Are you ever awestruck by all the good that surrounds you? Do you ever look around, or think back over your life, and just wonder how you ever deserved any of this? Some parts of life defy imagination. They seem too good, but still they happen.
Finishing college and starting a job has motivated me to reflect on how I got here, which has in turn brought on this recurring feeling of post-factum incredulity. The series of steps starting with a high-school mission trip to India and ending with this job in Cambodia involve so many factors outside of my control that, even though this is what I’ve always wanted to do with a degree in international business, I can’t say any of it was part of my plan. In light of that, I’m thankful things have turned out the way they have. But I also feel that somehow I don’t have a right to them.
John F. Alexander, a late pastor and theologian who spent the last years of his life in intentional Christian community, writes a little something about rights. In his book Being Church: Reflections on how to live as the people of God, he takes some time to critique the Western value system which he identifies as FIRE: freedom, individualism, rights, and equality. He recognizes the good that they have brought most developed nations, but maintains a different vision for the church. He writes: “the opposite of rights is grace. So in rights-based discussions of racism or gender roles, Christians can only participate Christianly if they first reject rights language and the worldview it expresses.” (This reminds me of a post by Kessia Reyne.) Rights, he argues, foster competition instead of cooperation, and by their “self-evident” nature remove any room for discussion. A rights-based perspective doesn’t leave much room for grace or gratitude.
Try meditating on these verses from Philippians for a minute if you need to think about this more:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Would you call this a rights-oriented text, or a grace-oriented text? Or is this some kind of false dichotomy?
The condition of disadvantaged people around the world is not something we can ignore. Particularly in our world of stark contrasts between abundance and lack, I firmly believe we have the responsibility to use every resource we have in the best possible way. As the ethicist Peter Singer puts it: “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it.”
But I don’t think, anymore, that rights-based approaches are the best way to do this. Talking about rights is an effective way to stir-up passion for a thing (if there’s anything a person will stand up for, it’s rights), but to accomplish complete reconciliation, we need more than righteous indignation; we need love, grace, and gratitude.
If we’ve received more than we could ever imagine, what would we be but the unmerciful servant of Matthew 18 if we refused to extend that same grace to others—even to the oppressors–whenever we can?
What if, this Thanksgiving, we understood the basic components of our lives as gifts instead of rights? Food, safety, movement, education, property ownership—these things aren’t offered in some places. And what if we decided to provide a few of these basic gifts to someone else, instead of increasing our own abundance with a new Black Friday deal? How thankful are we?
Here’s a video from Peter Singer’s organization on the impact a few dollars can have.