The Reception of Human Rights in the Eastern Orthodox Theology: Challenges and Perspectives

In: Politics, Society and Culture in Orthodox Theology in a Global Age
Ioannis Kaminis
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Introduction: The Notion of Human Rights

Human rights are ethical principles or social norms that set certain standards of human conduct and are protected as legal rights by domestic and international law.1 They are generally regarded as inalienable, fundamental rights that every person possesses by birth simply because he or she is a human being, and these rights are inherent in all human beings regardless of their nationality, location, language, religion, ethnic origin or any other status.2 Human rights are applicable everywhere and at all times in the sense that they are universal and also egalitarian because they are the same for every person. They require compassion and the rule of law and impose on every person the duty to respect the rights of others. They should not be taken away except as a result of due process or on the basis of specific circumstances.3 For example, human rights may include freedom from unlawful detention, torture or execution.4 As Andrew Clapham states, “Human rights are about each of us living in dignity. […] [T]he human rights project is not simply about implementing a set of obligations fixed in history; rather, the human rights movement is about people standing up to injustice and showing solidarity in the face of oppression.”5 Moreover, we usually consider human rights to be a combination of universality, empathy, equality and the rule of law along with national or international enforcement mechanisms. However, we can also see them as an international mass movement that operates beyond the state system. Samuel Moyn, for example, sees them as “a set of global political norms providing the creed of a transnational social movement” or “an internationalism revolving around individual rights.”6

The human rights doctrine is a cornerstone of contemporary global politics, having a significant impact on international relations, international law, the work of global and regional institutions, the policies of individual states and the work of non-governmental organizations. As a matter of fact,

the doctrine of human rights is the articulation in the public morality of world politics of the idea that each person is a subject of global concern. It does not matter what a person’s spatial location might be or which political subdivision or social group the person might belong to. Everyone has human rights, and responsibilities to respect and protect these rights may, in principle, extend across political and social boundaries.7

Nevertheless, human rights continue to provoke considerable skepticism as well as controversy about their scope, nature and justifiability. The precise meaning of the term “rights” is controversial in itself and subject to ongoing philosophical debate.8 While there is consensus that human rights encompass a wide range of rights, such as the right to a fair trial, protection from slavery, prohibition of genocide, freedom of speech, right to education etc., there is no agreement as to which of these specific rights should be included in the general rights framework. Apart from this, we also

encounter the reaction that rights have to be implemented according to the cultural and economic context of the country concerned. This is sometimes seen as the death knell for the credibility of the so-called “universality” of human rights. It is, however, a mistake to imagine that human rights can, or should, operate divorced from any local context. Even the application of an accepted right, such as the right to life, can lead to different interpretations depending on the country context.9

Some authors argue that the definition of human rights should be relatively narrow so as to prevent the worst violations, while others advocate higher requirements.10

The Origin of Human Rights

It is important for our study to determine first of all the origins of the idea of human rights in order to understand the current debate in the Orthodox world regarding them and their compatibility with Eastern Orthodoxy. Like any other idea, human rights did not come from nothing but are the product of philosophical and cultural evolution. What we can be sure of, however, is that the idea of human rights emerged in Europe. Unfortunately, there is a misconception that human rights are a product of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. For example, the prominent Greek theologian and philosopher Christos Yannaras argues that

The institutionalization of the protection of individual rights defines European modernity. It marks the end of the experience of the “Middle Ages”: centuries of torture and insecurity of Western European man – oppression of the weakest by the most powerful social classes, of serfs by feudal lords, of the poorest by the most powerful classes, by the nobles and the clergy. But if, for specific historical reasons, the central and western part of Europe was submerged for many centuries in despotism and oligarchic arbitrariness, if with its altogether admirable “Renaissance” it managed to enter the pre-political phase of the establishment of the rights of the individual, this does not mean that the demand and achievement of politics has not been already historically known and realized.11

I am not going to comment here on the superficial description of the Western Middle Ages, which clearly represents the author’s ideological construct along with a dualistic view of European history that is not based on factual evidence. It is well known that Yannaras equates the Western Middle Ages with barbarity, putting history into black and white boxes. Of course, human societies are so much more complex than that, in the sense that people and nations cannot be boxed straightforwardly into a set of categories that accommodate our ideological constructs.12

