Upon what basis do we determine a right?
Where is the empirical foundation upon which rests the right to free speech, the right to security of the person, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, etc?
What is a right in the first place? There are human rights, animal rights, ecological rights…are their any rights that transcend these groups to encompass all?
A human right is a supposed universal value protecting people and groups from certain constraints and against certain attacks.
A most basic right might be the right to life. Still even this most basic right becomes complicated by questions immediately. What is life? At what point is a human considered ‘alive’ and worthy of the right? If a human being takes the life of another is his own right to life forfeit?
The narrative of Cain and Abel is one of the oldest examples we have of a human rights conflict. Cain unjustly and with malice and intent takes the life of his brother Abel. Interestingly God responds not by removing Cain’s right to life but rather by limiting his freedoms in other areas and specifically marking him in such a way that others would not take away his right to life. In this example we find that God’s response (and therefore model of response) to murder is the offer of mercy and grace. There is still punishment but it is designed to limit Cain’s opportunity to murder again and frankly to make a bold statement that while Cain is a murderer God is not. (I will not address the other narratives of God throughout the Bible that seem to have God authorizing and encouraging murder as it extends outside of the scope of this piece).
Today however we do not have a God that descends to Earth to arbitrate such rights conflicts on our behalf. It has been left to us.
In the absence of God humanity in its various and wonderful forms has established human authority to take divine place and arbitrate. Ostensibly people have attempted to exercise impartial and God-like loving judgement but of course this is impossible given our nature in comparison to how we define God (regardless of culture).
We take what we have in terms of our sacred texts and attempt to extract laws and protections but are immediately hampered by our inability to interpret without bias and instead create a conflict laden codex that, while it protects some, destroys the perceived rights of others in the process.
Nevertheless this is generally how it has been for millenia now – culture groups have defined their laws which were created essentially to enshrine certain rights as designated by God(s) (depending upon culture) and maintain those rights which would evolve slowly as a result of jurisprudence over time but still maintain their core essence.
Ultimately these rights could not be contested because the power of God(s) represented by King/Emperor/Ruler stood behind them with all the might of the military behind them and a cultural majority that supported these rights.
And so it has gone for quite a while. Might has served to determine right. Might enshrined by fear and propped up by a cultural majority. Conflict would occur when two empires or kingdoms and their differing rights would run up against one-another and the victor enshrined their rights over the loser…or, as was the case with Rome, allowed the loser to maintain their own rights so long as they did not conflict with the primary rights established by Rome which extended over the entire empire.
There are periods of relative peace but these generally only happen when the power of the ruling class is so large or all-encompassing that the consequences of rebellion far outweigh the potential benefit for the group that might strive in such a direction. Where we are now however is very different. The authority that has enshrined and driven certain rights is diminishing and in such an atmosphere rises an environment of division and, increasingly, the need to “choose sides”.
In the Romantic era with the rise of modernism we saw revolutions throughout Europe which were pre-figured in the Reformation as the lower classes/peasants rose up over an increasingly abused system of laws which enshrined the rights of the rich and powerful. In the Reformation the repressed classes were empowered by knowledge and used, the Bible, the very foundation of the laws that abused them, against their oppressors by re-interpreting (or reforming) it to reveal that the originally intended rights of all people (equality for example) had been diminished or hidden by the avarice of those entrusted to protect those same laws.
With the empowerment of people in the western world through knowledge released in the Reformation there was a re-birth of philosophical inquiry available to anyone. Knowledge was pursued with gusto and embraced by the common person so long as it further supported an equalization of power between the regular classes and those in authority (clergy, royalty, military). This eventually and inevitably led to the overthrow of monarchy in France and Russia followed by the United States whereupon democracies were reborn and rights of equality, liberty and happiness formed the foundation of all rights.
These democracies arose and established/enshrined various rights in the same way all rights had been previously – in the absence of God they were cemented in the power and might of the cultural majority, so established by having violently overthrown the previous regimes.
