18 January 2018

No Rights?

This week I was reading a book by a Christian author on the topic of forgiveness. She offered several reasons why we should forgive: because Christ has forgiven us, because we are under grace, because an unforgiving spirit leads to bitterness; because the debt owed to us by others cannot compare to the debt each of us owes to God.

So far, so good.

But then she said we should forgive because the refusal to do so comes from the illusion that we have "rights", when in fact, we have no rights at all. No rights means no expectations, and no expectations means no reason to withhold forgiveness:

"You find out that your dearest friend has talked negatively about you behind your back. Or even more debilitating to the soul, your spouse has been inappropriately texting another woman. Or worse. The natural thing is to demand rights. 'I have a right to her loyalty. I've been her friend for fourteen years and I would never talk about her behind her back like that.' Or 'I have a right to his fidelity. I'm his wife. He promised to cherish me.' Those are all correct thoughts in a sense. Yes, in a perfect world, we would hope that our friends would give us loyalty. And yes, in a perfect world, fidelity honors both God and our spouse. But we don't live in a perfect world. And the truth is that people fall... In Christ, we don't have to respond to the offenses of others from the proud stance of our rights...We don't have any rights when it comes to our relationships with other fallen humans."

Umm, excuse me? You have "no right" to expect fidelity from your spouse?!

Actually, you do. Marriage is a legally binding obligation defined by certain specific constraints, one of which is: "forsaking all others." This is a promise both you and your husband or wife make before God and multiple witnesses. You do have the right to hold each other to this; otherwise, the promise means nothing.

Rights don't end there. If a store overcharges you for an item you've bought, you have the right to get your money back. If someone breaks into your house with the intent of harming you or stealing your property, you have the right to fend them off and/or call the police to do it for you. If someone touches you inappropriately, you have the right to defend yourself. These are rights our society recognizes. Why doesn't the church?

Now, it's true that I've never actually heard anyone -- Christian or otherwise -- go so far as to say that you shouldn't defend yourself against a home invasion (for example). However, if you truly believe that you literally have no rights in your relationship to other humans, then taking this to its logical conclusion certainly doesn't place such an idea outside the realm of possibility.

It's troubling, but "Christians have no rights" is a well-worn mantra in today's church. And surprise, surprise, it's almost always said to women -- the ones who stand to lose the most from being denied their rights. It's a belief that is dysfunctional and abusive to the core. (You are going to get tired of hearing me say "dysfunction" and "abuse", but there are so many places in the church where both of these are hiding -- believe me, stuff like this is only the tip of the iceberg!)

Needless to say, I absolutely do not believe that we have no rights.

A right can be defined as "a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way." Our human rights are given to us by our Creator, because we are made in His image. Rights are derived from this inherent worth; whatever is devoid of rights is essentially worthless. For example, in the United States, paper money derives its worth from the U.S. Treasury. On this basis, it has the "right" to be treated differently from other types of paper: it has the power to settle debts, and it's illegal to destroy it or deface it.

In the same way, humans have rights granted to them by God because of the value and worth that God assigns to them. With these rights come expectations for certain standards of behavior. Hence the commandments: Do not steal, Do not murder, Do not commit adultery; Love your neighbor as yourself. You have the "right" to expect others to treat you with dignity, respect, and kindness! (Not that they will always do so, by any means, but that's the standard.) We are not free to excuse slander or marital infidelity because "we don't live in a perfect world." God commands friends to be loyal and spouses to be faithful, and He didn't say that we should wait for perfection to make those things reality. His instructions are meant for this world, here and now.

He also tells us to defend the poor and the oppressed (Proverbs 31:8-9). If the poor and oppressed have no rights, however, then we are wasting our time. Even worse, we're doing them a disservice by reinforcing expectations of fairness that they shouldn't have. Similarly, those in the pro-life movement say that unborn babies have "the right to life." Yet, if we as adults have no rights, surely babies don't, either.

But in fact, we (and others) do have rights, and there are consequences for trampling on them: God says that He will avenge those who suffer wrong. Note that avenging ourselves is a right we are expressly not given (Romans 12:19), but vengeance will be taken nevertheless. If there are no rights, then the concepts of justice and retribution have no meaning.

Some people get the "no rights" idea from 1 Corinthians 6:5-7:

"Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer—and before unbelievers at that? In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that." 

Paul's point is that it's better to suffer a wrong than to sue your brothers and sisters. Notice, though, that he has no qualms about admitting that the litigious ones are being wronged and defrauded, but he asks them to overlook this for the sake of the body of Christ and the reputation of the gospel. He does not say, "You have no reason to think you are being defrauded." In fact, the very idea of fraud is based on the infringement of another's rights: you can't defraud someone who has no rights in the first place!

Others will make the claim that Jesus' earthly example of responding with love and forgiveness when hurt by others is proof that we have no rights. But this is really saying something else altogether -- namely, that we shouldn't insist on others recognizing our rights and responding accordingly. There is merit to this idea. However! Saying that there are times when we should not require the immediate satisfaction of our rights is profoundly different from saying that those rights do not exist. It's true that during His time on earth Jesus didn't demand others to behave in a way that honored Him as God, but this does not mean that He did not have the right to such honor. It only means that, for a time, He chose not to act on His rights.

If someone ever tells you that you have no rights, it's worthwhile to ask yourself what their motive is. Many times, they're just parroting what they've been taught. I suspect this is what's happening in the case of the author I cited above. In some cases, though, their motive is far less benign: they have an agenda which requires them to gain power over their followers. In that case, you will want to put as much distance between yourself and them as possible. A person's autonomy is oftentimes the last thing standing between themselves and control by someone else. Once that final roadblock has been removed, then the way is open for the abuser to take advantage, and the victim has no grounds for refusal. When that happens, any degree of manipulation, any crime, any atrocity, anything at all, is possible -- and permissible.

It's truly a scary thought.

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