Nick Spencer weighs some good and very bad reasons why human rights didn’t develop sooner.
The reason why Christianity seems to take so very long to shape Western culture in a model that we would now consider respects proper human dignity and rights is a very complex one. Sometimes it’s circumstantial. Sometimes it’s the collapse of the Roman West, the civilised West, which in many ways puts Western culture back centuries.
More often, I’d say, it’s because Christians aren’t very Christian. That’s a slightly blunt way of putting it, but there are elements in the teaching of Christ and from the Gospels and more broadly from the Bible relating to the inviolable dignity of human rights – of human beings, I think, a better way of putting it – that we just don’t get, or we certainly don’t follow, and we are reluctant to translate into law for various different reasons. Some of those are – I hesitate to say good reasons, because just because something is in the Gospel doesn’t mean it should be translated into law, it doesn’t quite work like that. But more often, it is the idea that we are quite good – Christians as a rule are quite good at not following through the really radical, really challenging teachings of Jesus Christ. It’s easy to criticise Christians like that but I think it’s justifiable.