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When Rights Go Wrong

Across the years, both sacred and secular writers have recognized that goodness is not established by popular vote. Tossed about by prejudice, confusion, and ambition, the general populace can make a mess of things. Without protective barriers, the mob can run roughshod over good people, imposing a “tyranny of the majority.”

“Rights” talk emerged as one way to insure the inviolability of the weak, of the minority. It became an alternative way of preserving old principles and saying old truths. For instance, “Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness” (1 Chron. 16:29b) implied a “right to worship.” “You shall not steal” (Exod. 20:15) honored a “right to property.”

Such convictions were captured in two documents framed in 1789, the United States Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. Both the Americans and the French acknowledged the sovereignty of God in such affairs, but the latter were far less disposed to show Him reverence. Though they claimed to write “in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being,” their Revolution was decidedly anti-clerical.1 Their talk of God proved to be mere lip service, and talk of rights became increasingly secular. Today, even the most decadent of men count it their treasured expression.

The Bible does not make much use of the language of rights. The Old Testament mentions “birthright,” and one might say that Paul exercised his legal right to appeal to Caesar. But the prerogatives were always God’s, as a potter with his clay (Rom. 9:21). Furthermore, Christ Himself gave up His rights for the sake of the lost, going meekly to the cross. As a result, Christians have historically been wary of claiming their rights. It is a reticence modern believers have all too quickly forgotten.

There is good reason for caution, now more than ever. Unencumbered of piety, charity, and reason, modern man is prone to announce “rights” that his eighteenth-century forbears would have found absurd (e.g., the “right” of animals not to be eaten; the “right” to be free of esteem-wounding criticism).2 These “creative” ethicists know that the term “right” has a wonderful ring to it and that they can bully their way about by its use. But the thoughtful Christian (and even the thoughtful non-believer) can press back with the question, “Other than in your heated imagination, where does that right reside?”

All legitimate “rights talk” is accountable to the word of God. Even as Christians continue to champion an unborn child’s “right to life” or a beleaguered church’s “right to assemble” in another country, they must also declare the scriptural roots of their righteous claims. By employing the more direct language of the Bible (e.g., “Do not murder”), God’s people can avoid falling into the contemporary spiritual trap of demanding personal rights. Are they, like Paul, concerned with spreading Christ’s Kingdom, or with expanding their personal turf and comfort zone? It is a vital question, for they have no right to the latter.


See Kairos Journal article, "The Cult of Unreason."


See Kairos Journal article, "Making a Mockery of Civil Rights."