We are a nation founded upon the principle — among others — of unalienable rights. The Declaration of Independence boldly speaks of truths that are “self-evident”, that everyone — men, women, children — is created equally. This verb choice leads to the noun form as well — to be created surely implies a Creator — and the Declaration makes this assertion explicit as well: “…that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
With such a high-minded prelude woven into our national identity, it is no surprise, then, that we have long been a people concerned with our individual rights. Advocacy on behalf of an individual’s or a people’s rights is seen as the highest good for many Americans. Even when those rights have not been satisfactorily upheld for certain subsets of our citizenry in our history — and in some cases, such rights were flatly denied — a course correction has usually followed, if not in the form of reparation then at least in the collective consciousness. We may not be able to right all of history’s wrongs, but we are certainly mindful of what it means to be “on the wrong side of history.” And such political and social self-awareness is one of the hallmarks of our time.
And so it is that on the week of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth — a national holiday — our news cycle has been dominated by stories pertaining to these “unalienable Rights”: the ugly episode at the Lincoln Memorial involving Black Hebrew Israelites, a Native American elder, and students from Covington Catholic School; and the Reproductive Health Act passed in New York state, ostensibly protecting a woman’s rights in the event that Roe v. Wade is eventually overturned.
When the Covington video first surfaced, the viral reaction was swift and emphatic: the white teenage male smirking in the face of a Native American protester, surrounded by a crowd of raucous and similarly-snarling white teens, was surely the latest expression of long held racial prejudices, white privilege genetically encoded and passed down to Generation Z. New footage seems to have tempered some of the initial outrage, making the ugly standoff a bit more complicated to parse. (And the ensuing interviews with all the major players have only made clarity all the more elusive.) And yet some still seem bent on vilifying these students not only for their actions, but for their MAGA hats, as if that were a crime in and of itself. Inevitably, the other side rails back: Does a 16-year-old teen have the right to stand wherever he wants? To wear the hat of his choosing? To smirk or not to smirk? Of course, the issue is entirely more complicated than that — in the Trump era, any such conversation is weighted down with years of border wall / travel ban / nationalism / privilege baggage — but at the heart of it all is an undergirding understanding of individual rights.
Almost forgotten in the Covington story is the fact that the students were in the nation’s capital to attend a March For Life rally. But with the signing of the Reproductive Health Act, abortion is once again at the center of our national dialogue. The RHA keeps abortion legal in the state of New York even if Roe v. Wade is overturned, but also decriminalizes abortions performed after 24 weeks of pregnancy if the life or health of a woman is at risk or if the fetus is not viable. The law removes abortion from the state criminal code, allowing nurse practitioners, physician assistants and midwives to perform abortions without threat of criminal prosecution. The bill is hailed as “groundbreaking” with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo saying, “Today we are taking a giant step forward in the hard-fought battle to ensure a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her own personal health, including the ability to access an abortion.”
Once again, the issue is an individual’s rights — in this case, a woman’s right to choose.
My thoughts on both of these issues are sure to be unpopular, even divisive in our quick trigger, outrage culture. Our echo chamber mentality surely works against us here. In the age of Fox News and MSNBC, we rarely, if ever, listen to voices that differ from our own. We grant our ideological opponents no concessions, no points, no nuanced perspective. So I doubt very much that I will change anyone’s mind by offering up my opinion here. I’m not under the impression that what I have to say is revolutionary in the least — and you certainly will find others who will articulate this same point in more lucid and compelling ways.
But as a Christian, it seems apropos to be reminded of the example of Jesus. I simply write this as a reminder to my brothers and sisters in Christ, first and foremost. But I am just naive enough to believe that the ethic promoted and lived out by Messiah would prove wise even in times such as these.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
This is known as the Kenosis Hymn, based upon the Greek word kenosis, here translated as “made himself nothing.” It carries a simple meaning of “emptying.” In the Incarnation, Jesus — who was by right divine — empties himself and takes the form of a servant. He set aside the rights inherent to his divine nature and willingly chose the path of love. Paul looks to Jesus as the model of self-emptying love, one who willingly forsakes his own “rights” for the sake of love. Kenarchy becomes the new politics of love Jesus introduces, a refusal to use coercive power to seize power.
Jesus does not “grasp” for power — here the Greek word harpagmon, which is a contrast to kenosis. A better translation would be, “Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be used to his advantage.” Instead, he emptied himself of such compulsions through humility and love.
I would argue that our national dialogue could use some kenosis right now.
In our clamoring to one-up each other over which side is right and which side is wrong, a little bit of kenosis would actually go a long way.
I’m sympathetic to these Covington students — not because I think they’re in the right (I don’t) but because they’re kids. And kids do stupid things. And what happened at the Lincoln Memorial last weekend was a stupid thing. (I’m just grateful I didn’t come of age in the cell phone era. Lord knows I did plenty of stupid things when I was sixteen years old. And I’m pretty sure sixteen-year-old-me would’ve been right there in the scrum if the circumstances presented themselves.)
This is not to say “boys will be boys.” Yes, I know that their actions were part of a larger narrative and yes, I would agree that the behavior of the Black Hebrew Israelites was egregious and seemingly kickstarted this whole ugly episode. But the call to embody kenosis, in addition to honoring Jesus through faithfulness to his example, would have defused this situation before it escalated and became a viral phenomenon / political firestorm. Rather than standing firmly on the grounds of defending their “rights” (as is our cultural obsession), I would hope that a Christian education would be forming students more fully in the kenosis way of Jesus. When observed through this lens, the Covington Catholic story can be understood as nothing less than a failure of Christian witness.
With regard to the Reproductive Health Act, I cannot hail it as “progress”, despite the exultance of Governor Cuomo who directed New York landmarks to be lit in pink to celebrate the RHA’s passage. I side with those who would argue that the fundamental unalienable rights of the unborn are being further violated with this legislation. Advocates seek to couch the discussion as simply a matter of women’s rights, but this is only one piece of the conversation. In our secular wisdom, we have now determined that a fetus only qualifies as a created being at the moment of birth, that the unalienable rights endowed by the Creator only take effect when one emerges from the birth canal, not before. The most vulnerable among us — the unborn, those who cannot advocate for themselves, those who have no vote and no voice — have even fewer rights now under the RHA.
Rather than celebrating, we should lament. The rights of our weakest and most vulnerable citizens are NOT, in fact, unalienable, it would seem.
But again, kenosis. It was that kenosis spirit that prompted Jesus to relinquish his divine right and to subject himself to life in the flesh and death on the cross. His kenosis mindset is to be ours if we claim to follow him: as Paul says, have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. A me-centered, rights-based perspective is the cultural norm. But for those shaped by the way of Messiah, an others-based spirit should be the norm. And for Jesus, this others-based perspective always focused upon “the least of these.” Such an others-based, “least of these” perspective would force us to consider the rights of the unborn in addition to a woman’s right to health.
Again, I am under no false notion that my opinion will change the minds of the masses. But I do pray that this kenosis spirit would continue to grow — among God’s people, among others — and that it might find a place in our discourse about our “rights” as well as our discourse over that which is right.