The Experience of Viewing the Problems of Human Rights and their Moral Foundations in European Religious Communities
First of all I would like to tell you that I highly appreciate the opportunity to speak about the Russian Orthodox Church's view on human rights precisely here in Strasbourg, at a forum which represents the Council of Europe. There are two reasons for this satisfaction. Firstly, I represent the Orthodox vision of human rights in an ‘experienced' organization which for a number of decades has accumulated great knowledge in and means of handling this realm. Secondly, I highly value the fact that this conference is taking place. It speaks of how the Council of Europe is open to listening to the voices of various cultures in the European space. For me this testifies to the fact that the Council of Europe is not an elite club remote from society, but a vital expanse of communication between the peoples of Europe, moreover in relation to the values by which they live.
Last April the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church took a decision to produce a document reflecting its view on human rights and the advocacy of human rights. The development of this document has only just begun. Therefore I can only draw your attention to the directions which this work is taking and how it poses the problem. As we are aware, the results of any work are greatly influenced by the motives behind it. Therefore, to begin with, I would like to outline two fundamental reasons by which the Russian Orthodox Church today raises the question of human rights.
First of all, now is the most suitable time for profound reflection upon this conception from the position of our thousand-year spiritual and national tradition. It is no secret that the concept of human rights and its institutions are an idea and reality which have formed in Western culture. Therefore their borrowing requires adaptation to the concrete life of a particular people. Unfortunately, after the Second World War, when the topic of human rights became ever more relevant in international relations and occupied a leading position in the internal life of many countries, the Russian Orthodox Church was deprived of the opportunity of being able to discuss freely this topic. In Soviet society human rights were not regarded as a serious challenge. In signing international agreements in defense of human rights, the Soviet Union had in mind its own standards of human rights, the inviolability of which were upheld by the power of the state. Today no external forces put the Russian Orthodox Church under pressure; therefore it is able to express freely its opinion of human rights. Moreover, these considerations are based on the small yet practical experience of fifteen years of living in communities orientated towards human rights norms.
On the other hand, the Russian Orthodox Church is endeavouring to make its contribution to the development of the universal character of human rights. I have often chanced to hear the view that Russians want to come up with their own comfy notion of human rights and then justify it by any means possible. I would like to make it clear that nobody has ever invented a means of speaking of universal norms other than in their own national language. To this day the understanding and application of human rights bear the serious cultural imprint of the West. This is perhaps not so noticeable in the West, yet it is obvious in the East, in Asia, Latin America and Africa. It is therefore too early to say that a universal vision of human rights exists. Indeed, we are only on the verge of hammering out a truly universal understanding of human rights to which each culture will make its contribution. I believe this to be one of the priority tasks of dialogue between civilizations.
I do not deny that the West has made and continues to make a very weighty and significant contribution to this process, yet it is essential to listen to other voices. In turning to the language of its national culture, each nation turns towards that which is universal within it. Russian culture is especially sensitive to the universal concerns of the human person. It contains a tradition of reflecting upon the topics of freedom, mercy and philanthropy. This is witnessed by Russian theology, spirituality, philosophy, literature and art, which have been studied with interest in other countries. These are the motives which underlie the work of the Russian Church on the topic of human rights.
Now allow me to present those basic lines along which the working group responsible for preparing the document on human rights is thinking. We believe that this document ought to begin by reflecting upon the ideological nucleus of human rights and then come to some practical conclusions. It is obvious that the central idea of the concept of human rights is the notion of the value of the human person. In accordance with this view the well being of each person ought to constitute the main goal of any social order. I would say that this view is a result of humanity's suffering in the terrible wars of the twentieth century, which were instigated under the influence of the idea of national, racial, ideological or economic supremacy. Humanity has seen that this is a dead end. It leads nowhere. Each life and each person have value and are called to a good life. And this idea, which is imbedded in human rights, finds a response in the hearts of many people throughout the globe, independent of their faith and nationality.
