It has been quite a summer for human rights and human dignity: a very brutal summer, and a summer of hope. The Supreme Court has changed the way we talk about equality in America. A lost and murderous young man has broken our hearts in a Charleston Church. And that flag: It has been a wrenching and yet hopeful summer.
Christians have found themselves thrown into the mix of tragedy and promise. How should they respond? Many believers distance themselves from national discourse. Others invoke superficial cultural assumptions to defend less-than-Christian behavior. I believe we can be both followers of Christ and thoughtful citizens.
We’ve been here before. For instance, over 150 years ago we looked into the yawning chasm of a terrible Civil War. What were people thinking and saying then?
Legacy of conflict
The accepted way of framing that debate pitted the “rights” of particular states against the federal government. The legacy of this conflict remains. Turn on the news today and you will hear the tension between state and federal government mentioned again and again. Should we work through our differences within individual states or seek an overall, federal resolution?
A contrast between state and federal power is not really the issue for believers.
Often, this oppositional thinking is presented as the only way to debate issues. Yet a contrast between state and federal power is not really the issue for believers. That’s right. It is important, but not the foundation of our moral imagination – and obligation.
Theologically speaking, people are our priority around questions of government. For Wesleyans, all people — each and every person — are critical to our understanding of government. This has been a point emphasized by me elsewhere when examining our doctrine of the Atonement. We believe that Jesus came for all, not only the elect or some other category of “insider.”
At Adrian College, where I teach and serve as chaplain, we have the original, handwritten manuscript/notebook of our founding president, Asa Mahan. He was an abolitionist and a first-rate philosopher. This worn, weathered leather-bound document, now restored, contains sermon outlines, lectures, and a very lengthy commentary on the Constitution of the United States.
Meaning of ‘we the people’
Our founder ended his manuscript with more than 65 pages of notes on the Constitution. These were then passed along to undergraduate students. This record speaks from the eve of our horrible Civil War.
President Mahan began his reflection by pondering the meaning of “We the People.” “It is not as states, but as a people, that this constitution was ordained and established,” he wrote.
His entire interpretation revolved around the rights of people.
Notice that he did not contrast the states with the federal government, even though he supported the Union. His entire interpretation revolved around the rights of people.
Recently, some regional lawmakers have offered comments to the effect that rights are determined by the majority. This position asserts that if the majority chooses to share rights with a minority, fine. If not, then too bad. In other words, governmental entities, controlled by majorities of numbers, wealth, or some other form of power determine human rights.
Counter to founding philosophy
This view runs counter to our nation’s founding philosophy. Everything about the American experiment has started with some claim that rights are a part of human existence, given by either nature or God. Governments are instituted by the people to protect these rights for all.
This does not make federal powers the creators of rights any more than the states. But it does make both state and federal government the protectors of rights they did not create and cannot eliminate.
We might note that in 1948 some very insightful thinkers were tasked with drafting the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights They were obstructed in much of their work by the Soviet Union. These drafters insisted that human rights are a given, something to be recognized in humanity and not something determined by political bodies.
The Soviets objected for many ostensible reasons, but their resistance amounted to the claim that rights are a construction of the political order. They would decide if so-called rights were to be honored or dismissed among their empire.
In the end, the recognition that rights are inherent to human nature won out. It would be a shame if some Americans took the Soviet model as their inspiration and claimed that oppressive majorities can grant or ignore rights at will.
Recognizing that all people bear an intrinsic worth and that their rights should be respected is more American than apple pie. It is also consistent with a gospel that teaches how Jesus lived, died, and rose for all.