The air in the [u]nited States is soaked with the talk of rights - rights to property, speech, privacy, etc. To some this is proof that America is the people that God loves more than any other (before, now, or after), that mankind under the benign influence of individualistic, evangelical, Calvinistic Christianity has reached its fullest maturity here and can improve no more. But this is not the sense one gets when looking through the Holy Scriptures and the life of the Church.
Consider first the teachings and ensample of our Lord Jesus Christ. He did not plead His right to a fair trial before Herod or Pilate. His Enfleshment itself, His sufferings and tortures, His hanging on the life-giving Tree, were all a refusal of His ‘rights’ as God (Phil. 2:5-11). And He teaches everyone to live the same way.
And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me (Luke 9:23 KJV).
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you (Matt. 5:10-12 KJV).
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.
And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
(Matthew 5:38-47 KJV).
The Holy Apostles continued these commandments of their Master’s in word and deed. In the face of persecutions by Jewish and Roman authorities, they did not organize political protest movements, but instead taught their spiritual children such things as these:
I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men;
For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.
For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour . . . (I Tim. 2:1-3 KJV).
Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme;
Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.
For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men:
As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.
Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.
. . .
For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:
Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:
Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously:
Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.
(I Peter 2:13-17, 21-24 KJV).
. . . and when they had called the apostles, and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name (Acts 5:40-41 KJV).
. . . exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22 KJV).
The Christians of the days after the Apostles likewise did not protest their cruel treatment before the palaces of Roman or Persian governors and emperors. Rather, if they were sentenced to torture or to death, these holy mothers and fathers embraced their dooms as precious riches.
We see this in the life of St Ignatius the God-bearer of Antioch (+ 107):
In his Epistle [to the Romans], St. Ignatius asks Christians not to try to save him from death. «I entreat you, do not unseasonably befriend me. Suffer me to belong to the wild beasts, through whom I may attain unto God. I am God's grain, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found pure bread. »
In the life of St Polycarp of Smyrna (+ 167):
Placed on the pyre, Polycarp lifted his eyes heavenward and gave thanks to God for finding him worthy to share with the holy Martyrs of the cup of Christ.
(From entry for 23 Feb.)
In St Alban’s life, the first martyr of Britain (+ 3rd hundredyear):
When the judge perceived that he was not to be overcome by tortures, or withdrawn from the profession of the Christian religion, he sentenced him to be beheaded. Being led to execution, he came to a river, which was divided at the place where he was to suffer with a wall and sand, and the stream was very rapid. Here he saw a multitude of persons of both sexes, and of all ages and ranks, who were doubtless assembled by a divine impulse, to attend the most blessed confessor and martyr; and had so occupied the bridge on the river, as to render it almost impossible for him and all of them to pass over it that evening. Almost every body flocking out of the city to see the execution, the judge, who remained in it, was left without any attendance.
St. Alban therefore, whose mind was filled with an ardent desire to arrive quickly at his martyrdom, approached to the stream, and, lifting up his eyes to heaven, addressed his prayer to the Almighty; when, behold, he saw the water immediately recede, and leave the bed of the river dry, for them to pass over.
And in the lives of many, many more holy martyrs and confessors.
Talk of rights is wrongheaded for Christians; the grasping after them separates us from one another. Rights are a refinement of the heaðen feudalism that has plagued Western European thought and life for more than a thousand years now, which teaches that every man is at war (on some level) with every other man for earthly dominion (Dr Vladimir Moss, An Essay in Universal History: Part I, pgs. 268-72; available HERE), that he must build a bulwark to shut out others so that he may protect his life and what he has gathered for himself. It is a fairly continuous line from the armed knights in their castles to citizens in constitutional republics armed with a vote (Ivan Kireevsky, ‘On the Nature of European Culture and on Its Relationship to Russian Culture’, On Spiritual Unity). The ‘other’ in any of these ages is looked at with suspicion, as one who might take away something from the ‘I’ who owns it.
The Orthodox Church teaches something very different (see, e.g., Metropolitan John Zizioulas, Being as Communion). The individual who cuts himself off from others is not a complete person. Alone in his home with his gadgets and other comforts, he is nearly dead (and such an one may be alone despite the presence of others in the home with him, as we see in the modern phrase ‘alone together’). A man or woman only becomes a full person, fully alive, by emptying his life of his own will for the sake of others:
Only by renouncing his own content, freely giving it up, ceasing to exist for himself alone, does a person fully express himself in the single nature of all. Renouncing his separate good, he endlessly expands and is enriched by everything that belongs to all (Vladimir Lossky, in Fr Dumitru Staniloae, The Experience of God, Vol. 2, Brookline, Mass., 2000, p. 98).
Þis is precisely what we see in the life of the Most Holy Trinity, to which we are to conform in every way. The way of love, of giving, of self-emptying, of humility, is the way of the Christian, not the way of demanding rights from others, the way of pride, self-love. ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35 KJV). ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ’ (Gal. 6:2 KJV). ‘It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak’ (Romans 14:21 KJV). ‘So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do’ (Luke 17:10 KJV).
One could say soþlice (truly) that the prideful demand for rights (the right to equality with God, the right to the knowledge of good and evil, the right to eat of any tree in the Garden) led to the Fall of our first parents (Gen. 3:1-6) and to the train of evils that has followed upon it.
Granted, there are nuances to this general rule, as we see, for ensample, in the life of the Holy Prince Lazar of Serbia who led his people into battle against the Turks to defend their homeland. But the West’s obsession with rights shows that its soul is sick: It is more heedsome of the Kingdom of Man than of the Kingdom of Heaven. It has forgotten the words of the Blessed Savior:
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Mark 8:35-37 KJV)