First of all, the French historian of law Michel Villey brings to light the medieval and late medieval roots of modern legal philosophy, indicating that there was a continuity between the last medieval scholastics (notably Duns Scotus and William of Ockham) with the scholastics of the modern period (Francisco Suárez), along with the first great modern political thinkers. According to him, only this continuity allows us to understand how the idea that law has its source in the will of a superior power has been imposed. If modern thinkers such as Hobbes or Locke “secularize” the thought of the scholastic theologians, they do it by a simple replacement: actually, they substitute the will of the God by that of the sovereign, passing from theology of law to modern legal philosophy. Of course, Villey’s thesis, simplified in this way, certainly does not do justice to the finesse of the argument and the concrete analyses proposed by him. In this spirit, Villey states that the modern idea of subjective rights is based in the nominalist philosophy of the 14th century and, more concretely, in the nominalist philosophy of William of Ockham.13 Of course, like any strong thesis, Villey has also been questioned and criticized. All in all, however, his study prompted other scholars to look for the origins of natural rights and consequently human rights in the Middle Ages. Brian Tierney, for example, even though he criticizes Villey, acknowledges at the same time his contributions in this area. Nevertheless, according to Tierney, Villey has exaggerated the importance of Ockham as an innovator.14 Tierney traces the origin of natural rights back to the earlier literature of Franciscan controversies, along with the writings of certain medieval canonists. It is very interesting to note Tierney’s observation that

if we go back to the early days of the Order, the whole Franciscan movement can be seen as a culmination in the religious sphere of the personalism or individualism that also influenced twelfth-century law. From the beginning, there was a special kind of individualism in Francis’s attitude to the world around him; he did not love mankind in the abstract but particular men and women. Francis laid down in his Rule that all the brothers were to obey their superiors, but then added: “in everything that is not against their conscience.”15

We also have to mention that, according to Tierney, natural rights and consequently human rights started to evolve during the Middle Ages and more concretely in the 12th century and afterwards. For example, the ancient Greeks had no doctrine of natural rights and whether they had any concept of subjective rights it is still being discussed. In addition, early Christianity did not have any concept of natural or subjective rights either. As Tierney points out: “Paul wrote of a law written on the hearts of men; but he did not assert that ‘all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights’.”16 Tierney also cites numerous examples from the Middle Ages that show the evolution of natural rights during this period, and he substantiates his position by presenting various texts related to the language of canonistic rights.17 Particularly interesting and important is his observation concerning the interpretation of Jean Gerson of 1 Corinthians 6:12, “All things are lawful’.” According to Tierney, Gerson associates ius natural with Paul’s text, transforming the ceremonial Jewish precepts “into a more generalized doctrine of natural liberties,” and “it was not that Christianity first conferred rights on its followers; rather, by not imposing the restrictions of the Old Law it left them free to exercise their pre-existing natural rights.”18

To summarize, it is clear from the sources that Tierney puts forward the seminal idea by Villey that natural rights and therefore human rights derive from a particular interpretation and development of Christianity that took place in Western Europe. This means that human rights are not a product of secularization, the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, as Yannaras implies. On the contrary, we could in a way argue that secularization itself is a product of Christianity, of the freedom that Christianity provides to the human spirit. Paul’s saying, “All things are lawful,” is ultimately prophetic; what matters is personal responsibility, not some external heteronomous force that imposes its will on the individual, subordinating her to the collective.

