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What Right(s) do you Have? :: Counter the Culture Part 1

When I was a teenager I remember having this shirt with a Bible verse from the book of Romans emblazoned on it.  It showed a picture of a school of fish swimming in forward movement to one side of the shirt and then one, red fish swimming against this school in the opposite direction.  Surrounding that fish were these words of the Apostle Paul:

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2)

It was a clear and simple message.  If you’re following Jesus, you’re going to swim against the way the rest of the fish are going.  So get comfortable being uncomfortable and learn the way to be counter cultural.

It wouldn’t take much to convince a group of Christians that the Gospel is a counter-cultural message.  The call of Christ has always taken a “swim upstream.”  If we understand the stories of Jesus we understand that the mission of God in the world often stands against the values of the world.

And yet, there’s a problem with this t-shirt that I didn’t realize when I wore it proudly to school to declare my faith.

The problem is today I’m not sure who the other fish are or what values they represent?

What culture am I supposed to be countering?

To explore this question, I’m starting a series here called  Counter the Culture.  This is a discussion of the values that seem to counter the Kingdom values of Jesus.  This is a conversation about the values that drive our communities, our country, and our world systems today that don’t align with the way of Jesus.  I recognize these are rooted in my opinions, so they are little more than my own estimations about cultural values and Kingdom values.  I also recognize this is a conversation that won’t be exhaustive and could continue to evolve as our culture moves forward.  But for now, it’s a start.  It’s a move into the tension of the waters with eyes open that might possibly identify some of the fish and the currents we’re swimming against.

So let’s jump in.

What Right(s) Do You Have?

For the first conversation in this series I want to talk about our rights.  My rights, and your rights.

In the aftermath of so many recent news stories where the concluding option is to stand on a left side or a right side (read any article in the last three days and see if I’m wrong), the common thread of so many arguments centers around someone’s rights.

One person takes a stance that calls someone else out and that someone responds by saying, “Who are you to tell me what to do?  I have my rights!”

We could apply this to entire groups of people and the conversation would be the same.  The assumption of warring sides comes down to a single mantra… “I have a right to do/say/think/act/believe this and you can’t infringe on that right.”

So why is this something that needs countered by a Gospel-focused people?  Doesn’t the very Declaration of Independence commission the unalienable rights of a people?  Doesn’t this Declaration declare that we have–without question–certain privileges that form our very humanity?  Life?  Liberty?  The pursuit of happiness?

Let’s unpack this.

We need to consider first of all what it means–as Christ-followers–to have rights.  We could consider several places in the Scriptures to explore this, but let’s start with Philippians 2 and a few conclusions that can be drawn from these verses:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!”

Point #1:  These verses were written for those identifying as Christ-followers, and that identity took precedence over any sense of nationalism.

Paul begins this famous passage with a series of “if’s” identifying his audience.  If you have encouragement from being with Christ… if there is comfort from Christ’s love… if any common sharing… All of these statements emerge from a connection of this audience rooted in Christ.

For the early church, the great tension of their times often came from their division of Jew and Gentile.  For Paul and the other church leaders, the call of Christ superseded any sense of nationalism.  At the core of a Christ-identity for the Church was an understanding that citizenship and allegiance had been transferred from earthly kingdoms to a heavenly Kingdom.

Point #2:  The Christ-follower’s identity is rooted in posture and actions that elevate the value of others above value of the self.

Paul’s commission in Philippians continues with a call for those united in Christ to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” to “value others above yourselves,” and “to look to the interests of others”.  For Paul, these heart postures are an overflow of the identity one found in Christ.  For those united under Jesus, the natural reaction is to move toward a way of living that lays down our own rights and increases the value and dignity of others.

Point #3:  At the core of a Christ-follower’s relationship should be a mentality of emptying that cares for others as Christ cares for us.

This passage in Philippians is known by theologians as the kenosis.  The word kenosis connects with a sense of “emptying”.  It is, at the most basic level, the choice that Jesus made to step out of the heavenly realms and all the privileges therein to become human for the sake of humanity.

Put most simply:  Jesus gave up his own rights for the sake of giving worth, redemption, and salvation to those who were alienated, isolated, and separated from the love of God the Father.

So allow me to draw some conclusions by returning to that school of fish on my high school t-shirt.  What culture are we trying to counter by living in the way of Jesus?

In perhaps every news cycle and social media stream we see these days, there are at least two sides to the conversation.  One side says, “We have experienced a great wrong at the hands of others.”  The other side says, “Get over it.  It was their right and you need to understand that.”

Frame it with whatever example you want, these general feelings are what the conversations come down to.  We have rights to act, say, speak, live, do, think, behave, etc. in whatever way we want.  And another side says no you don’t, it’s inherently wrong, and you have to stop because of the suffering it’s causing.

For the Christ-follower, I believe we have the gospel opportunity (truly good news) to counter this culture.  We stand in a divided land in U.S. where political opinions and obsession over “rights” opens the doors for a people who truly understand kenosis as a way of life to change the conversation.

The citizen of Heaven, whose allegiance is to God the Father even above country, has a duty and an obligation as Paul points out, to regularly, passionately, and humbly empty themselves of their own rights for the sake of giving value, worth, dignity, honor, and redemption to “the other” (whoever the other may be).

Can you imagine how this might change our climate and conversations on social media?  At work?  In the news?  In our neighborhoods?

Take, for instance, the latest perpetual news cycle coming out of Charlottesville.  In the wake of the horrors of racism at the hands of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in which a president comes as closely as possible to offering statements of a blatant racist nature without endorsing these groups outright, the conversations of those who want to see another side immediately shift to seeing the removal of monuments as heritage and history rather than hurt and lament.

How might this change the conversation if Philippians 2 offered new approaches?  In this way, my passion is to value others above myself, give up my own rights, and look to the interests of others.  At this point it doesn’t matter what history and heritage mean.  Superseding any of those conversations is the fact that my brothers and sisters of color are grieving.  They are wounded.  They are hurting and fearful, and my duty as a Christ-follower is to seek their good, their healing, and their unity.

Immediately, the climate and the culture have changed because of the posture of my heart.

Friends, this is only the beginning.  There are values that drive our world and our nation today.  And as the people of God rooted in Jesus Christ, there are answers it is time for us to start living rather than denying because of our comfort level.  May you find yourself rooted in a perpetual emptying of your rights for the sake of others.

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