Human rights. Civil rights. Property rights. Reproductive rights. Right to Life. Gay rights. Immigration rights. States rights. Right to privacy. Everywhere we look today there we find “rights.” Some talk of a right to a good education or of a right to good health care. Some even talk about the right to reliable cell-phone service. The fact is, as advocates can tell you, getting your position perceived as a right is a powerful rhetorical tool in the public square.
Often when we speak of “rights,” what we really mean is that we think something is important and good, and should be widely respected. This is different from what we call “unalienable rights.” These are rights that are inherent to us because of our humanity. Christians believe they are inherent to us because we are made in the image of God. The Declaration of Independence has what is still the most eloquent articulation of this idea of rights.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
What we often find it hard to agree on is a specific articulation of unalienable rights. Even more challenging is what to do when seemingly unalienable human rights come in to conflict with each other.
Another wrinkle to the rights question is the issue of obligations. If each human being has unalienable rights, then other human beings have the obligation of at least respecting those rights. Once again, while all agree that there are obligations we find it hard to agree on just what those obligations are. The ingenious development of constitutions over the past few centuries has proved to be a remarkable advancement (though clearly imperfect) for securing and protecting human rights.
In addition to rights and obligations, most of us would agree that there is something called justice. Justice is the right balance of these competing rights and obligations. Our constitutions have sought to frame justice at the most rudimentary level. Even so, we know that there is considerable debate in every generation about how much justice actually exists. Why do we find justice so hard?
I think G. K. Chesterton has summed it up well for those of us who are Christians. Last week I posted this observation of his:
When a religious scheme is shattered it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also, and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they are isolated from each other and are wandering alone. (1)
It is impossible apart from God to truly distinguish virtue from vice, and how the various virtues should integrate with each other. Without God at the center, we have finite sinful human beings, each at the center, competing for their own versions of justice. Richard Foster used an analogy about setting moral priorities in his book Freedom of Simplicity. Imagine someone dropping a length of string on a table and telling you to form the sting into a straight line using one finger. Foster says you can nudge it this way and that all day long and still never get a straight line. However, if you put your finger on one end of the string and begin to draw it across the table, the string will begin to stretch out until you have a perfectly straight line. By placing God first and following him, everything else falls into its right place behind him.
In the next few posts we turn our attention to economic justice in the Bible. The Bible is not an economic textbook nor is it a blueprint for economic relationships in the twenty-first century. Yet by looking at what God expected of his people throughout the entire narrative of scripture we can discern a vision God has for all of humanity. We are asking what are the rights and obligations we have to each other as beings created in the image of God. How do we as followers of God place competing rights and obligations in the right relationship to achieve justice?
(1) G. K. Chesterton. Orthodoxy. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1924. 30-31.