In the midst of the debates around social issues of the day, hearing some Christians speak about their right to their viewpoint is quite common. In listening to and reading various points of view, some Christians seem to think that they have certain rights because they are Christian. They seem to think that being Christian gives them the right to express their opinion, hold their beliefs or stand up for what they think is right.
Ironically, the notion of individual rights or entitlements seems to be missing from the vocabulary of the New Testament. In fact, something very different is expected of those who would be followers of and believers in Jesus Christ. When Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” he was offering a choice, but no rights or privileges. Denying self and letting go of claims to what one might be due is a starting point for being in relationship with Jesus. He taught that holding onto life was a sure way to lose it, but not being afraid to lose it was a sure way to gain it.
Jesus offers a number of moral and ethical imperatives, the greatest of which is love — love of God and love of neighbor. So central is this ethic of love to the life to which Jesus calls his followers, that some might conclude that following Jesus means giving up the right to retaliation and revenge, giving up the right to deny food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless, or giving up the right to bear animosity toward those who are different and treating others in a way one would not want to be treated oneself. Jesus has a clear expectation of his followers to be salt and light. Jesus expects his followers to act and to speak in ways that bring to life the values of the Kingdom of God. Jesus does not expect that such words and actions will be well received by those in authority. In fact, he expects just the opposite as he preemptively declares those followers blessed who are reviled, persecuted, and lied about on his account. He admonishes his disciples to not be surprised if the world hates them, since the world has already hated him. Jesus does not call people to follow him because they have a right to do so, without fearing consequences, he calls them to follow him because doing so is right regardless of the consequences.
Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus introduces the idea that being in relationship with Jesus is a new birth resulting in a new life. The Apostle Paul goes further in that the old self is crucified with Christ, and the new self is brought to life in Christ. The result is a follower whose will is yielded to God. Paul says he is a slave of Christ. Christians allude to this transformed status when they pray Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, “…not my will but yours be done,” as their own. Following Christ is more about surrendering status than claiming it.
Conversely, the height of rebellion for a follower of Christ would be to choose one’s own will over God’s will, and to assume that one’s life is one’s own rather than God’s.
The rights granted to followers of Christ in the New Testament are few and far between, namely to be obedient to the will of God. Fortunately, for all the Bible does not say about rights, it says much about relationship and God’s continual desire to be in relationship with those whom God has created, and about God’s abundant grace that makes such relationships possible. While following Christ may not come with special rights, it does come as grace freely given.
The discussion of human rights has been, through the centuries, a much more human endeavor. Naturally, humans have a tendency to claim divine origins for matters of great importance. Our own Declaration of Independence is a case in point. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Scholars and politicians can debate the source of these unalienable rights and what it means that human beings are created with them. However, what we know to be true is that before there was a United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, before there was our present form of government, Baptists and others in this country who refused to adhere to the established religion were jailed, flogged and unfairly burdened with taxes that were collected for the benefit of state-sponsored churches. The Creator has endowed men and women with the right to “. . . life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but without the resolve of a people and a government to secure those rights, what meaningful difference would it make?
People do follow Jesus even under governments that do not allow freedom of religion. Today, some of the most passionate and devoted followers of Christ had their faith forged in what was the Soviet Union. They endured great suffering because of their commitment to Christ. There are others who live in countries where it is illegal for them to convert from the religion of their birth to Christianity. Yet, there are people in those countries who believe in Jesus even though they risk their lives to do so. We are created by the same God with the same inalienable rights, but we worship in freedom and they worship in fear. Whatever else, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” may mean, it surely means that person ought to be able to worship and believe according to the dictates of his or her own conscience without fear of reprisal from government or neighbor.
For Baptists, religious liberty is both our best contribution to America and a treasured freedom that America has given to us. We treasure it best by remembering that we were once a minority sect on the fringes of society, and maintaining the resolve of our nation’s first president, “. . . to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.”
For many faith communities across America, religious liberty has been challenged with deadly and terrifying force in recent days:
A gunman opened fire at a Sikh gurdwara, killing six.
A mosque in Joplin, Mo. burned to the ground.
An Arab-Catholic church was vandalized in Dearborn, Michigan.
An Islamic school was hit with an acid bomb in the Chicago suburb of Lombard.
A Texas man was charged with threatening to bomb a mosque in Murfreesboro, TN.
Now is a good time for those in this country who profess to follow Christ to take hold of the rights they cherish, together with Jesus’ command to love our neighbor and strive to be the presence of Christ to those who long for the same freedom we cherish. If everyone is not free to worship without fear of attack or persecution, then none of us are free to worship. An attack on the religious freedom of my neighbor is an attack on the freedom of us all. “And who is my neighbor?” said the lawyer to Jesus.