I have received several kindly criticisms of my previous article, good and responsible criticisms deserving a good and responsible response. I’m thankful for the pushback. Dangling a sword in the still waters of a quiet lagoon will never make it sharp, you gotta heat the thing up and give it a good smiting with a hammer. A good friend wounds, but faithfully. So yay for getting a loving thump and a friendly wound.
The criticism goes something like this:
Freedom, and the rights which constitute it, is a good and useful thing, so far as it goes. But God has also placed layers of authority over us (civil for all and ecclesiastical for believers), and it is proper and necessary at times for those authorities to restrict or even take certain freedoms away for the common good. Those who, in the name of “protecting their rights,” resent the restriction of their freedoms are in some sense rebelling against God who put those authorities in place. These authorities should be obeyed so long as they are not prohibiting what God commands or commanding what God prohibits. Furthermore, in the current Covid crisis, this stubborn demand that rights be maintained and the accompanying refusal to comply with governmental and ecclesiastical guidelines is putting the lives of our neighbor at risk – hardly a faithful keeping of the second great command.
It has been further suggested that, in the name of freedom and with a clear conscience, I might cruise right past a man wallowing in his own blood on the shoulder of the Jericho road, safely socially distanced in the opposite lane and not tapping the brakes at all. I might, desperately clutching the Bill of Rights, also insist the wounded man has no right to ride in my car or bleed on my leather seats. I might even inform him he has no right to expect that I would pay his medical expenses.
Here then are some thoughts about our rights and how our rights inform our relationship with those in authority. For a test case, I’ll use the right to own property.
The Origin of Rights
The old hymn begins, “This is my Father’s world…” But how can God lay claim to the entire world? That’s easy:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.Genesis 1:1
He made it, that’s how. He not only made the whole kit, he made the deluxe model kit that comes with a caboodle. The God-made stuff is the only stuff there is.
It’s conceivable, perhaps, that God would create stuff and then lay no claim to it, but that’s not what happened. He made the all the stuff and considered himself to be the owner of it, with all attendant rights and privileges.
Which means this: God owns stuff.
Which means this: Stuff doesn’t own God. In the biblical metaphor, God is the potter, the stuff is his clay. God has absolute rights over all the stuff, even to do terribly uncomfortable things like create a vessel with the intention of destroying it. Since every human being is made of the stuff God made, God rightly and lawfully owns all people, even those who vehemently dispute that claim.
God didn’t make all the stuff because he was bored, lonely, or somehow unfulfilled without some stuff to tinker around with. He made the stuff as a physical symbol of his spiritual awesomeness. Then he made little representations of himself out of the stuff.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.“Genesis 1:26a
Humans, like their Creator, are stuff-owning beings. Unlike him, we are not stuff-creating beings. We are stuff-manipulating beings, able to make cool new stuff out of the original stuff. We need stuff to make stuff, God doesn’t. So, when we want to make stuff, we just use God’s stuff.
But what right do we have to mess around with God’s stuff?
The answer is this: We can mess around with God’s stuff because he gave it to us. Now God didn’t have to give his stuff away. It was his stuff, to do with as he pleased. It just so happens that he was pleased to give his stuff away, at which point it became someone else’s stuff.
So God created man in his own image,Genesis 1:27-28
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
God didn’t give his stuff to cats or iguanas. God gave the cats and the iguanas to man. If a man decides to fatten a calf, slaughter it, and serve it at the family Christmas gathering, neither the calf nor its mother has any say in the matter. God, for his part, is happy for us to think of him as doing the same thing:
“And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” And they began to celebrate.Luke 15:23-24
This is not at all the same as the witch fattening up Hansel and Gretel for her Christmas dinner. Loving fathers butcher cows. Wicked witches butcher children. In a butcher shop, humanity matters a lot.
