Human Rights Day

Human Rights Day

56 years ago thousands of people gathered in Sharpeville. They stood together to protest against the Apartheid Pass laws. Police opened fire, killing 69 people. When I watched the movie Mandela, I was moved to tears as I saw this tragedy re-enacted. My fellow countrymen paid the ultimate cost to take a stand against the evils of apartheid. What happened there so long ago is part of a tide of change that I experience today.

It is this day that is commemorated as Human Rights Day in South Africa. What are human rights? The United Nations define them as “rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible”. (source: These rights are bestowed by the constitution of the land and upheld by the rule of law.

This got me thinking: the laws that support and enforce our constitution are the only means that the state has to ensure that human rights are respected. These laws – and any laws, for that matter – tell us what NOT to do. They do not inspire us in what we should or could be doing. These laws don’t change us on the inside where our seat of motivation is. These are necessary and good, but insufficient.

What does the gospel say to this?

For Christ-followers, the motivation to engage people with respect, dignity and honour is not rooted in the law of the land. The desire to see equality is not birthed in reading the constitution. Christ-followers have a higher calling. It is the message of the gospel that is the deepest possible motivator in the life of a Christ-follower. It is the unbending, unyielding, uncompromising motivation to seek justice of those most vulnerable. Scripture is littered with the call for the truly faithful to serve the widow, the orphan, the alien and the poor – the very ones who have the least rights.

When I recall that every person bears the image of God, I recognise that the way I treat them is an indication of my heart towards God. Jesus perpetually moved towards those on the fringes of society – the lepers, the tax collectors, the prostitutes – those that were not afforded the rights of the rest of society. Jesus elevated their worth and dignity by the way in which he interacted with them. And His followers are to do the same.

Human rights change from country to country, but scripture does not change. I am to “love one another with brotherly affection” and to “Outdo one another in showing honour” (Romans 12:10) – regardless of where I am and who is in front of me. These are the marks of a true Christian.

Ok, so back to Human Rights Day. I encourage you to consider the history of our country and recognise that there were people that paid the ultimate price to bring the change that was so desperately needed. In my research, I read that for a while, this day was remembered as Heroes day. It struck me: how desperately we need heroes today. People who count the cost and carry on the work of bringing justice. People who do not do justice when convenient. People who are fueled by the gospel message.

Could thousands of us stand up to be part of a movement to pursue justice for those who are oppressed?

Could it be you? Could it be me? Could it be us as the church?

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Richard works full-time for Common Good as the city impact manager and team leader. He also serves on the Common Ground Wynberg leadership team, which he attends with his wife and three children.

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