And thus the cycle has continued.
There has never been (to my knowledge) a society where all cultures and people groups have had their rights equally enforced and protected. There is always a cultural majority whose rights strive for authority over all others. It does so naturally out of an instinct to survive.
Today in the west (Canada, the United States and Europe) we find ourselves in the middle of a revolution. The aging and largely corrupt old regime is falling to pieces around us. Built ostensibly on Judeo/Christian values it is really simply the former modernist post Reformation system that used those values to prop up their own personal and cultural preferences over the old system.
This new revolution does not seek to recycle Judeo/Christian values anew…it seeks to eradicate them completely (something it will find hard to do sine those same original values have sprung from human nature even if the core of them was revealed by God or placed on human hearts by said same God).
In the absence of a system to reform all culture groups or people groups will exercise the power that they have to form the basis of the new system, whatever that may be. Like drops of oil on water, like-minded groups will gravitate toward one-another in an effort to consolidate power and rise to the top of the head whereupon their values will be enforced over all others.
Interestingly this has been going on now for about 100 years or so, slowly and surely. Then on September 11, 2001 something happened to detour the path that the west had been on. Another culture group from the east asserted itself in the actions of a few and conflicted heavily with the west through the crashing of four jets, three into powerful symbols of western authority.
With this event (which I believe will be considered the true beginning of the 21st century and perhaps the third millenia as well) the fading and crumbling edifice of modern western authority saw an opportunity and re-established power by asserting itself and its Judeo/Christian values in staunch opposition to the eastern invaders. By defining the event in broad and sweeping cultural terms and using ancient language such as ‘crusaders’ and ‘infidels’ the Judeo/Christian power-base in the west successfully cast the east and Islam as a common enemy behind that only they could fight. The smaller and emerging western culture groups stopped scrabbling for authority and fell in behind the older and more established leader they were attempting to overthrow in order to fight this new common enemy.
Now 14 years later this historical anomaly is waning and the Judeo/Christian west is facing destruction from within once again so that a new authority might rise, whatever that might look like.
In this cold revolution certain evidences of out with the old and in with, in with..while with whatever can position itself to get sucked into the vaccum first really…are being seen. Old Judeo/Christian abortion laws rooted in an ancient understanding of life have been struck down in favour of nothing right now. Literally nothing. There is no law against abortion of any kind in Canada. This vacuum cannot last forever – sooner or later a cultural perspective will win out and assert its interpretation of right and life into a new codex of laws. The fact that none has yet suggests that there is no such group yet.
Further to this, ancient Judeo/Christian definitions of marriage are being torn down in favour of a broader interpretation. I am not lamenting this but merely attempting to state what is going on.
As each brick is pulled from the old structure the entire edifice becomes weaker and it is only a matter of time before the thing comes crashing down in an uncontrolled fashion.
What will replace it? Some think that whatever it is it has to be better than what we have. Still what we are seeing fall apart has a thread that runs back almost 4,000 years in western human history. We may not like what replaces it. How does one build a new foundation without using the bricks of the old?
Rights. Human rights. Rights, no matter how universal we pretend them to be, no matter how rooted in the trancendent God we believe in – rights have always been established with human might. This will not change although the nature of such power may. Perhaps the next revolution will be won on the power of an idea…intellectual might over sticks and stones…but this takes time and patience and re-education.Make no mistake – in order for one group’s set of rights to win out in the end, other groups must be crushed…history has shown us this; it has shown us that we are not wise enough to develop a system where all perceived rights are protected and enshrined.
As a side note one should see the very revolution we have been in reflected in the popular culture of our day with films like The Matrix, The Hunger Games, A Clockwork Orange, V for Vendetta, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, etc. all focusing on revolutions of sorts; the overcoming of an ancient evil in favour of a new good (or at least anarchy in the case of A Clockwork Orange).