“They can’t do that; I have a right…”
Replace “they” with an enemy, substitute the encroachment of your choice for “that”, and finish the sentence how you like. This template for a common lament can be enfleshed in myriad ways. Many of which do not seem to mirror the way of Jesus.
It’s not that Christians should not care about others’ safety, freedom, or dignity. But the language of rights, while potentially a mechanism for care and protection and respect and arguably a legal necessity, is too often co-opted by persons speaking out of a sense of entitlement, self-centeredness, and anxiety. Christians can do better.
The value and utility of language ought to be measured not simply by whether it is true or false but by whether it is helpful or harmful in moving us toward our individual and collective goals. The language of rights seems to be potentially harmful language, leading us in the wrong direction.
It’s one thing for persons or communities who have been ignored to say “we’re here” and remind others of their needs. But the meaning behind some of the assertions of rights I have heard lately seems to be: “how do I protect myself and that to which I am entitled, preserve my reality, and realize the possibilities in my own life regardless of others (or, at least in a way that I perceive to not infringe upon others’ rights)?”
“What are my rights?” This is a me-centered question, not an us-centered question. “I have the right to defend myself.” “I have the right to speak.” “I have the right to do with my body what I will.” It is not that I wholly disagree with the inclinations in these three sample assertions of rights. It’s that, in each of these examples, others are sadly absent. It is only me. It does not matter how my owning a gun or saying what I want to say or appropriating my body how I please helps or harms others, it just matters that you do not interfere with my right (one that I would will to be applicable to all, in theory).
Rights may be a necessary evil. Something we have to lean on because people are failing at an an important human task: caring for each other.
If I was motivated to make sure you were cared for, why would we even need to talk about your right to safety? If I valued what you had to say out of care, and your speech demonstrated your care for others, why would we need to talk about your right to free speech?
While thinking in terms of rights might be inevitable, I think the way of Jesus offers a better way: the way of care. The way of responsibility for one another. I do not imagine Jesus ever modified his course of action because he thought: “well, I suppose they do have a right.” This is simply not how he saw people, even if he showed profound respect and advocacy for others.
Has God “endowed us with certain unalienable rights” like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? It’s not that I think “yes” or “no.” It’s that I think this way of thinking about human life is unhelpful at really getting us to our deepest, most sacred goals. Such a statement may have been contextually important to energize a people on a path toward emergence as a new nation. But when assertions of these rights become a weapon or something that destroys peaceful, caring, and dignifying relationships with others—then “rights” has shown itself to be sorely inadequate. I worry that “rights” language separates us from one another more often than it connects us.
I have the right to drive what car I want and buy whatever food I want. Sorry, planet!
I have the right to speak loudly and non-violently about my racial superiority. Sorry, people of other races!
I have the right to do what makes me happy. Sorry, unhappy people suffering for my ability to be happy with relative ease!
I have the right to keep MY money that I earned. Sorry, people who through generations of being underprivileged and thanks to systemic stubbornness do not truly, in practice, have access to such money and cannot believe the same economic myth I have embraced.
If concern for rights leads us to protect the vulnerable and properly value ourselves, then “rights language” is working. When thinking in terms of rights makes us entitled, isolated, cold, and indifferent, then we are no longer walking in the way of Jesus.
Christians ought to profess three things that conflict with the language of rights:
1. Grace. Nobody is entitled to anything. All of life is a gift. All of life is grace. All that we have is grace. Christians ought to recognize that the world, and every living thing in, belong to God. What is “mine” is only truly mine in a limited sense. In reality, we are stewards of what has been given to us. My money is not mine. My kids are not mine. My body is not mine. The earth is not mine. I cannot simply do whatever I want with these things. They are gifts given to me for which I ought to take great care for the time I have been given to take care of them.
2. We are made in the image of God. People are loved and valued by God, and we ought to be increasingly aware of this fact. Humans are tasked with being God’s representatives on earth (along with many forms of non-human life, I’d argue), meant to create and care as God creates and cares. In light of our design and calling, a Christian vision of other people is one of wonder and appreciation. “Rights” language ought to be unnecessary. I shouldn’t be motivated to honor you because you have a right to be honored; I should honor you because you are sacred, inherently valuable, and good. Respect and compassion ought to be a natural reaction to the value that is you. I ought to have the capacity—and cultivate it if I do not—to recognize and receive your sacredness.
3. We are responsible for others. This responsibility changes, of course, depending on the nature of our relationship with a particular person or group. But nobody, in a Christian perspective, is not my responsibility. I am obligated to my family. To the people who collect my recycling. To the people who made my clothes. To people who have not yet been born. An essential part of justice, in my opinion, is asking: what is my responsibility for particular others? What does it mean, not to not interfere or harm, but to intervene and help? Not, “how do I stay out of the way of others’ flourishing” but “how do I help them flourish?” Not, “how I do I ensure nobody gets in the way of what I’m entitled to do and be” but “how do I give myself away to others in a way that honors me, them, and all of us?”
Christians, we potentially have a better story to offer the world than one based on “rights.” Let’s not fight to protect “rights,” a cause which too easily disintegrates into self-absorption and entitlement, an appeal to what may sound morally noble but may simply be disguising the egocentric assertion of our own will.
Instead, let’s fight for people because we all belong to one another. Because people are good, loved by God. Because it’s worth our time to nurture each other. Let’s help each other realize the possibilities in each other (rather than anxiously trying to realize my own possibilities separate from you or at your expense).
Christians, let’s offer the world a story that goes beyond entitlements. In the end, if I’m honest, I do not want you to simply respect my rights. I want you to love me. I assume many others want the same.
Let’s speak less about rights and more about care.