John Knowlton is an entrepreneur, pastor, and avid cyclist. He lives in Kalamazoo, MI with his wife and children. Find his weekly blog, Thinking for Success at johnknowlton.substack.com.
“It is better to live by favor than by your rights.” – Joel Brooks
Dateline: nineteen months since the novel coronavirus was detected in the United States
Fallasburg covered bridge has a 3-ton limit. This is one of only four covered bridges open to vehicle traffic in Michigan. Opened in 1871, near Lowell, wooden trusses are reinforced by steel tension rods added in the 1930s. The rods were replaced in 1994. In 2013 a cement truck weighing more than 30 tons (60,000 pounds!) crossed the bridge. It was closed for inspection but declared sound thanks to the steel rods and reopened.
The worldwide plague called COVID-19 has been like a cement truck rumbling over the old wooden timbers of the American social contract. Some of the gaps exposed include racial tension and violence, abortion rights or restrictions, transgender acceptance or aberration and stay-at-home, vaccine and mask mandates. Many of us lean on politics to steady ourselves when the way is worrisome. Politics requires black and white, yes or no, red or blue, binary decisions. We have to vote for one candidate and not another. And I suppose that is comforting. When lots of things are changing our lack of control is conspicuous like the ribs of a ship exposed in the shallows by a storm. It was probably always there but lay beyond our apprehension until wind and water revealed the truth. Erosion is the process of moving rock, sediment and soil from here to there. It usually happens slowly, imperceptibly drip by drip. Except when it comes suddenly, in a cataclysm, a convulsion, a cement truck’s worth. And when the cyclone is social not meteorological, the substance shifted is not sediment, but sentiment. Our psychological and social ground tilts and slumps as we grasp for certainty and leap toward what we hope is terra firma. Brené Brown says that when we experience uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure we feel vulnerable. And we don’t like it.
Politics is a process for allocating power amongst groups of people. It uses the primary emotions of fear, anger and greed. If politics was a box of crayons, those would be the three basic colors: fear, anger and greed stand in for yellow, red and blue. The pictures they draw depict rights and obligations. Both ends of the spectrum, left and right, conservative and progressive paint with very broad strokes about obligations and rights. A few examples should make this clear (I know that I am generalizing and not all progressives or conservatives hold the exact positions I am ascribing to them):
Regarding illegal immigration, progressives say, “We have an obligation to care for the poor and immigrants. They have a human right to cross borders to escape economic and physical deprivation.” Conservatives say, “Immigrants have an obligation to provide for themselves and the United States has a right to control its borders in an orderly, legal system.”
On abortion, conservatives say, “You have an obligation to care for your unborn child.” Progressives say, “Women have a right to reproductive health care, including terminating an unwanted pregnancy.”
Concerning mask mandates and COVID vaccines, progressives say, “You have an obligation to protect other people by wearing a mask and taking a vaccine.” Conservatives say, “We have a right to make our own decisions about our health.”
In all these cases and many more like them you can see that it is nearly impossible to weigh the rights and obligations and come up with an obvious right answer. In fact, most of the time we aren’t even talking about the same thing. One of our kids attends a private school which is resisting the county health department’s masking order. The health department is preparing legal action to compel the administration to enforce a mask mandate on public health and safety grounds. The health department is talking about disease prevention. The school administration and parents are resisting the mandate based on parental authority to make decisions about their families’ health. Essentially, the school’s position is not about disease or health. They aren’t taking a stand about whether people should be vaccinated or wear masks. Instead, they contend that the authority over children resides with their parents and not with an unelected government official. The health department yells “You have an obligation to prevent disease!” The school shouts back, “We have a right to make our own decisions about our children.”
Because these different positions concern different issues, I can imagine agreeing with both of them! Indeed, I have taken two doses of the Pfizer COVID vaccine largely because I believed it would reduce the likelihood I would spread the virus. I sense an obligation to protect others. And I believe that the government should not be in the business of telling people what to put in their bodies or wear on top of them. As free citizens, we have the right to determine what is best for our health. As my wife, Julie, and I wrote to the school board:
“We believe that every person, society and nation is subject to the ultimate authority of God. At the same time, human authority should reside at the lowest practical level. For health and personal safety decisions the lowest practical level is the individual, or in the case of minors, their family. The school’s position supports this important principle.” (This is often called the subsidiarity principle.)
If it is possible to agree with both positions, how can you choose one over the other? How can one be right and the other wrong? It’s like asking, “Do you want food or shelter? Love or security? Peace or happiness?” The answer is “yes.” In the middle of this mess, we are experiencing risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure. And if Brené Brown is right, that means we’re feeling vulnerable. So, we turn to politics to grab some power and gain a sense of control. Because politics is about power, it applies force through a government to secure perceived rights and impose obligations on others. In other words, we coerce people to follow a course of action they wouldn’t otherwise take.
But politics might not be the right tool for this job. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Throughout human history we have tried the hammer a million times. A million instances of force and coercion. Which turns into resentment and retribution. The losers nurture their grudge until they have a chance to coerce the other side. And we all take another spin on the coercion-resentment wheel.
