Private rights and public rights — where do they end and where do they begin? This question has been lumbering around in my head of late. But this is a religious column and “rights” is not a religious term. It’s a political term. And yet I think some of us religious types have lost that distinction somewhere along the way.
I had to check to be certain, but when I went to the Bible, I found that the term “rights” shows up only 19 times. And that is in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). In the King James Version “rights” doesn’t appear at all! “Duty,” “cause,” or “judgment” are the words that most often appear where the contemporary English translates the Hebrew or Greek as “rights.”
In most of the NRSV passages where this elusive term is found, it refers to the “rights” of the poor, the widow, the fatherless, or the destitute. There are also passages that deal with property owners’ “rights.” All in all, though, scripture seems to be telling us that it is the “right” of economically vulnerable individuals to expect that you and I should share what we have with them. Whoa, does that bump up against how most of us understand our individual rights!
We are a people for whom “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are considered unalienable “rights,” meaning they cannot be given away even if we wanted to. We espouse that these “rights” are given by God to all humanity equally. As I think about the multitude of cultures in our world and how differently they’d define what it means to pursue happiness, and I hold that notion in tension with a holy text in which I am not one of those who are granted “rights,” I am struck by the resulting picture that comes into focus.
Because I am not a destitute person, and because I am not a slave owner with “rights” pertaining to my slaves nor am I a husband with “rights” pertaining to my wife (both being “rights” of ownership) what is given to me by God is something other than a “right.” What God gives me is a responsibility to give what I have to those who need it. This includes all that I have, not just what I luck into or what is given me, but also that for which I work. It includes not just my physical resources, but also my voice and my power. No wonder most of us read the Bible selectively.
Like you, I am a product of our culture. And because I am, when I look around me, like the fish unaware of the water in which it swims, I don’t see our culture. I don’t see the larger system of which I am a part. I see individuals. And not just individual persons. I see individual trees and rivers ... individual mountains and individual canyons. I have the illusion that everything is separate.
But the created order is one. We may balk at the notion that, while we are each unique, there’s not one of us that lives an independent existence. And without the illusion of separate, autonomous individuals, the concept of “rights” makes little sense.
So maybe it would be helpful for us to hold the idea of our individual “rights” a bit more loosely. In doing so I wonder if we might not find that what we’ve been doing is giving the imprint of God’s blessing to those social practices we find comfortable. In softening our fixation on our “rights” we might begin to find that our autonomy finds its truest meaning as part of God’s whole and that it is there God’s blessing is to be found.
God’s commandment that we should love as the God who is Love loves might then be ever so much easier. Clinging less tightly to our “rights” we might see that, together with everything and everyone else that is, we are awash in an ocean that is Love. And Love, not “rights,” would become the ground of this one beautiful life of which we are graced to be a part.
Leigh Waggoner is rector of St. Barnabas of the Valley Episcopal Church in Cortez.