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Putting Your Rights Aside to Serve Others

A few weeks ago, when Dzhokhar Tsarev, the youngest brother of two suspects, was captured for bombing the Boston Marathon, a public debate erupted about the type of rights he was afforded.
For days, authorities hesitated to read him his Miranda rights and debated whether to treat him as an enemy combatant.

When I taught history, constitutional law was one of my favorite subjects. That’s one thing about us Americans: We are passionate about our rights, even more passionate about defending them, and we debate what these rights mean for others and ourselves.

An intriguing question arises, however, when we ask whether some of the rights we are most passionate about might hinder the gospel and the spread of God’s kingdom agenda on earth.

What if our very rights – and the self-autonomy upon which those rights are founded – keep us from moving ever closer to the heart of God and, in turn, to the needs of others?

In the early church, a question of rights arose as a hotbed issue when it came to community.

Back then, new Christians came together and wrestled with what it meant to be a Christian; it seems they fought over how to wield honor, privilege and prestige (their very rights) in this new family of faith.

Conflict erupted and divisions spread.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul confronted these issues and reminded the churches – and the factions therein – that Christians belong, first and foremost, to the one “body of Christ.”

Paul argued that if anyone had a right to engender allegiance and get his way, it was him. He was their founder, teacher, leader and, above all, last of the apostles who actually saw Jesus.

Yet, Paul approached them from a different perspective. He did not throw his hat in the ring for power, but turned power on its head and gave up his rights to claim their allegiance.

“If others have a rightful claim on you,” he wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:12, “do not we still more? Nevertheless, we have not made us of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.”

In other words, Paul led by example and put aside his rights in order to minister to the Corinthians on their terms. He saw the value in meeting their needs right where they were.

Like Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve, Paul made himself “a slave to all” (1 Corinthians 9:19) and became “all things to all people so that [he] might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23).

Paul’s challenge to the Corinthians doesn’t mean that they – or we – give up fighting for rights in the public sphere or let injustice prevail.

Rather, Paul was trying to subvert the self-autonomy that stirs a self-serving undercurrent in which our rights exist.

Baptist missionary hero Lottie Moon (1840-1912) gave up her “rights” to live among Western “civilized” women in her time in order to dress like the Chinese to whom she ministered, thus saving thousands of souls in China around the turn of the 19th century.

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), who could have easily written a check to missions or served the poor in New York on the weekends, gave up his “right” to live the American dream. He moved to the roughest neighborhood in New York – Hell’s Kitchen – to live and serve people whom society neglected.

I can’t help but think of the nurses, teachers and caregivers in our communities who give up their rights to serve others. 

Many of them neglect a comfortable and convenient life in order to do jobs that many do not want to do. Some, especially caregivers, put entire goals and dreams aside to serve loved ones.

So, the next time you debate a friend about your rights and fragile freedoms, keep in mind that, at the end of the day, God expects you to take your place, fulfill your ministry and live out his calling even if it means putting aside those rights in order to be “all things to all people.” You, too, might just save some.

Joe LaGuardia is senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Conyers, Ga. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Baptist Spirituality, and is used with permission.