The Tricky Problem of “Rights Language”

I am reminded again of the problem of “rights language” by a recent article published by Front Porch Republic. The comments following the article have devolved into a rather nasty business of “my rights are better than your rights,” and worse. Rights language is so ingrained in our thought process that nearly all political discourse ultimately turns to the question of rights. But do we have rights at all?

The standard Reformed answer is that rights are rooted in the Ten Commandments.  For instance, everyone has a right to physical life, based on the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder.” While it seems a very easy logical leap to move from the sixth commandment to the right to life, this is not what the sixth commandment says; such a sentiment, in fact, turns the commandment on its head, making the object the subject.  (This, by the way, is the heart of idolatry – making the object the subject – so we are skating on thin ice when we choose to find a basis for the Enlightenment rights rhetoric in the Old Testament rather than adopting Old Testament rhetoric at face value.) In short, the Bible doesn’t say we have a right to life although it clearly states that we should not murder.

This conundrum leads to the standard Reformed perspective on rights: we primarily have responsibilities rather than rights and rights cannot be granted without corresponding responsibilities. This is certainly a step in the correct direction, but it’s not a solution because rights and responsibilities are too easily set up in dialectic. By choosing the language of responsibilities people who are seeking to be true to the historic Judeo-Christian tradition are still allowing Enlightenment categories to define the debate. We don’t choose the category of “responsibilities” as primary because it is where scriptures start the conversation, we choose it because it is more-or-less the opposite of Enlightenment “rights” language that we are trying to critique.

The primary problem with “rights” language is not the self-centeredness that is inherent to the rhetoric (that’s the “responsibility” response), but rather the conflict or violence that is equally inherent to the rhetoric. Rights language creates “me vs. you” scenarios. When we argue rights we must balance my rights and your rights, and when that happens there will almost always be winners and losers. If we champion a baby’s right to life we must do so by curtailing the parents’ rights (although in our culture, the father no longer matters, being a sort of sperm donor; only the mother or babies rights are debated for the most part).

Such language of conflict is also deeply rooted in the Enlightenment. This should be no surprise because the language of violence is deeply rooted in the human predicament. Thus, at the earliest stages of divine revelation, violence became part and parcel of the story because the fullness of divine intent had not yet been revealed. Take the Old Testament story of the Messiah as an example. It’s a tale of sturm und drang in which the Messiah will violently overthrow the enemies of good and those who stand against God.  (Don’t you think Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries would be an appropriate soundtrack to this version of the Messianic return? Or for those of you of a slightly older generation with a slightly more violent bent, maybe this rendition of Wagner is more to your liking. This, btw, is where I learned that along with Brynhildr, Gondul, and Gunnr, one of the Valkyrie names was Elmer, but I digress.)

This sensibility led to the crazy world into which Jesus was born. There were those people of God who sought to appropriate godless secular power through political intrigue; there were those people of God who sought the violent overthrow of the Roman government; there were those people of God who took the violence to a very personal level, becoming a group of assassins on behalf of the Messiah.

But the actual Messiah turned this whole world-view on its head. Rather than overthrowing anything by violence, he allowed himself to be utterly overthrown and in the act of utter defeat, won the ultimate victory. No Valkyries were making the decisions about who would live and die on that day of battle, God himself coopted life and death and took on death and defeat so that we might live.

In this New Testament, Christian world-view there is no room for personal rights. It is completely counterintuitive, but love does not “seek its own way”; rather it “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” What is more important to understand is that this world-view is deeply offensive to the world. It is either foolishness or a stumbling-block and to try to impose it on the larger culture in this manner is bound for failure.

Our nation, built on Enlightenment principles of personal autonomy, was an experimental application of a new social theory which began with the autonomous person as the starting point. Once we started down the path of individual autonomy and personal rights, one person’s rights would inevitably bump up against another person’s rights. In the fallen world, ultimately might makes right, so the rights of the weakest (the unborn, the handicapped, the frail or nearly dead) will be the ones whose rights are first to go for the sake of the larger good.  The Enlightenment inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not so obvious when those very rights are in conflict with each other.

It is critically important to understand that those Enlightenment ideals have nothing to do with Christianity. The only real right of man is to bow before his creator. The only inalienable reality is that we are made in the image of God and are called to be his slaves. Of course the grating harshness of that reality is offset by the promise that when we do accept that offer, we are made children rather than slaves, but this glorious end doesn’t change the stark starting point in the least bit.

As Christians we need to recognize that there is a very real sense that the United States was, for the most part, founded by Christians with very bad presuppositions. and as a result the nation began on a godless footing, for there can be no true divine presence apart from community and there can be no true community when we begin with the autonomous individual who demands their unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By starting with the autonomous individual rather than the community, the founding fathers undercut any authority (other than arbitrary rules) by which authentic human dignity could be maintained.

In short we have inherited a political environment in which Christian truth is one of many arbitrary opinions that is constitutionally circumscribed by the preeminent doctrine of personal autonomy. In this environment it is extremely difficult to effectively argue that a baby’s rights trump a mother’s rights. Rather than yelling the responsibility mantra a little bit louder, it would profit us to step back and take a fresh look at why we’re in the rhetorical mess we’re in and find a fresh approach. I’ll broach that subject in the next essay.

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One thought on “The Tricky Problem of “Rights Language”

  1. Pingback: Rights theory/language, Responsibilities, and Values | Damek.

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