Sunday Kind of Dilemma

By: Nathan Nye

I have a habit of picking apart sermons. It started in middle school, when on any given Sunday the temptation to zone out and stare at the beige ceiling of my church became overwhelming, I honed in intensely on the minister’s words trying to find a mistake or misinterpretation—things that lacked evidence or didn’t acknowledge historical context. I’m not a theologian, but after years of practice, I got pretty good at it. Afterwards, I might have shared my thoughts with my family over Sunday lunch, but I would never mention them to anyone else.  I knew from an early age that questioning what was being taught in church was questioning my community.

I couldn’t help but remember my early communitarian dilemma when Profs. Anthony Gill and Carolyn Warner came to Kenan to discuss the complicated and often contradictory relationship between religious liberty and human rights this Tuesday as part of the Conversations in Human Rights series. The discussion was engaging and far-ranging. One thread of conversation really fascinated me, the relationship between the human rights and religious freedom.

Religious freedom is an acknowledged human right by most in the international community; however, often a freedom to practice religion imposes on an individual’s rights. It was my middle school self’s intrinsic knowledge—there’s a tension between my religious community and my own thoughts and rights.

The examples we were discussing Tuesday were of course, more impactful than anything I had experienced at Elizabethtown Baptist Church.

Questions like: How can a woman have a right to a fair wage if her religion believes she shouldn’t be working? How can a person be granted a humane and fair trial and punishment for a crime if the religiously prescribed punishment is a public stoning? How can freedom of speech exist if apostasy is punishable by death in a belief system?

These questions are complicated, and I’ll offer you the lens through which I’ve been picking at the problem.

Can a universal right contradict another universal right? The answer would seemingly be no, lest they lose their status as universal. So, then how do we square community beliefs with individual beliefs? Should we? There is an argument to be made that the emphasis on the individual is an entirely modern and Western invention. Is the real solution to go back to a more communitarian understanding of rights?

Or can you pick and choose which parts of a religion are given the freedom to practice? Can you set a standard— “You’re free to practice your religion as long as you don’t infringe on the rights of another.” This method contains elements of imperialism and a lack of understanding of the incredibly complex way religion creates and shapes people’s lives.

The seemingly contradictory nature of community and individuals in religion is fascinating and deeply conflicted. I’m still struggling with all of the questions I’ve posed here, and will continue to for many Sundays to come.