We have been hearing a lot in recent weeks about the tension between our rights as citizens and the restrictions placed upon us in the interest of public health and controlling the effects of COVID-19. The discussion is in many ways and exploration of the question that the teacher of the law asked Jesus that was answered by the story of the Good Samaritan: "Who is my neighbor?" Love of neighbor is at the heart of the Christian ethic and is easily the most radical and counter-cultural teachings in the realm of morality. Every nation and culture enshrines various ways of answering the question of what the moral good is, and no nation has every fully embraced Jesus' radical teaching that there are no boundaries on who we are to show love and concern for. In the case of our nation, the primary value has been expressed in the language of individual rights.
While it seems less the case in recent years, I remember that during the 90s and early 2000s it was common to hear a controversy about the ten commandments being displayed in public places throughout the country. This was often presented as a defining issue for our nation: would we be guided by God’s law or yield to the pressures of secular atheistic humanism? As a student of both Scripture and history, the assumption that the ten commandments held a significant place in American culture always puzzled me. The perspective put forth by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence 1776 and by James Madison in the Bill of Rights 15 years later, situated human rights squarely on the individual. They are a possession and a privilege that is to be jealously guarded by each individual and the documents serve as guardrails to let citizens know what they can reasonably demand from their neighbors, especially those elected to govern them. The Bill of Rights is addressed to Congress in order to limit its ability to infringe on the rights of citizens and therefore echoes the Declaration that presents armed rebellion as the ultimate means citizens have of ensuring their rights against an overbearing government.
By contrast, the Ten Commandments are framed as a statement of responsibilities that each Israelite has towards their neighbor. This is particularly true beginning with the fourth commandment in which Israelites are not only commanded to rest but are also commanded to ensure the rest of those around them (sons, daughters, male and female servants, sojourners, and even animals). The pinnacle of the law in Israel is expressed as love of neighbor in the context of ensuring that your neighbor's rights are not infringed (Leviticus 19). This subtle difference in posture is significant. The Bill of Rights encourages the culture of individualism that characterizes American society in which everyone is fighting for their rights in a way that often is competitive and ends up being divisive. As a result, our political engagement tends to view “winning” as protecting our rights rather than “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:2) The laws of Moses, echoed and amplified by Jesus and the Christian Scriptures, are a call to preserve the rights of others in a way that often means yielding our own advantages and rights. Jesus himself is the exemplar of this, who in Philippians 2 is said to have not clung to what were his rights and prerogatives in order to secure the good of others.
The goal of both documents is similar: securing the blessings of God’s shalom (life, liberty and the enjoyment of God’s good gifts in creation) for all people. The consistent tenor of Scripture is that that goal is achieved when we take responsibility for one another, recognizing our unity as humans. The tenor of the Bill of Rights and the culture it has influenced is that that is best achieved when everyone looks out for themselves. While the Bill of Rights is framed in terms of the reality of human sinfulness, Scripture calls us to lean into God’s redemptive purposes and live contrary to “business as usual”. As fallen humans, protecting what is ours comes naturally, while it takes a work of the Spirit to transform a heart to advocate for others in a truly selfless fashion.
So in these days of pandemic, as followers of Jesus, we should not be asking which of our rights are endangered and require our vigilance to defend. We should instead be asking, which of our neighbors are hurting and how can we seek their good regardless of what it costs us? We serve a Savior who sets just such an example and commanded that we should go and do likewise. May the church bear a powerful witness to that radical love in word and deed in these dark days.