Of course, Christianity cannot but respond to this idea, as it was precisely Christianity which nourished this idea. How can it be otherwise if in the eyes of God who created the world the human person occupies a special place and enjoys his special love? In Holy Scripture God's relationship to the human person is expressed in the Greek word agape, which means ‘love.' In the tradition of Christian thought this love is made real and is transformed into the concrete notion of love of humanity. The holy fathers call God the lover of humanity. In Orthodox worship this definition of God is the one that is encountered most often of all. Each person is called upon to embody this very principle in his relations with his neighbour. If the person does not act in this way, he goes against God. For its part, the Russian theological, philosophical and literary tradition has always accorded and continues to accord priority to the theme of the human person and love of the person. Quite recently the famous writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn once more expressed this idea in relation to the practical sphere. He said that the ‘care and well-being of the people is the most important of all the tasks of the state.'
However, love for the human person signifies a certain understanding of his well being which is based upon the notion of the human person. Moreover, it is important with what means this well being is attained. After all we may humiliate someone and believe that we are doing him good. Therefore the goal and means are to be in accord with each other in the single spirit of love for humanity. In modern multicultural society there exists a remarkable unanimity regarding the well being of the human person. However, it touches upon only the material aspect of human life. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this, as our love of neighbour ought to signify concern for his material well being also. It is therefore perfectly right that the state should strive to build an effective economy and create a system of social security for the human person.
At the same time (and unfortunately this has to be said) concern for the spiritual welfare of the human person is left today to the discretion of the individual and is not an object of concern for state and society. At first glance the notion that each defines for himself what serves his spiritual welfare is fine and elevated. In fact it turns out that in withdrawing from this sphere, the state and society lease out the topic of morality in the public sphere to interest groups who attain power, make money and gratify their personal ambitions on the spiritual vices of the human person. This situation is justified as being the free choice of those people who consume this product. However, it is not difficult to create a demand for amoral products if we bear in mind the very unstable moral condition of human nature. There is an ancient Christian story in which a hermit came with his young disciple to a large town to fulfill a need. They were met by a harlot who said to the hermit: ‘You have laboured for many years with this young man in order to educate him in virtue. Would you like me to destroy your labours in a single minute?" The hermit replied that he quite willingly believed her, as it was far more difficult to climb a mountain than descend from it.
A strange thing happens: one knows how to act properly and how one ought to live, yet the false attraction of vice and one's weak will draws us in the opposite direction. Humanity has known this truth since time immemorial. In his Epistle to the Romans St. Paul expressed this laconically: ‘I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate' (Rom 7: 15). The cause of this human condition is sin which distorts human nature. It is uncustomary to speak of sin in the modern world. The secular world has simply made this word taboo. At the same time, for many religions this word is one of the key words in understanding the state of human nature. The non-religious person knows from everyday life that we are capable of mistakes and incorrect actions that do harm to ourselves and others. Thus sin is a universal concept. Society ought not to punish the human person for infracting morality if he does live in accordance with moral precepts in his personal life. Yet in public life society ought to uphold moral direction since the human person needs this support because of his moral weakness. What is now happening in our countries goes completely against this task. In the public realm, especially in the mass media, one is not called upon to observe moral standards but, moreover, by various means is convinced of the necessity of transgressing them. As a result society deprives people of the freedom of moral development and perfection.
The withdrawal of society and the state from supporting the traditional moral norms has resulted in society confronting the offense given to the religious feelings and the advertising of pseudo-religious movements which use the public realm for the propagation of their views. Moreover, in the law of the land and in international law standards are being introduced which are then realized in the policies of countries and which contradict traditional morality. It transpires that the minority imposes its standards upon the majority. In Europe it has become a commonplace when all that is connected to Christianity is removed from the public realm in order not to offend the feelings of representatives of other religions. That results in the connivance at the intolerance of religious minorities and the diminishing of the rights of the religious majority. What then do people see? Human rights cannot defend their cultural and religious traditions. Then they join the ranks of the extreme right, and we are surprised why these political tendencies find support at elections.
I am convinced that the concern for spiritual needs, based moreover on traditional morality, ought to return to the public realm. The upholding of moral standards must become a social cause. It is the mechanism of human rights that can actively enable this return. I am speaking of a return, for the norm of according human rights with traditional morality can be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. It is in particular stated in article 29 paragraph 2: ‘In realizing his rights and freedoms each person ought to submit only to those limitations which have been instituted by law with the sole purpose of safeguarding the due recognition and respect for the human rights and freedoms of others and the satisfaction of the just demands of morality, public order and the general welfare in democratic society.'
