When I was an undergraduate at DePauw University, I was part of a weekly Bible study group. The leader of the group once said that Christians have no rights, but that all of their “rights” are subordinate to Christ. After eight years, I still do not entirely understand his statement. At the same time, I can look at the statement itself and find good principles.
American society is often litigious and contentious. We are concerned about our rights and our dignity. But the New Testament says that there are higher principles. In I Corinthians 6:7, Paul says that a Christian should suffer wrong rather than take his brother to court. Jesus told his disciples to turn the other cheek in the Sermon on the Mount. In Christian morality, love for our brothers and our enemies is of higher value than us getting our due.
In a way, the same principle also appears in the Old Testament. For my weekly quiet time this week, I read Deuteronomy 24. The passage is about how creditors should treat the people who owe them. In the ancient world, creditors would do a variety of things to make their debtors pay. They would confiscate the debtors’ valuable belongings, or they would intimidate them in their (the debtors’) own homes. The Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East had laws that required the creditor to consider the debtors’ survival. For example, according to Deuteronomy 24, a creditor could not take the debtor’s millstone, which was necessary to make food. Every evening, a creditor had to return the poor debtor’s coat, which the debtor needed on a cold night. Deuteronomy 24 also required the creditor to respect the dignity of the person who owes him. For example, a creditor could not go into the debtor’s house to collect collateral, since that would humiliate the debtor.
In Deuteronomy 24, love of neighbor surpasses the value of getting paid back. On some level, I can understand why the creditor did what he did. He probably thought, “Maybe this guy should go without his coat or food for a while–THAT will encourage him to get off his hump and pay me back!” But the Torah teaches that respecting the life and dignity of someone else is more important than receiving one’s due.
At the same time, saying that people have no rights is going too far. The Old Testament does present a court system, after all, and it emphasizes the rights of victims and the oppressed. Without a conception of rights, the strong will walk all over the weak.
When should Christians assert their rights?