The death toll from the COVID pandemic in the United States has passed a horrifying one million, a staggering figure on any scale, but especially when compared against other parts of the world. Analysis of mortality rates shows that Americans average surprisingly more deaths than many other parts of the world, due, in part, to the country’s halfhearted response, to inadequate testing, supply shortages, and the paucity of federal relief. But all of these factors are largely in the past; what is ongoing is the denial of COVID’s severity. This ingredient is surely the most egregious factor in our arrival at this devastating figure, as the magnitude of opposition to many of the safety measures that have been introduced has set the United States apart from many of her global neighbors.
A now infamous photograph freezes this antipathy in time. A woman leans out of a truck screaming at a medical worker who is blocking traffic. She is holding a sign which reads, “Land of the Free.” Photos since then of protests against lockdowns and mask mandates almost routinely show “Don’t Tread on Me” flags proudly displayed. That flag is meant to spiritually link together contemporary malcontents with the republic’s founders, as though any and all instances of mandates were tyrannical impositions.
Is it assured, though, that the question, “What does it mean to be tread upon?” would be answered the same way by both today’s protesters and the founding fathers? That is doubtful, to put it mildly. But beyond that question lies a more substantive matter. Suppose the answer was yes. Does that thereby establish that injustice is being perpetrated? For many, the obvious answer is yes, and this is verified by appealing to the language of rights.
What is injustice, then? Nothing more or less than the violation of rights. But this is a frivolous account of what is right. “Right,” in such a view, is little more than the exercising of “rights,” requiring a “non-interference” in others’ lives and interests. Nothing is owed to this or that specific person: what is owed to all is simply that nothing be allowed to impede each person’s ability to pursue their satisfaction, so long as others are not harmed without their consent.
Rights-speech tends to ignore substantive matters of responsibility by focusing instead on procedural questions of what an individual is or is not allowed to do. But how can it be otherwise when “rights” themselves are treated as foundational or basic?
“Rights” presumes an adversarial relationship between the members of a group and therefore seeks to adjudicate the competing desires of atomistic individuals. In this account of political existence, the primary reality shaping human interaction and relationships is not a set of obligations owed to others on the basis of their sharing in the image of God (for in classical liberal thought these obligations are nothing more than the implications of the social contract). And if the absence of inhibitions is the essence of freedom, then wherever this concept meets with even the slightest friction, agonism is the only possible outcome.
The problem which presents itself time and time again is that it is impossible to guarantee an outcome in which this friction does not manifest itself. There is no scenario in which “all” can exercise a prerogative simultaneously: there is always concession required wherever one undertakes an action—any action. Compromise is the only course of action which can provide the space for the exercise of duties and of preferences.
What is so vexing and perplexing about this furor over the supposed infringement of rights is that it has often been so nakedly bound up with consumption. This is not to claim that concerns over economic decline have never been voiced or are inherently invalid. These are concerns which have often been overlooked within the otherwise reasonable effort to halt the virus’s transmission. But tellingly, complaints over the loss of self-determination have tended to intertwine with emphasis on luxuries that cannot be enjoyed given pandemic restrictions as well as denials of COVID’s lethality—even implausible, regularly incoherent stories of conspiracy behind it all. And these are complaints that are impossible to reconcile with a Christian ethos of self-divestment.
This insistence upon rights as ciphers for our patterns of consumption is exactly how we are reared as Americans: to seek psychic wholeness by doing what we want, when we want, at whatever cost to ourselves or to others. We refuse to suffer the loss of everything we are—that is, what we have—and so we cling so desperately to the emblems of what we have collectively determined to be the good life and routinely dismiss consideration of the repercussions of our decisions.
Christian Yingling, a former militia commander, described protest against closures and restrictions with the language of necessity, explaining that “tyranny” was being exercised as “constitutional rights are getting viciously trampled right now.” Yingling, and others who would oppose these measures alongside him, are right to insist they have the means to care for their families. But he went on to assert that, “If it means I got to risk my health then so be it… and yes, even potentially the health of others.”
The denial of access is so commonly understood as a violation of rights in the American political imagination that concepts like “tyranny” consequently become banal. This man should attend to the needs of his family, but his circle of obligation—all of ours—is so much wider than this. The “right” to endanger others to serve those dearest to you is a pretense, one Jesus obliquely diagnoses in the Sermon on the Mount. “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:46-47).
A freedom which floats above social context—free from concrete relational bonds, free from the concreteness of being this person with this body, simply to choose in atomistic fashion—is no freedom at all. “When we choose our actions, we ratify, we identify with, some of our loves (deferring, or refusing to ratify, other loves that are thereby not expressed in action),” Margaret Farley writes. “Freedom, then, is possible not in spite of our loves and desires, but because of them—because they express who they are and present what can be chosen, because they do not always compel us to remain as we are.”1 Freedom is about our loves and their shaping, the reciprocal shaping of ourselves by those loves and those loves by ourselves as we choose.
