity that is implied in our lived responses to moral situations.

[4] However, Amesbury offers another, more fundamental rejoinder to critics of the idea of human rights. MacIntyre and other critics of rights discourse have been mistaken, Amesbury argues, about what it means to say rights are “universal.” In reference to the concept of rights, the adjective “universal” could mean three different things. To say a right is universal might be to say it applies to everyone, or everyone possesses it. Or, to say a right is universal could mean that it is eternally and absolutely binding. Or, to say a right is universal might be to say that it “commands widespread acceptance” (64-65). Amesbury endorses a concept of rights that is universal in the first and third senses, meaning that these rights apply to everyone (as indicated in the term “human rights”) and that they achieve widespread acceptance. Notice, though, that to say rights are “universal” does not mean, for Amesbury, that all people will accept rights for the same philosophical and theological reasons. In fact, given that people espouse very different worldviews, there will necessarily be many different logical cases in support of rights. Marxists may support human rights for their own philosophical reasons. Protestants may do so for different reasons. And so on. The point to note is that the authors are not of the opinion that everyone needs to adopt the same philosophical reasoning in support of rights—rights do not need to be “universal” if that means all people embrace the same logical case on which they are founded.

[5] This lucid and persuasive articulation of universality is indicative of a second strength of this book: its democratic impulses. Not only does the very project of maintaining rights culture serve the goals of people rule, in that it protects people from domination at the hands of political and economic powers, but the tone in which the authors write serves democratic goals as well. When it comes to rights advocacy, the authors recognize that many different people must join together and engage in such advocacy for many different reasons. This is evident in their explanation of the proper understanding of universality. Their call for political unity from intellectual and spiritual diversity is consistent with the democratic goal of e pluribus unum. For Amesbury and Newlands, the many comprehensive doctrines of the people must become one in support of rights if rights are to thrive in Western political culture. This approach has the fortunate result of broadening the book’s readership, as a particularly Christian form of political reasoning becomes one way among many others to reinforce rights discourse. One need not accept the basic premises and sources of Christian theology as normative in order to read this book; and yet, in the later chapters one will still encounter a particularly Christian way of supporting rights. And although the voice and intended audience of this book are strongly democratic, the Christian political theory in the book’s second half does not suffer for being one possible approach among others.

[6] The book’s discussion of Christianity’s relationship to rights is a third strength. The authors recognize throughout that Christianity has a spotty record on this topic. Christianity has historically played the part of champion as well as violator when it comes to the basic claims all humans can make in light of their inherent dignity. Newlands surveys Christianity’s checkered history in relation to rights discourse in chapter five. At times this survey is more of a review of the historical church’s hospitality toward doctrinal difference and growth toward a modern standard of tolerance than it is an exploration of the church’s performance in relation to rights in general. In addition, this chapter’s survey makes its basic point (that the church has an ambiguous record on rights) effectively, but readers interested in this topic will want a more lengthy and detailed analysis. In any case, the point about the church’s uneven history is well established, and provides context for the following chapter, in which Newlands indicates some Christian theological resources (such as incarnation and inspiration) to support a robust culture of rights. Based on his survey of the church’s political history in chapter five, no one can accuse him of suggesting that Christianity has always been hospitable to human rights.

[7] Like Amesbury and Newlands, Miller hopes to retrieve vital Christian moral wisdom to facilitate proper participation in politics. Unlike Amesbury and Newlands, though, Miller’s primary concern is not the maintenance of rights culture. For Miller, the most important questions for political theology are those of obedience and idolatry. The God You Have is a meditation on the First Commandment of the Decalogue, which instructs Christians (and, of course, Jews, although Miller’s book is fundamentally Christian in its premises and assumed audience) to “have no other gods before” the one true God. Miller reflects on the theological meaning and political import of this commandment, showing first that its significance is rooted in the Prologue to this injunction: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This Prologue sets the stage for Christian obedience through reference to narrative, reminding Christians that their God is a liberative, merciful one who unfailingly sides with the vulnerable against the oppressors. Not only must the First Commandment be read within the context of the reference to the Exodus which precedes it; so too, for Miller, must this commandment be connected in practice to those injunctions which follow it. Specifically, he argues throughout this book that a proper reading of the First Commandment is necessary for the ethical conduct stipulated in the second table of the Decalogue. One must know the call to obedience to the one true God if one is to act in love and justice toward one’s neighbors. Indeed, a proper reading of the First Commandment necessarily results in such conduct. To hear and understand God’s call to obedience is, in part, to act in love and justice toward one’s neighbors. Miller’s contextualization of the First Commandment within the narrative Prologue and the moral second table are recurring themes within this text. And yet, his major interest is a substantive politics of obedience, which he takes to be the heart of the prohibition against having other gods before God.

