This is my right, a right given by God,
To live a free life, to live in freedom.
Talking about freedom, I’m talking about freedom,
I will fight for the right to live in freedom.
– Paul McCartney, Freedom (2001)
The United States is a country built upon concepts of freedoms and rights. The first ten amendments of our national charter, the Constitution, are collectively called the Bill of Rights. These amendments outline the basic, fundamental rights American citizens can expect, and we grow very indignant when we feel these rights are trodden upon in any way. Many are even willing to take up arms to defend these rights, willing to shed blood so our basic secular liberties remain untouched. We hold these rights on a pedestal, as if granted by God Himself, but, in doing so, are we setting up an idol that supplants Him in our lives?
Get up, stand up; stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up; don’t give up the fight!
– Bob Marley & the Wailers, Get Up Stand Up (1973)
I’ve written before that, wish as we may, God doesn’t endow us with the unalienable rights as prescribed by the Declaration of Independence; He does not protect our freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, or our bearing of arms as outlined in the Bill of Rights. He does not guarantee that we will never be tried or punished unfairly or cruelly, nor does He protect us from quartering soldiers. These are rights as man sees them. God, however, asks us to crucify self and sacrifice personal desires to walk after Him (Galatians 2:20, Matthew 16:24) – this would include our desire to fight for our secular rights.
Take the apostles, for example. How do they view the violation of their personal liberties in the New Testament. After all, throughout their ministries, they are tried unfairly; they are beaten; they are unjustly imprisoned; they are threatened. What attitude does one like Paul or Peter express in these situations?
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
– Romans 8:35-39
Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.
– Acts 5:41-42
Despite stoning, mobs, murder plots, and more, we never see the apostles fight back. Think of Paul who narrowly escapes death in Acts 9:23-25, who is driven away by a mob in Acts 13:50-51, who is stoned in Acts 14:19-20, who is wrongfully imprisoned in Acts 16:16-24 (and refuses to escape when presented with the chance), who again faces a mob in Acts 17:13, who is at the center of a riot in Acts 19:21-41, and who knowingly walks into a trap in Jerusalem in Acts 21. This is just a portion of his trials, but at no point does he retaliate with force. At no point does he organize protests or demonstrations. His rights and liberties as a Jew, as a Pharisee, and as a Roman are secondary to his status as a Christian.
During the life of Christ, we see only one example of an apostle using force. In John 18:10-11, Peter raises his sword to defend Jesus’ life and liberty. Jesus’ response is to tell Peter to sheath his sword. In the parallel account in Matthew 26:51-52, Jesus even rebukes Peter for the violence (“Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”), and Jesus heals the one Peter injures according to Luke 22:51. In Revelation, as Jesus speaks to churches facing Roman persecution and oppression, He never advises them to fight for their rights. He never encourages them to rise up against the Roman government. Instead, He simply tells them to endure and overcome (Revelation 2:7, 2:10-11, 2:17, 2:26-28, 3:5, 3:12, and 3:21).
Finally, take to heart what Jesus teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5-7 is a lesson selflessness. When wronged, do not wrong in return. When asked for kindness, do more than is expected. When harmed, do no harm in return. Do all things in humility and gentleness. Refrain from judgmental attitudes. Specifically, take Matthew 5:41 for example – the passage we often refer to as “going the second mile.” This is a reference to a common practice of a Roman soldier approaching a civilian and compelling them to carry their baggage for a mile. It was an affront to personal rights. It was a form of oppression! Jesus says not to fight back, but to walk with that soldier an extra mile.
Those in secular conservatism often complain of government-sponsored “entitlement programs.” We, however, behave just as entitled when we treat our secular rights as being equal to our spiritual liberty in Christ. The only freedom our Lord promises is freedom from sin (Romans 6). The only right we have is to cast our cares upon Him as children to a father (Romans 8:12-17). The only liberty we have is that found in His word (James 1:25). When we allow our passion for our secular rights and liberties to cloud our minds and affect our Christian conduct, we effectively make them an idol. We covet them, and we seek to find protection, guidance, and comfort in them. We replace the will of God with a Bill of Rights, and we therefore replace Him with another golden calf.