Some time ago a number of people — I among them — were troubled by a cell phone TV ad that projected the idea that, “I need, no, I have the right to be unlimited.” The disturbing aspect for me was the extent to which the ad seemed to portray our current society with a growing, invasive attitude that one’s individual rights, whatever they may be, should take precedence over all else.
More recently, hearing about the several court and state legislative decisions related to carrying concealed weapons in public places (including university campuses and church properties), the discordant refrain of the “being unlimited” song resounded again. Are the foundational values of moral conscientiousness and mutual responsibility being obscured by the “I have the right to …” syndrome? How incompatible is the “no limits” attitude with that of “loving mercy, doing justice and walking humbly with God”? Should the enduring principle of loving my neighbor be subordinated to my constitutional rights?
My problem revolves around the practical and ethical consequences of this insolent mindset. At some point, in the process of living among other human beings, we must face the inevitable tension of the priority of our rights (my rights in contrast to your rights) and what we will do to determine how the matter will be settled. If this potential confrontation could be defused by a simple flip of a coin, and you and I were both content with the way the coin landed, we could go our ways and get on with living.
But then, this would mean we were imposing limits on our “unlimitedness.” If I insist on being unlimited, that will necessarily intrude upon your freedom to be unlimited, with ensuing conflict being the result. Such a conflict will then need to be resolved by other means, such as whoever is stronger or has more resources or whoever has more, bigger or more effective weapons, concealed or not. Surely there is a better way.
If I really believe universal human rights are legitimate, I must allow those rights I claim for myself to be accessible for you as well. As long as we live among other people and hope to live peaceably in that context, some self-imposed limitations not only will be expedient but mandatory. Who has the right to more water when drawing from the community well with limited capacity?
“If I really believe universal human rights are legitimate, I must allow those rights I claim for myself to be accessible for you as well.”
In contrast to the “unlimited” position, there are alternatives to be considered. Yes, I have my rights, and I will insist upon my right not to promote that cell phone ad mentality for the good of us all. I will insist upon my right, when appropriate, not to use my right of free speech for the better good of us all. I will insist upon my right not to bear arms and not to carry a concealed weapon for the greater good of us all. I will continue to insist upon my right to advocate for the inherent human rights of the least advantaged and the disenfranchised in the interest of the larger good for all of us.
What if I choose to stand my ground and insist upon my right to be — limited, helping to make the profound concept of “liberty and justice for all” a reality rather than a mere sentimental slogan?
Arville Earl and his wife, Shelia, were among the first international missionaries appointed by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in its early days. They served Albania and Macedonia and now live in High Point N.C. This column first was published at BNG on April 27, 2014, and has been adapted for current readers.
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