One of the highlights of my week is the hour I spend with North Korean defectors in Underground University. I teach about the theology of persecution from a brilliant book called In The Shadow of the Cross by Glenn Penner. One of the foundational elements to our study on persecution is a framework of human rights.
I was a little surprised to learn about this framework because I had always been taught that “human rights” was an American thing. In other words, the US basically wrote the book on human rights and God was certainly an inspiration, but America was the author and chief proponent of them. I was never explicitly taught this, but anytime freedom or human rights were mentioned (school, home or church) it was always within the context of patriotism.
But long before the United States was birthed, the Bible showed us a clear picture of basic human rights through the character of the creator God.
But God’s revelation is first and foremost a revelation of Himself. The basis of all biblical commands is the character of God, whose character we are to reflect as image-bearers (Genesis 1:26-27). God expects us to act toward others as He acts toward us (11-12).
Although my view of human rights as a child was clearly wrong, North Korea takes this same idea to a much more sinister level. Robert Collins referred to the Korean Workers’ Party’s official newspaper which said,
All nations on earth have different traditions and national characters, as well as different cultures and histories of social development. Therefore, human rights standards and their guarantees will have to vary depending on the concrete realities of each nation (89).
This is one of the many reasons why when the world cries out against the human rights abuses in North Korea, North Korea can effectively shrug its shoulders and say, “Human Rights are given and protected by each individual country. We provide our citizens with plenty of human rights.” For the record, North Korea does claim to provide rights to its citizens. In Article 8 of its 2009 constitution, it says,
The state shall safeguard the interests of, and respect and protect the human rights of the working people, including workers, farmers, soldiers, and working intellectuals, who have been freed from exploitation and oppression and have become the masters of state and society (as quoted by Robert Collins, 89).
For North Koreans, human rights are defined as it relates to the building up and support of the North Korean regime. If you have good songbun and are faithful to the government, you will be given rights as deemed appropriate by the Kim family.
The world gets upset, and rightly so, at the obvious human rights abuses in North Korea. They form commissions, inquiries and task forces, but for Christians these efforts should always ring incomplete. They certainly have their place, but only the Word of God has the power to prove that human rights come from God himself! That’s why the United States, the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Human Rights Council don’t get the North Korean government too worried.
These are important voices to be sure, but only the powerful voice of God’s word has the ability to change the human heart and to inform us that our rights come from the character of God.