We don’t have inalienable rights endowed by our birth. We don’t. I love Thomas Jefferson more than you do, and I think he was right about a lot of things, including this one. We have rights “endowed by our Creator“. They are not inalienable rights, either. We make them alien when we fail to live as God’s people.
Jefferson was smart enough to see that we have rights because there is a social covenant*, a covenant that binds you and me in a common life. Any rights we have are given by our living into our covenant.
Test it out: take a baby of any race out into the woods and let him (or her) vote. They have no right to vote given by the Creator. Instead they will die slowly and probably horribly unless us or one of God’s other creatures steps forward to care for them, love them, and raise them up.
I am not arguing for social Darwinism. Too often Christians have completely given up moral philosophy to biological impulse, or as Paul called it “the flesh.” We are endowed with Spirit, and the Spirit teaches us, and what it teaches is law and life.
We have rights because we have a covenant. That covenant is spelled out in the Bible as the Torah and then the New Covenant “Law of Love,” that Jesus teaches. Both of those laws are versions of covenant, and they command us not to hold on to our own “rights” but rather to a set of social responsibilities that teach us what the Creator made us to be. Our “rights” derive from all of us living rightly, or in Biblical language “righteously” that is to God’s approval.
We have to work at knowing who God is in order to get our social responsibilities straightened out. We don’t serve a god of violence and retribution that we often create in our own worst image. We don’t serve the god of our tribe, though that god is still very popular even in our day, even in our churches. We serve a God who made the world for pleasure and called it good, who set us to keep it as stewards with dominion. We serve a God who is about our redemption when we fall, but who lets consequences pay out unless we repent, and sometimes by grace, even when we don’t.
As Christians, we serve God who is known as Father, who sets our boundaries and defines our relationships, rules and provides, and we serve God as Abba, who has given us new birth and holds us, calls us by name and sets us free, who loves us and forgives us. And we are supposed to become God’s children who do those same things, as Jesus our Lord did. And the Spirit teaches us how, moving and dancing, reminding and teaching and making us new.
When we live into our covenants and the laws of God our Creator, we create rights for everyone around us that extend beyond the abuse-boundaries of the laws of our land. A lawyer friend always reminds me that “the law is not made for the righteous man.” The thing is that the righteous human being lives the law into irrelevance.
As we grow up from people who need to learn the rules, to people who can keep the law, we become people who don’t have rights so much as give others rights by our righteousness. We supersede law in love, moving from protecting rights to providing life, and from defending against injustice to defining what justice means, the human being in right relation to God, creation, and other human beings.
When we find a baby in the woods, the law tells us many things, but love tells us to take it up, love that baby, give her a name, feed her, care for her, teach her, raise her up, so that she can take her place in the stewardship of the world and live up to the covenants of the children of God.
And that is why the people of Ferguson or wherever else violence defined by race or gender or nation raise their heads feel more than grief. Their anger is righteous due to the expectation at the very level of being that the covenants that make us human are being violated by the ones who are supposed to protect them.
We understand that sometimes protecting the people who live according to the covenant means a violent justice, but it should not and only as the last of last resorts. But if our understanding of our basic human responsibilities under the covenant are out of line with our cultural norms, we are in real trouble. Our cultural norms collapse from a call to mutual covenant to self protection, Darwinism at its 18th century worst.
When we are just protecting our own “rights” we miss the point. We have to protect each other. There is no other way to have a covenant based life of togetherness.
The alternative is violent coercion. The alternative is violent freedom that belies our best intentions, which are called “best” because we are usually at some lesser place.
I am not arguing for theism. I am arguing from theism. I am a Christian. I follow Jesus and have promised to live by his teachings embodied in the New Covenant and based, rooted, and understood from the Original Covenant of the Hebrew Scriptures. I cannot leave a baby in the woods, and I cannot watch idly by while my neighbor gets destroyed by those who are supposed to protect them.
We have police to keep us safe, to defend the version of the covenant that we have enshrined in our country’s Constitution. We should be a people of law and law evenly and fairly applied. We should support the police while living in a way that makes their job as unnecessary as possible. We should grieve when their job demands violence, but we should also ask our selves how much violence they actually should expect, and not be prepared for more without reason. We should fire and prosecute them when they violate their oaths, but they should be able to expect us to keep ours as well.
Christians, we must live as we were created to live. We have stewardship of the creation and should protect it. We are called to love each other and protect and help each other, and we should, we must. My favorite verse in Leviticus is “If your neighbor’s ox falls down in the road, you should lift it up; you shall not refuse your help.”
The news, this month from Ferguson, reminds us that we have work in front of us if we are to steward the world with the compassion of God. We cannot ignore the stranger in the marketplace because of his skin color, language, or clothes; nor can we ignore our responsibilities toward him. Not if we claim to love God.
*Covenant is preferable to contract or construct or other similar words because a contract’s obligations are dependent on parties keeping the contract. A covenant is a binding statement that changes the realities and identities of the parties involved.