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Monday, June 29, 2015

“I Have a Right ...”

This generation is all about its rights. And indeed, the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms sets out a bunch of them: the right to vote, the right to life, liberty and security of the person, the right to legal counsel, the right to an interpreter, the right to equal treatment before and under the law and so on — as did the Canadian Bill of Rights before it.

People seem to love making these things official.

More recently, certain cultural groups have asserted a right not to be offended. While such a right is not explicitly set out at law, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders there have been plenty of voices in the media suggesting that such a right does exist, or that if it doesn’t, it ought to.

The Problem with “Rights”

But the problem with granting a right is that in order to have any practical value, there must be a mechanism in place by which it may be enforced. The Canadian Charter cannot do that. All the Charter can really do when we are wrongly deprived of life, liberty, security or equal treatment is assure that some sort of legal process takes place after the fact.

If I have killed you, the Charter cannot bring you back. It hasn’t got that kind of force behind it, but then we could hardly expect it to. If I have kidnapped you, the days and hours during which you were held captive can never be restored to you by the Charter. Whatever horrible things I may have put you through cannot be undone by words on paper. All the law of the land is capable of doing is punishing the culprit after the fact, assuming that I am incompetent enough to be captured by its enforcers.

In the civil arena things are even less efficient. Criminal behaviour may bring the forces of justice down upon me, but if I merely deprive you of your right to equal treatment, you must go to court on your own behalf to seek redress. The State declines to participate (except of course to enthusiastically dip its hand into your pocket at every step of the process). You must file suit against me yourself and wait years for your case to be heard. The court may not be convinced of the merit of your case, and even if it is, a higher court may overturn any ruling in your favour. Where are your “rights” then?

In all cases, the Charter fails entirely to protect citizens from being deprived of the rights it purports to provide to them. It can only provide a certain amount of financial or emotional redress after the fact, in many cases only to surviving family members.

Rights provided by man, then, are not worth much more than the paper they are printed on. They are offered to us not as absolutes but as a wish list, one with which governments fondly hope most of their citizens will comply.

But hope is all they offer you.

Islamic “Rights”

Let’s leave aside the impotent Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms then, and consider as an alternative Islam’s response to the provocations of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists.

Islam asserts for itself the right to punish blasphemy (which it alone defines) with death (something it is happy to attempt to administer via acts of terrorism). Sometimes it succeeds, as in the Hebdo massacre. Sometimes it fails, as in the recent attempt on the life of blogger Pam Geller or the more famous case of Salman Rushdie.

As with Charter enforcement, Islamic violence is an imperfect solution to the problem of the perception that people have inalienable rights. But even when Islam fails, in one sense it succeeds. It fails in that it cannot prevent the original offence from taking place, but it succeeds by short-circuiting thousands of similar potential offences via the threat of death or injury. Even the failed Pam Geller attempt surely succeeded in silencing some would-be critics of Islam. It may be reasonably argued that the Islamic “right” not to be offended is rapidly becoming weightier and more substantial than many of the rights guaranteed by the Canadian Charter, largely because the enforcement mechanism behind it is considerably more intimidating.

Thus we see that the value of a right depends entirely on the ability of the one conferring that right to anticipate and nullify all efforts to invalidate it.

Christians and Their Rights

For the Christian, very few rights matter. Like the people around us, we may enjoy some general benefit from the atmosphere created by these chimerical government-conferred “rights” wherever the majority of citizens respect them, but we are wise not to waste a lot of time fighting for such things (other than perhaps for the benefit of those being unreasonably deprived of them: the Lord still cares about widows and orphans).

The only word in the New Testament that may be translated “right” or “rights” in the sense we are using it here is the Greek exousia, which Strong’s defines as “power to act” or “authority”. A quick glance at Acts and the epistles establishes that they teach us a great deal more about abdicating our legitimate rights in the interests of the coming kingdom than about insisting on them. Almost all the passages that make reference to Christian rights imply we are better not to invoke them, though they are legitimately ours.

In fact, in the Christian life “rights” turn out to be the currency we receive from the Lord in order to spend for his pleasure rather than our own. Rights are what we give up on earth in order to invest in things of enduring and heavenly value.

A short list of rights available to the Christian that we are sometimes better to set aside:

The Right to Property. The issue of rights arose in the first century church. The piece of land that belonged to Ananias and Sapphira was theirs by exousia. They had an enforceable legal right to it. It was not for insisting on that right that they died, but it is clear that their fellow believers who gave cheerfully fared better in the end. Ananias had an unchristian attitude toward private property, which prompted him and his wife to lie publicly to the Holy Spirit and incur judgment.

The Right to Freedom of Choice. 1 Corinthians 8 tells us believers have the right — grounded in the certain knowledge that there is only one God and an idol is nothing — to eat food offered to idols. But Paul goes on to say that it is far better not to claim this right than (even inadvertently) to stumble a weaker fellow believer. My obligation to my brothers and sisters trumps my rights as a Christian every time.

The Right to Refrain from Secular Work. Only one chapter later, Paul speaks about his very legitimate right as an apostolic worker serving a church to receive financial help from it. But the entire chapter stands as a rebuke to the salaried hireling of our day. Paul says, “we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ”. He repeats this to the Thessalonian church, making clear that his obligation to the gospel trumped his personal rights, so he worked with his hands in order to ensure that the gospel was always presented free of charge.

The Right to My Body. The world makes much of this right especially as it relates to a woman’s body, but Paul insists that in a Christian marriage, “the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does”. Notwithstanding the rights-consciousness of our current culture, we are wise to remember this. In a marriage, satisfying my partner trumps my inclination to have it my way.

So Do We Actually Have Any Rights At All?

Well, let’s see: We’ve established that even with the best of intentions, rights granted by governments and documents are ineffectual and next-to-impossible to enforce and that enforcing a perceived right by violence, while slightly more effective, still leaves much to be desired. And we’ve established that the serious, mature follower of Christ is far more likely to abdicate his rights than to insist upon them. We might well ask the question: does scripture confer upon the Christian any unmitigated rights at all?

In fact, there are three rights which the Christian can always claim. These rights are conferred upon the believer by God himself and no power in heaven or earth can take them away:

1.    The right to become children of God … and to stay children of God. John says, “… to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God”. Everyone who is truly saved is God’s child. That work is God’s, not ours. He says we are “born of God”, not of the will of man. Because my salvation does not depend on my will but on God himself, it is unconnected to how I may feel about myself when I’m depressed or sinning. If I have truly “believed in his name”, nobody can snatch me out of God’s hand. I am in a permanent, unbreakable, legally binding family relationship with the Creator God secured by his love for his favourite person in the universe.

2.    The right to eternal life. This is variously stated. John says it in Revelation: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates”. This is not some special class of believers; rather, it speaks of all of us. Then in John’s gospel, the Lord says of all his sheep, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish”. This is a right nobody can take away.

3.    The right to fellowship with the Lord. The writer to the Hebrews says, “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat”. Others do not have this right; we do. In Christ we “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name”. In scripture, eating always connotes fellowship and intimacy. Those who abide in Christ have a closeness in our relationship unknown to the Old Testament priesthood. Again, this is an unconditional right that nobody can ever take from us.

The value of a right depends on the ability of the one who conferred that right to anticipate and prevent violations of it. But it is the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ that guarantees the rights I have just listed, not anything you or I may have done. And it is the all-knowing wisdom and infinite power of God that protect us from every enemy in heaven and earth who would gainsay these rights.

The world is never satisfied with its constantly growing list of fictional and unenforceable “rights”. The Christian rests in the security of these three.

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