I pulled out onto U.S. Highway 101 a few days ago, trying to negotiate the difficulties of getting onto the highway with the recent increase in vehicular traffic.
I was not yet up to speed when a large pickup truck quickly came up behind me. Impatient with my pace, its driver pulled into the other lane and rapidly accelerated by me; as he passed by my side window, he was shouting and shot his fist out at me, with its middle finger extended vertically in obvious anger.
I did not find it amusing.
Our society today seems obsessed with personal rights. How often I read and hear and view well meaning people demand they receive the full value of goods purchased at all retail outlets, or that they have a right to the unimpeded use of roadways or sidewalks, or that it is their right to equal and fair representation in local, state, and national governments, or that it is their right to be born or to die with comfort and dignity.
In our wonderful United States, the very fact we are so certain of what is sometimes called our "inalienable rights" - those not capable of being surrendered or transferred to others - is a testimony to the advancement of our society in defining, establishing, and protecting such rights. But they are rights that do not seem to apply to all people or to all societies equally. Every day we learn of the hard lives and real oppressions of people in this nation as well as in other nations. Some of us may be inclined to shake our heads in self-righteous judgment about how inferior those other places are.
No such rightsThe natural world seems to guarantee no such rights. Flora and fauna seem to live by a more impersonal law of survival. Whether or not a wolf or a river or a tree survives depends on how well each controls or adapts to their environment. There is nothing inalienable about their rights. It is a matter of survival of the fittest.
The same can be said of human beings. Much of the time, survival depends on how fit a person is - how vital, how attractive, how persuasive, how clever, how wealthy, how powerful he or she is -rather than on what a person's rights are. Yet we persist in believing that each of us has rights until we must go to court and wait exorbitantly long periods of time and spend exorbitantly large amounts of money to gain and to protect our rights. Or we can take matters into our own hands and probably land in jail or on death row in some penitentiary.
The hard facts of life indicate that our "rights" come primarily from individual and social goodwill, if they come at all. Often they come only with great sacrifice.
Among the Omaha Indians years ago, for example, there were no rights granted to women and children by their enemies. It was the practice in war time, when the Omahas were overtaken by foes, for the women to dig a hole in the ground and to conceal themselves with their children, covering up the opening with dirt and brush. There is a story told among the Omahas that a mother was overtaken by the enemy after she had placed her children in the "cache," but before she had time to cover the opening in the usual way. Desperate for a solution, she covered the hole with her body, pretending to be dead, hoping her enemies would not move her body and discover her children.
Instead of ignoring her, her enemies scalped her while she remained silent and motionless. Her children survived, but the ugly scars and psychological damage sustained by their mother remained as a constant reminder of the great cost of their survival.
So it is with our spiritual rights. We'd like to believe that a life in which we experience the greatest purpose and the deepest joy and the most lasting peace is our inalienable right. But the Bible claims that because of the way we think and behave, we are unable to achieve such a life. David prays in Psalm 143:2: "Don't try me in your court, (God,) because no one is innocent by your standards." Paul agrees but explains how God intervenes on our behalf at great sacrifice: "All of us have sinned and fallen short of God's glory. But God treats us much better than we deserve, and because of Christ Jesus, he freely accepts us and sets us free from our sins. God sent Christ to be our sacrifice. Christ offered his life's blood, so that by faith in him we could come to God" (Romans 3:23-25, CEV).
I wish we could live with one another with a bit more modesty and patience.
Doug Rich is the pastor of Pioneer Presbyterian Church in Clatsop Plains in Warrenton.