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Human rights, by their very nature, are doomed to be taken for granted

By Michael Webster

I don’t believe in human rights. Not the right to vote or the right to clean water, shelter, adequate food or whatever. Not the right to find room at the inn. It’s not that I don’t want people to have the basics of life and more. Of course I do. I just think that so-called human rights are an unnecessary detour from the very straight and narrow path to abundant life for all. And don’t even get me started on the silly notion of animal rights — I’ll agree not to eat other creatures when they agree not to eat me.

By their very nature, rights are doomed to be taken for granted. After all, they’re rights: intrinsically ours to do with as we please, ours because we deserve them. And so they are underused (the right to vote), overused (the right to health care) or outright abused (the right to free speech). At their best, rights are claimed or demanded for ourselves or for others, but always with the assumption that they are something we deserve. The inevitable result is an attitude of entitlement.

The Bible never mentions rights — righteousness, yes, and justice, too, but not rights. I’m surprised that our United Church has been so quick to adopt such a secular worldview. Perhaps we need to use the language of rights to make ourselves understood in public, but even at meetings of Presbytery, Conference and General Council, we toss around the concept of human rights as if it were our own.

The language of our faith is that of grace, love and community. In them is found all the motivation we need to strive for and achieve the goals of the human rights movement. More than that, as the Apostle Paul pointed out, grace has a staying power far beyond the reach of mere legalities.

Grace, by definition, is not something we have coming to us. In fact, if we were entitled to grace, it wouldn’t be grace. It is, to use less overtly religious language, an undeserved gift.

And that’s how I prefer to think of those things that others call rights — health care, a decent diet, honest elections, a long list of freedoms. They are gifts, and when I remember that, every day is like Christmas morning, full of wonder, surprise and gratitude.

Grace leads not to entitlement but to thanksgiving. I often grumble at election time about my choice of candidates, but I have never marked an X on a ballot without feeling profoundly grateful for the privilege — not the right — of doing so. A simple grace at mealtime reminds me not how deserving I am of my plateful of food, but how fortunate I am to have anything to eat. For those of us who celebrate Christmas as a holy day as well as a holiday, it is an opportunity to give thanks for God’s greatest gift, one laid in a manger, a child with no rights at all.

As we mature in faith, growing in gratitude for God’s grace, we increase our desire to give as we have received, to share our wealth of gifts, to broaden our community of privilege. The troubles of our world, whether they are in the Middle East, Africa or just down the street, will never be resolved by people demanding their rights. If we achieve peace and justice for all, it will be by building community, by expressions of love and by the giving and receiving of undeserved gifts. Therein lies my hope and, I believe, the hope of Christmas.

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