Russian Orthodox: Human Rights ‘not absolute’

In Russia Profile, Andrei Zolotov Jr. reports on the Russian Orthodox Council of Bishops and its adoption of a new work titled, “The Bases of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Teaching on Dignity, Liberty and Human Rights.” Zolotov says it’s no accident that this report surfaces at a time when Russia and the European Union are “actively engaged” on a discussion of common values.

In the Bishops Council document, he reports, the Church says that “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.” Zolotov continued:

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.

Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad said the issue of human rights is approached cautiously by Orthodox Christians and that caution is justified.

On the one hand, we have seen positive effect of human rights on the life of the people. Thanks to the care to respect these rights in the post-war years the Soviet state contained its persecution of the believers. On the other hand, however, we have seen in the recent decades how human rights could be an instrument aimed against spiritual and moral foundations of people’s life. Those dealing with human rights in our society try to strengthen the philosophy of life that is non-religious, ethically relativistic and hedonistic.

Rev. Georgy Ryabykh, acting secretary of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations, called for a renewal of human rights advocacy in Russia. The problem, he said, was that many people don’t view human rights activists as the best way to ensure human rights.

According to Fr. Georgy, “for the recent decades some prominent human rights advocates have created appalling image of this sort of social work. Many people consider human rights advocates as enemies of national spiritual and moral culture, anti-state elements, carriers of foreign interests and tendentious political forces.”

In his book “Facing the World: Orthodox Christian Essays on Global Concerns,” Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania, looked at the theological and sociopolitical underpinnings of the human rights movement. On the basic core concepts — freedom, equality and human dignity — there is much in agreement with Orthodox teaching. But human rights declarations, the archbishop points out, are primarily concerned with the relationship of the individual and the state. A key difference is how these declarations and the Christian faith are put into practice:

Declarations seek to impose their views through legal and political forms of coercion, whereas the Christian message addresses itself to people’s ways of thinking and to their conscience, using persuasion and faith. Declarations basically stress outward compliance, while the gospel insists on inner acceptance, on spiritual rebirth, and on transformation. Any attempt to consider human rights from an Orthodox point of view must therefore maintain a clear sense of the differences between these two perspectives.

So, why are Orthodox hierarchs skeptical about some of the work of “priests and priestesses” of the human rights movement? Well, here are just two recent examples. In Sweden, a school confiscated birthday invitations from an 8-year-old boy because he did not include all of his classmates, a possible violation of childrens’ rights. The matter has been referred to the Swedish Parliament. In Spain, a parliamentary environmental panel passed a resolution urging the government to embrace the Great Ape Project, which offers gorillas and chimpanzees the “right to life, freedom from arbitrary deprivation of liberty and protection from torture because of their genetic and behavioral similarity to humans.” The El Mundo newspaper said it was odd that Spanish lawmakers “would spend their time trying to make the land of bullfighting the main defender of monkeys.”


  1. Vandepotgerukt says

    As long as Russia is not the Russia it pretends to be (for whatever reason), we’ll just have to guess whether Russia really has an alternative to Western human rights on offer. For now it requires a fearless leap of faith.

  2. Michael Bauman says

    The crux of this matter is the definition of human. For materialists the only standard is morphology and behavior, e.g., the great apes, and ‘fairness’, e.g., the Swedish example in which they somehow ignore how ‘unfair’ they are being to the boy who was passing out the invitations. Such criteria ignores actual BEING and ends up without any real criteria at all other than whatever those with power say.

    Regardless of the political/moral situation in Russia, the wisdom of the Church is always of benefit. As long as the Russian bishops are attempting to express the Church’s wisdom, they do well and we should listen. The battle they are engaging is central to our task in this age. Are human’s just a bio-chemical machine without transcendence or are we really made in image and likeness of God with the responsibility to dress and keep the earth and bring it to salvation as we submit to the love of Christ.

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