I have been pondering a few things and wanted to invite you all into a possible conversation or thought process. In our heated political scheme which seems to become increasingly divisive, I have wondered at how we make decisions around the expression of individual rights. This has been exasperated by the events in Charlottesville and informs how we work through the ideologies that perpetuate racism, bigotry, or any other type of “ism” that makes one person less to make someone greater. I heard a politician say that in our context today it is about who’s rights trump another’s rights. If that is so, how do we choose the best way to act as a follower of Jesus? What happens when the rights of one person clash or oppose the rights of another? Are there contexts for when one expression may succumb to another expression? Are there ways to have win/win scenarios rather than win/lose outcomes? Furthermore, in our disagreements, how do we not fall into acts of violence? (Another topic)
Focusing upon the question of the expression of individual freedom and what happens when it clashes with someone else’s rights:
When I was growing up (mid 70’s), smoking was rampant. There was not nearly a place you could go where you were not subjected to cigarette smoke. Both my parents smoked for years. Smoking was allowed in most public spaces…except for churches, I guess. Airplanes, restaurants, football stadiums, hotels, movie theaters, bowling allies, and just about any other space were always filled with smoke. Smoking was an individual right and a lot of people smoked. But what about people who did not smoke but had to constantly be subjected to it? There simply were not a lot of places that did not ban smoking. What about those with asthma or other respiratory issues?
Over time, the conversation began to change. As more and more health warnings were issued and people started to express their desire for cleaner air, discussions shifted to those who had a right to breath clean air. Now there were two competing sets of individual rights: the right for a person to smoke and the right of a person to breathe clean air and not be subjected to unwanted smoke. It took several years for the ideology shift. Today, most of us benefit from the decisions that made access to breathing cleaner air more important. Rights of smokers was limited with substantial parameters placed upon where one could smoke when in a public venue.
Here are my questions. How do we choose whose right is more important? We will not always have the politicians and judges making decisions so how will we choose? What is our process?
Is there a point or context where one person’s rights must be limited for another person’s rights to be expressed?
As followers of Jesus, how does the body of Scripture…not cherry picking one or two verses out of context…inform our decisions? What does the Old Testament, the Gospels, Paul, and other writers say?
To give a biblical situation, Paul faced a dilemma that he discusses in First Corinthians. It was whether a follower of Jesus should eat meat offered to idols. There was one group of people who were adamant that meat offered to idols was the equivalent of worshipping that idol and should not be consumed. Others believed it did not make a difference. If you prayed and gave God thanks for the meat, it did not matter. You were basically acknowledging the idol had no power or meaning. Paul tended to agree with the latter group and did not recognize the power in the idol. Food was consumed, digested, and passed through the body. It made no difference if sacrificed to idols. However, Paul, out of love and high value on unity and peace of his fellow brothers and sisters and for those new in the faith, said that if his eating meat sacrificed to idols was a stumbling block, he would put aside his individual freedom for the sake of the other. He desired there to be no stumbling block for a person and their relationship with Jesus. Chapter thirteen of Corinthians becomes a beautiful expression of what love looks like when we put the needs of others above ourselves. That was what a “stronger” believer did. It was always about putting someone’s needs above your own. It was about selfless service. And it was not just a “good idea”. Jesus expected and expects us to live by this command.
I wonder if this account gives us any guidance in the complexities we face. As a nation built upon the expression of individual freedom how do we become faithful to Scripture and align ourselves with Jesus when we look at our own liberties and when they may come into conflict with the expression of someone else’s. These same questions go the heart of our issues regarding racism and bigotry. I wonder if we all took the high road what might that begin to look like?
I would be interested in hearing how you work these out and if you have children, how you teach this to them. What are the ways you use Scripture and especially Jesus’ two commands: Love God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself, to inform your decision making?
I would enjoy hearing your insights around this delicate yet important topic.
Grace and peace,