Limits on rights?

Should we accept limitations on our rights? Should there be limitations on some rights and not on others? What is the extent of such limitations?

These are the fundamental questions that haven’t been specifically voiced, but are the actual questions. These are the questions that rise up every time there is a discussion about gun control, speech, the freedom of assembly through protest, and voting rights.

As a society, we aren’t consistent with how we approach these things. But there are limitations on each of these. And there is plenty of hypocrisy too. Part of this is due to the fact that we are a hyper-partisan society now. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone when we have the same people argue that there shouldn’t be restrictions on gun ownership, but it’s ok to restrict voting. And it shouldn’t surprise us that there are people who who argue for gun restrictions, but will argue against any restrictions on voting. Like so many things, these end up being just more battles in the ongoing partisan war in our nation – a war in which few win or benefit. Us vs. Them never really benefits anyone.

In the midst of this, I’m reminded of Martin Luther’s “Freedom of a Christian.” It was published in 1520 in Germany. First, understand that the political and religious environment of the period and location are far different than what we experience today. There was no such thing as political freedom, and really, not religious freedom either.

But Luther’s main claim in his writing was that Christians are both free (in the gospel) and bound to our neighbors. We are free and slaves at the same time.

I’m drawn to this because it expresses the idea that we have rights and are free to live into those rights, but we are subject to restrictions and limitations and not in control of them. The whole point being that we don’t use our freedom solely for our own benefit – that would be selfish. Rather, we are free to serve our neighbors. This is where I think Luther is helpful to the debate about freedom, rights, and limitations.

I think we keep getting stuck and make no changes at all because we are asking the wrong set of questions. Our questions have to do with individual rights and how limitations impact individuals. But that makes no sense to end the questions there. Rules are set by individuals. Rules aren’t individually applied either. They are set by a community – regardless of whether that community is a legislature, or voters. It is a group who sets the limitations.

A better set of questions would consider this – What is the best option for the community? What would be beneficial to the greater community?

I think asking these questions instead would allow us to get past the arguments that focus on the rare exceptions – the “Yeah, but what about…” There aren’t nice clean, crisp answers to everything. We should stop looking for the perfect policy and answers. They don’t exist. And that’s not a reason to never change either. The needs of the wider community should have consideration, not completely ignored, which is what happens too often.

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