The Gospel of Rights

At the outset of this post, let me note that it has taken on a different character than when I began to write. Initially I wanted to relate the recent college protests to a conversation about truth and rights, where those ideas come from, and how secularism can’t offer a sufficient answer to their questions. But I ended up making my way into the clouds, where I got stuck for some time. The point is this (and keep it in mind as you read): universities are in turmoil right now because for too long we have taught students that truth comes from within, and that an offense against that subjective truth is a threat to our personhood and dignity. How did we go astray?

Over the past few weeks, protests have erupted on several college campuses, with students calling for university-wide changes to combat racism, sexism, and other campus ills. The media have covered the protests widely and, as one might expect with college students, the demonstrations have been rather theatrical. Here is a rundown of some notable incidents (this is not an exhaustive list):

At Yale University, a faculty member (and Master of Silliman College) sent an email to students hinting that they should work out the issue of culturally insensitive Halloween costumes among themselves, and that the University would not police their costume usage. In response, the students demanded that she and her husband be removed from the faculty. The fallout from students was swift and severe, and eventually the administration caved to their demands.
At Mizzou, a couple of incidents of racists remarks and actions on (and off) campus led to students staging hunger strikes, sit-ins, and protests. Their main complaint was that the University had not done enough to combat racism and improve race relations on campus. Protesting groups demanded that the University Chancellor and President resign—which they did, rather swiftly. Notably, a student journalist who showed up to the protest site (to document and photograph the protest) was forcibly removed by a faculty member for violating the protestors’ need for privacy and “space”—on a public university campus.
At Princeton University, several students conducted a sit-in in the President’s office until the University met several of their demands, including removing Woodrow Wilson’s name and likeness from the campus, requiring “cultural competency training” for all faculty and staff, required classes on marginalized people groups, and a separate, dedicated space for black students on campus.
At Smith College, students staged a sit-in to protest racial tensions at their college, but would only allow sympathetic journalists to cover their story. All others were banned from the protest area.
And of course, there are many more.
Much of the media criticism of these events has been severe. Commentators have focused their efforts on the intolerance of today’s academic culture. College campuses are becoming a dangerous place for dissenting opinions. Students demand that Universities limit the scope of acceptable speech on campus. Mandatory cultural sensitivity classes. Race-based housing—all in the name of progress. (But demanding a “blacks only” space hardly seems like progress).

Ironically, these protests are the fruit of a secular worldview, the very thing that many of these students’ professors fought to implement decades ago. Hyper-progressive professors and colleges are reaping what they have sown—an autology of autonomy. A self-study of self-rule: look within, from whence your own individual law comes. Sometimes, though, the law that we create unto ourselves conflicts with the law that others create for themselves. And when competing autonomies collide, whose law controls? Who is right, and why? A secular worldview is not equipped to answer those questions with any clarity or conviction. Recent campus culture has only illuminated the main problem: when we sow the seed of autonomy, the natural fruit is an exertion of raw power—at the expense of the “other”—to protect that which is created by the autonomous.

Competing autonomic ideals breed power struggles, but secularism does not provide an adequate way to resolve them. That we no longer have an overarching moral principle to deal with the clash of ideals only exacerbates the tension. Which person’s individual law wins? Well, who’s to say? In the end what this posture gets us is straight-faced acceptance of moral insanity. And when we do not have a binding metaphysical and moral principle that governs us, we have to resort to raw power to determine who/what is right. Might makes right is a real thing when we are not governed by a fixed standard. So the real issue, in all of this, is rights and truth: what rights do we have? Where do they come from? What is true? And who decides what is true?

In the secular system, rights are given, taken, and protected only by those in power: university presidents, legislatures, Supreme Courts, mobs, etc. There is no other authority to which we may appeal. That’s how the Supreme Court can “create” a “right” to abortion in Roe v. Wade. Rights are “handed down” to us from a governing body, an “other” entity of man. So while the secular worldview teaches that we are a law unto ourselves, it simultaneously teaches that rights are given by other men. Those who are most powerful, culturally speaking, are the ones who give us rights. This strange mix of autonomy (self-law) and democracy (people-rule) creates a situation in which we expect the law we make for ourselves to be rights that are given and respected by others. In other words, I create a law for myself and then demand that those in power give me rights in accordance with that law.

