Western Christians have bought into the lie that they have inalienable rights.
Some may consider that to be a startling statement. But it is true. Christians, particularly conservative Christians in America, have given themselves over to the idea that they have rights. I think we all have a good sense of what is meant when I refer to “rights”, but I will clarify. By the word “right” what is meant is those things which are good, proper, and fitting in light of being. We think of this as also being what is justly deserved (an example of which would be of a murderer who we may say has given up his right to live). In this case the idea is that as a human being I have certain things which are good, proper, and fitting for me to demand.
But can I make demands? Do I actually have any rights that are inherent? There are two ways that we can categorize rights: vertical and horizontal. Vertical rights are those which I have from God and are exercised in relation to God. Horizontal rights are those basic rights which I have as a human among humans, this is where the real meat of my point lies, but we will get there in time.
This one should be simple. As a creature I have no rights that I may demand of the Creator. “Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”(Romans 9:20 ESV). We see rights bestowed by God, such as the right to become sons of God (Jn 1:12), but these rights are conditional and are freely given by God. They are not inherent rights. In fact, if we consider a right as we have defined it, then any right bestowed by God is an act of grace and mercy that goes against that which is good, proper, and fitting for a rebellious creature. This places it in a very different category of thought than the typical conception of a right, for you can make no demands on the basis of a gift.
Any rights that man may have had as a result of being image bearers of God and of His glory, he relinquished such rights when he rebelled and exchanged the glory he was to reflect for the glory of himself, the created. Mankind is now like a helpless beggar, with nothing to demand and only for mercy to plead. Man can make no demands of God. Even as the redeemed stand before the judgment bar, it will be Christ that will vouch for them. They will not be able to say, “I am your child. You must let me enter your eternal blessedness”; indeed one Word is all that will suffice “Christ”. I have no demand to make but can only defer to the One who has every right.
But does the reality of my having no vertical rights have any bearing on my rights among my fellow man? Can I not, as a fellow in equal created order and being, make demands? Have I no rights among my peers, fallen though we may be?
The problem with this for the Christian is that it assumes there are two spheres of life; one in which God is central and one in which man is central. The problem with believing that we have horizontal rights is that the exercise or protection of those rights horizontally (among peers, fellow man) will eventually become a vertical issue.
Let us take as our primary example, especially to a western audience, the Enlightenment summary of quintessential, “inherent” rights; the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What happens when my fellow man stands in the way of either of those being fulfilled? Can I as a Christian demand that right? What about when the government denies me one of those three rights? Can I then rebel? Let us carry the usual argument to its logical end. What happens when an unexpected pregnancy gets in the way our your right to live the life you want? What about the law not allowing you and your same sex partner to get married, thus disrupting your liberty? What if you find out that the baby inside of you has down’s syndrome, disrupting your pursuit of happiness? Don’t you have any rights? What happens when my annoying neighbor is getting in the way of my happiness? How do I responds to the dozens of ways that my basic rights are encroached upon?
Here we see where there are many instances where the protection of horizontal rights becomes a vertical issue! Beloved friends, Christ shows us a better way.
If I am correct and we have no rights which we may demand, how then do we treat each other? There are three main ways that we are commanded to interact horizontally as mankind: Love you neighbor (Mt 5:43, Rom 13:10, 1 Cor 10:24), Submit to rulers and authorities whoever they may be by God’s sovereign decree (Rom 13:1-7, Titus 3:1-2, 1 Pt 2:17), esteem others higher than yourselves (Rom 12:3, Phil 2:3,4). This is the standard for the believer and thus the name of this post is what it is for I believe that the protection of the one is at odds with the other. In fact they war against each other!
The second greatest commandment is that “You love your neighbor as yourself”(Matt 22:39). This is a command that is binding to all and that can be applied to wherever you live as a Christian, whether it be the United States or North Korea. Wherever you are you have the right to carry a cross and to love your neighbor. Christians, that is what we are called to.
Finally I want to leave you with the following admonition. When it comes to our horizontal relationship with man I offer this comparison. If our foundation for a our relationship with man is based in individuals rights that we see ourselves as having, then we will eventually defend those rights if they are challenged as we see them as inseparable from who we are. On the other hand, if we take the Biblical perspective, we realize that we have no rights to demand as we realize that God is supremely sovereign. So setting aside any notion of rights that I have, I treat others in a “Gospel way” as I view myself in a “Gospel way”. What I mean by a Gospel way is that as a believer, I realize that I have no rights to claim God’s mercy and only the right to perish as a result of my fallen state. The great Puritan John Owen said that “Man by his sin has forfeited his right to all the ends of his creation, both on earth and in heaven”. In light of that is the knowledge that I have been made by God’s sovereign call a recipient of the grace of God in Christ Jesus. Jesus is God and he has all the rights and he came down and did not exercise his rights as God and became a man who has no rights in order that we might be saved. Christ could have laid claim on any number of rights as God at any time, yet he did not, and he laid them down all the way to that tree on Golgotha where his blood was spilt for the sins of fallen, God-despising man. Now I am commanded that the same mind that was in Christ be in me. (Phil 2:5)