The topic of morality proceeds from the question of the purpose and meaning of the institution of human rights. Freedom cannot be an end in itself; otherwise we will be forced to admit its extreme manifestations too, which lead to the self-destruction of the human person and the collapse of society. For example, the problem of giving offense to religious feelings consists not of whether freedom of speech or freedom of creative work should exist, but of how this freedom is used. If one does not care for and take into consideration the opinions of one's fellow citizens, then one does not have the right to speak publicly in this society on this topic. The tragedy of modern-day human rights advocates is that they do not sense that an individual or a group of people can use freedom not for the good but for the bad of others in pursuing their narrow interests.
However, the understanding of what is good and what is bad will not be made manifest by itself. Rousseau's optimistic view of human nature has long since been shown to be utopian. It is my profound conviction that the principle of freedom, which is today defended by human rights institutions, ought to be harmonized with morality and faith. This harmonization ought to be reflected in the structure of contemporary society. In the opposite instance a social system built exceptionally upon human rights will be fragile and destruct itself.
One of the arguments against the presence of moral standards in the public realm is the assertion that there is not a single morality. The opponents of upholding morality in public life say that there are as many people as there are opinions, which means as many approaches to morality. No, there is a single morality. Within the confines of the Ten Commandments the major world religions agree among themselves. It is also with these commandments that as a rule secular ethics also agree. The unity of morality is based upon the human characteristic of conscience. Various philosophical traditions may ascribe them to various sources. Christianity states that it is a divine law inscribed within the human person, suggesting to him what is dangerous for him and what is not.
This was once more affirmed by the various meetings in which the Russian Orthodox Church has actively participated this year. The topic of human rights was discussed by representatives of Russian society and people of Russian culture from various countries at the World Russian Peoples' Council. There were discussions between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church in Vienna last May. Moscow hosted a summit of religious leaders at the beginning of July. In September, together with the Council of Europe, Nizhny Novgorod hosted the ‘Dialogue of Cultures and Inter-Religious Cooperation' Conference. All of these meetings showed that not only between the various Christian confessions is there a common understanding of moral standards, but also between the main world religious communities and even secular moral value systems. At all conferences we found a sufficiently wide platform for that which is upheld by each religious or secular force. Of course, we believe in God in different ways, yet we relate to peoples' religious feelings in identical ways, and we do not believe that it is permissible to offend them for the sake of freedom of expression.
Why is the opinion of the majority ignored and not taken into account in the structure of modern-day society? It is this question which we address today to the world community. We understand that harmonizing freedom of personal moral choice with the moral values of society is an extremely difficult task. It will not be resolved by interdictions and controls alone. The education moral behaviour ought to be a social aim. No political or economic interests ought to distort this goal. However, the human person should have the freedom of choice in his personal life, in other words, to have an opportunity not to adhere to norms. In this instance neither the state nor society should implement any sanctions or penalties. Yet from the television screen one ought not to be taught how to find a mistress but how to set up and keep a family, not how to earn a living dishonestly but how to earn a living by honest labour.
In order that moral norms and values of religious traditions be present in the public domain, it is essential to set up mechanisms of dialogue between the structures of the authorities and religious communities, of interaction between society and religion. Religious organizations ought to have the chance to enter into dialogue and have a genuine influence upon fundamental decision-making, since they are the main bearers of moral values in any society. It is essential to have a multilateral dialogue both at the national and international levels. It would be good if the Council of Europe, the European Union and United Nations were to develop consultative organs which would enter into dialogue with religious organizations.
In today's conditions of the multiculturalism of practically every society not a single religion can claim to have a special status. However, the place of each religion in society and its contribution to the life of society must be considered. The political and social system ought to be constructed so that religious organizations can work with their followers, including the social sphere: in education, health, public service and so on. Therefore in those countries where the Russian Church has a presence it speaks out for the teaching of Orthodox culture in secular schools, for the introduction of chaplaincies, the presence of religious topics in the media and the social ministry of religious organizations. Today Orthodox public opinion is aiming to be included in the advocacy of human rights in all realms of social life. Thus, there are plans to set up a human rights centre under the World Russian Peoples' Council. I am convinced that the experience that we will gain would help us to reflect upon the meaning of defending human rights. I would like to emphasize that in the process of working we are open to dialogue and cooperation with all public forces.
October 30, 2006