My Word: Rights, responsibilities are inseparable
By Bryan Fulwider
Before reading further, allow me to explain what this commentary is and is not about.
Congress has officially declared Sept. 17 of each year as Constitution Day. I’m a big fan of the U.S. Constitution. I think it was — and still is — a visionary, brilliant document. It has repeatedly proved its wisdom and worth for more than two centuries.
Understand, I’m not knocking it in any way. I’m defending it. Nevertheless, I am suggesting that we should consider some of its implications from a slightly different, more-comprehensive perspective.
Let’s start with a comparison: When I was in high school, I learned a smattering of Newtonian physics. One of Sir Isaac’s laws of motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
In other words, “action” never turns up without “reaction” tagging along. The two are a pair. Inseparable. Indivisible. Two sides of the same coin.
And what exactly does that have to do with the U.S. Constitution?
Just this: I believe that rights and responsibilities are likewise inseparable. By their very nature, they must work together. For one person’s rights to be assured, others must fulfill their responsibilities.
The concept of human rights is relatively new. It showed up on the scene at the dawn of the Renaissance. It has been a welcome newcomer, and has provided a necessary perspective. Correctly understood, the recognition of rights should provide greater impetus in fulfilling our individual and collective responsibilities.
The emphasis on rights has given a degree of power and hope in situations where people once felt powerless and hopeless. Acknowledging that everyone has rights is also an acknowledgement of human value. Human freedom. Human dignity.
We’re blessed that our nation’s founders recognized the importance of rights. But I fear that more than two centuries of emphasis on our rights has inadvertently muddied our understanding of our responsibilities. That needs to be corrected.
As part of our Constitution Day celebration, as we reflect on this truly remarkable document, I believe we would benefit from pausing to ask ourselves whether our shouldering of the responsibilities implied in the Bill of Rights has proved sufficient to ensure that the rights that are promised can truly be delivered.
The Rev. Bryan Fulwider is co-founder of the nonprofit Building US and chair of the executive committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.