Online Discussion with World Vision’s Tim Costello – Human Rights and World Religions

By Tim Costello
Photo of Tim Costello at the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya courtesy of World Vision Australia

By Tim CostelloThis article is part of our February 2013 focus on Religion and Human Rights.

Join Right Now in an interactive online discussion with World Vision Australia CEO Tim Costello on Tuesday 19 February 2013, from 12.00 to 1.00 pm. Tim will be online to respond to your comments and questions in the ‘comments’ section of his article below. Tim is also happy to discuss the themes of development, religion and human rights more broadly, so please join in the discussion!

The major world religions have quite distinct understandings of the relationship between the human person, the world and the divine.  And within each of the religions there can be a variety of perspectives. But all of them have at their heart the idea that human life is distinct, meaningful and purposeful.

In the Christian tradition, drawing heavily on the roots of Christianity in Judaism, we find the concept of human dignity. In some ways this historical and religious idea has been central to forming the contemporary and secular idea of human rights. This is the idea that every person has an innate, intrinsic right to respect and ethical treatment, simply because they are human. The Christian (and Jewish) view of human dignity reflects the idea of humans as being made in the image of God. Human life is sacred, and must be protected, because human beings have inherent value, being the clearest reflection of God in the world.

Human life is sacred, and must be protected, because human beings have inherent value, being the clearest reflection of God in the world.

The concept of human dignity has been influential beyond Christian thinking, however. In the sense that it elevates the concern for the human person above all other concerns, and that it sees the human person as having rights and attributes that can never be taken away or ignored, it sets the scene for the modern concept of human rights. The idea of universal human rights, applicable everywhere, at all times and to everybody, is fundamental to modern society – the starting point is that rights are inherent and inalienable. That is, they don’t depend on any particular qualities in the individual, they don’t need to be earned or bestowed, and they don’t depend on any kind of legal mandate. And they cannot be taken away.

One thing that is important here is to recognise that the religious and secular world views are not diametrically opposite, as much contemporary discourse would have it. If you look at the opening words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they are quite similar to the sentence on human dignity in the catechism of the Catholic Church.

Another way that the holistic religious world view has translated itself in the modern world is the presence of faith-inspired organisations working in humanitarian, peace-making and development work. World Vision is one of these, and our faith foundation certainly is central to our motivation and the way we carry out our work.

We don’t engage in proselytism, and we work cooperatively with people of all faiths and those without a faith. In fact World Vision has more Muslim employees than any other NGO in the world, including Muslim NGOs. We strive to serve people everywhere without regard to their race, religion or politics.

In practice, it does sometimes happen that the variety of freedoms and rights that we try to uphold can come into conflict with one another. I believe that sensible compromise and a focus on the spirit of human rights is critical. Differences are best overcome through respectful dialogue and when necessary, a bit of compromise and give and take. A legalistic approach to rights isn’t always the best way to harmony and peace in the long run – it’s very important to take all opportunities to build trust and understanding.

A legalistic approach to rights isn’t always the best way to harmony and peace in the long run – it’s very important to take all opportunities to build trust and understanding.

My own journey towards my current work has been very much driven by my faith convictions and my spiritual development. For example, the time I spent as a Baptist minister in St Kilda brought home to me the reality of what life is like for people who are on the margins of society – people who are homeless, struggling with addiction, struggling with keeping life together in a society that can be uncaring, hostile and materialistic. The picture of human dignity – life in all its fullness – that I saw in a holistic reading of Christian scripture just put into stark contrast the reality of life on the streets, and when you see that huge gap between what is and what ought to be, then you feel compelled to do something about it. And it’s not such a stretch from engaging with poverty and marginalisation in an Australian city to seeing the bigger scale (but equally human) problems that affect the global poor.



It’s Not About the Burqa: a review

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  • John

    “Human life is sacred, and must be protected, because human beings have inherent value, being the clearest reflection of God in the world.”

    Unless of course you’re gay. Then the above does not apply. Are you aware of what the bible and the koran say about this? Mentioning of death.. and stoning.. etc.

    Thomas Jefferson said, “Christianity is the most perverse system that has ever shone on man”. Do not blame people for being opposed to the spread of perversity.

  • Andre Dao

    Hi Tim – do you think that religion is on the decline in Western countries? And if so, are human rights capable of replacing religion as the dominant moral compass of a society?

  • Rose Hunter

    World Vision focuses on development issues and predominantly economic and social rights. Would you consider economic and social rights more important to address than civil and political rights, such as the right to freedom of religion and expression?

