Moving Beyond Inalienable Rights

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

These famous words began the declaration of independence for thirteen colonies from the British Crown. Ever since, citizens of these former colonies and their descendants have struggled to understand their meaning. While the text declares that it should all be self-evident, the internal struggles that have characterized our body politic ever since say otherwise.

Who are “men”? In July 1776, these “men” included white, largely Protestant, land-owning males – a rather narrow interpretation by today’s standards. Thus, from the moment ink was laid on parchment, our nation began a journey that continues still.

The roiling controversies of the last few years have tested and strained the institutions that arose from these words – institutions that nearly all Americans hold sacred, since, we believe, they exist to safeguard those “inalienable rights.”

But rights are slippery things. Our national discourse is suffused with “rights talk.” Yet, as they say, talk is cheap. The real test comes when we seek to balance rights with one another. It is often said, “Your rights end where mine begin.” That is not a bad formulation, but it is just as vague as the concept it tries to illuminate. So, we end up back where we began.

After years of careful study, I would assert that the balance is not so much between the rights of individuals but in the relationship between the exercise of one’s rights and the common good.  Seeing it from this perspective diminishes the emphasis on individualism – that worldview that say “I” am the most important consideration and only “I” can judge what is good (for me).

I think most of us who seek to follow The Way of Jesus already recognize the difficulties with such obvious individualism. Regrettably, our society is infused with this perspective, and it is difficult not to fall prey to its traps. Most of us, at some level, will act in an individualistic manner – usually unconsciously. This makes it all the most important to step back and reflect before we make an assertion like, “It’s my right to . . .” Upon reflection, we may see that often, we use the cover of “rights talk” to mask what are merely our own desires and preferences.

This idea about rights and the common good has its root in our baptismal covenant. Perhaps we might find less rancor, less division in our civil discourse if we took the space and the time we needed to reflect on these realities. We might begin by asking ourselves, “How does the assertion of my ‘right’ have an impact on the common good?” Beyond that, we, as Episcopalians, might specify that question further, “How does asserting my ‘right’ help me to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being?” Imagine how the various elements of our society’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic might have been less divisive and less rancorous if we simply took the time to think and to formulate a reasonable idea about what we were feeling by asking these questions.

As followers of The Way, Christ commands us not only to strive for justice but also to grow in love. While rights are ultimately about justice, love moves us beyond merely what is owed (the arena of rights), to that which is freely given (the arena of love).  While we, as citizens, must uphold those inalienable rights of which the Declaration speaks, we, as Christians, must go the extra mile. In so doing, we create not merely the “shining city on the hill” envisioned by many of our nations forebearers, but the kingdom of God itself – the new Jerusalem, where God becomes all in all.

I hope that you all have a safe and happy Independence Day celebration.

Source: Rector’s Blog

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