Wednesday, October 01, 2008

God and 'My Rights'

Dr. James Howell has written another fine column on the issue of American Christians and their rights and responsibilities. It reminded me of just how much it is a part of our American DNA to demand our rights, and assume them to be 'self-evident'. There is the famous story of a Civil War soldier from Tennessee with a deep southern accent who was captured by a Union brigade and one Yankee officer said to him "well now you will have to give up your slaves." Johnny Reb replied "I ain't got no slaves." This puzzled the officer and so he asked: "Why in the world are you fighting then?" He replied "I wants my rats" "Your rats?" responded the officer. Defiantly the rebel said: "Yessir, you know my R-I-G-H-T-S." Here is James helpful column.

Rights Talk

Mary Ann Glendon, who taught law at Harvard before being appointment U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, wrote an important book called Rights Talk. In America, we talk endlessly about “rights,” and many political arguments are over “rights.” But whose “right” is right? Does the conceived child have a "right to life"? or does the woman have a "right to choose"? Do people have a right to privacy? or do citizens have a right to safety that overrides?

Glendon has noticed in our “rights talk” a disturbing “starkness, legalistic character, exaggerated absoluteness, hyperindividualism, and a silence with respect to responsibility.” She believes the shrill insistence on rights has ruined democracy and shortchanged citizenship. Flatly asserted, “I have this right!” leaves no room for exploration, no room for give and take. Little wonder debates cannot be resolved.

Usually, the notion of “rights” plays out as “my right,” which is pretty different from me defending “your right,” or those who have no “rights” at all. Not only do Americans have countless “rights,” but they curiously have no legal duty to come to the aid of someone in danger. Rights without responsibilities? God turns all this on its ear and lovingly suggests we have no rights, but many responsibilities.

Instead of “rights,” the Bible speaks of “gifts.” There is no “right to life.” Life is a gift, and this may be the compelling reason we do not have any right to destroy life. I do not have “rights” over my own body; God has those “rights.” My body is a gift of God, an instrument to be used in service to God, a temple of God’s Spirit, not a private domain for me to use as I wish. Christians get “responsibility” – which is “response-ability.” God has made us able to respond to God’s gifts. Responsible people do not gripe or whine so much as they get involved, they do something. Citizenship is responsibility, and perhaps the Christians could foster a buoyant hope in America life by simply refusing to play the “rights” card and instead lead the way in taking responsibility for the good stewardship of God’s gifts.

Isn't it freeing to think I am not a fist seizing my rights? but instead I am an open hand, gratefully receiving gifts from a loving God? Rights are about me; gifts are about us. Rights require law; gifts require love. Rights build walls; gifts open doors. Rights I cling to; gifts I share. Rights depend on government; gifts come down from God.

If we think of life as God’s gift, then the political argument shifts. We might even wind up with a new logic: years ago, Cardinal Bernardin popularized a notion called “the seamless garment of life.” If life is God’s good gift, and we don’t have the right to take another life, then we find ourselves against abortion, against capital punishment, against euthanasia, and against war. Of course, Christians who understand that life isn’t a right but is God’s beautiful gift may devise divergent arguments about how best to be responsible about life as God’s good gift – but at least we will be speaking the same language, and debating on the same terms.

Dr. James Howell,
Myers Park UMC
Charlotte N.C.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Certainly, Christians affirm life, but that does not mean that we do not resist evil. We are not to allow another to do evil, as this would create the monster that we abhor. This is not an individualistic understanding necessarily, but a commitment that is irregardless of whether it is for oneself or for another. It is a conviction and commitment across the board..You must love others AS you love yourself.
Too many are taken advantage of in the name of religion or "development", by the teaching of self-denial. And this is done in the name of "discipleship"! This is hog-wash and is cultic. It serves no purpose except to kill the individual psychologically. It is tradition's extreme radicalization of faith. This may be a "release" from self hatred for those who have grown up hating themselves, thinking there is nothing good about themselves as human beings, but it is not healthy self-acceptance.

Carol Gilligan argues against the individualistic understanding of Kohlberg when she affirms the individual within community. Her research understood the individual as developing from selfishness, to selflessness, TO self AND other. This means that we do not neglect ourselves in seeking the other's is not self-denial, but self-affirmation, in affirming difference while not always coming to the same conclusions, convictions, or commitments....

Kohlberg, on the other hand, understands the individual's development in terms of reason's education. Indivdiuals can be educated beyond the traditions "herd" mentality. And it is an understanding of social contract, where there are two or more equals in regards to dialogue in community. Wisdom is not found in oneself alone, but in struggling with new information, re-assessing one's understanding and coming to terms with ones commitments.

So, in regards to Law, yes, the individual is protected by laws within the nation, community, etc. for it to be a healthy community/nation. Otherwise, there has been a disregard for another's life...a presumptutous posture towards another. (This is the basis of human rights, and surely, Christians affirm human rights.)
The Law should not be defined so tightly that there can be no debate in regards to the understanding of how the law is understood and lived out...and it certainly does not mean that there is arrogant disregard either in disregard for the person in affirming the law. The law was to bring the best to the person, we just don't always agree about what the best is...and it is best when we approach another human being to not assume we know what is best before we hear, understand and know the person...

Daniel said...

Thanks for this post. I am a huge fan of Gettysburg, so I really enjoyed the throwback to the movie.

In all of my time studying Bible and culture and living overseas, I have found that the West is so enamored with their "rights" that we negate social responsibility. There is no honor/shame in our culture. Honor is whatever makes me happy, and the only shame that exists is the shame of being "intolerant" and "prejudiced." (Two words that are used synonymously in our culture today.)We focus more on what makes US happy rather than what is best for our world, nation, culture, or community.

Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I agree, we must find a common ground to meet upon. But I think we have a problem when we fundamentally think that God wants us to be happy. I think happiness isn't the end result God desires for us. God doesn't necessarily want us to be happy, because "happiness" is dependent on the circumstances we find ourselves in and is often based on things that are harmful to us. God doesn't want us to be happy, God wants us to be holy!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Daniel,"God doesn't want us to happy, but to be holy". What is holiness to you? How you define holiness is everything! And becasue we may disagree to what that means, also means that we must not make the assessment for others. Your holiness is not mine. Holiness is wholeness, not asceticism! God does want our blessing (a life more abundant), but that does not mean that i can do whatever I want at anytime I want...although in American culture it is pretty much true, unless one desires to be more than an individualist....

Jonathan said...

dumb question. Is that picture real or a doll? thanks

Ben Witherington said...

Nope that is not a real little tiny baby or fetus. It is a human contrivance.


Bruce said...

About the picture. My wife and I have several children and grandchildren now, but we had a hard time getting off the ground. At 2 1/2 months my wife went into labor and delivered her unborn male child, which I delivered (received). He was in the gestational sac which was fully transparent for about 10 seconds (that is, for an eternity in my eyes). The baby was about the size of the model in the picture, I'm guessing. The feet were the size of the "little feet" lapel pins.

Gary said...

I'm entirely with pastor Howell here. Oddly, it was Hobbes who convinced me that not much good can come from "rights" language. I only use it in very precisely defined situations (like traffic rights-of-way).

Also, whatever we may believe our rights to be, following Jesus means quite explicitly that we need to give up the exercise of those rights. Paul's letters are quite specific about this point.

BTW, Ben, you have a speaking engagement at my church coming up (Church of the Good Shepherd in Durham). Hope I get the chance to see you then and say hi.

Alvin Grissom II said...

While thought-provoking and deep in its own right, I think that the argument, as presented here, emphasizes only one side of the coin, and thus somewhat misses the point about rights. Our notion of rights is all about limiting the government's ability to take away the freedom of its citizens; so, it most certainly is legalistic. Democracy, I think, is not threatened by those who obsessively demand that these rights be upheld, but by those who would so quickly de-emphasize them as part of the fundamental foundation of our society. It is because of the "right" to our own religion that we can even openly express allegiance to God over State. In a time when these rights are so readily under assault by, oh, let's say, the Bush Administration, this rhetoric, I must admit, leaves a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth.

Many of the Founders of America, in their own limited, prejudiced ways, understood the twin notions of social responsibility and of the necessity for a free society.

I also think that the unwittingly surreptitious double premise in the following statement is in no way obvious: "If life is God's good gift, and we don't have the right to take another life, then we find ourselves against abortion, against capital punishment, against euthanasia, and against war."

Well, not absolutely. That life is a gift should give anyone pause who thinks that prolonging the suffering of someone living in abject pain, for the sake of an abstract principle, is in any way justified. At some point, that is not a gift; it's just raw suffering.

I suppose that there are actually three premises, the third being that abortion, broadly defined, necessarily involves the "taking" of life, as opposed to the cessation of its development.

My overall point is that, while I think that Christians should recognize that our lives aren't really ours at all, and should live those lives accordingly, to use the term "rights" in the political sense in this way, I think, is equivocation. I wholeheartedly support the notion, though, that the concept of "rights" has been cheapened by overuse. I merely take issue with the examples given, and I think that this is the wrong time in history to take a soft approach on rights, especially in America. I appreciate his effort in finding a more fluid notion of what it means to have a right or a gift. I personally find no conflict in defending rights and sharing gifts. I think that they're two fundamentally different concepts.

Gary said...


Forgive me if I'm troubled by a couple of points you raise. Why exactly are you worried about "democracy" being threatened. Is there some reason for Christians to sacrifice themselves for democracy?

Also, how exactly is it that our right to worship is granted by the government? In theory a government could take a draconian approach to Christian (or any other) worship, but the idea that our freedom to worship comes from our government seem to me to be, at best, misguided. Is God more impressed with our worship if it is guaranteed to be free by a government?

Andrew C. Thompson said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thank you for sharing this article. Where did it first appear? I would like to know whether it is online or in print.

I have written on my own blog about trying to describe those Christians who believe in the "seamless garment of life" as Pro-vita Christians. This gets around the conventional pro-choice/pro-life labels and incorporates such considerations as an anti-death penalty commitment as well as a strict just war or even pacifist position.

A post link on what I am talking about can be found here:

James W Lung said...

That there is a UM Pastor anywhere who quotes Mary Ann Glendon favorably is enough to make me wish I lived in Charlotte.

It's not enough, however, to make me want to put on the seamless garmet.

I think the bridge between the kingdom of God (world of gift), where the garmet is indeed seamless, and the kingdom of the world (law), where death tends to reign, is found in the natural law.

There are some things, to borrow from Jay Budziszewski, that we cannot not know. The natural law helps soften the edges of two absolutes that cannot be reconciled.

The traditional judgments regarding defense of self and defense of property provide sufficient guidance. Doubt should always side with the innocent.

Abortion ends the life of a totally innocent human being. A legal regime which permits one human being to kill another innocent human being is immoral and unjust.

Capital punishment can never be always wrong. In our current regime it's getting more and more difficult to argue that capital punishment is just. It is however, a different issue than abortion. Always has been, always will be.