What Baptists Need to Know about Their Human-Rights Heritage: Part 2


What Baptists Need to Know about Their Human-Rights Heritage: Part 2 | Glen Stassen, Human Rights, BWA

We are in an international struggle for the obligation, the duty, to defend the tradition of the human rights of all persons loved by God, Stassen writes.
Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part excerpt of a presentation made at the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance in Santiago, Chile. Read the first part here.

We need to know that Germans were not aware that human rights were the product of Baptists on biblical grounds in the 17th century.

So the fallacy of confusing the source arose in pre-fascist Germany, thinking that the source of human rights was the secular French Enlightenment in the 18th century.

Therefore, German churches rejected human rights, which led them to reject Germany's effort to form a constitutional democracy in the Weimar Republic, and thus to let Germany fall under the vicious dictatorship of Adolf Hitler.

Because they had opposed human rights, the German churches had no articulate basis for opposing Hitler's massive violations of human rights.

The exceptions were Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, who advocated human rights in their theology and ethics, and who led opposition to Hitler and the Nazis.

After World War II, in revulsion to the human rights violations by Hitler, Germans and the world corrected this error and adopted the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The source for human rights as the international language of justice now is the revulsion against Hitler's Third Reich.

Baptists more than anyone else should reject the fallacy of confusing the source with the intent that unfortunately we can find in Alasdair MacIntyre and Oliver O'Donovan.

They assume supporters of human rights claim their source is universal Enlightenment reason.

In fact, their source is particular, not universal: the biblical teaching of the image of God in all humankind, and Jesus' teaching that God shines sun and rains rain on the just and unjust alike, so we are to be complete in our love as God is complete in God's love – for all humankind.

The source comes from a particular tradition – initially our Baptist tradition, and the intent is universal – human rights belong to all humankind, loved by God.

We should not give our support to any elitist or status-quo-supporting theological ethicists who oppose human rights because they make that pre-fascist German error.

We need to know and teach that human rights came from Baptist Richard Overton with solid biblical grounding as a follower of Jesus, and not from the French Enlightenment a century later.

What Baptists need to know is that it was Baptists in Virginia who persuaded James Madison to write the human right to religious liberty as the first article in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution.

They acted as Madison's troops in the drive to adopt that amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

What Baptists need to know is that president Abraham Lincoln, who advocated the human right to your own body and to be paid for your work, was raised a Baptist.

What Baptists need to know is that Martin Luther King Jr., who powerfully advocated human rights for all persons, was a Baptist. King said "they call it a civil rights movement. But actually it is a human rights movement."

What Baptists need to know is that Jimmy Carter learned to advocate human rights for all persons in his own Baptist church in Plains, Ga.

It was Carter who got the law passed that U.S. economic aid would depend on assessing the human rights practices of recipient nations, and that this was a powerful influence for the freeing of Latin American nations from the tyranny of dictatorship and to becoming democracies with human rights.

The Carter Center works for human rights and democracy for persons in many nations throughout the world, including human rights for Palestinians now.

Carter is a faithful, Bible-teaching Baptist.

What Baptists need to know is that no democracy with human rights made war on another democracy with human rights in the whole 20th century. Political scientists call this "the iron law of international relations."

Therefore, when nations turn from dictatorships to democracies with human rights, it prevents many wars. Support for human rights, religious liberty and democracy is a key practice of "just peacemaking."

What I would also like people to know is that my own father, as president of the American Baptist Convention, led American Baptists to give strong support to Martin Luther King Jr. King joined the ABC along with dual membership in the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

Dad – Harold Stassen – grew up in a family tradition of strong commitment to human rights. His parents emigrated away from Bismarck's authoritarian and militaristic Germany in the 19th century, looking for human rights in Minnesota.

Dad was a founder of the United Nations. As U.S. delegate to the conference that wrote the charter of the United Nations in 1945, Dad worked especially hard and effectively to develop the Trusteeship Council, which then was crucial in the freeing of colonial nations around the world to achieve their human right to freedom and self-government.


The reporters from all over the world who covered the U.N. Charter-writing Assembly voted my father the person who did the most for the success of that U.N .Charter-writing Assembly – in a tie with the ambassador from Australia.

We are now in a time when proponents of neoliberal laissez-faire ideology want to replace the tradition of human rights with advocacy of "my selfish rights and let others fend for themselves."

We are in an international struggle for the obligation, the duty, to defend the tradition of the human rights of all persons loved by God.

What Baptists need to know is that human rights is our baby.

Glen Harold Stassen is professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary. This is an excerpt of his presentation made at the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance in Santiago, Chile.

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