Human rights is the Baptist “baby,” birthed in the teaching of Jesus, not the offspring of the Enlightenment.
So argued Glen Stassen, former professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary and long-time Baptist drum major for peacemaking, who passed away earlier this year.
His call to Baptists to reclaim their heritage as human rights advocates is as needed now as ever, especially given both the denial of human rights globally and the refusals around the world to respect religious liberty.
Thankfully, the Baptist World Alliance promotes Human Rights Day on Dec. 6 and 7, depending on the day of worship in different Baptist traditions.
The BWA calls on global Baptist churches to focus on human rights during the Advent season.
And what better season? Peace, hope, joy are all advanced when human rights are honored.
What better focus for all Baptists?
I did an iPhone video interview with Stassen at the BWA gathering in Santiago, Chile, in 2012, in which he made a clear case for the Baptist heritage on human rights.
Here’s what he said: “What Baptists need to know is that the first comprehensive doctrine of human rights in history was written by a Baptist, Richard Overton. He was part of the Smyth group … that joined the Waterlander Mennonite Church … And he was influenced … by the original Baptist push for the human rights to religious liberty.”
Stassen said, “It is our baby. We need to defend human rights.”
He observed, “The early Baptists, like Helyws and John Merton … talked about the rights to religious liberty because Jesus made disciples by teaching and persuasion, not by coercion. So, human rights to religious liberty comes from Jesus.”
In a tribute to his father, Harold Stassen, Glen noted that his father was president of the American Baptist Convention and advocated for a United Nations before World War II.
President Roosevelt appointed him a delegate to the U.N. charter-writing assembly in 1945, where he focused on the right of self-determination for colonial nations.
“The struggle for human rights is our Baptist struggle,” Stassen said.
For a more thorough understanding of Overton’s doctrine of human rights, read Stassen’s column: What Baptists Need to Know about Their Human-Rights Heritage: Part 1.
Then, read the follow-up column in which Stassen dismisses the widespread claim that attributes human rights to the Enlightenment.
Let’s reclaim our heritage as human rights advocates. Let’s help congregants know that history by observing Human Rights Day in December and know how human rights is Jesus’ agenda.
Last year, Jim Hill, executive director of Churchnet and president of the North American Baptist Fellowship, called on Baptists to observe Human Rights Day in a column titled For Christians, Human Rights Rooted in Our Faith. He, too, roots human rights in Jesus.
The Baptist observance coincides with the anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted on Dec. 10, 1948.
The U.N. will no doubt be promoting its universal declaration in early December. Given the likelihood of increased awareness and conversation, we have an opportunity to remind folk that human rights is the Baptist “baby.”
For more resources, visit EthicsDaily.com’s page of columns on human rights. Review the BWA’s Human Rights Day Litany for worship services. Take a look at BWA resolutions that provide good examples of global needs and Baptist advocacy.
Getting Baptists together with a singular focus is like herding cats, an impossibility.
Maybe getting Baptists to observe human rights day in December is the exception, the impossible possibility.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.