Yannaras has a holistic approach related to the so-called “ecclesiastical event.” He points to the continuity and heritage of the assembly of citizens in the democratic city states of ancient Greece and their relation to the Christian church (ecclesia). The fact that the same word (ecclesia) is being used for the assembly of the citizens in the city state does not, however, mean that it denotes the same thing or that it is invested with the same meaning. With this leap of imagination, the Greek theologian identifies to some extent the political art that he considers to “the struggle of co-shaping with the rationality of the harmony of relationships – the way of the actual being, the universal common reason that ensures participation in existential truth and genuineness,”19 with the “ontological basis of politics, which will more fully clarify the Christian experience.”20

It is obvious that Υannaras’ ideological construct has nothing to do with historical reality since the Christian church not only had nothing to do with Athens’ political democracy but was born within an imperial and, to some extent, totalitarian and authoritarian regime that later actively supported it and was supported by it when it became the official religion of the Roman-Byzantine state. On the other hand, the emergence of democracy in the city states of ancient Greece – or in some of them because the ancient Greek world is not characterized only by democracy but also by oligarchy – is not only related to metaphysical philosophy but to economic, geographical and social causes that Yannaras either ignores or simply does not take into account. Modern studies attempt to explain the phenomenon of democracy in the city states, basing it, however, not on philosophical arguments but on actual evidence.21

The truth is that Christianity began as a radical, almost revolutionary, theory that united people regardless of gender, ethnicity or social class. Later, however, it was appropriated by the Roman Empire and became an official religion, losing to some extent its radicalism, which nevertheless persisted in certain monastic circles and individuals.22 The imperial structure, however, remained autocratic and centralized, not conducive to the independence of the individual nor to the emergence of natural and, by extension, individual rights. The successful combination of the emergence of the latter was achieved in the West precisely because social structures were feudal and fragmented. Tierney describes this fact brilliantly:

Since neither the spiritual nor temporal power could wholly dominate the other, medieval government never congealed into a rigid theocratic absolutism in which rights theories could never have taken root. Instead, in the vigorous, fluid, expanding society of the twelfth century, old rights were persistently asserted and new ones insistently demanded.23

He continues by saying that a feudal lord could simultaneously enjoy all the rights enumerated in Hohfeld’s modern classification,24 the claim to rents and services, the power to administer justice, immunity from external jurisdictions or the freedom to hunt, for example, in the neighboring forest. There was undoubtedly a situation of pluralism and class struggle, but the problems were solved by the establishment of the rights of each class and not by revolutionary violence:25

Cathedral canons asserted their rights against bishops. Bishops and barons demanded their rights against kings. Newly-founded communes sometimes bought their rights and sometimes fought for them. Even peasants, emigrating to found new villages in the still vast expanses of forest and wasteland, could claim enhanced liberties from lords who needed fresh supplies of labor. Medieval people first struggled for survival, then they struggled for rights.26

Theologian Konstantinos Delikostantis has a more comprehensive and systematic view of human rights that is based on an Orthodox point of view. He underlines the universal value of human rights and analyzes in a convincing way the affinity between human rights and the rights that Christianity offers. By exploring the historical roots and relations between the doctrine of human rights and Christianity, he emphasizes that “human rights have inherited much from Christianity, but they have conflicted with it, and he is certain that they express a different idea of freedom than the Christian one.”27 The tension that exists between Christianity and modernity today must lead to a creative dialogue and not to a fruitless conflict. The reason is that, if we want to understand and realize human rights, “an enlightened society of believers is better than a society that is comprised only of believers.” The same author concludes that “Church and theology cannot ignore the great importance of human rights.” As for the Orthodox tradition, Delikostantis maintains that the idea of human dignity has been developed differently in the East and the West:

Human freedom, which is a gift of the divine grace, does not insist on claiming rights but considers itself embedded in a web of love, which is realized as a constant self-overcoming and movement towards one’s fellow human being. The fundamental human right that can be inferred from the thought of Orthodox spirituality is the right “to love God in the fellow human being, to love one’s fellow human being for God’s sake.”28

In contrast to the notion of human dignity and freedom developed in the West, which, according to Delikostantis is quite individualistic and self-centered, Orthodox spirituality is “identified with freedom as community and love”;29 that is, Orthodoxy is characterized by a “particular communality,”30 while for Orthodoxy God Himself is a community of persons and this divine community has no relation to individualistic salvation but “communalizes” every human being. For Delikostantis, “the Orthodox theological foundation and interpretation of human rights open up the horizon of the social dimension of human freedom. The ethos of responsible freedom, which the human rights express, is recognized, while their essential social meaning is restored.”31 Thus, human rights are part of universal tradition that stresses the love of others and has reconciled freedom and love, the individual and the society, while uniting people and cultures and honored the human person. The depth of Orthodox ethos can be revealed only in dialogue with human rights and modernity. Delikostantis points to the value and goal that human rights can have for Orthodox theology if they are interpreted accordingly because such an interpretation can help one break away from fanaticism and sterile dogmatism on the one hand and provide the initiation of dialogue with contemporary philosophical currents and modernity on the other. Sincere and open-minded dialogue is the only way for the Eastern Orthodox Church to avoid isolation and to communicate with the modern world.

