Individual Rights Vs. Societal Rights

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Individual Rights Vs. Societal Rights

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In the wake of the tragedy at Columbine High School, people naturally try to determine who is to blame in an effort to prevent future tragedies. After all, something went dreadfully wrong. At stake in the raging debate over culpability is the timeless question of individual freedoms vs. societal protection—concepts that divide entire nations.

Opinions vary as to who was responsible for this most recent tragedy. Some say it occurred because other students shunned the two teenage gunmen. Others blame it on violent video and computer games. Some believe schoolteachers and administrators should have known of the potential danger and prevented it. Still others say the parents should have known about their children's preoccupation with guns, bombs and killing and dealt with it before the tragedy could have occurred. Then there is the choice the two gunmen themselves made: They chose an evil course of action and carried it out.

Finally, the Bible reveals the existence of a "spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience" (Ephesians 2:2). This invisible power is at work in our societies and "deceives the whole world" (Revelation 12:9).

Although we may never identify who was most at fault in this catastrophe, all of the above-noted factors undoubtedly had some influence. But now comes the difficult question: Could anything have prevented the massacre? It's easy to say somebody should have done something. But who should have done it, and what should he have done?

Citizens of Western nations, including the United States, view things through the lens of human rights and individual freedoms. Citizens are free to pursue personal endeavors free from governmental supervision or restrictions.

Although such latitude and discretion are wonderful privileges, societies built on these values are also plagued with tragedies similar to what occurred at Columbine High School. This is the expensive price of freedom. Individuals with known evil intentions or ideas cannot be restrained until they have actually broken a law—often by taking away the freedom, rights and sometimes, even lives of others. In this human construct, individual rights are more important than societal rights.

Other nations of the world consider the ugly side of human rights—violent crimes and murder of innocent victims—as too high a price for a civilized society to pay. Although the Western world's financial prosperity is attractive, other nations reject what they view as excessive freedoms, stating that the stability of society as a whole has to take precedence over individual human rights. Increased crime and erosion of moral values are often the unwanted side effects of the Western approach to individual human rights.

This is why some Islamic countries refer to the United States as the Great Satan and emphasize societal rights—safety and no fear of crime for their citizens. Such countries can and do apprehend individuals they believe may have committed a crime and usually inflict much stiffer punishments for violations of their law. The downside is that innocent people sometimes are imprisoned and punished. This is the price their citizens pay when societal rights are more important than individual rights.

So who is right? Almost three thousand years ago, the prophet Jeremiah lamented: "O Lord, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps (Jeremiah 10:23). Apart from God, man simply doesn't know how to properly build safe societies. The biblical answer to this clash between human rights and societal rights is found in Jesus' instruction to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31, 33; Luke 10:27).

We are to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. In a truly just society, individual rights and societal rights need to be considered. No human nation has ever found this perfect balance, yet there is a coming kingdom that will perfectly employ both of these concepts. It is called the Kingdom of God and is the truly good news, the gospel message of the Bible. Be sure to request your free copy of our booklets The Gospel of the Kingdom and The Road to Eternal Life.They explain how you can become a part of this just society. GN