God didn’t actually need the stuff he made, nor does he benefit from it. God can never be improved in any way by anyone or anything. I believe God created all the stuff intending to give it all to humanity. The insane amount of stuff he made betrays the fact that he’s not a frugal giver. “The meek,” Jesus said, “will inherit the earth.” And, no doubt, anything beyond that they can get their hands on.
Humanity owns all the stuff collectively, and individuals own individual pieces of the stuff. The most basic piece of stuff each of us owns is the stuff that makes up our own body. We own ourselves. (There’s a fascinating discussion about who owns the kids [not the state], and for how long, but I reluctantly leave it for another day.) No one can lawfully claim ownership over us, buy us, sell us, or force us to put forth labor. This is a right humanity has often ignored and trampled upon, to their own shame.
Our right to own property then comes from God as a direct result of God’s creating all the stuff, creating us in his image, then giving us his stuff. Now we have the rights and privileges of ownership over it. Minus, of course, that one tree, which he most clearly did not give us, and our violation of God’s property rights cost us dearly. Alas, that too is another discussion. We must press forward.
The Protection of Rights
Our right to own property, including and especially our own body, is granted to us by God. We deny the state’s ability to grant that right, because if/when they do, they stand in the place of God. Anything not God that stands in the place of God is neither wise nor safe.
The right of the individual to own property is real whether or not the state recognizes it. Anyone, including the king, who infringes this right to own one’s own stuff is in violation of God’s Law, and liable to being eaten by dogs (1 Kings 21:1-19), which is a kind of flip-flop of nature. Poetic justice, really. The state, for its part, is morally bound to simply recognize this reality of a person’s right to property and deal with it. And protect it. Ignoring this reality comes at a high cost – to the individual and to the state. Read some 20th century history if you’d like some evidence.
The genius of the American Constitution is that rather than seeking to create rights, it recognizes the reality of pre-existing rights that transcend the state’s authority. This recognition is famously captured in the Declaration of Independence:
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.
It is precisely because universally held human rights come from the Creator that they are “unalienable.” Any state that alienates its citizens from these God-given (not state-created) rights is in violation of God’s law and acting immorally.
Here’s why that matters a great deal: Any state that fails to recognize the rights of its citizens to own private property will inevitably fail to recognize the citizens’ right to own themselves. When that happens, look out. There’s a direct correlation between the disappearance of property rights and the appearance of mass graves. The fact that none of the architects of the 20th century holocausts feared God or man is hardly a coincidence. Here in the States, the mass graves of the slaughtered unborn stand as a terrible monument to what happens when we don’t recognize the universal, God-given rights to self-ownership.
In the ESV, 1 Corinthians 9 is headlined this way: Paul Surrenders His Rights. In the first fourteen verses, Paul asks no less than sixteen rhetorical questions establishing, beyond any shadow of a doubt, his right to collect financial remuneration from the Corinthians. Go read them, they’re terrific. Yet verse fifteen says this:
But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting.1 Corinthians 9:15
The takeaway is this: Paul established his rights, very clearly and carefully, and only then did he relinquish those rights, and voluntarily. Without those rights, his “ground for boasting” disappears. And he preferred to die than lose that.
While the right to own property comes from God, God loves those who happily give that property away. God loves a cheerful giver. God does not, however, love in the same way those who give away their property, in his name, involuntarily:
Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.2 Corinthians 9:7
When we voluntarily give up our rights, we are acting very much like the Lord Jesus, who among other rights, had the right not to become a man, and once he did, still had the right not to go to the cross and die. Jesus was crystal clear on this point:
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”John 10:17-18
The Father loves Jesus because he lay down his life. The life was Jesus’ life to do with as he pleased. He insisted, “no one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” Jesus rights over his own body were given to him by the Father, and he refused to let anyone take those rights away from him. They came from the Father.
