Rights and Responsibilities

“As a U.S. citizen and voter I have a right to know which candidate’s views reflect my best interest. Unfortunately, all I heard during the campaign was how the other candidates were unqualified rather than what the candidates will do for me.” These sentences came from a Michigan citizen who used Facebook last Tuesday to reflect on the Michigan Republican U.S. Senate primary. Peter Hoekstra defeated Clark Durant and Randy Hekman and will face incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow in November.

Most Americans are already dreading the next 3 months as yet another presidential election dominates the news. Not only will the candidates go up against each other day after day, with the media recording and commenting on every word, but social networks now provide a platform for anyone to weigh in, offer unfiltered opinions, and spew venom. Politics can easily degenerate into an unfortunate game where money, power, and influence eclipse the sole purpose of government, which is to serve the public good.

That’s why I was fascinated with the Facebook posting. When candidates focus on slandering their opponents rather than offering well thought-out perspectives on the issues, the political process is diminished. At the same time, when the primary criterion of voters is how the candidates will make their own lives better, liberty and justice for all becomes a mockery.

When students receive degrees in higher education, the president of the college or university usually says these words, “I confer upon you the bachelor’s degree (master’s, doctor of philosophy, etc.) with all the rights and privileges thereof.” Rights and privileges go together and are earned as a result of achievement. Sometimes, however, we hear another word slipped in with deliberate intention. “I confer upon you the bachelor’s degree with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities thereof.”

What a difference a single word can make. The purpose of a degree is not to receive but to give back. A degree holds little value if the recipient does not use it to make the world a better place. Likewise, a vote means nothing unless it is cast with the desired outcome of creating a country and world where every person has enough food to eat, shelter over their head, clothes to wear, and the opportunity to receive a good education and a rewarding job.

“Responsibility” means “the state or fact of having a duty to deal with something.” Public service is not about becoming rich or catering to the powerful and influential. Nor is it about increasing the already terrifying gap between the haves and the have-nots. Political leadership is a responsibility to govern in a way that levels the playing field so that all experience wholeness and shalom.

In the same way, voting is not about casting our lot with politicians who cater to our own self-interest. Voting is a corporate responsibility to select leaders who demonstrate the qualities of compassion, honesty, respect, and a passion for service.

I wonder what would happen if we took responsibility seriously in the church. What if we taught our children, youth, and adults that each one of us is a “little Christ” and therefore responsible for carrying on God’s redemptive work in the world? What if we tried to actually live as Jesus lived by pointing away from self to the common good? What if we were always conscious of how our thoughts, words, deeds, attitudes, and motives represent Christ?

What if the church insisted that everyone has a right to be loved by God – enemy and friend, lost and found, rich and poor, forgiver and forgiven, leader and follower?

Actually, becoming a Christian will not give us any rights that we don’t already have, except perhaps to vote on church business if we are a member. However, being a disciple of Jesus Christ will confer upon us great responsibility. How might our churches look if we acted upon our responsibility to throw open the doors of grace and hope to a hurting world?

• Our major focus would be to share the good news of Jesus Christ and make disciples

• We’d have as many opportunities for spiritual growth as we have committees and task forces

• The goal of every single program and activity would be to connect people with God through learning, service, community, and outreach

• Worship would become an exciting multi-cultural experience where the Spirit moves mysteriously and freely in our hearts, convicting, converting, and encouraging

• Servant leadership, rather than hidden agendas or power plays, would be the standard

• The church building would become a launching pad for outreach and mission to neighborhoods, communities, and the world

• The broken and the outwardly successful, the confused and the called, and the searching and the sure would experience healing and begin to look beyond self to a hurting world

• Pledging responsibility to support the breaking in of God’s kingdom in our world by our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness would become the most important promise we ever make

At the Yale University commencement in May 2012, President Richard Levin conferred rights, privileges, and responsibilities upon graduates by reminding them of their duty to contribute to the welfare of our world. Levin quoted a speech by Abraham Lincoln from Yale professor Steven Smith’s recently published book The Writings of Abraham Lincoln. Although President Lincoln is most often remembered for his opposition to slavery and courageous leadership through the Civil War, he was also an eloquent writer and speaker who emphasized corporate responsibility for the country’s health and prosperity.

In September, 1859, Lincoln gave a speech to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Association in Milwaukee where he made the argument that the nation’s abundant agricultural resources were one of its most precious assets. In the midst of increasing tumult over slavery, Lincoln did not lose sight of the fact that enhancing innovation in the use of our most valued resources would become a source of productivity and abundance in the United States.

Lincoln’s speech focused on infrastructure development and the education of farmers and ended with a stirring call to responsibility, “Let us hope … that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.”

Within 6 weeks of Lincoln’s election in 1860, the U.S. moved toward civil war. Yet, as President Levin pointed out, even as Lincoln guided our country with God’s help and a steady hand, he was able to work with Congress to approve a transcontinental railroad, the Homestead Act, the establishment of farms in the western territories, and the Morrill Act, which granted land for colleges (the precursors of our state universities) that taught agricultural and mechanical arts. It was these far-sighted and responsible decisions that set the stage for the explosive growth of the United States after the Civil War.

It is not possible for the President or Congress alone to “fix” our country. Nor is it their task to act in our personal best interest. However, it is their responsibility to create systems and structures that provide sustainable foundations for individual, social, and political health and happiness through an equitable distribution of wealth and resources. Our public servants are charged with calling out the highest and best in each citizen to embrace their rights and privileges by assuming responsibility for each other’s welfare.

It is also not possible for bishops, general boards and agencies, and annual conferences to “fix” our denomination. Nor is it their task to act in our personal or local church’s best interest. However, it is their responsibility to create systems and structures that foster the health and vitality of our local churches. Our leaders are also charged with calling out the highest and best in each local church, pastor, and lay person to embrace their rights and privileges by responsibly transforming our world into the kingdom of God.

The next few months will, indeed, be interesting as we prepare for another presidential election. The good news is that each one of us has the right to let our voice be heard. But as disciples of Jesus Christ we also have a responsibility to frame political discussion in the positive light of the gospel and to act in Christ-like ways toward one another.

Remember, this election is not about what is best for us personally. It’s not about the candidates. Nor is it about our country. It’s about Abraham Lincoln’s hope “that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.”

Blessings,

Laurie

One thought on “Rights and Responsibilities

  1. I really enjoyed this reading. Abe Lincoln saw ahead of his time by the grace of his God, even murdered in office he was able to get so many things in motion to move our nation forward, not backwards. So far, with all the media hype and accusations by candidates, I have see no real policy makers or leaders who can rely on God to lead them. It is sad in a country the size of ours, with an abundance of intelligent people, that we cannot find Godfaring people to run for offices. Lord Please Save Us from Ourselves.

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