The American Revolution was the growing pains of the colonies looking for freedom from England. We all know the story, but what comes up the most is the seemingly Christian language in the Declaration of Independence. “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”.
It sounds Christian on its face, given the culture of America, but this line of thinking comes from Enlightenment thinkers in Europe during the 18th century. These philosophers were a mix of religious and not, and both groups came to the conclusion that people have inherent rights and value. While I see this as a religious move, it does not require any religion, let alone Christianity. The writers of the Declaration of Independence followed this line of thought as they wrote up their grievances against the British monarchy.
The American Bill of Rights
Fast forward to the Constitutional Convention. Following the Constitution, there were an additional 10 amendments, commonly known as the Bill of Rights. Simply put, they are:
- Free Speech (press, expression, assembly, and religion).
- Right to bear arms.
- The government cannot force citizens to house soldiers.
- The government cannot search and seize personal property without cause.
- The right to a fair trial and the ability not to incriminate oneself.
- The right to a public trial with witnesses and accused representation.
- Trial by jury in Federal cases.
- No cruel and unusual punishment; reasonable bail.
- The rights of the people listed in the Constitution are not all encompassing.
- The rights of the Federal government are only those listed in the Constitution.
“The church in every western power after Constantine has at some point succumbed to the Siren seduction of empire and has conflated Christianity and nationalism into a single syncretic religion. Rome, Byzantium, Russia, Spain, France, England, Germany have all done it. Seventeen centuries ago the Roman church got tangled up in imperial purple. In the 1930’s the German evangelical church got tangled up in Nazi red and black. The Anglican church spent a long time tangled up in the Union Jack. Today the American evangelical church is tangled up in red, white, and blue. That this kind of entanglement has been a common failure of the church for centuries doesn’t make it any less tragic.”
– Brian Zahnd, Postcards From Babylon
Jesus’ Bill of Rights
If we want to set up Jesus’ Bill of Rights in the same way the American Bill of Rights is set up, we should go to the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5, we see Jesus talk about what makes a happy life.
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
-Matthew 5: 3-9, The Message
The Christian Law
Jesus’ guarantee to his followers is one of self sacrifice and embracing of loss. It flips power on its head, comforting those who are subjugated by either the powerful or circumstances they are in, while making those who are in power uncomfortable. The U.S. Bill of Rights which gives power to the people against their government – power to the powerless and control over who controls them.
There’s more to Jesus’ Bill of Rights in the Sermon on the Mount that isn’t included in the U.S. Bill of Rights, and what is missing is what makes it Christian.
It is the collective attitude that Jesus puts forth, in the Sermon on the Mount as well as throughout his whole teaching. It is the idea that we have to work together, sometimes sacrificing our own personal wants and rights, in order to better out neighbor.=
“And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
The Kingdom of God has two laws: Love your God and love your neighbor. What situation could come up where these two laws couldn’t determine right and wrong?
I’m not saying the U.S. Bill of Rights isn’t important. The First Amendment is what allows me the freedom to actually write this and post it online for everyone to see. What I am saying is that Christians have combined America and Jesus for too long and now it’s hard to see where the Bible ends and where the Constitution begins.
A Christian in America should be willing to give up our rights (Paul would say liberties) for a more Christian way of life – a life that puts our neighbors first.
The Bill of Rights is an individualistic document – I have the right for free speech, I have the right to possess a gun, I have the right for protection and privacy from the government. As Christians, we should reframe this:
My neighbor has the right to speak, to assemble, and to practice their religion.
My neighbor has the right to protect themselves as they see fit.
My neighbor has the right to have privacy and protection from the government.