[8] We in the modern West are inclined to forget the ultimate sovereignty of the one true God, according to Miller. While we are certainly not unique within human history in this regard, we face temptations to idolatry that are particularly strong and pervasive. For Miller, the two idols that tempt us most come from the realms of economics and politics. As we succumb to the allure of false gods in both of these realms, our obedience to the one true God is compromised. In the economic world, wealth, material power, and status tempt us to follow something other than—and obviously less than—God. As Miller writes of this basic economic temptation, “I claim obedience to the Lord, but alongside that I want to get mine. My anxieties about that reveal where I really put my trust, and who or what I think really sustains my life” (27). In the political sphere, we are tempted to endow civil rulers with power and glory that rightly belong to God alone. Miller, who has had a distinguished scholarly career in Old Testament interpretation, finds ample evidence throughout the Hebrew Bible to support his contention that the First Commandment requires Christians to relativize worldly authority vis-à-vis divine sovereignty. One important source for this claim is the book of Amos. The world of earthly politics that Amos chastises is an affront to God’s sovereignty, Miller explains, in that “the religious spokesman as political spokesman completely detheologizes the prophetic message, so that the only authority on the scene, actual or implicit…is the king, the leader of the political order” (37). The term that Miller uses here—“detheologizing politics”—encapsulates the central concern of his political theology. Based on a proper reading of the First Commandment, Christians will resist the temptation to dilute their obedience to God by endowing economic or political power with authority that is reserved for God alone. In short, they will avoid “detheologizing politics.”

[9] Miller’s call for Christians to render ultimate obedience to God alone is based on theological premises that are squarely within the reformed tradition stretching from Luther and Calvin through Karl Barth. This foundational theological premise is that God “has us” before we “have God.” Based on his reading of the Prologue to the First Commandment, Miller asserts that the Christian God makes a claim on human beings that calls us and precedes any action toward or knowledge of God on our part. Such an assertion is fully consistent with his emphases on divine sovereignty and on a politics of obedience to God which relativizes all other power. And yet, many readers will balk at this assertion if they plainly disagree that the Christian God has any primary claim on them. Atheist readers may stop reading before the conclusion to the second chapter, if they feel Miller’s reflections are simply not relevant to people who feel no claim whatsoever from the Christian God. (Given his commentary on idolatry in the forms of obedience to economic and political powers, Miller suspects that very few people are actually atheists, but this point will not likely be enough to sustain the interest of non-Christian readers.) This question of audience is one that reveals a major difference between Miller’s work and Faith and Human Rights. Amesbury and Newlands have written a book about Christian political theology which can be read productively by all kinds of people, and can even facilitate meaningful political alliances across religious and philosophical difference. Miller’s meditation on the First Commandment, on the other hand, is a work of first-order Christian discourse on the proper way to participate in politics, which may not appeal to people who experience no call from the Christian God on their lives.

[10] While both books clearly identify what the authors take to be worthy political goals for Christians, and make cases for rights and uncompromised obedience which are compelling in their own ways, I was left wanting more substantive engagement of the liberative nature of Christian political engagement from both texts. Specifically, these books made no reference to post-colonial Christian ethics (unless one counts the work of Oscar Romero). As both texts deal directly with Christian political theology and the problems of oppression and liberation, it seems as though post-colonial thought, which has been highly influential in addressing these topics for the last fifty years or so, might merit some mention. Nor is the lack of engagement of post-colonial thought merely a matter of omission. Both texts identify God’s exemplary love as “self-giving” (Amesbury and Newlands, 108) or “a total giving of oneself” (Miller, 52). Post-colonial Christian thinkers such as James Cone and Miguel De La Torre have joined feminist Christian ethicists in arguing that prescribing total self-giving to people who are already marginalized and vulnerable is not helpful moral and political counsel. I would have been interested to hear how the authors would engage such post-colonial arguments. And such an engagement would not have been out of place in two texts that deal so directly with Christian political theology, oppression, and liberation.

[11] These two books provide thought-provoking reflections on important issues in political theology. Scholars who are interested in Christianity’s potential for supporting human rights discourse and the political significance of biblical injunctions to undiluted obedience to God should read these texts. They are appropriate reading for seminary/divinity school students and advanced undergraduates as well.

Daniel A. Morris

Dr. Daniel A. Morris is a lecturer in Religion at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.