June 27, 2022

Rights vs Responsibilities

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As we approach the Fourth of July Celebration of our country’s Declaration of Independence from Britain, I have heard many people complain about how divided we have become as a nation. That is true. But in some ways, we have been divided since the beginning. The Continental Congress that adopted the Declaration was seen as a meeting between sovereign Colonies, and the representatives saw independence from Britain as the establishment of 13 Independent Nation States that would cooperate together. When the motion was made that in order for the Declaration to go into effect, the vote had to be unanimous, there was a tie vote: 6 for and 6 against (New York abstained). The president of the congress, John Hancock had to break the tie. He supported independence but now voted for unanimity. He felt that if some colonies wanted to remain British, while others were independent, it would be like a civil war on the continent. After much debate and many compromises, the resolution for Independence was adopted.

The Declaration ends with this statement: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” They recognized that they would need to work together to make Independence a reality, despite major differences that had nearly doomed the effort. That idea of working together has been important in the history of our nation. So has the “trusting in God”. We will never all agree on every decision of our government. But we will strive together “to form a more perfect Union” in the words of the constitution. Our founders saw the importance of working with people with whom we disagree to achieve more than any could achieve alone.

The first government of the United States was under the Articles of Confederation. This proved too weak to arbitrate disputes among the states, so a convention was called to propose a new constitution. Since part of this proposal was to establish a strong federal government, many were afraid that the new government would trample on what the people felt were their rights. After much debate the constitution that was submitted to the states for adoption did not include any guarantees of personal rights. Five states passed the constitution with few problems. It would take nine states before the constitution could come into effect. Four more states eventually passed the constitution with the understanding that a Bill of Rights would be added to the document.

So in the first congress, James Madison introduced a series of amendments that would preserve human rights. Trying to avoid contentious discussion on the floor, a House Select Committee (yes they have been around from the beginning) was appointed to hammer out an acceptable text. The committee proposed and the House adopted 17 amendments. The Senate reduced or consolidated them into 12 amendments. Since the passed bills differed, a House-Senate conference modified the 12 slightly before both chambers adopted them to submit to the states. The first had to do with the size of the House of Representatives. It was never ratified. The second said that no congress could pass a pay raise for themselves that would take effect before the next election. This was only ratified in 1992 as the 27th Amendment to the constitution. The other 10, ratified in 1791, became the Bill of Rights as we know it today.

Opposition to a Bill of Rights came from two directions. The first thought was that if you listed specific rights of individuals, you would almost surely leave out some that were important. The other was that stressing individual rights would mean people would be less inclined to work together to achieve the national unity needed for the nation to survive. We continue to operate with a fine line between rights and responsibilities. When people become more concerned with their personal rights than the good of the nation we suffer as a people.

The same is true in the Christian faith. We have, through Jesus Christ, been given freedom from sin. We have been given freedom from the guilt caused by disobedience to the law. But at the same time, Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” Jesus’ commandments are that we love God, and love our neighbor as ourselves, that we love as He has loved us. Out of love, we limit our own “rights” so that others may find the same freedom we enjoy. We are called to recognize that claiming “what is mine” or “what I deserve”, is subordinated to love of neighbor. When we do this we can work together, even with those we disagree with to bring about a greater good for all.