07/10/2014 09:51 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2014

... And They'll Know We Are Christians When We Sue

The furor over the Supreme Court's decision in the Hobby Lobby case has revolved like a cyclone around several hot-button issues, including contraception, the separation of church and state, and Obamacare. The least-examined aspect is the most confounding: How is it that suing for your rights is a Christian act?

Sadly, fighting for rights under the guise of "religious liberty" seems to be the latest way that Christians are defining themselves in the public eye. This is a sad development for the faith, for two reasons: It comes off as a bully playing victim, and it reflects a profoundly untrue view of Christ's teaching and example. Selflessness, not victimhood, is the Christian imperative.

Both in opposing gay marriage and in the Obamacare debates, some Christian groups have taken the position of oppressed minority, often casting themselves as helpless victims of state action while they try to deny liberty to others. This is an unappealing Christianity at best, centered on an insistence that others follow the dictates of a certain kind of theology. In the public arena this worldview falls flat in the face of the bare fact that our government and public institutions are dominated by Christians.

It also ignores the core messages of Christ, which were about humility, sacrifice, and grace, not fighting to protect one's own rights and a victimhood that seeks redress only for oneself.

And there is the core problem with Hobby Lobby and its forthcoming progeny: They grow out of a desire to fight for one's own rights. There are two big problems with that. First, fighting for your own interests is contrary to all that Jesus taught. Second, the very idea of "rights" is embedded in the Constitution but is absent in the Gospels.

Over and over, Jesus taught us to give to others and deny ourselves. He told the rich young ruler to sell all that he had and give the money to the poor; he taught that when we feed the hungry or welcome the stranger, we honor him; and he gave us two Great Commandments: to love God, and to love our neighbors. Our own interests are not included. If we are to fight for someone, and we should, it is for others: the poor, the sick, the stranger, those in prison. It is a hard message to accept in a society that celebrates selfhood, but it is the message Christ left us with. It takes a lot of work to distort the meaning of "If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well," but many Christians now seem eager to do that work.

Relatedly, the idea of "rights" is foreign to Christianity; in truth the freedoms we are given in the Bill of Rights are contrary to aspects of the faith. The First Commandment to Moses, for example, directing that we are to have no other gods but God, is contradicted by the First Amendment, which gives us the freedom to have whatever gods we want, or none at all, free of government interference.

The morality taught by Jesus has little to do with "rights" at all. Instead, it has to do with sacrifice, discipline, grace, and love. The Bible's primary theme is humility before God, which is not only different from but in tension with the idea of individual rights. A Christian religious faith based on humility directs us away from the self and toward others, while a civic faith based on rights does the opposite. By choosing to show that they are Christian when they sue, Hobby Lobby and the others are acting out the values of that civic faith, not the values of Christ.