Rights (and Wrongs?)

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels

This month I wanted to look at an issue that is becoming more and more of a problem, and that was how we regard our “rights”.  Demonstrators at a protest want to get their message across.  Sometimes it works and sometimes the message gets lost in the noise and heat.  When I read an article/watch an item in the news about someone, or something, how do I respond?  Am I glad they’re protesting, or does it make me sad or mad. Do I jump to conclusions, adding one and one to make two, or more likely, three? 

How do you respond to the nurses strikes, junior doctors strikes, teachers strikes, rail strikes, university lecturer strikes, Just Stop Oil protests, CND, Animal Rising, etc.?  I suspect that there will be a variety of levels of support.  What actions of the protesters are you happy with, what make you uncomfortable, and what would you have nothing do do with? If I am at a protest, what is it that determines how I behave?  What informs my moral compass about what I do?  Where do I draw the line that limits my behaviour?  For me, it is my application of what I understand to be the teachings of the Bible, but if you are a person without any faith in a deity, how is your own moral compass anchored?  What is it that moderates your behaviour? What stops you doing harm to others, and why is that?

What am I free to say, and what can’t I say?  Here in the UK we have laws that theoretically protect us from “hate speech”, though I suspect the truth is that we are not so much protected, but that the offender is punished sometime after committing the offence!  Hopefully! Obviously, when writing for this blog I try and be careful and measured about what I say, because there have been times out in the real world, when I have said or written something quite innocently, and somebody else has misunderstood what they thought they heard or read, and this was completely different to what I thought I had said or written. 

However, the internet these days is very different.  People think they can be vicious and vile, with absolutely no consequences, because they assume they can get away with it — and largely they do.  When I was misunderstood, it hurt really badly, and it sundered relationships and trust, so I now redouble my efforts to try to be fair, even if I disagree. I may still make a mistake in the future, but I hope not.

 I asked ChatGPT to define First Amendment Rights, and it responded by saying: “The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects certain fundamental rights and freedoms, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances.  These rights are essential to the functioning of a democratic society, as they ensure that individuals are free to express their opinions and ideas, seek and receive information, and engage in peaceful protest and dissent.  The First Amendment is often seen as a cornerstone of American democracy, and its protections have been interpreted and defended by the courts for over two centuries.” 

Why, when I live in the UK, use an American idiom?  I used that because so much of our culture is drip-fed from the USA.  Our news bulletins are full of reports of what Trump/De Santis/Biden/Twitter/Musk have said, as well as rulings from the US Supreme Court.  The influence of the rulings in the Supreme Court around Roe v Wade have encouraged and emboldened UK Christian groups like the Christian Institute to try and make similar progress here.  We also have issues around the so-called Trans debate, where the US is taking a more hard-line attitude in some Republican States.  In the last year we have seen that too, drip-fed into our own culture and churches.   It seems to me that society is more anti-Trans than it was 3-4 years ago.  Furthermore, we have seen how the QAnon/Facebook/Twitter disease of questioning truth spread here several years ago, and it doesn’t just affect our national culture, but again, our church cultures as well. We have sadly become a post-truth culture.

I went on to ask ChatGPT to define Free Speech.  It responded: “Free speech is the right to express one’s opinions, thoughts, and ideas without censorship, restraint, or fear of government retaliation or persecution.  This right is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and is considered a fundamental component of democratic societies.  Free speech encompasses a wide range of forms of expression, including spoken and written words, artistic and cultural expressions, and political and social commentary.  It also includes the right to receive and access information, as well as the freedom to listen to and consider alternative perspectives and ideas.  While the right to free speech is considered a fundamental right, it is not unlimited and may be subject to reasonable restrictions in certain circumstances, such as when it poses a clear and present danger to public safety or national security.
In the UK, freedom of expression is considered a qualified right, which means that it may be subject to certain limitations that are deemed necessary in a democratic society. For example, hate speech and speech that incites violence or promotes terrorism are criminal offenses, and may be subject to prosecution.  The UK also has strict libel and defamation laws that provide protections for individuals against false and damaging statements.”

In the last few years, we have seen the erosion of respect for people, exemplified by the attitudes of former President Trump, and the Republican Party.  My personal hope is that Trump never again gets anywhere near the White House.  There are a whole raft of comments he has made that illustrate his disdain for women.  Then there has been his totally wrong assertion, without any evidence, that the last Presidential election was stolen.  Indeed a few days ago we had Fox News being ordered to pay out a huge sum to the US voting machine company Dominion, because Fox News had wrongly alleged that Dominion’s voting machines had helped rig the 2020 election in favour of Joe Biden.

So much of what happens in America is widely reported here in the UK, and the disease of down-valuing truth has spread here too.  We have seen how economical our own former Prime Minister Boris Johnson was with the truth.  I commented on a few of his lies in my January Blog, “New Year – A New Hope?  Maybe‽”, where I also mentioned a site set up to list Boris Johnson’s lies, which is always worth a read!  Suella Braverman, our current Home Secretary is no better, given her appalling lack of respect for refugees.  She was forced to resign as Home Secretary to Liz Truss because she had used her personal email account to send a Government document, but then got the same job back a few days later, when Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister. Recently, she talked about how There are 100 million people displaced around the world, and likely billions more eager to come here if possible.”  That is utter rubbish and unbecoming of someone holding such high national office.  She knows she is lying, and that only a few thousand will ever come here, but repeatedly makes inflammatory comments anyway. The number of refugees taken in by the UK is significantly lower than in Germany and France, per head of the population, and nothing like the scale African countries put up with when there is famine or civil wars. “The United Nations estimates that more than a quarter of a million people will cross into Chad alone in the coming weeks and months if the fighting continues.” And we have politicians bleating here about having to take in a few thousand refugees, and refusing to set up safe routes where they could be processed in France, and in other places, thus turning every refugee into a criminal if they somehow get here. It makes me ashamed to be British.