Jesus would never allow his death to be an involuntary infringement of his rights; his death must only be the result of voluntarily surrendering his rights to wicked men. Oh, and his rights were so supreme that he had the right to take his life back from those who stole it. He maintained that right, and to our great delight, exercised it. He has the right to call other dead people from the grave, and I’m itching for that one to be exercised also.
The distinction between Jesus’ death as an unfortunate tragedy or an act of supreme love hinged on this seemingly minor point: He, not they, would determine whether or not he relinquished his right to live.
The voluntary relinquishing of rights is a beautiful thing. God-given rights taken by coercion is unnatural, ungodly, wicked, and Jesus, for his part, would have nothing to do with it. Nor would Paul (see also Acts 16:36-37). Forced confiscations of God-given rights is a crime against the image of God in man. It is no less than a crime against the Almighty himself to unjustly strip those who bear his image of any of the glorious freedoms God has bestowed on them, and God will judge these crimes accordingly. But it is a beautiful portrait of Christ when image bearers gladly, voluntarily, willingly give up their rights for the good of another.
We recognize that through the effects of evil, man can forfeit his rights to property and even to life itself. A man who doesn’t pay his debts may be forced to do so through repossession of assets or even forced labor. A man who violates the rights of another man to live loses his own right to live. But that’s another discussion for another time too.
So then we come to the nub of the matter. What of those rascals who demand their freedoms be respected? What of those who insist the governor cannot limit the number of people gathered for Thanksgiving in a private residence? What of those who will host or attend a large holiday gathering just because they can’t? What of the man who insists he remains free not to cover his face? It is, after all, his face, to be covered or uncovered solely at his discretion. What of those who insist to their elders they should be free to worship God with uncovered face, holy kissin’, rowdy, spittin’ singing and a common cup? Whether they actually do it is one thing, whether they ought to be free to do it is the question before us.
To those who cheerfully comply with the current restrictions on liberty and do so in the presence of God with a cheerful heart, fully believing you are loving your neighbor by giving honor to your authorities in the best way you can, I commend you. Your voluntary, cheerful submission of your rights is a beautiful thing, and you should be celebrated. There are times when you act alone, and it’s difficult, and there are times when everyone joins you, and that’s brings a beautiful sense of camaraderie.
When kindly asked to stay home for fifteen days and refrain from public worship, I and many others happily and voluntarily complied. We even did so when a couple more weeks were asked of us. But the state crossed a line when it went from asking us to relinquish our rights of assembly, our rights to free worship, our rights to uncovered faces, and demanded we give up those rights. Those rights did not come from the state; the state has no right to take them away. I would fervently argue the church has no right to take them away either. The church and the state guard those rights, but they do not create them.
Our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not, as some suppose, American idiosyncrasies granted to us by the Constitution, perks to enjoy if we happen to have them. These are gifts from a sovereign Lord who put just a little of his sovereignty into all those who bear his image. God is a free God. His image bearers are not free in the same absolute way, but how unfitting throughout the Bible and history for the children of the free God to be slaves of anyone but him? (By “slaves” I’m referring to people forcibly stripped of most if not all their rights.)
Anytime God’s image in man is constricted, suppressed, or concealed, man looks a little less like the one he was created to image. We dare not contribute to the degradation of humanity into something less noble, less God-like than God designed us to be. We cannot expect to violate the fundamental nature of humanity to own stuff, and in the process also do good for society. We will never solve our problems by forcibly taking what God has freely given.
We may, if we choose, happily forgo some of the rights God gave us, and again, I applaud those who do so and in various ways do so myself. But it is my conviction that, as long as we’re able to bear the cost to do so, some must, for the good of society, continue to speak out against those infringing upon these good gifts from God, reminding them they are pursuing a terribly unwise and immoral course of action.
That road leads to a place that’s bad for them, and bad for us.
Top image is Justice Lifts the Nations, by Paul Robert. Francis Schaeffer turned me on to it.
If you made it all the way to the end of this, you deserve a prize of some sort. I have none to offer you, but wow, good job!