Ethos Education

Bridge of Spies: Does everybody have human rights?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Understand the concepts of justice and injustice.
  • Understanding of the concept of human rights.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect upon a variety of rights.
  • Analyse the content of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • Evaluate how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights relates to Christian principles about the human condition.
  • Synthesise learning by explaining a Christian basis for human rights and arguing whether or not those rights apply to all people regardless of their religious faith.

Supporting Values Education:

The value of the rule of law is based on the belief that all people are equal and deserve equal legal protections. This lesson encourages students to consider what rights are inherent to all humans merely by virtue of being human, and how the law should reflect those inherent human rights.


Tell the students that you want them to think about what rights people have. Explain that you are going to read out a list of rights, and for each one you want them to decide which of the following best describes it:

  • This is a right for all people, all the time.
  • This is a right for most people, although some people forfeit that right as a result of their own actions.
  • This isn’t something that anyone has the right to do.

Read through some or all of the items on the list below (feeling free to add other examples of your own), asking students to vote for each item on the list. Discuss any interesting differences of opinion. Draw out from the students that there are some rights that can be forfeited, while there are other things that are always our rights, regardless of what we do.

  • The right to live a life of liberty and not to be imprisoned.
  • The right to be happy.
  • The right to pursue their own happiness.
  • The right to punch anyone they want to in the face.
  • The right not to be physically attacked without reason.
  • The right to a well-paid job.
  • The right to work.
  • The right to marry whoever they want.
  • The right to express disagreement with others over matters of religious or political belief.
  • The right not to have to listen to people who disagree with them.

After students have had enough time to discuss their answers, explain that in today’s lesson you are going to be thinking more about human rights, about the Christian basis for them and about how they might apply in today’s world.


Introduce the clip from the film Bridge of Spies (20th Century Fox, 2015, certificate 12). Click here to buy the DVD online. Explain that the film is set during the Cold War of the 1960s. A Russian spy has been caught operating in America and arrested. In this scene lawyer Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) is approached to defend the spy in court. Ask the students to pay particular attention to the arguments used both for and against Jim agreeing to undertake the defence.

  • Start time: 0.12.11 (in chapter 2 of the DVD)
  • End time: 0.17.01
  • Clip length: 4 minutes and 50 seconds

The clip starts with Jim arriving at work. The camera lingers over the plaque on the door reading, ‘Watters, Cowan and Donovan. Attorneys at Law’. The clip ends with Jim saying grace before the family begins its meal. Please note that the clip includes one instance of strong language (‘I think you have to defend the son-of-a-bitch’). If you feel this is inappropriate for your class you could start the clip at 14.31 (the scene at Jim’s house), but you would have to fill the students in on the earlier segment that they have missed.

Ask the students to brainstorm two lists (they can do this all together as a class, or in small groups), one list of reasons given in the clip why Jim shouldn’t defend the alleged spy, and one of reasons why he should. If you have done this in groups, give them a few minutes then ask the students to feedback their responses to the whole class.

Possible lists might look like this:

Reasons not to defend the spy:

  • The spy did something very bad and Jim shouldn’t side with him.
  • The evidence is overwhelming, meaning that Jim is almost certain to lose.
  • Defending this client will make Jim very unpopular.
  • Defending this client will have a negative impact on Jim’s professional standing, potentially costing him other work.
  • Defending this client will have a negative impact on Jim’s family.

Reasons to defend the spy:

  • It’s Jim’s patriotic duty to do what his government asks him to do.
  • It is important that America is seen to give the spy a fair trial, rather than risk accusations of injustice.
  • The spy is entitled to a proper defence.

Ask the students whether they think they would want to take on a defence like this if they were, like Jim, suitably qualified. Do they think Jim makes the right decision by agreeing to take the case?

Remind the students that one of the reasons for Jim taking the case was that the spy had a right to be defended – Jim says to his wife, ‘I’m not for the Russian spy in our midst; I’m for his right to have a defence in a court of law’. Ask the students whether they agree that this right is a good thing. Do they think that anyone should ever forfeit this right?

Encourage the students to list some of the things they believe to be fundamental human rights. Brainstorm a few ideas, and ask if any of these are things that people should forfeit as a result of being convicted of a crime. Give out copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which you can find at It is available for download in pdf form, printable over eight pages.

Explain that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is designed to outline human rights for all people in all places at all times – including people who are guilty of criminal offences. Give the students time to read through the document and ask if there is anything in the document that they were surprised to see, or if there is anything that they disagree with.

Now ask students how they think a Christian might answer the question ‘what are human rights?’ Read Genesis 1:27-28. Ask the students what they think this Bible passage asserts about human beings? Draw out three key thoughts: that humans are made in the image of God, that they were made as male and female, and that their purpose was to rule over the earth.

Get the students to take each of the three statements and think about the rights these confer on us.

  • Made in the image of God: Possible rights: freedom of independent thought; freedom of belief and worship.
  • Male and female: Possible rights: the right to marry and produce children; the right to fair and equal treatment regardless of gender.
  • Rule over the earth: Possible rights: the right to work and to rest; the right to a fair share of the earth’s resources.

Do the students agree that these are our human rights? How do they compare with the list you made earlier and with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Do the students think there are others, which don’t fall into any of the three categories above? Do these rights apply to everyone in the world?


Play a second clip from Bridge of Spies. This scene comes after Jim’s client, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) has been found guilty. Jim has insisted on fighting the case all the way to the Supreme Court, the highest legal authority in the country. Explain to the students that the scenes of Jim before the Supreme Court are intercut with an American pilot undertaking a flight on a top secret American spy plane. The scenes involving the plane are not relevant to this lesson (though they are jolly exciting).

  • Start time: 0.52.01 (in chapter 9 of the DVD)
  • End time: 0.58.10
  • Clip length: 6 minutes and 9 seconds

The clip starts with Jim walking up the steps to the U.S. Supreme Court. It ends with his wife (Amy Ryan) saying, ‘It’s over’ to herself.

Ask the students to consider Jim’s argument before the Supreme Court. Ask them to write a speech setting out the basis of a Christian perspective of human rights, and arguing for whether or not they should apply to all people, regardless of religious faith.


  • A copy of the film Bridge of Spies.
  • Printed copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • Bibles.

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