I hear a whole lot of folks shout about their rights. They have the right to this and that. They have the right to not doing this or that. “We have our rights!” becomes a rallying cry.
And it sounds great on the surface. How does one argue with the idea of having rights? Obviously is someone disagrees, then they must be trying to take away someone’s right, correct?
Rights are not your free ticket to do whatever you want or to ignore rules and responsibilities. Rights come with responsibilities. All the rallying cries in the world don’t change the fact that rights come with a cost. They are not free and do not give you the ability to do anything you want without criticism.
We see this play out right now with the arguments over masks and vaccinations. Those opposed to these things argue that it is their choice since it is affecting their bodies. There is an element of truth to this of course. But it disregards the fact that their choice has an impact on other people. Why is it that you get to decide what kind of threat someone else must face without their input?
License can be defined as behaving as one wishes without regard of the consequences. That’s not the same thing as a right. It seems that many of the vocal folks who are clamoring about their rights are really more interested in having license to do whatever they want without regard to the consequences to themselves or others.
License isn’t associated with a society or community because it disregards everyone else. License is more in line with tyranny where the tyrant does whatever they want to do.
Going back to the 16-18th centuries, there was much writing about the social contract. The social contract was the term that philosophers like John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau used to describe the informal and unspoken agreement that members of a society made with each other so there could be cooperation and benefit for the greater good. Without this agreement, there would be Hobbes’ idea of Leviathan – A Hebrew concept that Hobbes used to describe chaos and disorder. Societies can’t function when there is no concern for the greater good. They become chaotic. When there is no basis of trust or a shared general concern for one’s fellow citizens, then society breaks down. Hobbes most memorable quote related to this is that “life outside society would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.'”
Arguments over the vaccinations and mask mandates are really arguments about the social contract. Are we committed to a society in which we may have to give up some personal freedoms in exchange for a societal good, or are we more committed to individualism in which we trust no one and see no benefit to being a part of society and caring for others and their wellbeing? There are consequences and costs to each idea.
In a theological sense, this carries into the idea of love of neighbor.
It is no surprise that one of the first sins recorded in Scripture relates to love of neighbor and what could be argued as the social contract. Genesis 4 tells the story of Cain and Abel – brothers. Cain kills his brother out of jealousy and hides the crime. Most famously, Scripture tells us God spoke with Cain and asks him “Where is your brother Abel?” And Cain’s response is “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain, in essence, did not agree to the social contract. He only cared about himself. And he suffered the consequence as a result. But so did Abel. He died. Cain, in a way, became the first tyrant – imposing his selfishness and the consequences of it on everyone else. Selfishness never only affects the selfish person. Because we are not islands separated. We are connected to each other and each person has an impact on others – an impact which can be positive or negative.
This is why there are responsibilities that go along with rights. Rights are costly. The costs are the responsibilities that we have in conjunction with the rights. Responsibilities are the price one pays for being a citizen in a society. Some of the simplest responsibilities we have as citizens are paying taxes, doing our civic duties like voting, and jury duty, and obeying laws that are just. A just law is one that does not purposefully cause harm to people or a group of people. Being inconvenienced is not a harm.
Likewise, in theology, there is a similar idea best expressed by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in which he described “cheap grace.” Cheap grace is “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”
What Bonhoeffer was describing was the responsibilities of being a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. We receive the benefits of Christ and there is a cost – our responsibilities in how we respond.
Responsibilities with rights are a way of moving people from a self-centered attitude and focus to something that is greater than the self. Responsibilities help citizens to become more mature in their outlook and move beyond the desire to only have their own way.
Regardless of whether we are talking about theology or society, the same idea holds – we do not have license to do as we please like a tyrant. We have rights and responsibilities. A right without a responsibility is no right at all. It is either meaningless, or mislabeled as a right when it is in fact a license. If we are going to be a part of society, then we should not only avoid license, but make license very difficult for members of society to carry out because the cost of license is steep – not just for those who grab the license to do whatever they want, but for everyone in the society.