Friday, November 29, 2013

Freedoms aren't absolute.

If there's one thing my holiness upbringing emphatically grilled into my head as a child, it's that it isn't about me. I grew up on a stable diet of "dying to self," which primarily meant that I was to surrender my will entirely to God. There was to be no part of me that resisted God's will or that pulled against God.

Of course that's easier said than done, and it's not what I have in mind today. This goal of selflessness spilled over into the way we are to treat each other.  We are to live "in honor, preferring one another," as my father used to say. You put others above yourself. This plays itself out down to the dinner table. Go ahead, you take the last piece of pie.

I remember a big aha moment in college when reading Romans 14--it's not about my rights. It's about what's best for everyone and the kingdom. It may be my right to do something, but that doesn't mean the right thing to do is to take advantage of my rights. Rather, let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus--who was God and not only became human for us, became a slave for us, but died for us a horrible death (Phil. 2).

I'm still not to what I had in mind for this post. The above is just about how Christians are supposed to behave in this world. There are legitimate situations, but let it be rare that you hear a Christian say, "I've got my rights." In fact, Paul advises the Corinthians that sometimes it's better to lose than to stand up for what is rightfully yours (1 Cor. 6:7).

With this background, you can imagine that it grates on my nerves to hear Americans talking about any number of rights they have, on both sides. I hate hearing "health care is a universal right" just as much as I hate hearing, "It's my right to take a gun anywhere I want." It's not that I don't believe it is important for us to speak up for the rights of Americans... and I do think Christians will do it that way--standing up not so much for their own individual rights but for the rights of others. My problem goes to another aha moment I had once upon a time.

None of the rights of the Constitution are absolute. That is to say, there are exceptions to almost all of our rights as Americans. To hear some Americans speak, there are no limits to my individual rights as an American. (And, yes, the current American climate has become dangerously egoist--my rights rather than our collective rights)  Because the rights of individuals sometimes pull against each other, rights have to be prioritized.

For example, my freedom to religion is not absolute. If I am a Jehovah's Witness who doesn't believe my child should have a blood transfusion, tough cookies if the life of my child is in danger. If my religion says I should kill abortion doctors or murder Christians, sorry Charlie. If my religion calls for ritual virgin sacrifices, I'm out of luck. The freedom of religion isn't absolute. There are exceptions.

My freedom of speech is not absolute. It's a fine line, but if my speech is urging people to violence beyond a certain point, I will be legally forced to shut up. No one is free to incite violence against the government or to speak toward the murder of government officials. At some point, a line is crossed and my rights end.

The same applies to other freedoms in the Bill of Rights. After due process, the government can take away my property to build a highway. A murderer does not have the right to carry a gun. Capital punishment, when legal, can deprive a person of his or her life. Our freedoms as Americans are not absolute. They are extensive, but they are not absolute. I personally think we need to be reminded of this fact.

And it makes sense because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. This is the primary principle of people living together. The greatness of the American experiment was the Bill of Rights, which set down certain boundaries for how far this overarching utilitarianism could go. We set up a framework that located individual freedom within the boundaries of a peaceful society.

The precise limits of those boundaries are constantly changing. I can understand a child having to wear a seat belt. I'm less comfortable with an adult being forced to wear one. I understand keeping public places free from smoke and with drinking limits for driving. I'm less comfortable when laws try to force me as an individual to eat healthily.

But it's a give and take. There aren't clear lines. You can't just say, "It's my right." We're in this thing together, not just as individuals.

It's worth reminding ourselves of the Preamble to the Constitution. We the people have established a more perfect union to establish justice, to ensure domestic tranquility, to provide for the common defense, and to promote the general welfare. And, yes, we established a Constitution to ensure the blessings of liberty too--primarily our corporate freedom but also our individual freedom.


Robert Brenchley said...

I think there's a slight difference between 'I have my gun rights', which from my European perspective is bullshit, and 'That homeless guy, (or the one in a low-paid job, or whoever it is that loses out worst over there) is entitled to his healthcare rights'. I'll uphold the second any time.

Ken Schenck said...

There's the whiplash again... :-) I hear you.

Susan Moore said...

It seems that the ‘rights’ that rulers, authorities and powers come up with and hand to their underlings are one of the ways that God reveals and strengthens the heart of a human in regards to how loving that person is to God and others. I say that because it seems that a right is only as true as the spirit of the person who interprets and practices that right.
Jesus gave up every right He could have claimed, and yet He never sinned. Even though He lived in this world, His ethos reflected a life originating from a different place; He was not of this world.
And Paul used his right as a Roman citizen. In that case, his citizenship was the mode of transportation the Spirit used to move Paul around in the vast Roman Empire. In so doing, Paul was used like a sprinkled accelerant to help ignite on the Earth His eternal light. When we remain firm in our faith God uses our ‘unfortunate’ circumstances to grow His kingdom.
When we die to our self and allow our internal Spirit to have us and therefore work effectively through us, the greatest good for the greatest number will be served, even though to us proclaiming underlings it doesn’t always seem that way at the time.
We must have faith and remember that He’s got the whole world in His hands 24/7. The one seated on the throne is making everything new. One day there will be no more night. In regards to inerrancy, these words are trustworthy and true (Rev. 21:5, 25).