Sunday, March 04, 2012By Steven H. VanderLeest
People have rights. In the United States citizens have the right to privacy, the right to keep and bear arms, the right to free speech, the right to gather for religious worship, and the list goes on. There are international agreements about certain rights accorded every human (at least in theory, but often not in practice): everyone deserves access to clean drinking water, everyone deserves freedom from torture.
People have rights, but Christians often think about those rights not as much about what “someone owes me”, but rather in terms of responsibilities. What do I owe someone? How can I serve them? Rights are about treating others with fairness and equality. Such rights do not require absolute equality: while everyone deserves to be treated equally in certain terms (e.g., in the eyes of the law), there are other areas where inequality is not necessarily unethical. For example, we might consider it a moral obligation to provide food for all, yet we do not extend that obligation to providing luxury yachts to all. Where do we draw the line between need and luxury? In scripture, God repeatedly calls his people to care for the hungry, for the naked, for the homeless. So the line of our obligation at least extends to food, clothing and shelter. I think it probably goes still further. In the agrarian society of Biblical days, those that did not own land did not have the means to support themselves. The institution of the year of Jubilee every 50 years meant that families got another chance to own land and thus a means of getting by. This act of grace was couched in an expectation of justice. It was up to them to then do something with the land. If they were lazy—if they didn’t plant, till the soil, and cultivate, then they might become destitute again and might even lose their land (until the next Jubilee).
People have rights, but where do those rights come from? I think we grant others rights and thereby incur obligations towards them because people are made in the image of God and thus deserving of our respect and care. For our fellow humans, we have some moral responsibility to meet their basic needs: what some would call human rights. We are called to be Good Samaritans to a neighbor who is in need. When a neighbor is down on their luck we are called to give them a renewed chance to earn a living. However, today the Good Samaritan on a business trip is unlikely to be on foot—we are more likely to drive a car or fly to our destination. We still encounter a neighbor in need, but now that might be a homeless man we drive past or a girl we see on a news website that was injured during an earthquake. Today, technology has made more people our neighbors.
Today, our means of earning a living is tied not to land ownership but rather is related to their education, or to their access to reliable transportation, or to the technology they own. Technology has become a primary aide and sometimes an essential tool in providing food, shelter, health care, access to legal information, and access to job opportunities. Someone without reliable access to technological tools is often at a significant disadvantage. I wrote about this in equality in an earlier blog on justice, including a look at the divide that separates the digital “haves” and “have nots”. The picture for the blog this week shows a graphical representation of this divide by mapping out the percent of the population with reliable Internet access, country by country. One might say that Internet access is a luxury for the rich, not a necessity that is a human right for all. I disagree. Access to the web is not the only important technological tool, but I think it is one of the more significant ways to find a job today, find legal assistance, gather medical advice, and more. In this case, if only the rich have access to such a powerful tool, then the rich will get richer while the poor get poorer. In this map we can see our neighbors that are at a disadvantage in our globally interconnected digital age. How can we be a Good Samaritan to them today? What does Jubilee mean for us and for them in a modern world dominated by digital technology?