But if rights are given to us by other men, then rights can be taken away by other men. And if that’s true, then our rights to life, liberty, and property are as secure as Anthony Kennedy’s choice of breakfast—which is to say not very. So when we perceive that our rights are being threatened by other men, we have no choice but to appeal to raw power to protect them. And in our culture, an appeal to personal victimhood is the rawest expression of power we have, because it cannot be challenged—empirically, objectively, or with any truth claim. The assertion of power is completely subjective, just like the autonomous creation of law. We end up taking a posture of victimhood in every instance because it ensures that the power is used to attain rights that coincide with our law of self. Thus, micro-aggressions and safe spaces. The only way to give, preserve, and defend rights in a secular framework is by the exertion of power.

In a biblical worldview, however, things are completely different. Upside down, even. Because in the gospel, our rights were secured not by power, but by weakness.

By Christ’s willing submission to the weakness of the cross, he secured for us (eternally!) all the rights due to us as image-bearers of God. Our rights have been vindicated and protected in the greatest way imaginable, yet it was accomplished by an exertion of weakness in human form. In Christ, we have secured life, liberty, and a promised land (property) that is sure, undefiled, unfading, and incorruptible. This is the good news of the gospel.

Our rights come from God, and they are given to us as a reflection of his character. This means that men are not capable of giving rights to us. And if men are not capable of giving rights, they are not capable of taking rights away from us. That’s why the Declaration of Independence states that the proper function of government is to secure those unalienable rights given to us by God. Remember: governments secure rights, they do not give rights. The latest protests merely represent the fundamental misunderstanding that governments and human authorities grant us rights.

In the same way, we cannot create rights for ourselves when we understand that rights come from God. This is a good thing. When rights come from outside of us (from God, as revealed in nature and Scripture), we are able to appeal to them as binding across nations, peoples, and time. Otherwise, we would have no authority (other than autonomy) to appeal to, and we end up with the problems showcased earlier. Because we cannot create rights for ourselves, we can claim that all men are created equal—the existence and authority of rights does not rest within ourselves; rather it comes from outside of us, binding us together under one authority. This does away with victimized expressions of power as a way to vindicate a person’s subjective truth: when truth comes from outside the person, then a person’s notion of victimhood must conform to what this truth is. Raw power does not create or validate truth.

But if rights come from God, and Christ secured these rights for us by his death, resurrection, and ascension, what is the result? The result is two-fold: it means we must hold our neighbor’s rights as sacred and hold our own rights loosely. We hold our neighbor’s rights as sacred because God gave them to our neighbor and they are reflective of his character. Men cannot lawfully take what God has given to another man, so we protect our neighbor’s rights as an act of obedience to the law of love. Yet we can hold our own rights loosely because they have already been secured for us, and nothing can take them away in the end. In other words, men cannot take away what God has already secured. So we need not worry that our rights will be taken away from us by men; they cannot, ever. Because rights exist outside of man’s authority, we can hold our own loosely, knowing that whatever we suffer here, our rights are vindicated and protected in Christ.

Look to Christ as our example, who had the right of equality with God, yet humbled himself to the point of death, in order that he might secure his neighbor’s rights. In doing so, he also secured his own place at the right hand of the Father. So in laying down his rights to secure the rights of his neighbor, he thereby secured his own rights in eternity. And we can do the same: we can lay down our own lives for the rights of our neighbors, and in so doing obtain the rights set aside for us in eternity. We will have life, liberty, and property in Christ, but only if we first lay down our lives for the life, liberty, and property of our neighbors. This is how the gospel shows us what rights are for. They are an agent of self-sacrifice, a way to lose your life that you may find it.

College campuses would do well to return to a similar conception of rights. With a focus on protecting the rights of their neighbors—instead of their own—first and foremost, university students stand a chance of returning to a culture of intellectual rigor, virtue, and the pursuit of truth. But this only happens when a people turn from the yoke of slavery to sin to the liberty of the gospel, where true freedom is found.