Bill Brackney Discusses his Work on Human Rights

in Faculty

Bill Brackney Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor of Christian Thought and Ethics

My interest in human rights and related ethical issues goes back to my teaching and writing in the areas of Baptist studies. I have long been interested in the historical and theological bases of religious liberty, considered by most as the foundation of human rights. My graduate work at Temple University, then one of the leading departments of religion in North America, included emphases in comparative religions. Teaching comparative religions for almost four decades strongly suggested that an evangelical voice was needed among those engaged in interfaith dialogues.

I was approached by Greenwood Press, one of the major publishers of scholarship in religious studies, to plan and execute a five-volume Praeger Perspectives series entitled “Human Rights and the World’s Major Religions.” I set about recruiting an international team that included specialists in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism from North America and Asia. I took the assignment to prepare the volume on Christianity. The series came out in 2005 and was well-received in libraries and the scholarly community. In fact, in 5 years it sold out.

When Greenwood/Praeger was purchased by ABC-CLIO, a major international media conglomerate, I was approached about preparing an updated, condensed, but fully revised one-volume version of the five-volume series. The result was the recently issued book, Human Rights and the World’s Major Religions, Condensed and Updated Edition (2013). It is one of the best manufacturing results of any book I have published.

My own approach to this topic is to treat Christianity in its fullest expression, as a religious tradition that embraces the foundation in Jesus Christ and the Apostolic Community plus the historical growth of Christianity through the centuries. I recognize the validity of major categories of Christianity including Catholic and Orthodox, Protestant, and Evangelical, and in later years, Pentecostal and Charismatic. My assumptions are more fully articulated in my book, Studying Christianity (Continuum, 2010).

The articulation of human rights is a cutting-edge topic in contemporary theology and ethics. Theologians like Hans Küng and Jürgen Moltmann have written extensively about various topics in human rights. Ethicists like Max Stackhouse, John Witte, Jr,  Thorwald Lorenzen, and James Wm. McClendon have addressed concerns similar to my own. There is a serious attempt by legal specialists and secular rights advocates to separate radically human rights discussion entirely from religious discourse and thus deny the thousands of years of religious texts that affirm various forms of human rights. This is tragic and must be addressed not only by joining forces with the field of global ethics but by drawing upon the best of our religious traditions. I do not deny that the Christian tradition has absorbed abuses of human rights itself, as in the Crusades, defences of slavery, and apartheid, but I also point out the long heritage of Christian social concern as witnessed in the Torah, the prophets of Israel, and Jesus’ own ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ in which He declared the Beatitudes and the Golden Rule.

While traditionally Reformed thinkers shy away from talk of human rights in favour of human responsibilities, I join those who still address “rights” language because of my understanding of human freedom rooted in the imago Dei. I also have deep ethical concerns about violations of basic human rights in human trafficking, cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners, the rights of women, minorities, and displaced persons, and various forms of religious bigotry, intolerance, and persecution. I actually believe that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948) was an inspired leading of God’s Spirit in general revelation and fully in keeping with God’s truth as revealed in the Christian Scriptures. I have written elsewhere of the solid Christian foundation in those who wrote the UDHR, including John Humphrey of Canada, the actual author of the first draft. 

As to my place among evangelical scholarship, I recognize a distinction between adjectival evangelicalism and institutional Evangelicalism. I would argue that the term “evangelical” rightly belongs to all “gospel” persons in the New Testament sense of the term. In that usage, all evangelicals emphasize the faith experience of believers in Christ, the authority of the Scriptures, and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This is broader than creedal or confessional Evangelicalism, largely a 20th century phenomenon with roots in the mid-19th century, and with whom I share much in common. I wish to be in conversation with all persons who are “Gospel people” and those outside the tradition that have an interest in Jesus Christ.

Some Evangelical Christians work at the core of the tradition, whilst others work at the margins in conversations with other communities. I try to work in both spheres.

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