Saturday, July 04, 2009

What We Mean by "Inalienable Rights"

This is the time of year when we patriotic Americans like to reflect on our "rights" and what has been done to secure that freedom. Some of us may even pause to read the Declaration of Independence and contemplate just what it means to have certain inalienable rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I would submit that we have no rights, at least not in the eternal sense. To argue otherwise is to adopt an entitlement mentality. Sadly, we Americans can't seem to help looking at liberty from the perspective of what we believe we are entitled to. When we complain about government intrusion into our lives, we gripe about "our freedoms" being taken away.

We need to remember that everything we have was given to us. We are entitled to nothing. In fact, the only things we deserve are death and eternal punishment (Romans 3:23, Romans 6:23, 2 Thessalonians 1:9). So, from a Christian standpoint, how do we reconcile our theology with the traditional American view of liberty?

The best way to interpret the concept of "inalienable rights" is to flip it around. When we speak of the right to life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness, etc., think of it not in terms of what a person deserves, but what a person isn't entitled to do to someone else. It doesn't mean that I am entitled to life, since that is an undeserved gift from my Creator; rather, it means that you have no right to take my life. The Bible calls that murder (Exodus 20:13). You have no right to take my property. That would be stealing (Exodus 20:15). And so on.

One important thing to note about the Ten Commandments is that in using words like "you shall not," they focus on God's rights, not ours. Since all men are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), all men should be treated with dignity, respect, and love -- not because they deserve it, but because God deserves it.

1 comment:

Pilgrim said...

You make a good adjustment. "Desserts" are grossly misunderstood because men believe themselves to be self-authenticating, rather than contingent creatures. Therefore they are not content with freedom alone, seeking to be further endowed with the right to health, the right to safety, and the right of prosperity, all at the expense of their neighbors.

But to nitpick, borrowing marriage terminology, what God has joined together let no man separate. We do therefore have a "right" to life, liberty, and property, insofar as God has given these to us, and that God has given these to us is "self-evident" truth. That's the argument the American founders were making. They (even the Deists) understood their contingency on Providence, and understood "rights" as what God has endowed. Rights are eternal, as they flow (undeserved, for sure) from the Eternal Authority.

Some folks differentiate between inalienable and unalienable, but I'll leave that alone for now.

Love your blog, keep it up.

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