Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

The Universal and the Distinctive in the Human Rights Concept

Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad

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Paper delivered by Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad at the conference on Religion in the Modern System of International Relations September 30, 2005, St. Petersburg

Distinguished participants in the conference!

Social sciences have long come to the common awareness that ideas play an important role in any human activity including politics. Ideas are an important way for human beings to cognize themselves and the world. They make it possible for human beings to assess and inform various developments, thus motivating them as rational beings. Among the principal features of modern international relations is the revival or, as science would put it, restitution of religion to public life including politics. In fact it means that people's political activity is increasingly motivated by ideas having a religious origin. The inevitable emergence of such motivation is conditioned by such a property of a religious worldview as integrity. As the basis of a religious man's life, faith determines every aspect of his public and private life. Therefore, the more the number of believers the more active their participation in politics, the greater the impact of religiously motivated ideas on internatonal relations.

To illustrate the impact religious ideas make on world politics, reference is made most often to terrorism based on an extremist reading of Islam. There are also references to anti-Semitism and Zionism feeding on a radical reading of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. There are also other religiously motivated 'isms' appearing around a particular religious tradition. More often than not, this gives a reason to conclude that religions in their interaction with politics are capable of generating only destructive ideas threatening the world and human life. The creative role of religion is put to the background at that, together with ideas, which were generated within it and which acquired eventually a secular character and which are now actively used in politics in a creative spirit. One of these powerful positive ideas in today's word is the concept of human rights.

Basically, it is a whole set of ideas of religious, and what is more, Christian origin. These ideas have grown in many ways from the Christian vision of human dignity. However, through centuries up to this day, the ideas of human dignity have tended to be interpreted on many of their points in such a way as to contradict their traditionally Christian understanding. It is in this, sometimes anti-Christian form, that the concept of human rights has been realized in the political practice. For this reason some forces propose to throw away the human rights concept and to declare it number one enemy for traditional Christian awareness. The millennium-long church tradition however teaches us to treat in a different way various view systems if they contain at least partly ideas close to Christian conceptions. The Church has always been guided by the principle of the careful gathering of the least grains of truth and justice scattered in the human experience of knowledge. This approah is associated with such major Christian thinkers as St. Justin the Philosopher, Origen, Clement of Alexandria and finally Sts Basil the Great, Gregory the theologian and John Chrysostom.

It is not only in the philosophical understanding of human dignity however that lies the difficulty with which the human rights concept functions in international relations. In spite of the fact that the central idea of the human rights concept, which is human dignity, is Christian by origin, the way in which it is realized today has shaped outside the experience of religious life in and the history of the countries of Orthodox tradition. The same is even more true for non-Christian civilizations. The human rights concept emerged as a result of the development of Western nations, first of all, Protestant states. It was much later that this concept went through an appropriate reflection in the Catholic Church. The Orthodox thought in Russia joined actively the reflection on human rights at the same time as Catholic thinkers did, about the late 18th - the early 19th centuries. This process was interrupted by the October Revolution, which was a sort of response to these discussons. Regrettably, in the Soviet times the issue of human rights was often used exclusively for propaganda purposes, while there was no serious discussion on this issue within the country.

It is very important for Russia today to develop this discussion on a serious intellectual level. In tackling this task, the modern Russian scientific, social and religious thought should manifest itself, to my mind, both as universal and distinctively Russian. Its openness to other civilizations, especially the Western one, is evident from the fact that the self-awareness of the Russian people does not reject the important experience accumulated by other nations, while its distinctiveness lies in their ability to correlate these ideas with their own national experience.

In today's international relations, human rights are presented by Western countries as a socio-political norm acceptable to all nations in the world. However, their implementation in a particular country is judged by how far the external signs - such as public and political institutions, legal standards and socio-political processes - conform to with the Western practice. If these forms do not take root in their Western versions in another cultural and civilizational soil, Western representatives often begin speaking of the need to replace this soul by Western patterns in religion, culture, politics, economics, etc. This logic can generate a real cultural imperialism indiscriminate in the means of achieving its goals, since for its proponents it is grounded in good intentions, such as making world nations share the right ideas. If we isolate the political motives of such policy, we can find that it is supported in the West and in some other countries in the world because, to y mind, they do not give a serious thought to what is universal and what is variative in the human rights concept.

