The Declaration of Independence must be one of the most influential things ever written. It might be the “sacred literature” that influences Americans, including the Christians, the most. I think we need to do better than that, even though the Declaration has changed the world.
You may have memorized the beginning at some point:
“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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Having just returned from Zimbabwe, I have to say how much I enjoy those lines. My rights in Zimbabwe were subject to the searching gaze of a young soldier, often part of a team with machine guns, stopping our van (at least twenty times) over the 280 miles from Bulawayo to Livingstone. The people of Zimbabwe are so used to looking over their shoulder to see who is listening that they are reticent to say anything meaningful to their friends! It is nice to have rights.
Unfortunately, that rarity among the people of the world is seen as the apex of goodness among Americans. If you have the rights the government should honor, that’s it. After that it is up to you and you should be happy. Of course, as you have noticed, so-called minority people who are given rights don’t automatically enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There is much more to life than the government acquiescing and allowing one to exist legally, even when that government thinks it is God’s tool for righteousness, as it seems to in the U.S.
At least that is what I think Paul teaches. There is much more – so much more that talk of rights seems kind of like spiritual baby talk. The Apostle Paul has some extensive teaching about rights and freedom in his letters. He is talking to people who generally are denied rights under Roman autocracy, and he is talking more specifically to religious people who think following the law of Moses gives them special rights. What he teaches is that we have rights granted by God that don’t depend on anyone. But even more, we have the capacity, just like Jesus, to give up our rights for love. Our right to love is the highest privilege of all.
Listen to him in 1 Corinthians 9
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?
Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?
This is like his declaration of independence. He has unalienable rights. But he goes way beyond them as he continues.
But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.
Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.
But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast. For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.
Perhaps we look askance at his boasting. But what he is saying is that he likes the reward he gets from not exercising his rights. He wants to be deeper than what is normal. He does not want to be tied up with begging and fighting for his rights, even though he deserves them on human and spiritual authority. Jesus did not die and rise to achieve normal. Paul likes relying on the Lord and having Jesus as the guarantor of rights that go far beyond the rights of which humans can deprive him. He explains what that means.
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
All the rights claimed by various tribes of people are fine with Paul. He has those too, on several counts: he is a Jew and a Roman citizen; he is under the law and a notorious lawbreaker; some see him as strong others as weak. But for Jesus’ cause and because of the love that’s been poured out on him and through him, he does not need to get stuck in any of those sub-Christian categories.
When he writes to the Galatians about similar things, he warns them about getting stuck.
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
When we talk about the politics of the U.S. these days we can almost immediately get stuck in whatever someone’s “unalienable rights” means to them about “freedom.” Mostly, it appears to mean we are all free to bite and devour one another, and the leaders are the prime examples of that freedom! In the church, people often think that protecting the rights of minorities is the apex of morality when it is just the beginning. Whole denominations divide up over power struggles about individual identity and rights. I don’t think that is the teaching of the Bible. There is so much more than that! Paul is not waiting to get his rights straight in the eyes of others before he loves them and reveals Jesus to them. That former preoccupation has passed away.
I am glad I have, as an American, the basic political rights that all people should have. As a white male, I have privilege that gives me special, if unauthorized, “rights” that are backed up by the domination system for whom the Declaration of Independence was intended to begin with. I think that Zimbabweans and all people who are oppressed and denied their identity as free individuals should be liberated politically. But, even more, I am glad I know that none of us will be free until we quit fighting for our rights and start receiving them from Jesus. Jesus is the true liberator. There is more life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness available in the Kingdom of God, whether I have governmental rights or not, than any gun-toting soldier can give me or take away.
Do you agree that there is another way? It begins with seeing things with a new lens. When we look at the group in the picture at the top, do we automatically see them from the perspective of who has rights and who doesn’t? Who is up and who is down? Who is labeled this and who that? Or are we determined to serve one another in love as a people who are one in Christ?
Maybe a good way to explore another way would be to consider who you think is biting you or devouring you. Maybe it stung to hear the sexist language in the declaration. Maybe it is irritating to hear talk about rights from a so-called white man. Maybe this theology doesn’t match what you grew up with in your Pentecostal church. Maybe someone did something bad to you and now you don’t feel you can trust Circle of Hope. Maybe you will need to assert your rights. But once you win that battle, what will you do to follow Christ into what is next? Maybe you could just skip the battle and go straight to love and service (and even boasting in it), like Paul.