So, if politics isn’t the bridge to cross these chasms, what shall we do? Since we usually forget to look to Jesus first, let’s turn to him now. He was falsely accused and taken before kings and governors for judgment. Both the Jewish king Herod and Roman governor Pontius Pilate questioned him about the charges. Though he had been lied on and violated, he did not argue or insist on his rights. Herod “Questioned him at some length, but he made no answer. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him.” His followers wanted to make him the head of government, but he would not resort to politics. He told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And he rejected violence and coercion. He told his friend, “Put your sword back into its place. . .Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” In other words, Jesus had access to rights that he chose not to enforce and coercive power that he did not use. Instead, he focused on his obligations: “The son of man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” And Paul wrote eloquently to the Philippians that Jesus did not count equality with God as something to be held onto, but he emptied himself by taking the form of a servant. And that Christians should follow this example by looking to the interests of others. So in this first glance, we see Jesus released his rights – what others owed him, but he retained his obligations – what was required of him for the sake of others.
A second look at Jesus brings us to favor. Julie and I often have a date night at an Indian restaurant. Almost every time she chooses the navratan korma. It is a vegetable and paneer (cheese) dish in a delicious coconut sauce. Once in 10 visits she will pick something else and then regret that she didn’t get the korma. Why? She just likes it. She wants it. Korma is her favorite. And favor is how Jesus relates to us. He told the disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” We don’t know why. We don’t deserve it. He just likes us. He wants us. It is far better to be liked than to insist on your rights. I mentioned that my wife goes on dates with me. Do I have the right to her companionship and affection? Sure, it is right there in the New Testament: “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.” But I don’t want to go on a date with someone who is only there because of a legal obligation. I expect my dates are more fun than that. Julie’s words and actions say that I am her favorite. She just likes me.
Favor is an attitude or disposition that people have toward you. They see you differently so that good things come into your life. The barren Hannah cried out to God for a child. Eli the priest responded to her, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition.” She answered, “Let your servant find favor in your eyes.” Hannah went home happy and gave birth to Samuel within the next year. One of the most stunning examples of how favor works is from Exodus where God is telling the Israelites how he will deliver them: “And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and it shall be, when you go, that you shall not go empty-handed. But every woman shall ask of her neighbor, namely, of her who dwells near her house, articles of silver, articles of gold, and clothing; and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters. So you shall plunder the Egyptians.” Think about this scene – the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, getting ready to leave the country. God told them to ask their neighbors for gold, silver and clothes to take on their trip. Without favor, no Egyptian would give these valuables to the Israelites whom they saw as foreign laborers. A modern equivalent might be a host of undocumented gardeners and nannies asking their neighbors for credit cards, cash and clothes for their trip back to Mexico. But God gave Israel favor, which changed how the Egyptians saw them, and they honored the requests. Exodus 12 explains how it worked: “Now the children of Israel had done according to the word of Moses, and they had asked from the Egyptians articles of silver, articles of gold, and clothing. And the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they granted them what they requested. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.”
The Israelites didn’t have any rights to the Egyptians’ property. There was no legislation guaranteeing time off for worship. The political process didn’t grant them reparations or back wages. They didn’t lean on their rights, in part because they didn’t have any. But they had favor which is much better than rights. Why would we want what we deserve when we can get far more through favor? Luke tells us that Jesus “. . . as a child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.”
In a final reflection on Jesus (for this essay) we discover love. He had a lot to say about love. And for Jesus love is not the rushing flush of a fresh romance. Rather it is something hard that we do because it is right. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” He knew this would be a challenge, something different. This quality would distinguish Christians from gentiles, tax collectors, and everyone else. It is contrary to our fallen human nature. We only get there through applied apprenticeship to the one who set divinity aside to show us how. That’s what he meant when he said, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perfect here means complete or mature. It implies the end of a process of becoming like the savior we serve.
Notice that he assumed we would have enemies, opposition and disagreement. The very things to provoke feelings of fear, anger and greed. And just when we want to assert our rights and stipulate our enemies’ obligations Jesus speaks of love. As we reach for the hammer of coercion Jesus whispers, “pray.” It is hard to pound someone you are praying for. In his most mature reflection on Jesus and his reign Paul wrote about human governments. Christians struggle with and contend over the real meaning of Romans 13 and our submission to authority. He concludes with words that sound a lot like something Jesus might say. Our only obligation ultimately is to love. “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. . .Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
So as society strains under the pressure of pandemic we can cling more firmly to our rights. We can insist more forcefully that others do what we want. We can press into politics and scuffle for power. We can draw in primary colors with crayons held tight in our fists, pictures of our privileges and our opponents’ obligations.
Or we can look to Jesus
who released his rights and retained his obligations
who had favor and showed favor which is better than rights
who taught and demonstrated love, which in the end is the only debt we owe
and we can try to grow.
 Luke 23:9-11
 John 18:36
 Matthew 26:53
 Mark 8:31
 See Philippians 2:4-7
 John 15:16
 1 Corinthians 7:3
 See 1 Samuel 1:9-18
 Exodus 3:21-22
 Exodus 12: 35-36
 Luke 2:40
 For this paragraph reference Matthew 5:43-48
 Romans 13:8, 10