The inadequacy of “rights” (Social Principles, Part 2)

A much-needed Social Principles revision aims to make the United Methodist Social Principles more succinct, theologically grounded, and globally relevant. United Methodists are invited to comment on the proposed revision before August 31, 2018.

In my last post, I recommended a revised structure that would be more succinct and globally relevant. Today I address the theological grounding. 

One frequent criticism of the Social Principles is that they sound more like a UN declaration than a church statement. In this critique, the Social Principles draw more from political discourse than theological reflection. I do not believe that this is because the positions are unfaithful to the God of justice, righteousness, and peace. Instead, this is a linguistic problem.

The language of “rights” dominates the Social Principles. For example, look at this sampling of headings within “The Social Community”:

  • Right to Healthcare
  • Rights of Migrants, Immigrants and Refugees
  • Rights of Religious Minorities
  • Rights of Racial and Ethnic Communities
  • Rights of Children and Young People
  • Rights of the Aging
  • Rights of Persons of All Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities
  • Rights of Women and Girls
  • Rights of Men and Boys

Why do we not shorten every heading? Remove each repetitive “Rights of.” For example, “Right to Healthcare” would simply become “Healthcare.” (One immediate benefit is shortening the total word count!

The language of “rights” does not reflect the particular charism that the UMC has in speaking to our world. We have rich theological language that we could be using instead. Where is our language of sin and waking from sin? How are we called to follow Christ? If Christ humbled himself, giving up his rights (Philippians 2), then how are the powerful called to renounce their/our own power — in order to raise others up?

Our hymns, Scripture, and theologies are brimming with possibilities for each section. In comparison to these theological and liturgical treasures, “rights” is an inadequate term. “Rights” language is individualistic and does not address our shared responsibilities to one another. Rev. Lisa M. López Marcial, a Puertorrican clergywoman, describes how “rights” language falls short theologically:

We have never been skilled at recognizing the good for another without thinking about our own good first… The framework of rights finds its dreadful match in the human heart turned upon itself, because it lacks the power to drive change against the evils embedded in our character… The legal framework can only take us so far. Even after oppressive policies have been legally abolished, people of color tell stories of how discrimination continues, women testify about how sexual harassment continues, and individuals living with disabilities continue to experience basic toleration and grudging accommodation instead of real solidarity. All of these realities point to our needing something greater than the framework of human rights to break through the barriers of selfishness, indifference, and our own propensity toward abuse.

Instead of “rights” language, we in The United Methodist Church could use our baptismal vows as our Social Principles framework:

  • How do we resist evil, injustice, and oppression?
  • How do we live as the church which Christ has opened to all ages, nations, and races?
  • How do we individually respond to God’s call by committing to community?

We additionally have the General Rules (“Do no harm. Do good. Attend upon all the ordinances of God.”) and our shared practices of justice and advocacy. The possibilities for theological grounding are extensive — far more than I could include in a brief blog post.

I am not against language of “rights.” “Basic Rights and Freedoms” are addressed under “The Political Community” — that’s great! We should explicitly name in a section on human rights that the International Declaration of Human Rights was shaped by social gospel movements of early twentieth century, including the original Methodist social creed.

But that is the only section where “rights” language needs to dominate. In the rest of our Social Principles, we have, in the apostle Paul and John Wesley’s words, a much “more excellent way.”


This post is the second part of a five-part series on the United Methodist Social Principles: 

If you would like to comment on the proposed Social Principles revision (deadline: August 31, 2018), you can submit your feedback here

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5 Responses to The inadequacy of “rights” (Social Principles, Part 2)

  1. humblepastor says:

    Excellent work Diane. Thank you for posting this!

  2. Pingback: Theological Grounding (Social Principles, Part 3) | And Are We Yet Alive? The Kenaston Family Blog

  3. Pingback: A New Structure for a New Era (Social Principles, Part 1) | And Are We Yet Alive? The Kenaston Family Blog

  4. Pingback: Succinct, Organized, and Accessible (Social Principles, Part 4) | And Are We Yet Alive? The Kenaston Family Blog

  5. Pingback: Global Relevance (Social Principles, Part 5) | And Are We Yet Alive? The Kenaston Family Blog

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