Right, Not Rights

C.S. Lewis famously wrote of “men without chests.” A passing glance at the daily events, seen as filtered by our bestial media, would lead the sober observer to note that we have men without heads.

The American populous appears to be polarized between “Right and Left”, “Republican and Democrat”, “Black and White”, “Gay and Straight” and a myriad of other pseudo-fabricated dichotomies. However, on closer analysis, these bifurcations are rooted in the same groundless dumpster of enlightenment platitudes. Rather than two opposing forces, we have two cultural hamsters, forever running nowhere, on their epistemologically-shaky, historically-illiterate wheels. One of these opposing rodents may be generating more rpms, causing their wheel to shake and squeak, but regardless of the cultural noise created, they are forever trapped in their wheel of circular reasoning and myopic self-referentiality.

In order to begin the healing process and break free of this opiated circle, I propose that we should study Locke and Hobbes, in order that we may begin to dismiss and forget Locke, Hobbes and their enlightenment contemporaries.

One cannot turn on the dumb box and watch the nightly news without being audibly and visually assaulted with “Rights” stories. Stories of Gay rights, Black rights, White rights, gun rights, property rights, Women’s rights, animal rights. Everyday seemingly, some 500 underrepresented minority or majority group’s rights are being: violated, impeded upon, superseded by another group, ad nausem! The whole dog and pony show (or should we say hamster show?) is so oppressively tedious, predictable, monotonous.

The drudgery of this forever perpetuating conga-line of rights-talk is only accentuated and magnified by an ocean of journalists incapable of positing a single question capable of penetrating the surface issues of the day. Never are foundational principals questioned. They are assumed. When is the last time you heard a journalist ask, “These rights you are talking about, where did they come from? They aren’t physical, tangible, are they? You weren’t walking through Central Park one day when you stumbled over a pile of rights were you? Were rights preexistent to the big bang some 13.7 billion years ago? No, of course not, Mr./Mrs. Materialist. Rights have evolved over time, haven’t they? They have progressed, matured. But that would imply that rights can and must change. To steal from Nietzsche, they must undergo a trans-valuation, mustn’t they? And if these rights are in a continual state of flux, what gravitas can they carry if they are only the rights that govern this transitory moment? What force do they hold if they just happen to be true for the millisecond that is the cosmically insignificant blip of your fleeting joy-ride on this spinning top?” That hypothetical journalist would cause my heart to leap with joy.

But we don’t think like this. Rights are not only assumed, we assume the primary function of our civil arrangement is the protection and proliferation of these groundless rights. This way of thinking is ingrained in the minds of modern men. We have so long worn these cultural lenses that we are now blurry-eyed without them. Their removal leaves us disoriented, confused, angry. Too long have we born the cultural baggage of the enlightenment’s failed mythology.

But what was that mythology? Well, from 3,000 feet, it is the mythology of Hobbes and Locke.

Hobbes’ monumental political treatise Leviathan gave the modern world the quintessential materialist vision of political life. Hobbes begins with the idea that man is nothing over and above matter in motion. As such, he exists in a pre-moral state, and is entitled/has the rights to whatever he wants (that includes other people’s bodies). This overabundance of rights puts mankind in an uneasy state.  A state which Hobbes famously refers to as a “war of all against all.” And in this condition, man’s life is “nasty, brutish and short.”

According to Hobbes, in order to evacuate ourselves from, or to use the modern parlance, to progress past this unwanted situation, we must form covenants. We must abdicate some of our rights to an authority/leviathan in order to secure the bulk of these precious rights. Government’s fundamental role, then, is not only built upon, but forever will be the securing of rights.

John Locke piggy-backed off this Hobbesian idea, although he did so with a more cheery disposition, making his treatise more palatable to American sensibilities. He ornaments and embellishes Hobbesian political theory with lip service to “God” and “Natural Rights”, which made it possible for Hobbes to be smuggled into the American psyche.

The gravitational pull of Locke’s political theory, just as with Hobbes, is rights-centered. All men have the right to life, liberty and property. Government’s sole purpose becomes the preservation of these rights. Government becomes a glorified bodyguard. Protect my stuff! Make sure that the market is secure for me to pursue my right to an unlimited amount of stuff. Government is the stuff protector. It is this unenlightened, enlightenment mindset that precipitated the now famous quip from Slick Willy that the main job of the president is “the economy, stupid.”

This rights-based view of government has provided a diseased framework unsuitable for sustaining healthy cultural growth and development. It is a framework that would have struck Plato and Aristotle as a gross distortion of the fundamental purpose of government. Aristotle stressed that the primary purpose of government was to produce virtue! Government existed to protect your metaphysical not your physical stuff.  Government’s focus should be on what is right, not what are our rights! Plato and Aristotle both were quite willing, one might even say eager, to sacrifice individual rights if that is what was needed to produce a virtuous citizenry.

On closer examination, enlightenment “rights” provide for a “thin” culture at best, and evil one at worst. Rights without ethics is nothing short of lunacy. We, as autonomous human beings, have a right to be racist. We have a right to be selfish. We have a right to not help those in need. We have a right to ignore the orphan and the widow. We have a right to harbor hate. Yet, we OUGHT not do these things. A society of rights devoid of metaphysics is a preposterous state of affairs. Doing what is right must always take precedence over your trivial individual rights.

Christians should be the first people, the people most readily willing to shift the culture dialogue from one of rights to one of what is right. It is intrinsically un-Christian to view the world through the enlightenment lens. That is not our story. Our story is a story of reconciliation, not rights! Go read Paul’s letter to Philemon. Seriously, stop reading this now and go read the letter! It is only one chapter. Then come back and finish this diatribe.

Paul, whilst in chains, writes to Philemon, pleading that he receive Onesimus, a run-away slave. Philemon, in his day, had the RIGHT to have a run-away slave crucified. But Paul, saturated with the vision of humanity made different, made new, through the reconciliation of Christ, begs that Onesimus’ grievance be put on Paul’s account! Paul doesn’t care about his rights or Philemon’s rights; he is willing to bear the burden of a brother. Paul wants what is right, and what is right is the reconciliation of mankind. “For God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”

We, the new creation, have been entrusted with this message of reconciliation. We are to be ministers of reconciliation. And that, in many cases, will mean that we forgo our beloved rights. Rights must be sacrificed at the altar of reconciliation. Our enlightenment eyes must be switched with Pauline eyes. For your rights are not your own. They were bought with a price!