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Kirill (Gundyaev), patr. The Russian Orthodox Church and the Christian dimension of the problem of human rights and freedoms (Article published in the newspaper ‘Izvestia’, April 4, 2006)
THE RUSSIAN ORTHODOX
CHURCH AND THE CHRISTIAN
DIMENSION OF THE PROBLEM OF
HUMAN RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS
Article published in the newspaper Izvestia, April 4, 2006.
The single biggest issue for our contemporary world is the relationship! of the concept of the rights and freedoms of the individual with the question of moral responsibility. Christian thought characteristically links the idea of human dignity with the question of morality, which inevitably leads us to reflect on the devastating effect of sin on the soul. Liberal philosophy, on the other hand, which ignores the concept of sin, lacks the distinction between good and bad which religion makes. For me, it is this absence that explains the inherent inconsistency of the modern Western world’s understanding of human rights.
Ousting the concept of sin from everyday life and from the sphere of intellectual discourse leads to a blurring of the borderline between good and evil in peoples’ consciousness. The only thing that is forbidden is for people to realize themselves in a manner that could restrict another person’s freedom. In other words, the law of the land must be respected, but moral imperatives are totally unnecessary. Which is why religious ethics, which insists on the primacy of moral values, is today under violent attack. It is declared obsolete, an obstacle to progress. At best it is tolerated, providing it does not contradict the basic tenets of liberalism.
All this adds up to a fundamental contradiction between the religious and secular approaches to the theme of human dignity. The Russian Orthodox Church was the first to formulate this problem, which cannot be swept under the carpet, and bring it into the international arena.
Why has the debate about human dignity and human rights became so topical? Primarily because the Orthodox world is gradually becoming part of the common European space. Many Orthodox states have entered or are about to enter the European Union. And even if Russia’s integration into the EU is still a long way off, we already find ourselves today a part of a common European space. This certainly applies in the sphere of law, with the legislative process in the Russian Federation largely aligned on existing Western European legal standards.
Whether we like it not, Russia belongs to the pan-European space culturally, geographically, historically, politically and psychologically. But even so, in the current process of integration we should not accept uncritically, like slaves, liberal behaviours and values formed without our direct involvement. Russia, with its thousand-year spiritual, cultural, theological and intellectual tradition, should not uncritically adopt the ideas that have emerged in the context ofWestern culture, just as it should not reject them simply because they have been developed outside Russia.
Unfortunately, our sincere desire to impartially analyse and interpret this complex of ideas is frequently rejected out of hand. Moreover, any independent, critical attitude towards secular liberalism, which now serves as an ideological support of integration processes in the new Europe, inevitably attracts hostility. Today, moreover, we unfortunately observe the appearance of symptoms indicating a desire in some liberal circles to use force to combat traditionalism, including religious practices and values.
As we know, the United States has in recent years experienced a vigorous offensive of secularist ideology. For example, in California it is forbidden to set up Christmas trees in public, a prohibition all the more amazing when we learn that in Israel, where Judaism is
the state religion, these symbols of Christmas are distributed free of charge to Christians under a special government programme. The French law prohibiting the public wearing of prominent public religious symbols has provoked fierce public debate on the issue of inalienable rights, including the freedom of religion. Recently, the European media focused on the story of how one of Europe’s intellectuals was deprived of a top position in the European Commission simply for speaking on the issue of homosexuality in the spirit of the Christian tradition. Then there was the scandalous case of a Swedish Pentecostal pastor being sent to prison for calling sodomy a sin in a sermon. Both Europe and Russia have already lived through dramatic and unforgettable periods of different social classes or social groupings defending their ideas by force and depriving others of the right to express their beliefs. In such cases, the triumph of the ideology of the former has ultimately always required if not the physical, then at least the moral destruction of dissidents. For us, it is clear that the principle of priority of individual rights and freedoms in the context of international relations should be based on a broad consensus of all interested parties and not on an arbitrary and selective interpretation of this principle, and a fortiori, not serve any one particular political or ideological order.
For me, the fundamental problem is summed up in the following question: how in the proposed community of peoples can the new world order be consistent with religious principles? In my view it is wrong and even dangerous when people attempt to embrace the whole huge variety of God’s world with a small number of ideas formulated in the Western European philosophical and political context, without the meaningful participation of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Orthodox Christians, and of Catholics as well. Indeed the large majority of the world’s population, with their ancient and native cultures, has never participated meaningfully in the development of this value system, which people want to set up as a universal standard, at times even by force.
There is a danger that those who are unable to respond adequately to this pressure may well opt for resistance by force. It is
not hard to push religious people to the act of self-sacrifice, to find meaning to their lives in defending what is sacred for them. Nor should we exclude the possibility of malicious people exploiting this latent, but real resistance of believers to the impending wave of aggressive liberalism in order to incite violence, as is already the case with the Islamic resistance to the ‘law on wearing head scarves’ or to blasphemous depictions of the prophet Muhammad.
On the other hand, it is clear that the globalization process must sooner or later lead us to agree on common fundamental values. Otherwise it will not be possible to coexist constructively in a single civilizational space.
But at the same time, in my opinion, there is a need for further discussion on how secular liberal values, in the form in which they exist today, can lay claim to be universal, and as to whether these values can, without a corresponding correction, form the basis for the formation of new relationships between people, countries and peoples in our era of globalization.
This situation clearly demonstrates the vital importance in the modern world of inter-civilizational dialogue and the harmonization of different cultural and historical models in the interest of all mankind. This is no easy task today, but this pressing problem is becoming one of the priorities facing the global community.
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