Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Church's New Teaching

June 30, 2008

By Andrei Zolotov Jr.
Russia Profile

The Russian Orthodox Church Affirms Values of Freedom and Human Rights

Coming at a time when Russia and the EU are actively engaged in a dialogue on common values, the Russian Orthodox Church's new human rights document offers an instrument for consolidating different attitudes toward human rights inside Russia, as well as a means to achieve deeper intercultural understanding between Russia and the EU.

What a coincidence: at the very same time as the Russia-EU summit, expected to unblock Russia's relations with the European Union, was opening in Khanty-Mansiysk, Western Siberia, in Moscow, the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church adopted, among several other practical and internal documents, a theoretical one addressed to a much wider audience than its own flock, titled: "The Bases of the Russian Orthodox Church's Teaching on Dignity, Liberty and Human Rights."

The latter event was certainly not timed with the first. But in Russia-EU relations, it was the dialogue on "common values" that has failed most dismally in recent years, with Russia usually blamed for its inability or unwillingness to accept "European values." Very often, it simply intuitively rejected them as something alien, without being able to understand or explain why. Today, Russia's most conservative social institution – the Orthodox Church – has declared urbi et orbi: human dignity, freedom and human rights are also our, Orthodox Christian, and thus, by a cultural belonging, Russian values. It has not only declared this, but explained in a detailed way where and how their secular humanist interpretation suits the Orthodox Christians and where and how it doesn't.

This 12-page document has been compiled over several years by a group of experts around Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, and in and of itself it is already a result of a dialogue between Eastern and Western civilizations. In essence, what we see here is a process of analysis, adaptation and reception – not in a wholesale, packaged way, but in a "processed" form – of the values that had been developed in the modern period on a Christian basis in the West, under the influence of the processes that had not involved or only partially touched upon in Russia and the entire cultural East – from the Renaissance and Enlightenment to the youth riots of the 1960s. Such adaptation is not unique. That is the way early Christianity had adapted pagan Greek philosophy. That is the way Russia had adapted and adopted, with intermittent success, European clothes, an Imperial government system, Marxism and, today, tries to adapt and adopt democracy.

What is the main contradiction between the religious understanding of human rights and their secular humanist understanding, which is being spread today around the world? It is in the question of their absolute and universal character. Today, the Constitution of the Russian Federation declares human rights as the supreme, i.e. absolute, value. International documents and institutions speak of their universality. If you think a bit about it, it would turn out that the absoluteness of human rights would be acceptable neither for an Orthodox Christian believer, nor for a Muslim faithful, nor for any other religious person making up the majority of the world population, except for those who believe in the Human Being as a god. The main invective that traditional faiths have against European secular humanism is that, on the basis of the Christian understanding of the dignity of man as "image and likeness of God," it created not just an earthly law, but a new religion, which has replaced the ideal of a sinless Godman with a Mangod, all of whose manifestations, including sinful ones, are recognized as an absolute value.

It is not today that this ideology has emerged. But it is today that, due to globalization, it is being aggressively asserted around the world, generating a reaction. It suffices to remember a number of public conflicts over the past years – from the "caricature scandal" to the story around Christians vandalizing the modern art exhibit in Moscow called "Beware: Religion!"; from the abortion debates in the United States to the expanding legalization of same-sex marriages and euthanasia; from the provocative persistence of Moscow gay parade organizers to the inability of the Italian Roman Catholic politician Rocco Butiglione to become EU commissioner on human rights when he said that he would defend the legal rights of homosexuals, yet cannot but see homosexuality as a sin. It suffices to remember how after the Russian Orthodox Church made its first attempts to formulate its view on human rights several years ago, a roar was heard among human rights activists: how come these priests have touched our sacred values!

"This is the situation of the Roman Empire," said one of the authors of the document, priest Georgy Ryabykh. "Back then, they said: believe in whatever you want, but worship the Emperor. Today, they say: believe in whatever you want, but recognize human rights as an absolute value."

In its document, the Church says: human rights are definitely a value, and they belong to everybody, not just to the priests and priestesses of the new human rights religion. But it is not the absolute value. It has to be harmonized with the values of faith, morals, love of thy neighbor (and thus family and patriotic values), and of the environment. But Christians should respect and protect these values. The document openly calls the Church members to "morally oriented social action" to defend rights and freedoms, and lists the areas of such activities. "We are called upon to zealously care – not just in words, but in deeds – for the protection of rights and dignity of the human being," the document says. "Without striving for a revolutionary reorganization of the world and recognizing the rights of other public groups to take part in social transformations based on their choice and vision of the world, Orthodox Christians retain the right to participate in such organization of the public life, which would correspond to their faith and moral principles." And this is being said by the Church, which is often criticized for social apathy and subservience to the state, by the Church with a strong isolationist trend!

For the Church's external activities, it is the polemics with secular humanism that is important in the document. But, for the Church's internal life, as well as for the Russian society at large, it is the positive affirmation of the values of freedom and human dignity, as well as the call to protect them, that are far more important. The Council of Bishops ruled to include the new teaching into the seminaries' curriculum and to use it in sermons and public activities. Of course, there is a big step from the intellectual process and adoption of a theoretical document to having this perception filter down to the utterly conservative thick of church and mass consciousness. It is not today and not tomorrow that the values of rights and liberties would take root in the Russian society. But, without this process of adaptation and merger with the Russian tradition, they will never take root, but continue to be the domain of small groups perceived as an alien body.

As for the long-suffering Russia-EU values dialogue, one can say that, in today's axiological chaos of the Russian society, where some wholly accept European values, others wholly reject them, while the majority is interested in material values only, there appeared a meaningful and dialogue-oriented voice of the Russian Orthodox Church. Due to the Church's historical position, it is potentially capable of consolidating other voices around it. Now, it will become clear whether Europe is indeed capable of a dialogue on values, or only of exporting ready-made ideological and quasi-religious constructs.


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