  • Tim Costello

    Hi John, thanks for your comment. The Hebrew scriptures have clear cultural time-bound values of gays. The stoning of men who lie together features next to the stoning of disobedient children and other unacceptable practices of the time. The Christian view was that in Jesus all people – including those who were ostracised, lepers who he touched, publican and sinners, women who had little status – are loved by God and of equal worth.
    That is the revelation that I base my life on rather than pulling texts from the old testament that thankfully we have been able to relativise given the historical context in which they were written.

  • Tim Costello

    Thanks Andre, church attendance is certainly on the decline in most western countries except the US but faith, spirituality and the practice of religion which comes from the Latin ‘religio’ – to bind up and to bind together – may not be in decline. Humans will always seek to align their lives with the deepest mysteries in life which is a religious instinct that will never abate. As a supporter of human rights I hope there practices will be extended and I devote my life to that but I don’t think they will replace religion.

    • Andre Dao

      I agree that humans have a deep desire for spirituality. However, given the crises facing some churches, as well as apparent difficulty of other churches to modernise, many are turning away from institutional religions.

      Is there still a place for global, institutional religion, or is faith a purely personal matter?

  • Megan Stuart

    Historically, religion has caused major human injustices and still does. Christians believed for many centuries that they were ‘civilised’ and people of colour were not. The white invasion of Australia acted on this premise. Isn’t it more logical, less confused and even kinder to rely on an ever-evolving scientific explanation of our existence than on one which relies on an unprovable mystery?

  • Leon

    Hi Tim,

    What do you make of the dominance of rights-based ethical language, over and against, say, the language of obligation and duty, or virtues and vices, or sacrifice, or justice? (Or even “utility”?)

    From a political/development point of view, one common criticism is that an overemphasis on “rights” can lead to a mentality of entitlement — the focus is on what everyone deserves, not what “I/we” should be doing about it — and ultimately inaction.

    On the other hand, even though the idea of universal human rights may have grown out of Judeo-Christianity, it seems like the other kinds of language (duties, virtues, vices, sacrifice, etc.) is more common both in the Bible and in classical Christian literature.

    Do you think “rights” are overemphasized in the politics of development and/or in Christianity?

  • John

    Thanks for your response Tim. However, it does not sit. I see no difference between a burka and a “god hates fags” t-shirt. I suggest we are the tolerant tolerating intolerance. And it must stop.

  • Leon

    *are more common

  • Tim Costello

    Thanks for your question Rose, this has been the age old debate between the left and the right when Roosevelt in 1944 called for a second bill of rights in the US – the right to a house and a job. He set the stage for the continuing Republican – Democrat debates until today. Communist countries privilged economic and social rights before civil rights. Capitalist countries preference the reverse. World Vision believes both are fundamentally important and it is a stale debate the try to find a priority, although context determines temporary priorities for us. Usually that is economic and social rights given the poverty we seek to confront. World Vision does have a program called Citizen Voice in Action which conflates the two sets of rights and puts pressure on better governance for better economic, social, and political rights.

    • Rose Hunter

      Thanks Tim. When you say that the temporary priorities of World Vision are economic and social rights due to context, do you mean that this is due to the role of World Vision as a development organisation or because of the parameters which your organisation must work within? or both?

  • Tim Costello

    Thanks Megan – The past is a foreign country. Whenever we try to make judgements about it we invariably get it wrong. Future generations may charge the last 30 years of secular Indigenous policy in Australia with the same neglect. There is no question that religion as I believe it is no enemy of science. The dimensions of human life need science and also to harness the best in religion. Secular leaders have killed sadly even more than the church – Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao – which is no justification for religion’s blindnesses but to remind us that the past is a foreign country.

  • David

    Peter Singer has compared walking past a child drowning in a play pool to doing nothing about global poverty.

    Do you agree with his argument that we have a moral obligation to save a life – no matter how distant from our own – if we have the means to do so?

  • Sam Ryan

    Hi Tim, very interesting piece, thanks.

    In the political sphere, are you disturbed by the way various politicians, often but not exclusively on the conservative side – both in Australia and overseas – invoke Christianity and the claim of our society being “established on Christian values” to undermine the rights of minority groups? I’m thinking specifically about attitudes towards homosexuals in the recent same-sex marriage debate, comments on multi-culturalism and (most absurdly) the comment by one of our most prominent politicians that seeking asylum in Australia by boat was “unChristian”.

    Clearly such attitudes are not in line with the teachings of Jesus, so are politicians appealing to so-called Christian values merely doing harm to the image of the Church?

