It is often claimed that the American nation was founded on Judeo-Christian values, such as respect for property, safety and survival. However this value system is not uniquely Western or biblical. In fact what most mean by Judeo-Christian values is in reality a conventional form of morality that exists within most societies, secular or religious, Christian or otherwise. While much of Western culture is built upon this sense of conventional morality, many aspects of this value system are antithetical to the values found in both the Old Testament and the New.
The cardinal virtues of Western society typically include individualism, self-determination and personal rights. Our society certainly places a high degree of value on these ideas and they no doubt help create order and stability. Christians can and should find the good that these principles produce insofar as they align with the Kingdom vision of Christ. At the same time, we should be cautious about embracing a system for human success that stands outside of the biblical narrative, particularly one so enveloped in individualism and self-realization. It is my contention that no concept of inalienable rights, at least in the modern sense, can be found in the Bible. The idea of rights came from the enlightenment and from the Greeks. The Bible on the other hand places an emphasis not on our personal rights, natural or legal per se, but on our responsibilities.
When Judeo-Christian values are appealed to, the Ten Commandments are often in mind. While it is true that our legal system shares the same basic prohibitions on murder, theft and some forms of false witness, our culture does not legistlate against idolatry, greed and dishonesty. Some have argued that the development and evolution of the “Western” world is indebted to the Judaic-Christian traditions. It is no doubt true that both Judaism and Christianity have influenced and shaped the West to a significant extent. But it would be a mistake to equate the West with the vision of Christ’s Kingdom. I don’t recall any historical examples of government’s implementing the Sermon on the Mount in their domestic legislation or foreign policy.
Looking to the Old Testament, we will find that there are components of the Decalogue that were unique to the Hebrew people. But, broadly speaking, the commandments parallel a general code of conventional morality that has existed within the majority of societies from antiquity to modernity. Furthermore, in the ancient world the Hebrews were not the only ones who lived by certain standards of law and morality. Archaeologists have discovered Babylonian tablets dating from the 18th century BC that bear many similarities to the Old Testament laws (Enns, 20). These tablets, also known as the Code of Hammurabi, appear to date at least a few centuries prior to when most scholars believe Moses would’ve lived. Both the book of Exodus and the Code of Hammurabi share similar laws concerning “stealing, property…kidnapping, marriage and divorce, loans…personal injury [and] animals,” among others (Ibid).
My point here is not to question the inspiration or uniqueness of the Old Testament, but to show that there is nothing particularly unique about much of the morality found in it, particularly the morality that conservatives say America was founded upon. However as we will see, the meta-narrative of the Bible, especially the Prophets and the New Testament, point us toward a more radical form of ethics and more importantly responsibilities, which should transform our prioritization of personal rights.
Because my thesis rests on semantics and the definition of terms, let us first define what “rights” are. The basic essence of rights will be defined here as legal entitlements enforceable by law. Rights are claims you can make on others and thus in a sense are a form of social or relational power. As such, the concept of personal rights amounts to a way of exercising or leveraging power over and against others for our own well-being, protection and benefit. In other words, rights are about maintaining or getting something for yourself or a collection of individuals.
Now to be clear, I’m not advocating for the abolishment of legal rights or entitlements. Nor am I claiming that “rights” are always self-serving or for that matter inherently bad. However, it is important that we recognize that rights are a form of power over others and more importantly they are anthropocentric and typically individualistic in nature. And even when when rights are collectivist, they are sometimes implemented at the cost of individual rights. The converse is also true for individual rights, which can be exercised at the cost of the collective. Thus, in part, this is how rights become a form of power over others. Now, one might ask how exactly rights are a form of power over others. A fair question. Let me explain.
Think for a moment about how rights are typically exercised. When a wrong (whether actual or perceived) is committed by someone, does the victim seek out the individual who wronged them for reconciliation and for possible reparations? The answer is almost universally no. Perhaps on rare occasions. When attempting to implement the privileges and benefits that come with any given right, we seek out the institution that administers them. The establishment of legal rights is backed up by a judicial system which is in turn supported by the power of law enforcement, which has the authority to lock up and even kill those who have violated the rights of others.
Now it may be the case that this is a necessity in a fallen world such as ours, but it is a far cry from what in the Bible is called justice, righteousness, and love. Honoring another’s rights to avoid negative personal consequences, and asserting personal rights for personal benefit are, at the end of the day, both motivated by the same deep drive that is also at the heart of violating another’s rights; self-preference.
