The Radical Rights of our Cultural Ancestors

Two weeks ago I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to see one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta which is the basis for many of the rights we take for granted.

A few days ago I was tweeting out some of the rights guaranteed as listed:


While these rights and the others listed such as the independence of the Church were not always respected (see Henry VIII) during an era where might made right, where the life of a peasant or a serf had little value this was an incredible thing for such right to be recorded and confirmed b the king.

It’s very hard for a person living under a government whose founding evolves from these rights and the common law that came from it to understand just how radical such concept it, but this was the direct descendant of the principles of Christianity as Paul said:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28

If the Magna Carta was an incredible statement for the culture of the year 13th century the equality of all before God no matter what your status, race or sex in the 1st century was an attitude that contradicted everything that the prevailing Roman, Jewish culture and beyond taught and knew.

Again like any institution run by humans this principle has not always been followed but that this philosophy of basic equality before God that is the building block for the concept of the basic dignity of humanity is earth shattering and changed the world.

But you can go back even further. Our secular friends often scoff at the Mosaic Law but consider some of the things listed in Exodus:

A sanction against excessive force

“(If a thief is caught in the act of housebreaking and beaten to death, there is no bloodguilt involved. But if after sunrise he is thus beaten, there is bloodguilt.)

Exodus 22:1-2b

A sanction against not just false reporting but in going defining truth by consensus.

“You shall not repeat a false report. Do not join the wicked in putting your hand, as an unjust witness, upon anyone. Neither shall you allege the example of the many as an excuse for doing wrong, nor shall you, when testifying in a lawsuit, side with the many in perverting justice.

Exodus 23:1-2

The concept of equality before the law neither favoring the poor because they are poor.

You shall not favor a poor man in his lawsuit.

Exodus 23:1-2

Nor denying the poor justice because they are poor & weak either

“You shall not deny one of your needy fellow men his rights in his lawsuit.

Exodus 23:6

But judging based on the truth

And in an era when an enemy was something to be killed an pillaged this idea….

“When you come upon your enemy’s ox or ass going astray, see to it that it is returned to him. When you notice the ass of one who hates you lying prostrate under its burden, by no means desert him; help him, rather, to raise it up.

Exodus 23:4-5

was certainly a law direct from God because even today we are inclined to celebrate our enemies misfortune.

In a Bronze age society whose rules were decided by the point of the sword and the spear all of these rights and obligations were a departure frankly from human nature.  The concept that there was a right and a wrong that came from beyond the ability to force it is an astounding development.

Today it’s become fashionable to look at those who came before us as ignorant unenlightened savages who do not rise to our level of wisdom or sophistication.  But where would we be today if  the basic principles from the 10 commandments and Mosaic law, the Christian concept of equality before God and the idea of rights that even the rulers of the land were obliged to obey?

We owe it to these cultural ancestors both respect for all they did in passing down these basic principles to us, but to make sure that the rights we have are upheld for the sake of those who follow.