The question that arises here is the following: If the doctrine of natural and thus human rights has its roots to some extent in Christianity and more specifically in the experience of Western Middle Ages, then what happened in the Christian East? Could there have been a similar development there as well? This is a question of grave importance that requires historical analysis. To some extent, Eastern Orthodoxy is sufficiently pluralistic to embrace human rights, but its intolerance of modernity is due to historical and theological reasons that will be examined in the fourth part of this contribution.

Christianity as a Source of Human Rights and Individualism

Christianity acted largely as a precursor to human rights, the rise of the subject and individuality. As Pantelis Kalaitzidis notes, Christianity has led to the

de-secralization of Caesar and civil authority; the release of the human being from religious subordination and submission to the city, the state or the sacralized civil authority and biological subordination to the tribe, the patriarchal family, the clan and the family group; to the new emphasis given by the Gospel on the unrepeatable uniqueness and value of the human person […] What else was ultimately the early Christian struggle for the ‘right’ to conversion, if not the ‘right’ of individuals to free themselves from their ancestors’ religious beliefs, or from their community tradition, as prerequisites for adopting Christian faith?”32

Moreover, P. Kalaitzidis substantiates the aforementioned argument by taking into account the “analysis of the phenomenon of spiritual autobiography, as it is exemplified by Augustine in the Latin West, but especially by Gregory of Nazianzus in the Greek East.”33 In light of these facts, it seems that Christianity provides something more in the way of thinking about the human being and the individual, something that seems to have been missing from the pagan Greco-Roman society of that time.

In general, there is a lack of depth and an understatement concerning human rights found in Orthodox writers. Undoubtedly, Υannaras’ view of human rights is part of his general polemic towards the West, the selective collection of studies that support his position, and an imaginary view of Orthodoxy representing authentic Christianity as opposed to the West, which supposedly distorted Christianity. The identification of the West with barbarism is also wrong because by today’s standards we can accuse the Byzantine Empire of the same barbarism, which was also institutionalized.34 Additionally, the opinion held by Archbishop Anastasios of Albania is also ambivalent. The fact that he suggests that Orthodox theologians and members of the church should engage in the dialogue about human rights while maintaining the (Orthodox) theological conceptual framework indicates the fact that Orthodox hierarchs do not understand that human rights are already established in the consciousness of human beings, men and women alike. Aphorisms such as “the contents of human rights documents are just beginnings; they do nothing to safeguard the dignity of persons against domination of their egos”35 seem void of meaning because, in my opinion, human rights can prevent actual atrocities or at least provide a practical framework for condemning violence against human beings.

The situation is more aggravated if we take into account The Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity Freedom and Rights.36 The introduction of the document sets the tone, which is in contrast with the human rights doctrine: “Christians have found themselves in a situation where public and social structures can force and often have already forced them to think and act contrary to God’s commandments, thus obstructing their way towards the most important goal in human life, which is deliverance from sin and finding salvation.” The problem here is that human rights project a universal moral framework and a view of the human being that can be applied to all people regardless of their religious beliefs, while the Orthodox Christian framework sets deliverance from “sin” and finding “salvation” as the goal of human being. Again, I think that terms such as “sin” and “salvation” cannot be a part of a sincere dialogue with the human rights doctrine. In the same vein, a Buddhist can object to human rights by saying that the goal of the human being is nirvāṇa, while not taking into account that human rights refer to the human person on a whole different level that transcends any religious dimension. According to the same text:

