By Pastor Glenn Pease
Human rights is a major issue in our world today, but it is not a new issue. Even under the Roman Emperor men had rights and they were precious. The Apostle Paul was unjustly arrested. He was about to be beaten when he calmly asked the Roman Centurion in charge if it was lawful to scourge a man who is a Roman citizen and not condemned? His question changed everything immediately, and it sent the Centurion off to a higher authority to investigate. Paul's rights as a Roman citizen were about to be violated, and Paul stood on those rights and protested the injustice.
As a Roman citizen, Paul had a right to be treated with dignity until legally condemned as a criminal. Until this legal process had been completed no penalty could be afflicted upon a citizen of Rome. Technically he could not even be bound, and so when Paul made known he was a Roman citizen everyone involved was afraid, for they had violated his human rights. If Paul had wanted to, he could have pressed charges against them, just as we could today press charges for unlawful arrest.
Paul had a high view of the Christians responsibility to the government because he knew that it is only the government that can't assure the protection of our human rights. It is true that God will judge those who violate the rights of others, and who deprive others of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but the government is ordained of God to be the human agency whereby these rights are established and protected. Paul was proud to be a Roman citizen. It was not because the empire was perfect, but because his citizenship gave him rights that were vital to his personal dignity, and to his service for God.
We as Americans do not have to blind to our country's sins and weaknesses to be proud and patriotic. Our pride, like that of Paul, is to be based on the principle that government gives us our rights. The Declaration of Independence declared to the world this fundamental American principle, which is our precious heritage. It says, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Our nation, like the Roman Empire, may decay and become so corrupt that God's judgment will have to fall upon it, but, like Paul, we can ever be proud of the rights we possess as citizens.
Our love for our country is not an impersonal love for the land, or a blind love for its institutions. Our love is not just admiration for the beauty of its mountains, lakes, rivers and prairies, but it is a love for the beauty of its principles, which respect and protect the rights of people, and thereby give them a chance to be what God intends them to be. In many parts of the world people are not free to live in full and open obedience to God. In America we have this right, and we are free to be and do anything God wills for us to be and do. There is no part of God's revealed will that we cannot obey as citizens of this great land of liberty. We are truly independent of any authority that would restrict our obedience to God.
We live in a day when it is popular to expose the heroes of our history and reveal them to be men as sinful and fallible as others. None of this should shock the Christian, or cause a decline in their patriotism or admiration for the great men of our past. Certainly they were sinners as other men, just as the heroes of Israel were sinners who were guilty of some of the greatest follies. The Bible does not exalt men because they were perfect, but because they were loyal to what was right for the good of others in spite of their sins. Imperfect people can be dedicated to ideals, and they can even be willing to die for them. This is what makes them heroes. They are sinful people striving for what is good for all people, and that is what heroism is all about.
The great men of American history had bad tempers, bad habits, lusts, jealousies, and all of the weaknesses of sinful human nature, but they still choose to give their minds and bodies to the task of developing a system of government where all men could be equal, and where they could exercise their rights as being made in the image of God. Historians may rob us of our idealistic picture of the heroes of our past, but they can never rob us of the rights, which they gained for us. Our heroes are great, and our heritage is great, not because of perfect people, but because of sinners like our selves who lived, fought and died for what was good, just and right. A good Christian citizen is one who appreciates his rights, as Paul did his as a Roman citizen. We want to look at the 3 rights the Declaration of Independence lists.
I. THE RIGHT TO LIFE.
As the moon borrows its light from the sun, so the great documents of American history borrow their light from the Bible. The right to life is certainly a God given right. Jesus said He came into this world that men might have light and have it more abundantly. He is the author and sustainer of life, on the cross He won for us the right to live forever if we trust in Him. His atoning death is sufficient to cleanse us from all sin. Life is important to Jesus, and it should be important to all of us. Life is what Christianity is all about, and it is what the freedom of Americans is all about. Our Lord and our land-our Christ and our Country are both concerned about us having life. There is no conflict between the two. Our Lord wants us to live, and our land gives us the right to do so. The two are in perfect harmony. Our Lord wants us to live worshipfully, and our land gives us the right to worship freely.