The universal in the human rights concept I believe is the values level. The affirmation that human dignity is an important value to be protected by society and state represents a meaningful statement for most of the civilizations, including the Orthodox. Another important value is freedom, which functions in the human rights concept as a sine qua non condition for the realization of human dignity. Among variatives in the human rights concept is the understanding of these values and the ways in which this understanding is realized. Variative is also the way of life and the way in which public and political life is organized to realize these values in a particular country. Finally, the variative level of the human rights concept includes, in my view, the exceptional importance that is often given to the value of freedom in ensuring human dignity. The value of freedom itself, as was noted earlier, is not challenged in the Orthodox attitude, but it is not considered to be the ony condition for realizing human dignity.

The tendency to absolutisize the value of freedom for the protection of human dignity stems from the distinctive history of the Western civilization. It was as far back as the time of the division of the Churches that two approaches to freedom, including its political manifestation, took shape. One prevailed in the West, while the other in the East. The problem of freedom itself became relevant for all Churches without exception after Christianity acquired the status of state religion in the Roman Empire. History posed before all Christians the serious question of whether political power can be applied in the questions of faith. The point was first of all whether state power could be used for the protection and propagation of faith.

In the previous period of persecution, Christian thinkers advocated the freedom of conscience in the belief that Christ can be embraced only voluntarily. Therefore, they saw the only way of propagating faith in attempts to persuade people. In 328, well-known Christian luminary Cyril of Jerusalem wrote in his catechetical discourses, 'Though God is generous in charity, He expects sincere volition from each'. St. John Chrysostom said in the 5th century that Christians cannot overthrow fallacy by violence and coercion, for it should be done only by persuasion. In the same spirit St. Augustine wrote in the beginning of his church work.

However, subsequent experience in church governance led many authoritative thinkers to the conviction that coercion can sometimes play a positive role in bringing people to Christianity. Thus, St. Augustine, who had to struggle with the Donatist schism in his diocese, writes, 'I yielded to facts. Bishops pelted me with cases pointing not only to particular persons but whole cities in which Donatism reigned before, but now Orthodoxy has prevailed. Especially remarkable in this respect is my own city whose dwellers were Donatists before, but now, under the influence of the emperor, have embraced Orthodoxy and treat Donatists with such hatred that it is impossible even to think that it should have been once a Donatist city'. Such successes of the coercive power suggested that the Lord allowed using even some degree of coercion towards man for his salvation.

Indeed, there were advocates of the use of state's coercive power for missionary purposes and in struggle against heresies both in East and West. However, it was in the Western tradition that the attitude justifying structural violence towards dissent was entrenched. Moreover, it developed into certain forms of both ecclesiastical and secular life. Ecclesiastically, the idea of papism developed in the West, whereby the life of a person in the fold of a true Church involved the obligatory observance of the magisterium of the Bishop of Rome. In the 8th century, the popes gained secular power and then used it actively to consolidate their own religious influence on people. In the 14th century, the Inquisition appeared, which persecuted heretics. The East never saw such institutionalization of coercive mechanisms in the matters of faith or at least not in such sophisticated forms. Unlike the West, the Orthodox East continued to be aware of volutariness as necessary in adopting a faith. A good illustration of this approach to the adoption of a faith is provided by Byzantine and later Russian Orthodox missions. Unlike Western ones, they never relied on the force of arms but worked through enlightenment and persuasion.

In the long run, the work of coercive mechanisms in the matters of faith in the West led to resistance argued from Christianity itself. The first religious and intellectual movement to draw Rome's attention to the tension between some of its doctrines and the Christian spirit was the Reformation. In the Modern Time, protest against the practice of coercion came from the Enlightenment thinkers, who became founders of the modern philosophy of human rights and liberties. But because Christianity was associated with the Catholic Church, the idea of freedom was articulated mainly outside traditional Christianity as in many respects an anti-clerical and anti-Christian movement. Moreover, the idea of human rights crystallized without any association with certain ethical norms. The human rights concept only makes a reference to the idea of man's responsibility. However, in the absence of clear criteria for defining this responsibility the affirmation of its necessity gradually faded way in historical development. As a result the philosophy of human rights acquired not only an anti-Christian but also an anti-moral character. It has become especially evident in our time. The philosophy of human rights has been often used to justify such deviations from ethical norms as the cult of violence, profit and consumption, abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, etc.

