The Living Rights T-shirt

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  1. June 13, 2012

    Daniel Schulz-Jackson

    I never use the language of “Universal Human Rights”. I think it’s more accurate to say “Universal Human Value”.

    For example, to say, “access to toilets” as a universal human Right would be a bit problematic: what about world regions where there are no toilets at all? Are our rights being infringed there?

    I’m being a bit picky, but in a way that’s illustrative of a major problem with “human rights” — the rights need to be fairly specific in order to have any real meaning. Rights are essentially rules: nobody can do X, nobody can deny someone access to Y, etc. When the rules aren’t specific, we can easily find loopholes to them. But the problem, then, is that in order to gain this needed specificity, these “universal human rights” become very human-derived, very context-specific — in a word, very not universal.

    Case study: I don’t like how the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) handles abortion — its members are more-or-less pro-choice across the board, essentially just following the democratic platform in saying a woman has a “right” to get an abortion. But I do like how the ELCA official doctrinal statement handles the issue: The baby does not have an absolute right to live, nor the woman an absolute right to abort. Rather, we recognize the God-given value of both the baby and the woman, and recognize that a just solution will consider them both and do what is best. (my paraphrase)

    So instead of God-Given Universal Human Rights, I focus on God-Given Universal Human Value, from which we humans then should helpfully derive rights, responsibilities, laws, ethics, etc. on a contextual basis.

    So my T-shirt would say:

    “Every person’s well being is 100% as valuable as yours.
    No matter who they are, or what they’ve done.
    Now what you gonna do about it?
    Throw someone in jail for trying to go to the bathroom?
    Harass someone for sleeping in the only place they can?
    I think not.”

  2. June 13, 2012


    As far as “toilets” go, that is a short cut for talking about an approved place to void one’s waste. Yes, there are places is the world that use squat toilets, but they are still approved places to go to the bathroom (and they are still typically called toilets)

    As far as the language of “rights” vs. “values”: I think there is some misunderstanding of what a “right” is. Some people “demand” rights, but a “right” isn’t so much something to demand so much as something to refrain from taking away. We all have a “right” to life– in other words, it is (or should be) illegal to take away our life without due process and an ultimate conclusion that it is best for society in general to deprive one of that right. The right is based on a recognition that life has value, but it goes beyond that. “Rights” language recognizes that authoritative entities might deprive one of items that are not rights. To ask for a “right” means: You can’t take this away from me without due process. It does not mean “You must provide this for me.”

    The “rights” on the t-shirt are the basic necessities of living, and they are outgrowths of the necessity of not taking someone’s life without due process. If you can’t take someone’s life without due process, you also can’t take away their way of obtaining food, clothing, sleep etc, because to deny them these things is to deny them life, ultimately.

    This is recognized by the modern prison system. In the ancient world, when someone was thrown into prison, they would not provide food or water or a place to go to the bathroom. Food, a bucket, etc was provided by family and friends, which is why visiting people in prison was such a necessity in the ancient world. Today, we recognize that throwing someone in prison without providing these basic necessities is sentencing the prisoner to death, which isn’t the intention, so they provide all the necessities put on the shirt.

    However, the homeless have these very things taken away from them. Feeding programs are shut down by cities without due process, public facilities (like bathrooms in parks) are kept from the homeless without due process, one’s sleep is deprived without due process. The homeless, as a group, are often treated like tortured prisoners.

    To talk about values are good. But when we speak of government oppression of a group, we need to go the next step and talk about rights. There used to be government oppression of homosexuals, but almost all of that has disappeared. Even the mentally ill have many more rights than they used to (if they are recognized as mentally ill, that is). But the felon and the homeless in general, as groups have their rights taken away because they are considered to be “drains” on society, so the very things they use to live with are taken away on a whim by individual police officers and city governments. This shirt says that this needs to stop.

  3. June 13, 2012

    Daniel Schulz-Jackson

    Totally agreeing with the implications of the shirt, just not its philosophy. So really I should just stop. But I’m geeky so I don’t stop.

