My rights vs. what’s right (part 1)

Human rights. Anyone who cares about justice (and every follower of Jesus should) cares deeply about rights, about the freedoms and protections that should belong to those created in the image of God. Anytime human and civil rights are written into law, they must be grounded in a moral vision of what’s right and just.

Legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon, however, once argued that a curious distortion has crept into the way Americans talk about rights. Instead of interpreting political freedom as the freedom to obey our conscience and do what’s right, we take it as the freedom to do what we want without interference — as long as there’s no law against it and we’re not actively hurting someone. In everyday conversation or argument, to insist on my “rights” has only a vague connection, if any, to some larger moral vision. It becomes little more than a way to say, “I can do whatever I want, so leave me the heck alone.”

I would add only one thing to Glendon’s observations: the problem of “my rights” versus what’s right is not an American invention.

Love, the apostle Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “does not insist on its own way” (1 Cor 13:5, NRSV); other translations say that love isn’t “self-seeking” (NIV), or doesn’t “seek its own advantage” (CEB). As we’ve seen earlier, I believe that in most of his description of love, Paul is addressing particular problems in the church which he’s already written about in the letter. What behavior might he be pointing to here?

In the previous post, we considered what Paul meant by “love isn’t rude”: a loving person doesn’t do things that another believer might consider inappropriate, if it means hurting the other person’s conscience and potentially causing them to backslide.

Here’s another example. The much-loved and respected Pastor Smith gives an illustration in his Sunday sermon drawn from an R-rated movie. It’s not that the pastor doesn’t have scruples. He just knows that the movie received its rating for violence and language rather than explicit sexuality. He isn’t bothered by these things, and doesn’t expect anyone else in the congregation to be bothered either.

Several members of the flock, however, grew up in traditions that not only frowned on movies as a whole, but specifically anything with an R rating or worse. They’re shocked to hear that their pastor goes to such movies. Their imaginations run amok, and they can’t hear the rest of the sermon.

Pastors, of course, often deal with the judgment and disapproval of church members. Some of it is self-centered, hostile, and inappropriate. But not all of it. It’s one thing for people to get in a huff because the pastor did something that doesn’t meet their persnickety standards. It’s another if their conscience has been violated in a way that hurts their relationship to God.

So here’s the question: faced with the objections of those who find the behavior objectionable, how should the pastor respond? Better yet, if you can imagine yourself in a similar situation, how would you respond?

Would you defend yourself by standing on your rights?

Apparently, in a similar situation, many of the Corinthians did. And Paul wanted to teach them something different, as we’ll see in the next post.