ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

What’s Right?

Let us recall the Judeo-Christian roots of our inalienable rights.

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” It used to be that no one challenged the passing on to generations of school children that Columbus discovered America. Now, we’re more nuanced. Columbus “discovered” America for Spain, but many peoples from Asia and voyagers from Europe had been there before him.

Many great discoveries in the world of mind and spirit are arrived at by different folk, but usually they become identified with one time, one place, and sometimes one person. Take, for example, the notion of inalienable human rights. It was “discovered” in the Middle East.

In the ancient Middle East, societies were structured around kinship groups such as the family, clan and tribe. The group provided each of its members with identity and security. Outside the limits of each village or town, the lone individual was defenseless and helpless.

The price paid by the individual for the security of the group was complete acceptance of its ways and decisions, especially of its head, be it father, patriarch or king. In the ancient world, human life simply was group life. No other way was conceivable or desirable.

Laws codified the ancient customs of these societies. They made clear what the individual’s obligations were to the group and the group’s obligations to the individual. I fulfill my obligations to the group and obey its customs and laws, and I expect everyone else to do the same.

This reasonable expectation that others would be bound equally to follow the ancient customs and laws that made social life possible is at the root of what we mean by a “right.”

One ancient Middle Eastern society had ways uniquely different from the others: Israel. Although ancient Israel’s customs and laws were much like those of its neighbors in practice, the Israelites had a different motive for following them.

In other societies, the basis for law was custom and the will of the ruler. In ancient Israel, the basis for law was the revealed will of God. The Sinai covenant between God and the people meant that every aspect of Israelite society was ordered and governed by God.

Since “rights” refer to the reasonable expectation that others will follow the customs and laws of society, in ancient Israel, “rights” became a religious matter. Rights are rooted in the will of God.

The whole teaching of the Hebrew scriptures supports and enhances this idea, from the story of creation. God created men and women “in his image.” Each human person has a fundamental dignity which comes from God.

Jesus taught the incredible importance of each person. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says the ultimate measure of our lives will be how we treated each one of “these least brothers of mine.”

No wonder then that, as heirs of the Judeo-Christian tradition, we speak of each person being endowed by his or her creator with inalienable rights. And, what danger for us, if we forget that these inalienable human rights come from God.

Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA

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