Thursday, September 22, 2016

Rights Talk in Politics & Religion, 'Tis the Season #17

Mary Ann Glendon, who taught law at Harvard before being appointed U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, wrote an important book called Rights Talk. In America, we talk endlessly about “rights,” and many political arguments are over “rights.” But whose “right” is right? Does the conceived child have a "right to life"? or does the woman have a "right to choose"? Do people have a right to privacy? or do citizens have a right to safety that overrides?

   Glendon has noticed in our “rights talk” a disturbing “starkness, legalistic character, exaggerated absoluteness, hyper-individualism, and a silence with respect to responsibility.” She believes the shrill insistence on rights has ruined democracy and shortchanged citizenship. Flatly asserted, “I have this right!” leaves no room for exploration, no room for give and take. Little wonder debates cannot be resolved and we wind up with gridlock.

   Usually, the notion of “rights” plays out as “my right,” which is pretty different from me defending “your right,” or those who have no “rights” at all. Not only do Americans have countless “rights,” but they curiously have no legal duty to come to the aid of someone in danger. Rights without responsibilities? God turns all this on its ear and lovingly suggests we have no rights, but many responsibilities.

   Instead of “rights,” the Bible speaks of “gifts.” There is no “right to life.” Life is a gift, and this may be the compelling reason we do not have any right to destroy life. I do not have “rights” over my own body; God has those “rights.” My body is a gift of God, an instrument to be used in service to God, a temple of God’s Spirit, not a private domain for me to use as I wish. Christians are given “responsibility” – which is “response-ability.” God has made us able to respond to God’s gifts. Responsible people do not gripe or whine so much as they get involved, they do something. Citizenship is responsibility, and perhaps the Christians could foster a buoyant hope in America life by simply refusing to play the “rights” card and instead lead the way in taking responsibility for the good stewardship of God’s gifts.

   Isn't it freeing to think I am not a fist seizing my rights? but instead I am an open hand, gratefully receiving gifts from a loving God? Rights are about me; gifts are about us. Rights require law; gifts require love. Rights build walls; gifts open doors. Rights I cling to; gifts I share. Rights depend on government; gifts come down from God.

   If we think of life as God’s gift, then the political argument shifts. We might even wind up with a new logic: years ago, Cardinal Bernardin popularized a notion called “the seamless garment of life.” If life is God’s good gift, and we don’t have the right to take another life, then we find ourselves against abortion, against capital punishment, against euthanasia, and against war. Of course, Christians who understand that life isn’t a right but is God’s beautiful gift may devise divergent arguments about how best to be responsible about life as God’s good gift – but at least we will be speaking the same language, and debating on the same terms