In Orthodoxy the dignity and ultimate worth of every human person are derived from the image of God, while dignified life is related to the notion of God’s likeness achieved through God’s grace by efforts to overcome sin and to seek moral purity and virtue. Therefore, the human being as bearing the image of God should not exult in this lofty dignity, for it is not his own achievement but a gift of God. Nor should he use it to justify his weaknesses or vices, but rather understand his responsibility for the direction and way of his life. Clearly, the idea of responsibility is integral to the very notion of dignity. (I.2)

It is God alone as the source of freedom Who can maintain it in a human being. Those who do not wish to part with sin give away their freedom to the devil, the enemy of God and the father of evil and captivity. While recognizing the value of freedom of choice, the Church affirms that this freedom will inevitably disappear if the choice is made in favor of evil. Evil and freedom are incompatible […]. (II.2)

As Kristina Stoeckl states:

the difference between the secular and the religious understanding is straightforward: secular documents postulate human dignity as a natural quality of human beings, while the religious document links human dignity to the act of divine creation. In both cases human dignity is an inalienable quality of the human being, but in the first this inalienability lies within human nature, while in the second it lies with the divine will.37

I do not think there is any need to dwell on the ROC document. Its weaknesses are obvious, while its discourse is purely religious, with the goal of contrasting religious-Christian terminology to the language of human rights. On this point, I agree with Stoeckl who states that “even when a conservative religious tradition like Russian Orthodoxy engages in the work of ‘translation’, what it renders understandable to a secular audience is far from reconcilable with liberal democracy.”38 I also agree with the critical statements by Aristotle Papanikolaou39 and Pantelis Kalaitzidis40 on the same document. For my part, what I would like to note is the absence of the concept of love in the Russian text. It is interesting that love is presented mainly in the context of love for the homeland and compatriots, and not for the whole world, love for the stranger, and the totally “other.” The text points out that “human rights should not contradict love for one’s homeland and neighbors” (III.4), which means that the homeland is superior to human rights, probably even if my “homeland” sends me to an unjust or war of conquest against other people. I do not think that such ideas are compatible with Christian teaching, St. Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13:1–13 or with the Epistle to Diognetus, which states that for Christians “every foreign country is fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign.” This brand of moralistic, legalistic and nationalistic Christianity seems more like a Christianity of compromises, a Christianity that has succumbed to the so-called temptation of Judas, an issue not only for the ROC but for the most autocephalous Orthodox Churches.41 This stance of the ROC can be explained historically. In fact, ever since the time of Joseph Stalin, the ROC has gradually begun to become an instrument of influence on behalf of the foreign policy of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The unsuccessful attempts of the ROC as early the late 1940s and early 1950s to convene a “Pan-Orthodox Synod” in Moscow are well known; its aim was to declare itself an Orthodox Vatican and to govern the rest of the autocephalous churches. Although the Soviet authorities continued to persecute the Church in the areas under their control, this policy remained the same throughout the entire historical period of the USSR and even after the formation of the Russian Federation in 1991. It is in this context that we understand the hostility and constant attacks by the Russian media against the leader of the Orthodox Church, namely, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Nevertheless, the truth is that Russian pressure on the Patriarchate of Constantinople began as early as the Ottoman period and has gradually increased with the emergence of Pan-Slavism in the Russian Empire and the countries under its influence. At present, the government of the Russian Federation, represented by President Putin’s party “United Russia,” clearly exploits pro-Orthodox, communist, far-right and nationalist parties and groups in the Balkans to consolidate its influence and to strengthen anti-European and anti-Western sentiments. The nationalist Russian version of Orthodox politics has been used in the international arena and was fully activated during the war in Ukraine, thus making Orthodoxy an important political factor in international relations. What is essentially happening in the Russian Federation today, according to the Russian priest and historian Yakov Krotov, is the “nationalization of Orthodoxy” and its transformation into government ideology while the ROC assumes “the functions of a colonel military chaplain, who performs administrative duties.”42 Since 2001, President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, and the Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow have been collaborating to restore the Soviet regime and systematically reject universally accepted human rights while presenting a distorted and false image of Orthodoxy as an “anti-Western ideology” and substitute for European democratic values. This kind of distorted ideology is promoted systematically by pro-Russian media, especially in the Balkans and countries with predominantly Eastern Orthodox believers, as a political alternative that can replace democracy, freedom and human rights.43

