Divided over United

When "my right" turns into "my bad."

By Jeff Laird

United Airlines is under fire for forcing passengers off of a plane to make room for their own employees. What would have been a non-story turned into a scandal, when video of a bloodied passenger being violently uprooted and dragged down an airplane aisle hit social media. After the initial shock, debate ensued over who was really to blame. Was it United Airlines, for coercing already-boarded passengers to make room for travelling personnel? The airport police, for using excessive force? Or the passenger, for refusing to leave private property? Some combination of the three?

That argument will eventually go the way of all flash-debates on social media (good riddance, blue and black versus white and gold). More usefully, this latest scoop of outrage fodder illustrates a common Biblical theme: the crucial difference between rights and obligations. Put another way, the mere fact that we can do something does not mean we should do it.

Jesus was confronted by a trap when the Pharisees brought Him the adulterous woman (John 8:1-11). Legally, she was guilty and Mosaic Law would have justified Jesus in executing her. Morally, Jesus was the only person there "without sin" and entirely qualified to judge her guilt. Rather than fall for the trap, Jesus realized that just because He could stone the woman did not mean He should do it. Not only would it have complicated His message of mercy, it would have crossed the legal boundaries of Rome. Instead, Christ chose to confront her sin in a less physical, more personal way.

Christ also pointed out the need to avoid pursuing vengeance, even when it was within our legal or moral powers. "Going an extra mile," at that time, meant not stopping at the legal limit of one's obligations, but going further in order to show love (Matthew 5:41). Refusing to retaliate against insults or inconveniences (Matthew 5:39) not only prevents a cycle of revenge, it short-circuits criticism of one's Christian conduct. Settling our differences without resorting to legal sledgehammers does the same (Luke 12:58).

Writing about the issue of Christian liberty, Paul states that "all things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful...not all things build up" (1 Corinthians 10:23). There's nothing explicitly immoral about eating a fifth helping of fudge cake...but it's certainly not healthy. Calling the police when the neighbor's children "trespass" by getting their ball from my yard might be legal...but it's not doing much for my ability to witness. The same attitude ought to apply in other situations: am I really gaining here? Or am I sacrificing victory in the war in order to win a prideful battle?

Paul was certainly not afraid to take advantage of his legal rights — he did just that when arrested by the Romans (Acts 16:3739; Acts 25:11). And yet, he also chose to exert his rights only after considering how his choices affected His Christian witness. Even if it meant setting his preferences and privileges aside (1 Corinthians 8:13; 1 Corinthians 10:3133), Paul considered that a better option than sabotaging his ability to demonstrate Christian truth.

That same attitude needs to guide us in our daily lives. Just because we have a right to do something does not mean it's a good idea.

As a passenger, I might claim a moral right to keep my seat...but is getting arrested for breaking the law really helping anyone, let alone myself?

As a police officer, I might claim a professional right to slam someone's face against an armrest when they don't comply...but does that actually help make anyone safer?

As a business owner, I might claim a legal right to uproot a paying customer in order to make room for my own employees...but how does contempt for passengers help my overall business, let alone my public image?

From a cold, heartless, logical, legal perspective, United has the right to tell a passenger, "leave the plane or we'll have the police drag you off." That, in essence, is what United employees chose to do in this situation. Of course, as reactions of their customer base have proven, that was not a wise choice. That option was "lawful," but it clearly was not "helpful." In fact, it was stupid: look at the damage it's done to their reputation and their bottom line. If employees had sensed a potential PR nightmare brewing, and made a different decision, at least some of that could have been avoided.

Logically, once the passenger refused to leave, and the police were called, the rest was out of United's hands. That's rational, but it's also totally irrelevant to the perception problem United brought down on its own head. It's not rocket science to guess who the public will blame when the court of public opinion frames an incident as "mega-corporation versus bloodied civilian."

The application for the rest of us, hopefully, is clear. Seeking victory at all costs is not only un-Christian, and unwise, it often doesn't result in victory anyway. "I'm doing this because I can" is not sufficient reason to follow a plan of action. What's at stake is not merely our own benefits, but the way others perceive our faith.

Sometimes, we need to do what is helpful, or sensible, or — believe it or not — kind, rather than insisting on doing whatever is allowed, for the sake of our own pride.

Image Credit: skeeze; untitled; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Christian-Life  | Controversial-Issues  | Current-Issues

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Published 4-13-17