I dislike entitlement mentalities. The idea that the universe owes us something, is in my opinion the height of presumption. It’s a tough world out there. Get over it and get to work, I say.
On the other hand, I believe in the dignity of every person and the inherent rights associated with that dignity. At the same time we are both dirt and God-like. Suspended between heaven and earth.
As one born, raised, and within the Anabaptist tradition I have often encountered negative responses to the idea of human rights. Where in the Bible does it talk about the rights of the individual? While the idea finds its American roots in a lot of Enlightenment epiphanies, an argument from imago Dei (humans created in the image of God) is quite compelling.
But the fact is, neither the Bill of Rights, nor life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, nor Human Rights Watch policies show up in Jesus’ teachings. Instead, he talks a lot about sacrifice and returning good for evil. Paul continues the theme. Given the right context (or lack thereof) he could even be accused of promoting slavery when he tells the slaves to be content with their position in life. Not a lot of civil disobedience and social activism in that.
But then there’s Isaiah who devotes page after page to the coming Messiah who would restore peace and justice to all nations. I realize I might be playing fast and loose with terms and ideas, but some idea of rights seems to be inherent in justice. And Isaiah is certainly not the only prophet writing on this theme.
So do humans have rights simply by definition of being human?
An adequate answer to this question would require a lot of other questions. What does it mean to be human? Whose rights? Says who?
But for the sake of brevity (and sanity), I would guess that most people would answer affirmatively. Yes, by virtue of being born, we have rights. Even peace-loving Anabaptists get a bit rankled when some thug pickpockets our cell phone. Not saying we would press charges, but we know who has a right to that phone and who doesn’t. The IRS, of course, is another matter.
Jesus never insisted on the absence of rights. Instead, his teachings and life changed the conversation and showed a much higher way. If, instead of insisting on our rights we would sacrifice them for the good of others, many terms and institutions would be rendered utterly moot. Jesus did and died for it. It’s genius.
Day after hellish day al-Assad crushes Syrians under the heel of his regime. James Holmes awaits trial for a senseless massacre. And these are just the ones who make the media.
Wake up and snap out of it, man! It’s a real world out there with real people with real problems.
I am keenly aware of the apparent weakness in this approach to justice. I am aware that it borders on naivete. It’s great for personal response to injustice but leaves questions unanswered. Such as the responsibility to advocate the rights of the helpless.
At the same time I’m stubbornly convinced it’s the only possible answer for a world hell-bent on defending rights and returning blind eyes for blackened ones. Without Jesus we can’t do justice.
I am reminded of a scene from The Return of the King (a scene tragically missing from the film version). After returning from his epic journey to destroy the ring of power, Frodo returns to find Bag End and most of The Shire under the influence of the evil but disempowered and disgraced wizard, Saruman. Even as he leaves the Shire, thanks to the mercy of Frodo, Saruman tries stabbing him. At this point Frodo has every right to kill Saruman for all the grief he caused Middle Earth not to mention the attempted murder. Instead the following poignant scene unfolds.
“No, Sam!” said Frodo. “Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.”
Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. “You have grown, Halfling,” he said. “Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy.”
That last line takes me straight to Micah’s injunction to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God. Perhaps these actions aren’t as mutually exclusive as we so often perceive them.
The song, “Here is Love,” says it well: “Heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love.”
And the Psalm (85.10): “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.”
I choose to believe in the possibility of a world in which the wall between mercy and justice is torn down. A world in which rights become anachronistic irrelevancies from a previous age. A world in which Jesus is Lord.