Rights and Responsibilities

Alyce Weaver Dunn



As the COVID-19 pandemic lingers at the close of 2021, we continue to experience division over mask-wearing.  Every day news is shared about the latest disagreement in school districts, government offices and businesses over whether to follow government mask mandates or not.  Our churches are not exempt from the conversation – disagreement has prevailed across our pews, stirring up frustration, uncertainty and even anger among God’s people.

At the heart of the mask debate is whether or not a person has a right to choose to wear a mask. As citizens of the United States, we are fiercely proud that our Constitution offers protection of individual rights.   We live under the banner of freedom and resist anyone or anything that threatens to take away those rights, even our government officials.  With these passionate values, our country has accomplished much and blessed many. 

Yet, as followers of Jesus Christ, we recognize that while we have certain unalienable rights as earthly citizens,
“our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20 NRSV).  As citizens of heaven, we are NOT called to deny our earthly citizenship – in fact Jesus commands us to “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17, NRSV).  As well, the early church was taught:

“Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.” (Titus 3:1-2, NRSV)

While we are not asked to deny our earthly citizenship, we are called to adopt our heavenly citizenship and to infuse those values into our current circumstances.  Beyond the words that call us to obey earthly authorities, Jesus also invites his followers to assume new responsibilities and ways of living, some which go against the grain of what this world expects.

In many ways, Jesus challenges us to give up our rights in order to take on new responsibilities for others in his name. 
For example, Jesus says:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.  (Matthew 5:38-42).

Jesus does NOT say, hold on to your coat, it’s your right to keep it or don’t let anyone make you walk a mile if you don’t want to!  Instead, Jesus raises responsibility over rights – yield to another, give more than asked, be generous to those in need – even those who are against you!  In other words, live as Jesus lives – giving, loving, considering the needs of the other over self.

Elsewhere, Jesus identifies the mark of a follower:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”  (Luke 9:23, NRSV). 

Integral to our faith in Jesus Christ is an element of sacrifice – a willingness to give up our rights and privileges – a capacity to take on even more burden than we deserve to carry.  Just as Jesus gave himself up for us, we have the honor of giving ourselves up for him – to reach further and deeper and wider into the world so that others can see and know Jesus through our example – to give more than we receive – to let go of more than we hold on to.  In gratitude for what we have received from Jesus, our response is to claim our heavenly citizenship – to value even more our responsibilities to others over our own rights.

Perhaps then, wearing a mask may not be a violation of our rights, but a symbol of our responsibility for others (protecting vulnerable and at risk people).  Perhaps then, wearing masks and following government guidelines could become a witness of faith rather than a battleground where family, friends and foes are wounded.  Perhaps then, mask wearing might be viewed as a temporary inconvenience in our earthly citizenship as we move forward in faith to one day fully claim our heavenly citizenship.
Rights or responsibilities?  As we enter into the sacred seasons of Advent and Christmas, as we continue to navigate a pandemic that has not yet ended, may God’s Spirit be upon us as we find ways to live well into our dual citizenship of earth and heaven!

See the latest COVID-19 update from the WPAUMC Abundant Health Team.


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