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What Does Determine the Human Rights?


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 30/2009, P. 331 et sequ.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The murder of the Russian-Chechen journalist and courageous human rights campaigner Natalya Estemirowa has again outraged the public far beyond Russia. What is the truth about the human rights with the great power? And what does the Russian Orthodox Church do in its commitment for their observance?

The horror is great. Once again, a Russian journalist and human rights activist was kidnapped and killed because she persistently informed about crimes against humanity and wanted to rouse people out of lethargy and to hold the mirror up to the political rulers. This time it hit Natalya Estemirowa who worked in the Chechen Grozny - only a few months after the murder of lawyer Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburowa, the journalist critical of Kremlin. All this, however, at a time when once again the attempt is made to shed light on the background of the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya and to find the wire pullers.

Amnesty International says that the new murder was again a "terrible tragedy" and was connected with the "attempt to silence the civil society in Russia." German Chancellor Angela Merkel calls upon President Dimitrij Medvedev to see to it that determined investigations are carried out. The action was an "unacceptable event." Great doubts are once again deepened whether Russia and its government are really able to establish the rule of law and democracy. All these events also challenge the Russian Orthodox Church that is always appealing to morality but in specific cases rather remains silent in view of the alliance with the government. What does one really think and actively undertake in the human rights issue in the Moscow Patriarchate?


A Protestant Inquiry

Exactly one year ago the leading clergy adopted a basic text about the topic "Dignity, Freedom and Rights of Man". With the publication one also wanted to suggest an international inter-church debate. One asked for feedback. This has now happened initially by a very critical opinion of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe. It reproaches on principle the Declaration of the Russian Orthodox Church with giving the impression that the general human rights would be relativized in the name of Christian morality. In the document it was e.g. supposed that the observance of human rights often forced Christians to contravene divine commandments. Some human rights institutions - so the document suggested - wanted, based on the inviolable human rights, to spread liberalist ideas and thus they would encourage e.g. abortion, suicide, adultery, perversion, destruction of the family". However, background of the Western criticism is the, in view of the facts, not unjustified fear that the religious argument could be abused in Moscow by the state authority, in order to justify thus the erosion of liberal, democratic civil rights - for the sake of a supposedly higher morality.

The Protestant Churches declare that in their opinion the Russian Orthodox interpretation of human rights was not comprehensible. The various international human rights declarations stressed clearly and definitely the protection of life and the inviolability of the person, especially the protection of private life and family. One had the suspicion that the Russian Orthodox Church subordinated the human rights to the values and interests of the homeland, the national community and the family. In view of the many restrictions on civil and political rights in Russia, however, one would miss clear statements of Orthodoxy on the protection of individuals against state infringements, on political persecution, political murders, discrimination of minorities and on the erosion of democracy. According to Protestant understanding all people were because of their God-given dignity, their likeness to God entitled to human rights. Human rights must therefore not be granted, weakened or even denied by any inner-worldly authority.


A Catholic Justification

In the Ecumenical Service of the "Catholic News Agency" the theologian Barbara Hallensleben, who is teaching in Fribourg, together with Nicholas Wyrwoll, deputy director of the Ostkirchlichen Instituts in Regensburg and the Dominican Guido Vergauwen, Rector of the University Fribourg have - in a reaction to the Protestant text - now published an analysis of the dispute, which in turn reproaches the opinion of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe for misinterpreting and misunderstanding the Orthodox statement. It was not true that Orthodoxy relativized the human rights or made them dependent on certain moral views or achievements of people. On the contrary, the position of the Russian Orthodoxy could refer to "the best Western human rights tradition, which for its part was rooted unmistakably in Christian principles". "No doubt, based on the Bible and the Church Fathers the Moscow text ascribes an inviolable dignity to man because of his/her creation in the image and likeness of God." The Russian Orthodox Church preferred the terms "natural dignity" or "value of man". This dignity is inviolable. However, if people do not exhaust their vocation for deification, i.e. to live in accordance with their likeness to God, essential facilities are withheld from them.

The likeness to God is nevertheless indelible. Patriarch Cyril I said about it, "A morally unworthy life does not destroy the God-given dignity on the ontological level (concerning the being), but it darkened it so much that it is hardly recognizable. That is precisely why a great effort of will is needed in order to see or even to acknowledge the natural dignity of a serious offender or tyrant."

Contrary to the objections of the Protestant Churches the Catholic theologians see also the reference to Christ in the Russian substantiation of the human rights. For in its document it says, "The fact that the Lord Jesus Christ assumed human nature in its fullness except for sin shows that this dignity does not apply to the distortions resulting from the fall."



