The Challenge of Imago Dei in Human Rights

            In the last blog we discussed the connection between the theological concept of Imago Dei and human rights theory with reference to the work of I Sil Yoon. We considered the ways in which the Imago Dei can be used to promote Christian action to further human rights and its connection to Catholic Social Teaching, the Nguni concept of Ubuntu and its relationship to the Bible. However, in this blog we will consider the ways in which the use of Imago Dei in promoting human rights can be a challenge and some of the problems it produces. 

            The legal scholar Louis Henkin argues in his article “Religion, Religions and Human Rights” that historically religious communities have violated human rights norms despite their conception of Imago Dei. He highlights the issues raised for freedom of religion in relation to apostasy, proselytising, equality and non-discrimination, gender distinctions, religious antisemitism and more. Henkin contends that religions are much older than human rights law and that historically they have not seen the need for the idea of rights. He concludes that human rights cannot be grounded in religious conviction as it would be “conceptually imperialistic”. 

            There are some important questions raised by Henkin which we must consider when reflecting on the concept of the Imago Dei and human rights. Such as, does the failure of a religious community to live up to an ideal like the Imago Dei, necessarily mean that it has no use? Can the Imago Dei be useful to a Christian conception of rights in such a way that is not imperialistic or colonial? How do we as Christians reconcile a history of human rights violations with a religious understanding of rights? 

            To further problematise the use of Imago Dei as a basis of human rights it is worth taking account of its problematic uses in some aspects of Catholic thought. As alluded to in the last blog the Imago Dei has been used to produce a theological understanding of human dignity in Catholic Social Teaching. However, some conservative Catholic theologians reject the contemporary use of human dignity in human rights rhetoric. The professor of philosophy and law Jeremy Waldron points to examples of conservative Catholics using the idea of Imago Dei and human dignity to oppose stem cell research, oppose women’s reproductive rights and autonomy and argue for the “rights” of foetuses. 

            So how do we respond to these challenges to the concept of Imago Dei and human rights? First, it is important to address the fact that the failure to live up to a particular ideal does not subtract from its value as an ideal. As mentioned in the previous blog there are certain instances where human rights law fails those who it is designed to protect such as North Korean women seeking refuge in China. Yet just because the legal protections offered by human rights have failed in many instances this does not mean they are any less necessary. Similarly, where religious people committed to the ideal of Imago Dei have failed to uphold this ideal it does not mean that it is any less necessary to a wholistic Christian conception of rights. In fact, Imago Dei can be used as a justification for Christians to confront past atrocities through reconciliation, reparations and apology. It is in recognising the image of God in those who have been wronged by the Church that we can find an argument for pushing the Church to do more to right their past wrongs. 

            This does not mean that we should necessarily insist that Imago Dei be used as a universal foundation for human rights. As Henkin rightly notes both the human rights and the Christian community must “give up their claims to provide a total and exclusive ideology”. Rather we must acknowledge that there is overlap and that to promote a conception of human rights which embraces the Imago Dei that is also not imperialistic we must come to a place of rejecting exclusivity when it comes to the concept of human dignity. Secular concepts of human dignity compliment a religious commitment to human rights which embraces Imago Dei as its foundation. Imago Dei then can be a basis for Christian action to promote human rights even if it does not function as a universal basis for human rights. 

            There are also potential alternative Christian theological concepts which can offer a basis for Christian support of human rights. For example, Waldron argues that the “premise that there is something of Christ in every needy person with a claim on us” as found in Matthew 25 can provide a similar basis for a Christian conception of human dignity and rights. The passage in Matthew 25 says this: 

“For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me”. Matthew 25:42-45

            There are some justified and worthwhile arguments against using the Imago Dei as a foundation for human rights. Yet, if we embrace Imago Dei as being complimentary rather than exclusive it can still be a useful basis for Christian action both to promote human rights today and for the Church to face up to their past sins and violations of human dignity and rights.