The comments, whether it be from Trump, De Santis (who I haven’t really mentioned, but is widely regarded as Trump-Lite), Johnson, Truss, Braverman or whoever, are simply not acceptable from a Christian perspective.  The comments don’t meet the Biblical standard because they lack truth and integrity, cause hurt and harm, and are not constructive – read on! Yes, I will defend the right to “freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievance” because I believe them to be Gospel ideals, but I must also add caveats.  We don’t get a free ride to say and do anything “because it’s my right!”, since we also have responsibilities.  I believe we should be known as people with integrity, who fact-check what we hear before passing it on.

So, let’s me turn to the Bible.  I might have been having a bit of a rant, but I want to anchor what I have said with what we are taught in the Bible.  Firstly, there are two similar passages:

1 Corinthians 6:12 — 12 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial.  “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything.”

1 Corinthians 10:23-24 — 23 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial.  “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.  24 No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.”

The fact that these comments with very similar wordings, are repeated twice in the same book, indicates the importance within which Paul felt they should be held.  When we claim our rights, we should not be focussed on ourselves, but on how others are affected.  Paul also talks of the requirement to be constructive in what we do. That is a key requirement, so for me, any protest that is destructive will be very difficult to justify. There is absolutely no scriptural case for claiming any rights if others are harmed in giving “me” those rights.  The Bible is very clear throughout its writings that we have responsibilities to our neighbour.  In the time of Moses there were laws about not moving territory markers, and what you do if neighbours livestock strayed onto your land.  Jesus went on and taught about our attitude towards our neighbours… (Matt 19-16-19; Matt 22: 34-40; Mark 12:28-33; Luke 10: 25-28, and this teaching was echoed by Paul, when he repeated and applied Jesus’ words in Romans 13: 8-10.)

Jesus goes on from those passages to make it clear we have responsibilities to our enemies, not just that we should respect them, but that we should show love to them: Matthew 5:43-48:

43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that?  48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus teaches something similar in Luke 6: 27-35.  How different is this attitude to that being taught to us by our leaders, both here, and in the States.  How different to the bitter and surly response of Dominic Raab to being found out for bullying staff on many occasions, and instead tried to turn the tables and allege that some civil servants have become activists.

Much earlier in the Bible, Moses tells us how to treat others with dignity.  If someone has no money to use as security for a debt, and offers you their cloak, you must return it before dark so they can sleep in it.  Another verse tells you that you can’t take the millstones (neither of them) as security, because they use them to grind corn, and feed themselves.  A further verse talks about  not being too thorough when you are harvesting (See Deuteronomy 24: 6, 10-15, 17-22).  I kind of think that tells fishing vessels that scour the seafloor how utterly wrong they are!  Obviously, there are so many more verses you can go to, but that is just for starters.

In all of this we are to respect those we disagree with.  Even if we face someone we disagree with on a fundamental level, we are called to show respect.  For one thing, when has shouting at a person ever changed that person’s mind?  I truly mean that: when has it EVER changed their mind?  Have you ever truly changed your mind after someone shouted at you? Someone might have got what they wanted by bullying and fear, but their victim hasn’t lost the argument, it’s just that the bully has demonstrated that they aren’t clever enough, and haven’t got the intellect to be able to win their case by arguing rationally.  On the occasions when someone has shouted at me, all it has done is make me resentful and determined to dig my heels in more deeply — and clam up, to protect myself, until I could extricate myself.

To use another example: even though I strongly disagree with JK Rowling’s attitude in the Trans debate, there is absolutely no way she should have been the target of those extremely vile, threatening, and offensive Tweets, regardless of what she said.  I certainly can’t, and won’t post, any links to make that point.  If you can’t take my word for it, you’ll have to do your own background check, but it’s not nice, so I recommend you don’t.  At the same time, she was wholly wrong to make her own comments at a moment when she was furious – that’s never a good time to use social media. 

If you must use social media, don’t use it when you’re angry, tired, late at night, or after you’ve been drinking.  If you want to say something late in the day, leave it till the following morning and ask yourself whether it really needs to be said.  Maybe if you’re a person with a Christian faith, you also need to ask yourself whether you’d post this if you could see Jesus sitting next to you as you press “Send/Submit”, or whatever. 

Another problem with social media is that there is a limit to the number of words you can use and it’s tough to be clear in only a few words. Then you have the relative anonymity people hide behind, that gives them the courage to make the appalling comments they would be unlikely to use, if they were face-to-face.  As I say, because of the restricted word‑count, it is difficult to refine a nuanced position, so it is like reading the headline to a story, instead of reading the full article.

I believe we should stand up for our rights, but much more importantly we should be defending the rights of others, especially those who can’t defend themselves.

I think as I end, I want to finish with the words of Jesus in Matthew 25 because this is Jesus truly explaining how we should care for each other:

35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

37 ‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  39 When did we see you ill or in prison and go to visit you?”

40 ‘The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

The spirit behind those words is like the spirit behind the words of Micah 6: 6-8, verse 8 of which says:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

How do we then apply those passages to the world we each live in?  Aha!  That’s your job to work out!  Your world and who you bump up against, will be different to mine.

All the Bible verses were quoted from the New International Bible, and most will be from the Anglicised Edition.