Individual Rights and Community
If we are serious about being a community, then I think that we need to finally quit participating in the popular insistence upon individual rights.
Individual rights are not bad. I enjoy the fact that you should not be able to steal my property or force me to do something that I do not think I should do. But in a liberal society, I fear that we have elevated the notion of rights above all other values. It is assumed that if you infringe upon my rights, then you are automatically in the wrong.
Of course, no one really believes in unlimited personal rights. For example, my right to swing my arms around cannot infringe upon your right to have an unbruised face. The American society is largely run on this sense of limited individual rights, where we balance certain types of rights against others.
But even considering this in our discussion of (limited) individual rights, I still think that if we believe that we really are a community, then we cannot take too seriously the notion of rights. The reason is because individual rights can often run counter to the rights of the community. For example, at my church, any member has the “right” to date whomever they desire. However, that person is a fool if she thinks that choice of a boyfriend is irrelevant to the rest of the community because the community will feel the effects of that decision. The community will have to support her and welcome him (or wonder about him, if he is consistently absent). This is no small task to ask of a community. So does not the community have a “right” to also refuse her choice of a boyfriend?
At this point, many will think that I have gone absurd because that latter is not a right. But I insist that it is just as much a “right” as the former. We have just stupidly assumed that “rights” always means personal rights.
In any case, we can go back and forth between the rights of the individual and of the community. But I think that if we do, then we are destined to see the disintegration of the communal bond.
I get quite upset when I get a hint that someone in our church has his mind on his own rights. As a pastor, I must often “invade” a person’s personal life in order to challenge him to make a change in his life. But I do not get upset because it makes my job harder or because I hate obstacles. Rather, it is because I feel that blindly importing the world’s system of rights into the church is evil.
The world elevates the value of rights. But, as people of God, we must value love and submission–to God and to one another.
As I think about it, the notion of rights does serve one very good purpose–it gives us a basis for sacrifice. If I love my brother, then I will give up my right to drink alcohol because I know that it will cause him to stumble. In a spirit of reverence and submission to God, I will give up my right to leave the imperfect church and instead struggle along with everyone else, hoping for repentance and renewal.
As a community, we live in a strangely connected way in Jesus. If I feel that you have no right to tell me what to do, that you do not have the right to ask me uncomfortable questions, or to invade my private space, then I am acting in defiance to Jesus the King and his community. Then I am ignoring that what I do has real effects among the rest of the community and that I must be responsible for those effects. Then I am saying that I am only willing to be part of a community so long as it is convenient for me and mirrors the world that I am comfortable with. That is no community at all.