We could list many areas of harmony that ought to make us glad and proud to be Christian citizens of our great land. Neither our Lord or our land compels us to live and experience the best each has to offer. They only make it possible. Jesus said we are to ask, seek, and knock, and he urged us to follow Him, but he does not compel. It is human nature to rebel against force. If someone told us we had to salute the flag every morning at 9 we would resent it. If we are told that we have to read the Bible every day at 9 we would also resent it. We don't have to do many things, but we are free to do them, and this freedom is part of what it means to have the abundant life.
Major-General Barton of the Fourth Motorized Division drove into a camp during a rebellion. All of the men had been ordered to crawl on their bellies while a foot overhead live bullets whizzed by from machine guns. The men refused and each man was subject to court marshal for disobeying orders. The General did not holler out orders, but instead he took off his coat, dropped to the ground and began to wiggle through the dust and the mud. He shouted to the men to follow him, and they dropped down and began to crawl behind him. He had given them an example and a choice, and the two together made them free. Our country doesn't always give us this freedom, but it often does, and our Lord always does. The result is we have a Lord and a land that respect our right to life.
II. THE RIGHT TO LIBERTY.
God made men to be free, and Christ entered history to set men free from the tyranny of sin and Satan. The cry of Moses has been the cry of all great leaders to the tyrants of history: "Let my people go!" Those men who signed the Declaration of Independence were convinced by the Bible and history that men should be free to choose the kind of government they would support. Men do not exist for the state, but the state exists for them and their welfare. The whole democratic process of government grows out of this right of men to have liberty.
It is of interest to note that God honors this right even more than does the government. We are not compelled to support the church. God gives us liberty to give in gratitude for His grace. He does not compel or demand, but he leaves us at liberty to choose. God respects our right to determine what values and efforts we will support. This kind of freedom puts greater responsibility upon us. In the Old Testament the tithe was like a tax. There was no choice, for it was a matter of law. It was no great virtue to tithe then because it was a legal obligation. No one is considered gracious today because he pays his taxes. But in relation to the church and charity we are free to give as God blesses. Giving becomes a greater measure of gratitude now under the liberty we have in Christ. In Christ and in our country we are at liberty to decide what kinds of values and movements we will support with our money and our time.
III. THE RIGHT TO PURSUE HAPPINESS
We need to take note of the fact that the idea here is not that all men have a right to be happy. They have the right to pursue happiness is the point. All have a right to be free enough to choose that direction in life that will lead to fulfillment for them. The army may take a violinist and make him a cook, but in our country as a whole a man is free to be a cook or a musician according to his talents and interests. No man has the right to be happy, for no one can guarantee that, but all men have the right to strive for those goals they are convinced will lead to happiness.
My friend Bob Johnson told of his days after finishing college. He was sitting around the house one day and his father said to him, "What are you going to do?" He replied, "I don't know, something will turn up." His father said, "Why don't you try your sleeves?" No one has the right to expect his dream to be handed to him on a platter, but every man has a right to role up his sleeves and pursue the goals he sets for himself.
It takes courage to live free, for there is always forces in the world that seek to enslave. The only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence was John Witherspoon, who was President of Princeton College of New Jersey. He had taught several other signers, and 9 of them were graduates of Princeton. When he took up his pen to sign it he made these remarks: "There is a tide in the affairs of men, a nick of time. We perceive it now before us. To hesitate is to consent to our own slavery. That noble instrument upon your table, that ensures immorality to its author, should be subscribed this very morning by every pen in this house. He that will not respond to its accents, and strain every nerve to carry into effect its provisions, is unworthy of the name of free man... For my own part, of property, I have some; of reputation, more. That reputation is staked, that property is pledged on the issue of this contest; and all though these gray hairs must soon descend into the sepulcher, I would infinitely rather that they descend thither by the hand of the executioner than desert at this crisis the sacred cause of my country."
It took courage to gain for us our precious rights, and it takes courage to exercise them. Only as we do so can we so live as to bring glory to our Lord and good to our land. Let us, therefore, live in liberty and pursue happiness.