In short, it shouldn’t take a law to keep us from violating another person’s value and dignity.
In Good News to the Poor, Tim Chester elaborates on how Christians should shift our mindset regarding the concept of human rights:
“I suspect that the focus on human rights reflects the search for a new ethic in a post-Christian, secular world. It is an attempt to articulate afresh our moral obligations to the poor, but it roots this moral obligation in the nature of human beings. But for Christians, moral obligations are not rooted in the nature of human beings but in the nature and will of God. Our obligations are to God. He is the one with rights – not us. We have responsibilities toward God for each other. So the approach of rights-based development is godless. By that I do not mean that all human rights and all that is done in its name is contrary to the will of God – much of it does accord with God’s will, and that is why we can use the instruments and language of human rights to advocate for the poor. But it must be recognized as an attempt to develop an ethic without God” (Chester, 26).
We can apply Chester’s reflections to the idea of personal rights as well. In fact Chester aptly voices the importance of responsibilities that I would like to focus on next.
Throughout the Bible we see time after time that everyone, that all humanity, shares equal value, equal dignity and equal worth. Similarly we see that God has expectations of His people. The Bible doesn’t just command us to not take advantage of the poor and oppressed, it commands us to help the poor and oppressed. And although we have rights given to us by society and/or the government, the Bible doesn’t speak of rights, in the modern sense, that are given to us by God. It does, however, speak of value, dignity and worth, given to us by God, and of the call placed upon all of us to honor and express the value found in all humans, even those who wrong us.
In the Old Testament, the only time (apart from the mention of “conjugal rights” in Exodus 21:10 and of “redemption rights” in Leviticus 25:31) the concept of rights appears, is in the form of Israel, the people of God (and now us, the church), being challenged to defend the rights of others, not theirselves/ourselves. Specifically, the poor, the oppressed, the widows and the orphans. The most vulnerable of society. Here “rights” equates with just living; both collective and individual.
In fact, an attentive reader will find that the Hebrew concern for injustice permeates the Old Testament. The theme of social justice is undeniably foremost in the chorus of the Prophets. The minor prophet Amos well illustrates this concern. In this prophetic book, Amos reveals Yahweh’s warning of the consequences that await not only the nations but both Israel and Judah as well, if they continue to live unjustly. Furthermore, we learn that Yahweh does not desire token gestures of worship and rote sacrifice. Rather God desires a people who live righteously. “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24, NASB).
In Hebrew, justice or מִשְׁפָּט (mishpat) is not a set of rules enshrined in law but actual concrete actions taken in order to rectify injustice and foster righteous living. In Jeremiah 5:28, the “weeping prophet” speaks harshly of those who “do not defend the rights of poor.” Interestingly enough the Hebrew word used for rights is the same word used for justice in Amos 5:24; mishpat. So, rights = justice and justice = rights. Likewise, righteousness or צְדָקָה (tsĕdaqah) is more than just a state of moral standing. Rather, it is an expectation of fairness and equity in human relationships, without condition. So ultimately, rights or righteousness and justice for the Hebrews were not claims that they had on others but obligations they had towards others based on their calling to reflect God’s image and to imitate how God acts towards us.
In the New Testament we encounter the idea of rights in places like John 1:12, where it describes how God gives us the right or ἐξουσία (exousia) to become children of God. Exousia is the word for “power.” In other words, the power to become children of God. In fact the meaning of the “right” that God has granted to us is akin to a privilege or the power to choose. We have the right to receive the status that we have as God’s children. And this status is granted to all humans, equally, we need only step into this reality.
In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul uses ἐξουσία six times and it is typically translated as “right” (NLT, ESV, NASB etc). However ἐξουσία can also carry the meaning of “power,” “privilege” or “authority” among others. Strong’s Concordance notes that the biblical usage of ἐξουσία generally carries a primary sense of the “power of choice,” or the “liberty of doing as one pleases.” So in one sense, the meaning of ἐξουσία is about the individual autonomy one has. Basically our freedom of choice. But Paul turns the idea that we have the right or privilege to do something for our own benefit on its head. Paul says that although he would’ve been justified in exercising a number of privileges he’d either earned or just had as a result of his apostolic status, he has chosen instead to relinquish them.
Rather than claiming a set of prerogatives, Paul instead models how believers should set aside what they deserve for the sake of the Good News and the cause of Christ. “Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ” (1 Cor 9:19).
