With Rights Come Obligations

Someone I admire sent me a note over the July 4th weekend.

He knows I struggle with the division I see in our country and right here in our own community.

I suspect I am not alone in that struggle. It seems like every week there’s another flare up that drives us further apart. This week, sadly, is no exception.

So my friend referred me to a link that discussed a concept called “civil obligations.”
We often talk about civil rights and they are important, but I am beginning to think that without obligations and responsibilities, rights are just not enough to build a strong and enduring society or community.

I’m happy that my friend turned me on to the writing of Sister Simone Campbell, known as “the nun on the bus.”

Sister Simone is the executive director of NETWORK, an organization that advocates for socially just federal policies.

Sister Simone is a strong believer in civil rights. She notes that the civil rights movement was forged by a community, but the advances were focused on individual rights. An unintended consequence is that some people feel threatened by those rights —as if there are not enough rights to go around. So they created their own movement. As a result, we have an endless cycle of friction.

Here’s how Sister Simone describes the dynamic:

“A democracy cannot survive if various groups and individuals only pull away in different directions. Such separation will not guarantee that all are allowed the opportunity for ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ All people must be recognized for their inherent dignity and gifts regardless of the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, or their place of origin. And all these gifts need to be shared in order to build up the whole. So I have begun to wonder if the new task of the first half of the twenty-first century should be a commitment to civil obligations as a balance to the focus on civil rights.”

I think she’s on to something.

So what are civil obligations?

Let’s let Sister Simone explain.

“Civil obligations call each of us to participate out of a concern and commitment for the whole. Civil obligations call us to vote, to inform ourselves about the issues of the day, to engage in serious conversation about our nation’s future and learn to listen to various perspectives. To live our civil obligations means that everyone needs to be involved and that there needs to be room for everyone to exercise this involvement. This is the other side of civil rights. We all need our civil rights so that we can all exercise our civil obligations.”

She continues: “The mandate to exercise our civil obligations means that we can’t be bystanders who scoff at the process of politics while taking no responsibility. We all need to be involved. Civil obligations mean that we must hold our elected officials accountable for their actions, and we must advocate for those who are struggling to exercise their obligations. It is an unpatriotic lie that we as a nation are based in individualism. The Constitution underscores the fact that we are rooted and raised in a communal society and that we each have a responsibility to build up the whole. The Preamble to the Constitution could not be any clearer: “We the People” are called to “form a more perfect Union.”

Isn’t that cool? Doesn’t it make sense?

I don’t think being armchair citizens, tweeting and posting gripes is enough. We need active participation. We need voters, candidates, volunteers, mentors, servant-leaders and philanthropists.

The City of Santa Monica measures happiness and I always thought that was interesting. We seem to measure property values and not much else.

We ought to take our civic temperature and judge not only whether stakeholders are happy but whether they are emotionally invested here.

Do they know what Old School Square is all about? Do they use the library? Do they vote? Would they volunteer to serve in some sort of capacity? Are they interested in schools, helping our police department or mentoring young people? The list of ways to engage is endless.

In my experience, while some people will just show up to  work in the community, it helps immensely if we  ask them to get involved and to create a culture of participation.

But whether your community values participation or employs a top down model of governance, we the people have an obligation as well.

An obligation to be informed; to seek facts and be independent thinkers. An obligation to vote—so few of us do— especially in local elections.

Rights are accompanied by obligations. We have to exercise those rights, protect them and work on behalf of the whole.

With America divided and so much friction in our local communities, the call to embrace civil obligations is more important than ever.