    To partially agree with what you’re saying, I think:

    I think rights are real in the sense that they are agreements. We as a society agree to live by laws & rules that uphold certain key rights that we agree upon. But we’re the ones who are creating the rights.

    That doesn’t make rights bad, that just means they’re tools, hopefully tools for upholding human value.

    Making our ethics be fundamentally “Human Rights” rather than “Human Value” becomes visibly problematic in one of its most original and influential forms — John Locke’s assertion of “Natural Law” which grants to humans the “Rights to Life, Liberty, and Property” (later re-used as “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness”, but with fairly similar implications). It says the property (capital) we create is ours, so to take it from us is a violation of our fundamental rights. So we get total unadulterated capitalism, regardless of its effects. Go a little ways down the road, and Marx looks at some nasty effects, and flips the “Rights” in his own direction: Whatever we create is ours, and capitalism allows people who amass capital to take from us what we create, therefore nobody can amass any capital. Nice theory, interesting extrapolation of Human Rights, but voila, extreme views ultimately not tested for their effects on the well-being of people.

    Granted, when all you use is “Universal Human Value” — the importance of well being — as your basis, you get some weird Kevorkians going on. Or scientific experiments that destroy a few people with the hopeful intent of helping others. So it’s really useful to create rights. Essentially policy, for when our estimations of utility would tend to err. But I maintain that the rights are there as tools to uphold Human Value.

    And the rights are generally fuzzy; one must be willing to bend them. One example of this is Bonhoeffer’s choice to put Hitler’s “right to live” beneath upholding the dignity of those oppressed by him — his choice to try to assasinate Hitler. It actually reminds me of your article Jesus and the Deep Law — the law, (and rights, which are essentially law in an ideal/idealized form, or something like that) can always be bent or tweaked for the love of people.

  4. June 13, 2012


    However, love is absolute. And if “rights” are based on love, then they are absolute as well.

    The real problem is that rights are used for all kinds of situations that go beyond the basic necessities of humanity: for instance “the pursuit of happiness”. That’s a wealthy person’s right, not the right of a person in poverty. They only have the right to survive. The problem with Marx is that he was basically trying to fight the industrial revolution, and he lost. As far as Kevorkian goes, I believe that God gave humans soverignty over themselves, so I think a person has a right to have their own lives taken– which, incidentally, isn’t that different from what Jesus did: “I lay down my own life on my own initiative.” (John 10). This doesn’t mean that we SHOULD do that, but that it is an option, given certain circumstances.

    Now, Bonhoeffer. I have a very strong opinion about him. He wrote a marvelous book called The Cost of Discipleship and another one called Ethics. They are amazing works and I would be happy if every Christian reads those books. However, in taking part in the attempt to assassinate Hitler, he violated his own principles, based clearly on Jesus’ principles, in those books.

    Jesus’ law is to love his enemies. Paul’s understanding of this law is in Romans 12: If your enemy is hungry, feed him. In other words, meet their needs, no matter what they did to you. Paul goes on to explain this in terms of government in chapter 13: Submit to the governing authorities, give them respect, even though they are harming you (we need to remember that Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome during Nero’s rule). Jesus said “Do not resist an evil one” and whatever else it means, it certainly doesn’t mean, “but if they are really bad, go ahead and kill them.”

    Hitler had an absolute right to live because that is what love requires, even of one’s enemies. Others could ignore that right, but not believers in Jesus who have an absolute requirement to love, no matter who they are or what they’ve done– even Hitler. Or, as my biker friend puts it: “Love everybody, let God sort em out”.

    What is on the shirt is the most basic form of love. Giving people food who don’t have it. Give people clean water who don’t have it. Give people a safe place to sleep, a toilet to use, some basic health care, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. That is the requirement of love. And Jesus goes a step further: love others even though it causes harm to you. Sacrifice yourself for those who don’t deserve it, not because they have value but because love has value, and it will change the world.