  • Tim Costello

    Leon, you seem to have comprehensive grasp that I can’t better. Put simply, there can be no ‘rights’ without a corresponding obligation and duty to enforce it, otherwise it’s meaningless. The left emphasises ‘rights’, and the right preferences duty, responsibilities and communal obligations. Just as it takes two wings for a bird to fly, both have a truth. You’re right that the bible cannot envisage rights without equally responsibility from people of God to make sacrifices and to honour those rights.

  • Tim Costello

    Rose, the purpose of aid is to be temporary and we seek to move out of communities after 15 years so we don’t create dependence and lift them to standing on their own feet sustainably. But that hand-up as opposed to a hand-out is to canvas all the rights you speak of.

  • Tim Costello

    Thanks David, yes Peter makes a very valid point that if its within my capacity to save a life the fact of proximity or distance does not give me an escape clause. If it is so morally clear that to walk past a child drowning is wrong then why do we get morally confused if its an african who is suffering from malnutrition? Through our giving we could save a life. Singer rightly makes the point that its the same ethical duty.

  • Erin

    Hi Tim,

    In light of your response to John, do you think that other aspects of the bible are ‘cultural time-bound’ values? I’m thinking specifically of Paul’s contentious comments about women and preaching – ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet’ – 1 Timothy 2:12.

    If this too is culturally-specific, what in Paul’s letters (and the bible as a whole) can we take as spiritual truth, and what should we dismiss as outdated culture? Where do we draw the line?

  • John A

    Tim, your article focuses mostly on how your personal Christianity fits or inspires human rights work. Of course, there are varieties of all traditions, including Christianity, both historically and presently. Surely there are some conflicts between development and religious notions to some extent. What do you think is the most significant religious impediment to achieving development goals?

  • Tim Costello

    Sam, the question for the Christian Church is how much do they know about Jesus. in the story of the good Samaritan, the little conundrum posed by Jesus was a man beaten up on the Jericho road who was naked and half dead. This meant that you could not tell from his clothes if he was Jewish, Samaritan or Roman. Half dead meant he couldn’t speak and you couldn’t tell his accent. Therefore, the question of do I have a responsibility because he’s one of my mob could not be answered and the priest and the levite failed and walked on by. It was the despised Samaritan who responded to someone who was simply human without knowing his religion, race or sexual orientation. He proved to be a true neighbour. Our political leaders on both sides could reflect on what the judeo-christian ethic really means.

  • Sarah

    In 2000 the global community set a target to halve world poverty by 2015.

    Two years out from that date, how have we gone in meeting Millennium Development Goals?

  • Tim Costello

    John A, sometimes it is the church’s attitude to women. As we know educating girls and making microfinance loans to women is a dollar well spent. For every dollar a women earns in the developing world, 90 cents flows to the family. For every dollar a man earns, 40 cents flows to the family. Even in poverty men find ways to waste the money. So where Christian faith reinforces patriarchy, this is a huge impediment to development. In other religions for example, Hinduism has embraced a caste system which we know is a huge impediment for lower castes. However, the developing world is profoundly religious and they are not going to turn secular – this is an almost incomprehensible notion. They will ask how do you name a child, conduct a wedding, have a culture if you’re secular? So we need to work within those religious traditions, embracing that which is pro-development and enlightened and relativising those parts of sacred texts which are inconsistent with the full rights of women.

    • John A

      Thank you for the answer

  • Tim Costello

    Sarah, there are some countries where they are on target and there has been stunning progress. For instance, infant mortality has dropped by two thirds in some countries. It is now 19,000 children dying every day around the world and two years it was 30,000 a day. In other countries in our region including PNG, we are off-track on all 8 goals. Collectively, we will not achieve the goals. However the stunning global consensus to set a scorecard and to mark our development homework has meant lives saved and kids educated that could never have been achieved without the MDGs. Now the challenge is to set targets post-2015 that maintain momentum, and tweak the targets and goals so that they reflect the changed world from the year 2000.

  • Erin

    Do you find it problematic when the same hand that offers aid is simultaneously offering Jesus?

  • Tim Costello

    I’m sorry to end the session a couple of minutes early but unfortunately something urgent has popped up.
    Thanks to all for a fascinating conversation.

  • John

    Tim. Regardless of my own views on religion, I think you do a top job and we need more like you for sure. All the best to you.

  • Ibrahim Maalim Hassan

    Hi! Tim.
    I am a secondary school principal from northern kenya. I am in cairns for the just concluded icp conferece.i was very much touched by what your prganization does for the less unfortunate and displaced people in the society irrespective of their colour, creed or religion. I am now 52 yrs.and thinking seriously to become a volunteer with your org.though it does not operate in my county of mandera, kenya. Please advice.