This context sadly recalls the time of the WCC’s foundation, in the aftermath of the Second World War, when impelled by revulsion at the appalling violations of God-given human dignity perpetrated during that conflict the international ecumenical movement committed to and engaged actively with other members of the international community in the development of international legal frameworks for the promotion and protection of human rights, including freedom of religion or belief. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted in 1948, is the foundational product of that engagement.

Unlike 1948 however, the current global challenges are aggravated by intentional misinformation, ‘fake news’ and hate speech in social media and other channels. Moreover, in several countries currently there are unprecedented assaults on human dignity and democratic principles, attacks on the validity of international law, and impunity for grave human rights violations.

In recent years the universality of human rights has been increasingly called into question, not least because of obvious double standards in the application of international human rights law. Many states instrumentalize these principles for political purposes, and powerful states resist human rights accountability for their own actions. Such misuse of principles that should be of universal application has damaged their credibility in the eyes of many, and weakened them for the essential purposes for which they were intended.

Differences of opinion about the nature and quality of the relationship between Christian faith principles and the principles reflected in international human rights law have also become increasingly evident during these years, despite the history of close engagement by the WCC in the development and promotion of international human rights law as a framework for accountability for violations of human rights and for the protection of God-given human dignity.

In 2018, in marking the 70th anniversary of both the WCC and the UDHR, the WCC central committeemandated “a new process of ecumenical reflection and consultation on the relationship between international human rights law and scripture, theology and Christian ethics”, leading up to the 11th Assembly.

In its first meeting following the 11th Assembly, the WCC executive committee welcomes and appreciates the process of reflection and consultation on these matters that the WCC undertook in partnership with the United Evangelical Mission (UEM) and the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) during the intervening years, culminating in a consultation held in Wuppertal and online on 9-12 April 2022. We appreciate the outputs of this process, which provided the basis for an Ecumenical Conversation on ‘Christian Ethics and Human Rights’ at the Assembly, and which warrant further study, reflection and development.

Together with the participants in the Wuppertal consultation, we affirm the enduring relevance of the Bible as a dynamic resource for churches in the ecumenical movement in their ongoing advocacy for respect for human rights and the upholding of human dignity, while at the same time acknowledging the potential misuse of some biblical texts to justify exclusion, marginalization and violence in contradiction to the life-giving spirit of the Bible. We also join them in recognizing the strong affinity between the active affirmation of human rights and human dignity, and the biblical proclamations of liberty, love, compassion, justice and peace, and the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ who preached and embodied God’s inclusive gospel of love for the disenfranchised and disadvantaged (Luke 4:18-19; John 15:13).

We acknowledge, as did the Busan Assembly Message, the prophets’ call to God’s covenanted people to work for justice and peace, to care for the poor, the outcast, and the marginalized, and to be a light to the nations (Micah 6:8; Isaiah 49:6). We recognize the calling to a lived faith that embodies Christ’s example, affirming the dignity and worth of all, regardless of race, gender, class, religion or any other characteristic.

We confess our unfulfilled responsibilities to protect and lift up those whose God-given dignity and worth is not respected, including women who still struggle in many contexts for their rightful equality with men, and the children and young people who have been silenced or disregarded, the Indigenous Peoples whose very identity has been denied them, and all those who suffer victimization, oppression and discrimination.

Even as we recognize the different perspectives within our fellowship on the principles of international human rights law, we affirm and underline the necessity of such a universal framework of legal accountability for the violation of human dignity and rights, especially given the historically ambiguous role played by churches and religious communities in this regard.

Consequently, the first reference point for our engagement in this matter must be a compassionate response to the voices, cries and lived experiences of the women, children and men who experience the violation of their human dignity and rights, rather than the differences in our theological approaches.

Just as the Busan Assembly stated, we are called to be a community upholding justice in its own life, living together in peace, never settling for the easy peace that silences protest and pain, but struggling for the true peace that comes with justice.

Following the reflections undertaken during the 11th Assembly, the WCC executive committee calls on all members of the ecumenical fellowship to:

  • Listen to the victims of human rights violations and stand in solidarity with them, upholding them in prayer, lamentation and advocacy;
  • Study and reflect on the outcomes of the Wuppertal consultation[1], and undertake further discussion of the issues raised in their own contexts;
  • Rediscover the rich biblical narratives that affirm human dignity, justice and the rule of law, for further theological reflection and discernment for responsible action.

We acknowledge that human dignity is to be understood not in isolation from the integrity of the entire creation, a foundational relationality of all creatures. We affirm that advocating for universal human dignity and rights is part of striving for justice, peace and integrity of creation, a means of reconciliation, and a witness for unity.

We commit to continuing to engage with the differences in perspective and approach within the ecumenical movement in order to work towards common conclusions and recommendations for churches to recognize and affirm the biblical roots of human dignity as the basis of the modern codification of human rights, and to advocate for human rights and for the rule of law, as an integral part of churches’ life and witness.

We request that the WCC continue to convene and to lead such discussions.

[1] Wuppertal consultation Message “Strengthening Christian Commitment to Human Dignity and Human Rights”, and published materials from the consultation “Strengthening Christian Perspectives on Human Dignity and Human Rights”.