The fact that so many of these protestors style themselves as acting out of Christian convictions gives the lie to their claims. For if there is one thing the Corinthian correspondence demonstrates, it is the incompatibility of Christian existence with the ethos of gratification and its demands. The Apostle Paul censures the Corinthian Christians for precisely this sort of clamoring after what they believed was owed them by right and reproves their rapacity by drawing attention to the freedom he embodies in his surrendering of privileges and preferences.
“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle?” he asks them (1 Cor. 9:1), before highlighting the rights to which he is entitled as an apostle, which he willingly forgoes. Paul’s practice of relinquishing his rights and his preferences flows out of the fact that his life is a participation in the life of Christ. It is on this basis that he admonishes them to the freedom of Christlikeness rather than the gnawing need of the fallen ego. Gratification is not the telos of the Christian’s existence, nor is accumulation. The failure to obtain it, then, is not a condemnation. Therefore, Paul insists, “we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:12).
The demand for self-concerned entitlement is nullified in the self-giving which grounds the gospel. Given the death and resurrection of the Son of God, the question becomes: So what? So what if you have been granted recognition by the city’s elites and are invited to an orgiastic banquet? So what if you have given the most to the church’s collection—is it really owed to you to have your name engraved here as a benefactor? Or for your preferences to carry more weight than others in the assembly? So what if you are of noble birth? Do you really think that entitles you to behavior that belittles the rest of the congregation? The normal system of entitlement is nullified in the assembly of those who follow Jesus Christ, as that system is a relic of an age that has died in his crucifixion.
What we have witnessed two thousand years later is thousands of people asserting their self-ownership regardless of the detriment it inflicts upon others’ safety and their own dignity. They have gone no farther than claiming the legality of what they want and have not heeded the principle to be dominated by nothing (1 Cor. 6:12). When we clamor for what we feel is owed to us without regard for consequences, we may posture ourselves as resisting domination, but we are in fact bowing to the domination of ourselves. What we imagine will give us freedom will always devour us when it becomes needful for the goodness of our existence. There is no freedom that is never without need. Substantive freedom in Christ is exercised within and in response to the ineradicable neediness that constitutes us as creatures. Freedom is the dignified acceptance of limits in which we prefer others, knowing that in Christ no good will be withheld from us or ultimately forfeited by us.
We must all recognize and resist the formation we receive every day as Americans. “You are not your own” (1 Cor. 6:19-20) is the decisive word those who would insist upon their rights must take upon themselves—those who accept mask mandates and vaccination just as much as those who resist them. For this judgment limits all self-interest and striving in whatever form it takes. To strive after self-possession is to presume a sufficiency no creature possesses: the ability to secure oneself over the abyss of non-being and to determine for oneself what is good and what is evil.
There are distressingly few Christians who recognize their self-assertion defies the other-preferring ethic of the one they claim as Lord. Instead, belonging to Christ seems to authorize a self-grounded priority over others, a complete and utter fallacy given the deferential shape of the lordship which interrupts humanity’s self-enclosure in sin to usher them in to genuine life. And repentance is not being exhibited here, because it goes unrecognized as necessary by thousands of Christians dangerously asserting that they are, in fact, their own.
Whenever two rights are combatively pitted against each other, the right with superior force to back it up wins out. When push comes to shove and the self curved in upon itself demands that to which it believes it is entitled, might establishes “right,” though it be a counterfeit right of egocentricity. And in this crisis, we are all losing, as new variants arise and cases surge.
If we are Christians, then we are called to live as those who simultaneously live within two worlds: one of scarcity, and one of superabundance. We are not to separate ourselves from the rest of the race of Adam and seek to enjoy the benefits of belonging to Christ as painlessly as possible. We are to disperse that with which we are blessed, for in doing so blessing is multiplied. The gifts of God are enjoyed to the fullest only in their being passed on and shared with others, not in their being hoarded.
Jesus illustrates this in the Fourth Gospel when he characterizes belief in him as a fountain of living water welling up in the believer (John 7:37-39). He calls people to drink from him so that water will flow out of them. Jesus’s gift of life is a gift of his Spirit which superabundantly overflows so as to give life to others. All that comes to us is only truly gained insofar as we are willing to share it with others. Genuine life disperses itself and will be replenished by the One who has life in himself, who gives freely without anxiety that something of himself will be lost in the process.
The rights that would be territorialized and fortified against sharing are not rights worth having, and until American Christians can recognize this, our actions are aligned not with the Kingdom of God, but with the aims of the powers of Sin and Death.
1. “A Feminist Version of Respect for Persons,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 9, no. 1/2 [Spring/Fall 1993], 197.