Man’s Struggle for His Rights
IN THE year 73 B.C.E., a Thracian slave named Spartacus, who was being trained in Sicily as a gladiator, escaped. He hid on Mount Vesuvius and was joined by other escaped slaves until he had an army. Defeating two Roman forces in succession, he overran most of southern Italy and fought his way right up to the Alps. By then his army numbered about 90,000. When the other slaves refused to leave Italy, he had to return south, intending to cross back into Sicily. Finally, he was killed in battle by a new Roman commander, M. Licinius Crassus.
This, in short, is the history of one man’s struggle for what today would be called a human right, the right to liberty or freedom from slavery. Similar scenes have been witnessed many times during the history of mankind.
Failures to Guarantee Human Rights
The term “human rights” is seemingly quite modern. They used to be called “natural rights.” But, whatever the name, it seems that man has always felt the need to protect certain of his rights and freedoms. Hammurabi’s law code, Solon’s legal reforms in Greece and the “unchangeable laws” of the Medes and the Persians were all designed to protect rights and give a measure of security to members of different nations.
Nevertheless, the laws did not always accomplish their purpose. Sometimes there would arise a tyrant like Nero who would disregard the laws. In the days of Mordecai, the wicked man Haman used the very laws themselves to try to cause the destruction of the Jewish minority in the Persian Empire. Some very rich and powerful people were above the control of the laws.
Besides that, history is full of examples of groups that were not really protected by the laws. Spartacus’ revolt highlighted the plight of slaves in the Roman Empire, many of whom were forced to fight to the death in the arenas, or were literally worked to death in the mines and the galleys. In ancient Athens, the position of women was unenviable. Viewed generally as little more than child-bearing slaves, they are described as “secluded in their homes, had no education and few rights, and were considered by their husbands no better than chattel.”
The cruelty of the Assyrians and the mass deportations by the Babylonians remind us of another class whose rights never received much attention: those on the losing side of history’s numerous wars. The poor, too, have always suffered, and in more modern times, cultural, linguistic and, particularly, racial and religious minorities have seen severe deprivation of their rights.
Selfishness and Human Rights
Hence, throughout history, human law systems have failed to guarantee equal human rights for all. This has led to struggles, revolutions and uprisings as people have fought for greater freedom.
Through all these struggles, one human trait has stood out: selfishness, or self-centeredness. This has worked strongly against all mankind’s enjoying human rights, and demonstrates what the German philosopher Hegel once maintained: that freedom is possible only in a community where people have certain moral standards.
An example of what happens when self-centeredness prevails was seen during the so-called “Peasants’ Revolt” in England. In 1381, a large crowd of peasants under the leadership of Wat Tyler marched on London and demanded to see the king. They had been through the trauma of the Black Death, and now were objecting to the heavy taxation and forced labor to which the barons—the landowners of those days—were subjecting them. They numbered perhaps 100,000. The king was willing to meet them and accede to their demands, but the barons were unwilling to give up some of their rights. Wat Tyler was killed, and not one of the peasants’ demands was met.
This self-centeredness was seen in another way. It often happened that whenever a certain group fought for and finally obtained certain rights, they afterward had little regard for the rights of others.
In 1789, for example, the citizens of France violently threw off the rule of an oppressive aristocracy, and produced the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. In this they listed the rights that should be enjoyed by Frenchmen, highlighting “liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression.” Yet, not many years later, the French nation under Napoleon was engaged in wars of conquest, adversely affecting the ‘liberty, property and security’ of most of the nations of Europe.
Reportedly, the first major formulation of rights in a political document was the English Bill of Rights, in 1689. Yet later, when the British Empire was being built in different parts of the world, little regard was paid to the rights of many of the conquered peoples, such as the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia and Tasmania.
Similarly, the Declaration of Independence in the United States highlighted the rights of Americans to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet how much thought was given to the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” of the millions of Negroes who were uprooted from their homes in Africa and sold as slaves on the American plantations? And when the expansion of the American nation collided with the rights of the various Indian tribes encountered, whose rights were often disregarded?
Christendom and Human Rights
Finally, the historical record of Christendom’s churches in the field of human rights has not been a good one. Christendom’s attitude toward the spread of human rights is shown in two interesting historical occurrences.
In 1215, the restive English barons forced the bankrupt King John to sign the Magna Carta. This has been called a predecessor of modern human rights documents. While the freedoms it granted were quite limited, it is viewed as a landmark in that it brought the king under the rule of law.
The reaction of Pope Innocent III to this document is on record. He said: “We utterly reject and condemn this settlement, and under threat of excommunication order that the king not dare to observe it nor the barons require it to be observed. The charter, we hereby declare to be a nullity, void of all validity forever.”
Of course, the Magna Carta did not just fade away. It was reissued several times, was even used by the Catholic Church when its rights were threatened, and became a force in the political growth of England and America.
In 1524, in Germany, there occurred what is called the “Peasants’ War.” Similar to the Peasants’ Revolt in England, the lowly peasants were protesting against the ever-increasing taxes and services demanded by the princes of Germany. Martin Luther advised the peasants to lay down their arms. When they refused, he is reported as counseling the princes to strike them down and stab them “like mad dogs.” The princes followed his counsel.
Many, many times the stand of Christendom against what are today called “human rights” became violent. Protestant Cromwell’s massacre of the Irish Catholics, and the slaughter of the French Protestant Huguenots by the Catholics of that nation are just two examples of the vicious intolerance manifested within the nations of Christendom toward the rights of others. Further examples are her bloodthirsty crusades and inquisitions; the careers of the Spanish conquistadores who, with the blessing of their spiritual leaders, engaged in acts of murder and pillage in many parts of the world; and not to be forgotten are the women, estimated to have numbered 100,000, who were burned at the stake during the Middle Ages on the charge of witchcraft.
Yes, throughout history, the human rights record of mankind has been poor. The forces that should have worked toward man’s betterment, like the laws of the land or even the laws of Christendom, have been either inadequate or positively harmful to mankind. There have been many classes that were deprived of their rights, and the selfish tendencies of men have hindered these classes from finding relief from oppression. Too often it has happened as the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible stated long ago: “Man has dominated man to his injury.”—Eccl. 8:9.
What does this mean for us today? Have things changed? Is there more hope now than in the past that human rights will be guaranteed? What do the facts show?
[Blurb on page 7]
It often happened that whenever a certain group obtained certain rights, they afterward had little regard for the rights of others.