Unlike the West with its developed institutional mechanisms of coercion to unanimity in religious matters, the Christian East often suffered from religious and consequently political differences of opinion. It was in the East that numerous theological parties and ethnic movements would emerge to tear up the unity of many states and to do damage to human life. A special problem for the East therefore was a search for ways towards unity in society - the ways that would be based ideally on people's good will.

If we look at the history of the Russian State, we will see that at its initial state the Russian princes were mainly concerned for the preservation of unity of Russia. Russian chroniclers write frankly that it was disunity of peoples and elites in Russia that was the source of all her troubles. It was not accidental that the idea of gathering Russian lands became the banner of the liberation of Russia from the Tartar-Mongol yoke. But in Moscow, this new center of Russia, the awareness soon ripened that the centralized power alone was insufficient for holding such a vast and multi-ethnic territory in order.

The 16th century Russia saw the emergence of the idea that the church principle of conciliarity could be applied to socio-political sphere. Its practice and norms were articulated gradually. While under Tsar John the Terrible the first Land Councils represented a sort of congresses of regional authorities, gathering on rare occasions at that, under Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich Romanov the Councils were already made up of various estates of Russian society and gathered frequently to discussed almost all the important issues of national life. Transferred from the church soil, conciliarity in public life became understood as a manifestation of common efforts of all social strata for solving common problems and fulfilling common tasks in which personal interests are put in the background.

The principle of conciliarity however was not fated to develop into a clearer defined concept and to mould into legal forms. In the early 17th century, Tsar Peter I made a choice in favour of the idea of absolute power, very popular at that time in the West. As a result, the excessive enthusiasm for this idea led to the establishment of a bureaucratic state that did not tolerate any other power beside it. This led to the elimination of patriarchal office, with the Church turning into a bureaucratic tool, and put a stop to convening Land Councils. In a short-term perspective, these reforms proved effective, but they initiated the alienation of the supreme power from the people.

However, beginning from the 19th century, Russian thinkers came back to the idea of conciliarity abandoned as a result of Petrine reforms, but still attractive to the Orthodox thought. For the Orthodox worldview, the idea of conciliarity is an important condition, along with freedom, for the development of personal dignity. Religious and philosophical studies on the idea of unity led Russian philosophers to the awareness that unity is impossible without the free participation of the individual in social life. Personal dignity develops not only is the situation of freedom, but also in fraternal relations with other individuals in which the priority of personal interests is rejected. In my view, underlying the desire of many of our ancestors to gather lands and to consolidate the unity of Russia was not the desire to subject new territories and peoples but to create a greater politically organized community.

Russia's historical experience has shown that in realizing human dignity the Orthodox worldview points to the importance of both individual freedom and the conciliar principles in social life. Neglect of one of these values leads to the disintegration of society and personality, while making community absolute at the expense of freedom leads to totalitarianism, while making individual freedom absolute at the expense of conciliarity leads to the disintegration of society and degradation of personality. The contribution of Russia to the development of human rights can consist in affirming a balance between individual freedom and social conciliarity. Incidentally, every ground for it can be found in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states in particular, 'Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible'.

Another, no less important contribution that Russia can make in the development and realization of the human rights concept is the introduction of ethical principle into this political and philosophical paradigm so important for modern international relations. Most of modern societies, including Western ones, have found themselves today in a sad state as social relations have weakened, family values have decayed and a population decline has been registered. This happens in many ways because many democratic states are lacking a purposeful support for moral norms in social life. This state of affairs leads to emancipation of human passions, which, in their turn, destroy society itself. Therefore, in building a system for protecting individual rights and freedoms, we should not forget about measures aimed at consolidating conciliar and moral principles without which no realization of individual freedoms is possible.

Read the entire article on the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions website (new window will open).

Posted: 02-Nov-05

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