Thursday, April 30, 2015

God given rights

Protesting against various government actions or laws is nothing new.  In fact, you might even call it  tradition in America, part of the founding of our country.  From marches organized to shed light on a problem, to demonstrations against established policy, to specific reactions to specific instances, Americans have exercised our civil rights to free speech and to assemble since before our founding.

As is true of all people who observe protests without participating, individual reaction and the reporting of these events, depend greatly on one's own perspective of the group and its method of protest, and the actual topic of dissent.  Clearly, the recent reaction in Baltimore to yet another death of a black man at the hands of the police, is viewed by most people, including myself, as an inappropriate response to a tragic situation.  We acknowledge the right of people to be angry at police abuse, but disagree with violence as the vehicle to express this anger.  As is so often the case, a legitimate complaint is overshadowed by the reaction, hence the root of the problem is not addressed.

Perhaps I am wrong in saying this, but it seems that during the Obama Presidential years, there has been an increase in the sentiment that our rights originate from God, not the government.  Whether the upsurge of this belief is related to the misinformation that the president is a Muslim, or merely that, like all Democrats, he is portrayed as proponent of BIG government, especially as it is perceived that BIG government functions by chipping away at our rights, it seems that this sentiment is much more pervasive now than during President Bush's 2 terms, even though provisions of the Patriot Act, which was enacted during his presidency, are considered by some as the most blatant example of infringement of our right to privacy in the history of our country.  

I do not mean to say that the phrase God given rights, or inalienable rights as they are referred to in our Constitution, is something new, only that its use seems to be on the rise.  Clearly, should you have the time and the inclination, research on this topic would produce information and input ranging beyond Aristotle to the ancient Zoroastrian religion, through the Middle Ages when the Magna Carta was used to combat the "divine" right to rule, and culminate in the Age of Enlightenment when minds such as Luther, Locke, Hobbes (among many others) postulated on the concepts of legal rights, natural rights, the difference between them and their source. 

At the end of the day, the question seems to be, what commonalities can be found among this large volume of information.  And, in practical terms, what are we willing to sacrifice in terms of our rights in order to function in a society which includes a myriad of interpretations of what those rights are and what they mean.

For instance, once born, the right to life seems universal.  By definition then, any version of slavery should contradict the right to life as someone under the yoke of slavery does not have the freedom to conduct his life as he wants.  Yet, many of our founders were slave holders.  They considered their slaves as less than human, hence not covered under the inalienable rights they declared existed.  (Or, to be cynical, they knew that slavery, while inherently wrong, was an important ingredient to the economic well being of the times). 

Assuming though, that we have moved on (evolved?) on slavery, the next common tenet seems to be the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, i,e, doing what you like.  Contrary to what might seem obvious, doing what you like is a great responsibility, because it assumes that in doing so you do not impinge upon someone else's rights.  I want to listen to loud music late at night, yet I understand that my neighbor has the right to a good night's sleep, so either I sacrifice my right to loud music at night or I move to a home without neighbors.  This might seem like a simple example, but imagine how this thinking pertains to marriage laws, gun laws, acts of discrimination that one's religion seems to uphold, what to teach our children, how to form our government.  It is so much more complicated than holding a sign at a rally.

Frankly, I am both a huge believer and complete non-believer in the concept of rights as given by God.  A huge believer in that I advocate the least amount of restrictions on one's time on earth to understand our uniqueness, and common ancestry with all other earthlings, to understand how we can optimize our talents while helping others do the same, and to figure our what it takes to be the best person possible while leaving the earth a better place once we are gone.  If there is a creator, I would like to think that philosophy would be acceptable. 

But more likely, we have been left to our own devices.  The rights we create to live for and live by, are our own creations.  Aligning them with god, generally results in rights that are parceled to those who follow a particular religion, or worse, away from those whom that religion has determined to be outside their god's circle of love.  

And, as for our rights not coming from government, but from God, it would be comical, if it weren't so commonly misquoted.  During the vast majority of our history, most humans have existed at the whim of the person, family, or group with the money, power and might.  They were ruled, at best, where ruled denotes some measure of consideration to their needs.  Remember, while philosophers may have grappled with the concepts of freedom and liberty through history, the idea of a government formed with those tenets as its base, is very new to humankind.  You might even say we are infants in terms of our experience with the ideas.  Does that mean that god decided to wait a couple hundred thousand years before deigning us with those rights, or more likely, did it take our species that long to arrive at the point where we were civilized enough to recognize the truth?

Remember that even today, 2015 years since the demarcation of time from BC to AD, tens of thousands of years since the great civilizations of the Far East and the Americas, there are governments that still divide its citizens into those with rights and those without.  Understanding that only through the rule of law where the law protects the weak, the disadvantaged, those without resource and influence, and through the creation of governments which uphold those laws, can our rights as citizens of a society, and as individuals within that society, be granted, and more importantly, defended.


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