This helps us understand passages where Paul seems to uphold the status quo, social values and Greco-Roman forms of hierarchy. The Epistle to Philemon, for example, has been lauded by some as a Pauline endorsement of slavery, or at the very least, the absence of its condemnation.
But Paul tells Philemon that when Onesimus returns, he must treat him as a brother and partner because “He is no longer like a slave to you” (verse 16, NLT). In fact, throughout the Pauline corpus we can find the theme that in the Church, Christ has placed everyone on equal footing (See Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11, 1 Corinthians 12:13 & Romans 3:22 for example).
And although within the societal structure we have been given identities and expected roles that coincide with those identities, particularly in the ancient Greco-Roman world, the ethic that Paul presents in Philemon and elsewhere inevitably leads to the abolishment of cultural obligations. And this abolishment of cultural norms takes place most visibly within the Church community.
Rather than rebelling against the status quo in a manner in which 21st century minds would hope for, such as advocating for the immediate end to slavery and the egalitiarian restructuring of society, Paul instead shows that within the Church we take on the mind and attitude of Christ, which on its own erases any hierarchal systems that would otherwise exist outside of the Church.
The New Testament teaches that we have mutual responsibilities to each other. What I owe others is not based on a law, but in the New Creation that Christ has brought about in each of us. And the Church is the primary place where we relearn how to live out this mutual, egalitarian lifestyle, whether it be mutual submission in marriage (Ephesians 5:21) or in any other relationship between Christian brothers and sisters. Furthermore, the Church is the place where we rediscover God’s ideal for humanity, so that we may better witness to the world.
However in our self-orientedness, we all too often turn our obligations, especially with regard to others, into entitlements. Unfortunately the hyper-individualism of the modern world has only heightened our egocentricity, giving free-reign to the primordial propensity for human selfishness.
Although we are obligated to not steal and not kill, instead we typically focus on protecting ourselves and enforcing our claims on others rather than living out our responsibilities towards others. We default into self-protection and self-promotion, whereas the Bible calls us to protect and seek the wellbeing of others. It’s not about me, not about you. It’s about us.
One of the defining features of the New Testament is the theme of sacrifice. Over and over the NT authors remind us that we must lay aside our own preferences and positions in order to serve others. And Christ presents the ideal portrait of ultimate sacrifice, not only in His death on the cross but in the incarnation itself.
In Philippians, Paul tells us that we should carry the same mentality as Christ reflected in the fact that “Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges (or “emptied himself”); he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being” (Phil 2:6-7, NLT).
Paul also taught the Corinthian Christians ways to live out this pattern of choosing to not exercise personal rights in order to promote a higher goal of seeking the benefit of another. He applies this in such areas as marital relations, legal disputes, and even his “rights” as an apostle in ministry, as mentioned earlier.
There will always be situations where it is appropriate for believers to exercise their societal rights, given that they have properly followed the guidance of Scripture and the Holy Spirit. The quest for an ethical framework that promotes wellbeing for all is both moral and Christian, but our guidelines for this task should always place God’s design first. This means that while secular rights can accomplish good things, the exercise of these rights is not always consistent with the biblical witness and its emphasis on responsibilities. In fact, as I have attempted to demonstrate, they can even stand in stark contrast to the biblical ideal.
Does this mean that Christians should abandon attempts to attain justice and/or rights for vulnerable peoples in the secular realm? I don’t think so. As noted earlier, the idea of advocating for the oppressed is certainly biblical. And while advocating for the oppressed should sometimes look radically different for Christians than it does in the secular realm, there are times when the two visions of justice align. The Civil Rights movement, for example, was about a group of people who were advocating for a better society for everyone, freeing both oppressed and oppressor from systemic injustice.
For centuries, the values and worldview of the West have mingled and fused with Christianity. As a result, our conception of rights has been predominantly informed by the culture and not by our faith. One of the core values of the West, the centrality of individual legal entitlements or “rights,” has been all but baptized and incorporated into our modern Christian (and American) creed. Nonetheless, the OT, NT and Jesus all instruct us to lay said our own rights and lives in the pursuit of serving Jesus’ Kingdom faithfully and promoting the well-being of others ahead of our selves. This is one of the supreme responsbilities of the Christian.
Chester, Tim. Good News to the Poor: Social Involvement and the Gospel, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013.
Enns, Peter. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015.