Human Rights, a New Museum, and our Christian Faith



November 18, 2009

By Mark Penninga ( As you read this, a gigantic museum is being built in Winnipeg. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) is a beautiful glass building on the banks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. But the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent have a purpose that goes beyond architecture. As the CMHR brochure puts it in bold letters “Most museums celebrate the past. This one will change the future.” ARPA Canada will be meeting with representatives of the museum on December 7th in Vancouver as they travel the country to hear from Canadians about what should be included in this museum. What should our message be?

As Christians we are called to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4). We have to understand what Canadian society means when it speaks of human rights and then determine how this measures up with what the Bible says. This doesn’t just apply to ARPA Canada as we meet with the officials from this museum. It applies to each of us as we encounter our society wherever God has put us (at work, in school, through the media, as we talk with our neighbours etc.)

The Bible is not against the idea of human rights. In fact, it is the Bible that originally was the basis for much of the world’s understanding of human rights. But today the Western world’s idea of rights has deviated far from the biblical foundation.

A right is an entitlement – something that is owed to someone. We can’t give ourselves rights. They can only come from one who has the authority to give them. Otherwise they are simply preferences. When we read the Bible it should be apparent that the starting place for this discussion about rights must be God’s right, not human rights. As the Sovereign One, God alone is entitled to all praise and glory. That is why our chief purpose is to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. It is only on this foundation that human rights flow.

The Ten Commandments spell out how we are to love God and our neighbor. Each of these commandments includes an obligation and a corresponding right. Note the order – responsibilities come before rights. If we are commanded to worship God alone, then along with that comes the implicit right that we should be free to worship God. Likewise, our duties to not kill, steal, or bear false witness result in corresponding rights to life, property, and a fair trial. Each of the Ten Commandments provides a responsibility and corresponding rights that serve as a basis for universal human rights. That is why the Preamble to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and rule of law.”

Unfortunately our society has forgotten this biblical foundation beneath human rights. Our self-serving nature loves rights without acknowledging responsibilities. As a result we create new “rights” as we want more and more things. We hear of a right to abortion, a right to education, a right to safe drinking water, and the list never seems to end. The reality is that these things are preferences or privileges, not rights. Special interest groups like to make them into rights because this achieves political and legal power. How can anyone oppose a “right” without suffering from the wrath of the politically-correct gate-keepers of society?

In our presentation to the CMHR we will try to explain how much of what passes for “human rights” are not genuinely human.  Rather, they are only bestowed on those humans who measure up to standards that are consistent with the dominant humanist worldview. Weak or vulnerable humans (such as the unborn, disabled, and aged) are given little or no consideration, especially when they are an inconvenience.

It makes sense that the popular understanding of human rights is so flawed. One has only to look at the worldview that grounds it. All worldviews must answer some big questions, including “where did I come from?” and “who am I?” Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution gives the answer to these questions. The title of his famous work is “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” Have a look at that title one more time. “Favoured races”? Doesn’t that suggest that his naturalistic belief of origins leads to inequality among humans and the supremacy of some races over others? That may explain why we rarely hear the full title in our politically correct era. But just because the title isn’t read in full does not mean that the conclusion isn’t reached from Darwin’s theory of evolution. If humans evolved as a result of chance and millions of years, why do we have any basis for a dignity that elevates us above the other species? And if our dignity is based on the capacities that these other animals don’t share, what happens when we lose those capacities as a result of disabilities, age, illness, or violence? Or what happens when some people display those capacities to a greater degree than others? Suddenly the whole basis for “human” rights is on shifting sands.

Human rights are precious. They are real. They are inalienable. And they are genuinely human. But they are only so when they are built on the immovable foundation of the God of the Bible. It is important that families, schools, and churches understand this matter and clearly communicate this Christian account of human rights to our secular society. As our society increasingly falls into despair, this is a message of hope that we can hold out. For more on this, read ARPA Canada’s new book “Building on Sand: Human Dignity in Canadian Law and Society” available for a suggested donation of $10 at or

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