    Okay, but that doesn’t have to do with rights so much. That’s Christian obedience (which I think Bonhoeffer fudged, and I think he knew it). Rights have to do with oppression: If my Christian obedience means that I need to feed people whom society calls worthless, then the government can’t take that right away from me, without due process (for instance, if I’m feeding unsafe food, they should prove that and stop me).

    Since the government recognizes that those in prison should have all of these survival needs in order to remain alive, the government shouldn’t take that away from anyone who gives it to those in need.

    The Christian command to love demands we give these things to those who need it. A government built upon rights (which ours is, not based on values) shouldn’t take away such basic necessities to live. I use “rights” language because the people and government of our society recognizes that. Let’s face it, your t-shirt slogan doesn’t strike the heart of the issue as quickly. :)

  5. June 13, 2012

    Daniel Schulz-Jackson

    1. Wow! I see we disagree on some things! (Bonhoeffer & absolute pacifism/nonviolence as being the key examples) That’s okay, we can do that and carry on well, methinks!

    2. You are right. My T-Shirt is slow to the punch. :-P That’s the nature of the beast, I guess. (the “Beast” being attempting to operate based fundamentally on value.) Rights definitely offer a viable and potent shortcut.

    3. At least tell me (briefly is fine) what you thought about my reference to the ELCA statement on abortion. Or tell me that you don’t want to touch it with at 10 foot pole :-P

  6. June 13, 2012


    Hahahaha! You think I can write briefly?

    As far as my “absolute pacifism/nonviolence” , I am an absolute pacifist (because killing and love your enemies don’t mix) but I am not an absolutist toward nonviolence. If you care, I can explain.

    I think we have two goals here: You want to take out “rights” as an ideal for ethics/law. I don’t have a problem with that, although my ideal is to replace it with obedience to God’s will (which is love). I think values is an interesting way to look at ethical issues, but I’d have to think about it more. I certainly have problems with “rights” as an ethical standard. But it is what the U.S. government is based on, like it or not. To change laws based on “rights” is to change the constitution, and I don’t care enough about that fight to make it.

    I really like the official statement of the ELCA. I think that’s the best way to go. The question is: what is best for both lives, as they both have value. The problem comes in on either side when they only see one life as the absolute. Both lives are absolute, and reality requires hard decisions sometimes (when a decision has to be made for one life or the other). For me, the main purpose in God’s value is what is OUR decision, our motivation, our action in response. If we focus only our ourselves, that isn’t love (or, that isn’t valuing another as equal to ourselves). So we’re in total agreement in that way.

  7. June 13, 2012

    Daniel Schulz-Jackson

    This is one of those moments where I wish I had built us a “like” button :-)

  8. June 13, 2012

    Daniel Schulz-Jackson

    I view
    “living in accordance with the value of every person”
    to be fairly close to
    “living in obedience to God’s will”.

    God’s will = love God + love neighbor as self.
    Love neighbor as self = act as if your neighbor, their well being, and their dignity are as valuable as your own.

    So in a sense
    Obedience = Worship + Ethics

    Universal Human Rights is specifically an answer to Ethics, so that’s why I move to replace it with Universal Human Value, which is also an answer to Ethics.

    Replacing Universal Human Rights with Obedience to God is one too many jumps, like replacing french fries with organic food. I’d rather replace french fries with organic potatoes, and replace junk food with organic food. Catch my drift?

    So in my “diagram” here, I would replace obedience to flesh, world, & Satan with obedience to God’s will.

  9. June 13, 2012

    Daniel Schulz-Jackson

    But let’s be real, I’m frequently a functioning atheist and don’t think about God’s will.

  10. June 13, 2012


    I think your shirt would say something like this:,
    “If you need food, clean water, a toilet, clothing, shelter from the cold, sleep without harassment and basic health care to live, so does the homeless guy down the street.”
    And the back would say:
    “And she deserves it just as much as you do.”
    That’s a bit in your face, though. There must be a more positive spin on it.

  11. June 13, 2012


    “homeless person”


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