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When Peter resisted Jesus’ foretelling of His death, Jesus replied, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me” (Matthew 16:23). Paradoxically, when Judas Iscariot helped the realisation of what Jesus foretold, Jesus said about him, “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Matthew 26:14, 24b).

Did Jesus really want His own human death, or not? Did Judas deserve blame, or (perverse thought) commendation? Many Lenten sermons will suggest that Jesus wanted to avoid the pain, but not the purpose of His death. They may explain that there was no injustice to Judas because it was not foretold or foregone that he would be the one to impel Jesus to the Cross.

God – The Source of Justice and Righteousness

Good Friday is an international holiday because rights were violated. The world comprehends rights – including the threat of injustice to Judas—because all humans intuitively know God, the source of the knowledge of right and wrong (Romans 1:18-32). Research indicates remarkable similarities, across cultures, in perceptions of right and wrong. [1] 

As imago Dei (that is, humans made in God’s image), if we hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6), then how much more our Maker must Himself! That explains why God is angry when we conduct worship meetings while ignoring justice (Heb. mishpat) and righteousness (tsedaqah) in the lives of their people (Amos 5:21-24). These two words are repeated throughout the Old Testament.

The Bible – Unique Manifesto for Rights

Jesus begins His ministry in Luke 4:18-19, by reading Isaiah 61:1-2 like a human rights manifesto, with both ‘negative’ rights (protection from the violence of oppressive labour conditions or unjust imprisonment) and ‘positive’ rights (healing of eyesight, counselling in broken-heartedness, and the good news of development and education in the face of being poor) for vulnerable people. Certainly, the implanted Good News of salvation at the Cross is the starting point for the Christian servant, but it cannot be the dominant objective of his or her service.

The Bible is unique among ancient religious texts in its extensive use of the word ‘rights’. The rights of a worker to fair wages and even the rights of the needy orphan, widow and migrant are implicit and sometimes enforceable before elders and judges (though, sadly, they could sometimes be bribed, Amos 5:12). In self-justification, rich and middle-class believers may respond that they pay their domestic workers fairly. They may pay taxes, parts of which go for public welfare work. And they may give to charitable causes.

It is such Christ-followers that Jesus directs to sell all their possessions and give to the poor (Matthew 19:21), because, ‘the Oxfam inequality report’ draws attention to the fact that some are rich and some are poor not by chance, but by choices made by society to give power to some and take away power from others. The report suggests that “we can radically redesign our economies to be centred on equality.

We can claw back extreme wealth through progressive taxation; invest in powerful, proven inequality-busting public measures; and boldly shift power in the economy and society. If we are courageous, and listen to the movements demanding change, we can create an economy in which nobody lives in poverty, nor with unimaginable billionaire wealth—in which inequality no longer kills.” [2]

Hence, in addition to generous giving, speaking up for the rights of the poor and needy then becomes part of a believer’s duty (Proverbs 31:8, 9). Sadly, even when the churches of poor Christians are persecuted, rich Indian Christians take few practical actions. Then how would they speak up for the rights of poor non-believers?

Transformation Through The Cross

Lent is a time to consider making a break from this passive past. Popular Christianity invented a Lent period that mimics Christ’s self-denial, for example, by keeping off meat for 46 days before Easter. Isaiah 58:5, 6 tells us that the purpose of fasting is not to get something (such as spiritual or physical cleansing), but to find ways to give away—just as Jesus wanted the rich young ruler to do in the face of deliberate, entrenched inequality in society.

We may have a ‘right’ to hold on to property or wealth that we have acquired or inherited. However, some of that acquisition was possible because of education, which biases in the structure of society – choices made by our forebears, and not chance – may deny to the vulnerable. The secular human rights discourse informs people of rights, they even have a section for duties, but they are not designed to demand sacrifice.

In his text, The Age of Rights, Louis Henkin makes many critical remarks about religion, but then writes, “Religion can provide, as the human rights idea does not adequately, for the tensions between rights and responsibilities, between individual and community, between the material and the spirit.”[3]

Emptying The Self Through The Cross

Indeed, the Bible challenges us to go beyond a self-centred human rights idea, to defend the rights of others. It can mean going the extra mile in speaking up for others, marrying beyond tradition, or taking up a job that serves others more but pays one less, and it always means associating with people who seem alien to us (Matthew 9:10-11, Luke 14:12-14, and Romans 12:16), thus breaking down inequality-making structures. It means giving up everything, as the widows in the Bible did (1 Kings 17:7-16, Mark 12:41-44), as the missionaries did, and as activists often do.

The Cross is not for mourning the most monumental violation of rights, but the centre of an appropriate kenosis (self-emptying, Philippians 2:5-8) of those rights, by all Christ-followers, so that those truly without rights – the poor, the widow, the fatherless, and the migrant (Zechariah 7:10) – may be freed from the structures that bind them. Only the Cross, and not merely the concept of human rights, can transform believers so that they deny themselves their rights and follow Christ (Matthew 16:24).

[1] Your sense of right and wrong is interwoven with your personality, 22 December 2021, 

[2] Inequality kills, 17 January 2022, 

[3] Henkin L., The Age of Rights, Columbia University Press, New York, 1990, p.187

This article was originally posted as Reflection.
Som Thomas is a member of the Methodist Church and lives in Bangalore with his wife, Shyni. They have had the privilege – the vocation – of bringing up two sons, who are now grown-up.