Imago Dei and Human Rights

“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them”. Genesis 1:27

Whatever your background, you will have most likely come across these words from the opening chapter of the Bible at some point. The concept of humanity being the Imago Dei, or the image of God, is a powerful one and throughout its history it has been used in a variety of ways for good and for ill. It has been used as an argument against the evil of slavery, declaring the dignity and humanity of enslaved people in various times and places. Yet, it has also been used to deny the humanity of others, such as trans people. For example, some Christians have used the words that follow the declaration of the image of God in humanity, “male and female he created them”, as a divine mandate of a strict gender binary. When we reflect on the Imago Dei in relation to human rights we are presented with a number of challenges and opportunities, especially as people of faith. 

Let’s start with a brief overview of the work of theologian I Sil Yoon on the relationship between the theological concept of Imago Dei and human rights. When we look to the Bible we do not find any references to the concept of human rights, but, I Sil Yoon correctly points out that: 

“The Bible is abundant with references to justice and righteousness where notions of human rights can be discovered. Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament reveal the justice of God that serves to protect and liberate the powerless in society who are often susceptible to mistreatment and oppression.Of the variety of biblical concepts and narratives that ground human rights, Imago Dei is the fundamental and foundational concept that undergirds the inviolable dignity and rights of every person that necessitates the social duty to respect such dignity”. 

I Sil Yoon, “Imago Dei and Human Rights: A North Korean Case Study”, Theology Today, Vol. 79 (2): 167. 

            I Sil Yoon draws upon both Catholic Social Teaching and the term “ubuntu”, used by the Nguni people who reside in South Africa, to argue for personal integrity and rights as well as a commitment to or duty for others, especially for those who are marginalised or mistreated. In Catholic Social Teaching there is a concept of dignity in solidarity which is articulated by Pope Francis when he says: 

“Our being created in the image and likeness of God-Communion calls us to understand ourselves as being-in-relationship and to live interpersonal relations in solidarity and mutual love”. 

Pope Francis, “Sunday Angelus on the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity,” May 15, 2016. 

            There are also some problematic uses of the concept of human dignity in Catholic Social Teaching which will be explored more in the next blog in this series. Yoon goes on to mention Ubuntu, which is “a concept that reflects the African cultural values of reciprocity and harmony, which serve as a way of establishing community based on mutual care and justice.” Drawing upon these ideas Yoon argues that the use of Imago Dei in public theology can strengthen the implications of human rights (Public theology is the Christian practice of engaging theologically with issues of public importance and concern). For Yoon the concept of Imago Dei is especially useful in situations where human rights laws are broken, not implemented or ignored. She highlights the example of North Korean women residing in China. These women remain stateless, and China refuses to grant them refugee status, blocking them from seeking aid from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and prevents the UNHCR from having access to North Korean women to assess if they are eligible for support. This is despite the fact that China is a party of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 protocol. Yoon concludes that: 

“Imago Dei can serve as an effective tool to identify the purpose of human beings, who are granted inherent dignity and who are to be treated as dignified beings through the guarantee of rights. It provides the ultimate foundation and justification for every human’s duty to respect the rights of fellow humans, including those who are socially vulnerable and oppressed, not only through personal decisions but also through social conditions in accordance with laws and policies”. 

I Sil Yoon, “Imago Dei and Human Rights: A North Korean Case Study”, Theology Today, Vol. 79 (2): 183.

Yoon’s argument highlights the place that the concept of Imago Dei can play in promoting human rights, especially in situations where the legal protections provided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) are abused or ignored. When legal systems fail the most marginalised and oppressed in our communities and societies, Imago Dei can serve as a motivation for Christian social action and campaigning for human rights. By applying a theology of human rights found in the concept of the Imago Dei the Church has a basis for action, to fill the gap for those who are failed by their governments. This is not to say that Imago Deican necessarily act as a universal basis for human rights. However, it can offer a particularly appealing argument for human rights for people of faith, while also being useful in public discourse on what it means to be human. 

Call to Action: Read the Church of England’s Theological Reflection (Section B.3) on their Human Rights Policy here and spend some time reflecting in a journal or in prayer on the ways in which your faith community or denomination promotes or fails to live up to the ideal of the Imago Dei.