The Catholic theologians add that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 explicitly backs up these rights by orienting them towards the public order and thus naturally towards obligatory moral standards. There it says, "In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society."


An Orthodox Insight

In case of the difficult morally weighing good against evil in a particular case or perhaps even of immoral behaviour one cannot refer in a fundamentalist way to the human rights as "killer argument" in order to achieve one's own interests and to justify personal needs. The Russian Patriarch is right with his conclusion that the "human rights cannot be an absolute standard but are to be in accordance with a number of parameters."

According to the Catholic opinion this corresponds by the way also to the view of Immanuel Kant in his "Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten" [Foundations for the Metaphysics of Morals]. According to it the dignity of man is connected with the common purposes [allgemeinen Reich der Zwecke] in the morally constituted community. The answer of the Protestant Church unfortunately gives subliminally the impression that there was unambiguity in the interpretation of human rights and human dignity. This would, however, neither do justice to the practice nor to the current discourse on human rights.

The Russian Orthodox Church was rightly pointing to the fact that the human rights are very differently interpreted - and that a certain ambivalence and relativity has de facto always been in it. What does count in case of conflict, which human right weighs heavier in case of some specific ambiguity?

For example: "Does in case of the Mohammed cartoons the freedom of expression of the author count or the respect for the religious feelings of Muslims? Is for the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights concerning the exclusion of women from Mount Athos the religious right to self-determination of the monastic republic decisive or the gender equality? ... When a Swedish Lutheran pastor in a sermon explains that homosexuality is contrary to biblical teaching and is arrested for it, are then his human rights respected? Who protects doctors or nurses who refuse to participate in abortions from discrimination by poorer chances to be employed? ... "

The Catholic theologians point to the social cross-linkage of the individual human rights: "In the good tradition of Western political thought the Moscow declaration of human rights sees man as a social animal: not as individual related to itself but as a person that can only fully develop its identity in community. In the Russian text 'morality' is not understood as a catalogue of abstract standards but as an 'ethos', i.e. as a plausible and by the political community actively cultivated form of life under very specific social, political, economic and cultural conditions which in the best possible way promote the successful life of individuals as well as of the community and encourage a dynamic development of the dignity of the human person."

One reminds of the famous statement of the German Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, expert in constitutional law, "The liberal, secular state lives from pre-conditions which it cannot guarantee." This view coincided with the opinion of Patriarch Cyril, who said, "The insight, what is good and what is bad, does not develop automatically. The optimistic view of man's nature in Rousseau has long since been proved to be utopian. I am firmly convinced that the principle of freedom, which today is defended by the establishment of human rights, has to be reconciled with ethics and faith. This correspondence must be reflected in today's social order."


A Secular Conclusion

From their assessment of the Orthodox-Protestant dispute the Catholic authors draw the conclusion that the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe has interpreted the Orthodox declaration contradictory to its manifest wording and thus disfigured it. At any rate, in the newly started discussion about the human rights one is to notice that questions arise which can by no means simply solved by a naive, uncritical recourse to an abstract dignity of man. If the human rights system is attributed to the non-discrimination of any individual self-realization and in turn is made the standard of moral actions in public, then it is not only extremely conflict-laden, but self-contradictory and destructive for the polity. The human rights dialogue should not be led out of a naive optimism but it had critically to take into consideration also the social and moral contexts and attachments.

At any rate, the Russian Orthodox view that sees the human rights at the same time bound to general moral standards and transcendent religious guiding principles deserves to be taken seriously and not to be denounced. In the Christian view human rights are also rights of God, on which they are based. This lays critical emphasis on the interpretation of human rights: against an excessively subjectivist-individualist and thus sometimes liberalist interpretation as it is partly predominant in the West. Human rights are also obligations and are thus not just only entitlements to the - sometimes arbitrarily understood - satisfaction of private needs and interests.

Conversely the critical inquiry of the Protestant Churches is of great importance to the religious life as well as to politics on a global scale: For just in a world power like Russia that is struggling for liberalism and democracy, it is particularly important that the individual human rights are not sacrificed to collective constraints and points of view, perhaps even under the pretext to serve in this way the social dimension of human rights. In this respect, the religious, inter-denominational, Christian dialogue on human rights cannot be underestimated in its importance to the general secular dispute about human rights and especially to the understanding between East and West in terms of world politics. The latest crimes against Russian human rights activists on the other hand confirm that it is high time for the Orthodox Church to come clean - for the sake of its religious and human credibility.


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