In his book Center Church, Tim Keller identifies the idea of “rights” as a key cultural entry point for helping our neighbors understand the gospel and its implications. That may sound like a strange claim, but I think he’s correct.
Notice how “rights” are constantly in the news. The decision to file criminal charges against the Boston bomber meant he had to be granted Miranda rights. Gay marriage advocates claim “marriage equality” is a fundamental right. Believers claim religious liberty is a fundamental right. Everyone from gun owners to hair braiders to taxpayers to welfare activists is out there on TV, demanding rights.
Rights can also determine what doesn’t make the news. Kermit Gosnell murdered babies after they were born, chopped them up, and put their little hands and feet on display in his office as trophies—like some barbaric warlord building a pyramid out of his enemies’ skulls. But some media didn’t want to cover this sensational story, for fear that public attention to these realities would threaten the right to abortion.
Rights matter so much because they determine how our society governs itself. Nothing wrong with that; naturally we all want to recognize and respect legitimate rights claims. But for just that reason, everyone who wants something demands it as a right! “Rights are trumps over the majority will,” political theorist Ronald Dworkin put it. Once you establish that what you want is a right, you’ve already won the game, no matter how your victory may affect others or the community.
So how do we make sense of this seemingly chaotic war of rights, and how does it create a cultural entry point for the gospel? That’s a complex question, but here are some basic principles to start the discussion.
1. The modern concept of rights was first articulated in Christian moral theology.
As Brian Tierney and others have shown, the modern concept of rights was not cooked up by nefarious Enlightenment deists as a scheme to destroy moral order. It was first articulated in the late Middle Ages by moral theologians and ethicists, as a necessary consequence of individual human responsibility. If people have duties, by definition they must have rights: If you have a duty not to murder me, then I have a right to life (i.e. a right not to be murdered by you). If I have a duty to worship God sincerely according to my conscience, then I have a right to religious freedom (i.e. a right not to be prevented from worshiping according to my conscience or forced to worship insincerely).
2. Nonetheless, this concept had important pre-Christian roots and is now widely understood and practiced by non-Christians.
Although our current understanding of rights did grow from Christian ethics, we should not try to claim it as exclusively Christian. For one thing, there are clear previews of it in the classical Greco-Roman moral philosophers; Aristotle and Cicero gave the medieval Christian ethicists important help in seeing the logic of rights. And once the idea “if people have duties, they also have rights” is articulated, you don’t have to be a Christian to grasp that and live it out. Non-Christians around the world today are strongly dedicated to respecting rights claims.
3. Conflicts about rights are really conflicts about duties.
If rights are a consequence of duties, then the question “who has a right to do what?” is really just another way of asking “who has a duty to do what?” Suppose two people are stranded on a desert island after a shipwreck, and one has lots of food, but he withholds the food from the other person unless the other person agrees to do whatever he wants. He claims the right to do this on grounds that “I have a right to my property,” i.e. “you have a duty not to steal my food.” The other person can reply, “I have a right to life and liberty,” i.e. “you have a duty not to force me into a choice between slavery and death.”
4. Conflicts about duties are really conflicts about religion, but people usually can’t see this.
In real life, our desert islanders would probably never realize they’re making religious claims—just as the people on TV claiming they have rights to everything under the sun don’t think they’re making religious claims. But if they talked out their differences, questioning assumptions and uncovering presuppositions, they would eventually realize that the food hoarder is claiming “God commands you not to steal” while his companion is claiming “God commands you not to remain idle while your neighbor starves.” Or if they come from a non-theistic culture, instead of “God” they may say “the gods” or whatever their conception of the transcendent is.
5. In most cases, people can resolve these differences peacefully only if they discover some cosmic common ground.
Once they realize what they’re really arguing about, the food hoarder might simply say, “nuts to your hippie peacenik God; my God says the strong should rule the weak.” If he does, there is little hope of resolving the conflict peacefully. But suppose instead his companion gets him to realize that even though God forbids stealing, God also forbids standing idle while your neighbor starves. This realization changes his understanding of the duty not to steal; he suddenly sees that it is not actually “stealing” for his companion to demand that he share what he has without attaching enslaving conditions to it.
6. People can discover cosmic common ground even across religious differences.
This happy ending to the story does not require our desert islanders to be of the same religion. Certainly if the food hoarder is a man who claims to be Christian or even just sees merit in Christianity, his starving companion will find it much easier to change his thinking. There are also important variations among non-Christian belief systems; it will make a big difference to the companion’s prospects if the food hoarder is a Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Aristotelian, Confucian, Nietzschean, Randian, utilitarian, pragmatist, or adherent of no organized system of thought. Nonetheless, the important point is that our desert islanders need not reach a total agreement about life, the universe, and everything. They only need to find enough cosmic common ground to settle their conflict.
The Bible teaches us to expect that this resolution can happen. To take only one of many examples, Romans 2 teaches that by God’s common grace, all people have God’s moral law written on their hearts. This does not just make them morally responsible for their sin; it also changes their behavior. You can appeal to this law, within limits, to establish some cosmic common ground among all human beings.
For example, notice how the media were ultimately shamed into covering the Gosnell trial. That didn’t happen because media gatekeepers suddenly converted to Christianity. It happened because pro-life activists appealed to common moral commitments (such as the ethical standards of the journalistic profession) and forced the gatekeepers to recognize their own failure to live up to them.
7. Rights claims grow out of control and destroy society if we don’t debate them morally.
Notice that the happy ending on our desert island only comes after they have a frank debate in which they challenge one another’s moral and even religious assumptions. There are no militant secularists on hand to shut down the dialogue, claiming that moral arguments are out of bounds in the public square. There are also no small-minded Christian conversionists to insist that until the food hoarder accepts Christ, there’s nothing else worth talking about. When people fear or despise moral debate, “nuts to your God” and catastrophic wars over rights are the only possible outcome.
8. Discovering cosmic common ground is a central duty of neighbor-love and good citizenship.
It’s important for Christians to reach out and find cosmic common ground with people of other beliefs. We must never compromise the gospel that divides us from the world. But we must also never betray the common humanity that binds us to our neighbors as fellow creatures with a shared nature, nor our membership in our nations and communities. If Christians took the lead in defusing the disastrous rights-wars by discovering cosmic common ground, that would show how the Spirit has filled us with love for our neighbors and shine in the cultural darkness as a beautiful witness to the gospel.
9. Discovering cosmic common ground forces people to see the elements of truth in others’ worldviews.
Christians can explain why people are responsible moral agents who have duties (and therefore have rights). For as long as history records, secularists have been struggling to come up with some kind of argument to justify moral responsibility (and therefore rights) without reference to a transcendent cosmic order. It’s a fool’s errand. We won’t be able to have that whole conversation explicitly every time rights come up; still, the more we can prompt people to think deeply about where rights come from, the more plausible the gospel will seem to them.
Normally, people who are deeply immersed in a culture with little gospel influence have great difficulty even understanding the gospel. They don’t really grasp its meaning and implications because those things aren’t made real within their cultural world. The gospel is gibberish to them.
But suppose Christians took the lead in defusing America’s rights-wars. Our neighbors, whose social world is defined by those rights-wars, would see the gospel at work. Its power would have been made real in their world. Some of them would admire it, and some of them would resent it, but they would no longer be able to ignore it.