Another more recent text that we would like to consider is the text For the Life of The World: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church44, which contains a separate section dedicated to the human rights issue. This text intends to continue the engagement with modernity initiated by the Holy and Great Council of Crete in 2016. In view of some new issues and challenges, additional efforts were needed to provide new impulses for the Church and its faithful. A comparison with the documents of the Council shows that the Social Ethos text is quite significant in this regard. Moreover, the ideas of the text are addressed to a global audience and not only to countries with a predominantly Orthodox population. There is an obvious realization that globalization is now a fact and that we live in a world in which we depend on each other. That is why the Social Ethos text emphasizes that: “There can be no such thing as ‘Christian nationalism’, or even any form of nationalism tolerable to Christian conscience’.”45 This statement is totally opposite to what ROC’s text says about the homeland. It is also very important that the Orthodox Church seems – perhaps for the first time – to be moving beyond Byzantinism and its preoccupation with the once glorious past. This means, in part, that it does not only agree to enter into dialogue with modernity but also to accept certain aspects of it that have already been established in social life. That is why this text points out the following:

The Orthodox Church earnestly seeks unity with all Christians out of love and desire to share the spiritual riches of her tradition with all who seek the face of Christ. Moreover, it understands that the particular cultural forms of tradition must not be confused with either the true apostolic authority or the sacramental grace with which it has been entrusted. The Church seeks sustained dialogue with Christians of other communions in order to offer them a full understanding of the beauty of Orthodoxy, not in order to convert them to some cultural “Byzantinism.” It does so also in order to learn from the experiences of Christians throughout the world, to understand the many cultural expressions of Christianity, and to seek unity among all who call upon the name of Jesus. (6.51)

It becomes apparent that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has assumed a leading global role and can address not only Orthodox Christians but humanity as a whole. Thus, its approach is not exclusively narrow or confessional like that of the ROC but involves a broader global context. Furthermore, the Ecumenical Patriarchate takes heed of the “signs of the times,” such as the pluralism of Christian denominations, religions and different worldviews. For example, the Social Ethos text does not take sides in the cultural wars related to sexuality but transcends sexuality itself, since the identity of the human being is not based on her sexual preferences but on something more important, that is, the fact that she is an image of God:

A great many political and social debates in the modern world turn upon the distinct demands and needs of heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, and other sexual “identities.” It is true, as a simple physiological and psychological fact, that the nature of individual sexual longing is not simply a consequence of private choice regarding such matters; many of the inclinations and longings of the flesh and the heart to a great extent come into the world with us and are nourished or thwarted – accepted or obstructed – in us at an early age. It must be accounted, moreover, a basic right of any person – which no state or civil authority may presume to violate – to remain free from persecution or legal disadvantage as a result of his or her sexual orientation. But the Church understands human identity as residing primarily not in one’s sexuality or in any other private quality, but rather in the image and likeness of God present in all of us. (III.18)

Thus, the social ethos of the Orthodox Church, as expressed in this document, is an ethos of reconciliation and love. Furthermore, the text of the Social Ethos acknowledges the importance of human rights and traces its Christian roots: “It is not by chance that the language of human rights, as well as legal conventions and institutions devised to protect and advance those rights, notably arose in nations whose moral cultures had been formed by Christian beliefs” (VII.61). Moreover, in addition to recognizing the importance of human rights, the text also encourages believers to embrace and promote them: “Orthodox Christians, then, may and should happily adopt the language of human rights when seeking to promote justice and peace among peoples and nations, and when seeking to defend the weak against the powerful, the oppressed against their oppressors, and the indigent against those who seek to exploit them” (VII.61). Undoubtedly, the text does not replace Orthodox ethics by the doctrine of human rights, while recognizing and accepting them, without being assimilated by them. This means that Christian freedom is something that transcends rules and measures and cannot be confined solely to human rights.

To be fully free is to be joined to that for which one’s nature was originally framed, and for which, in the depths of one’s soul, one ceaselessly longs. The conventions of human rights cannot achieve this freedom for any of us; but those conventions can help to assure individuals and communities liberty from an immense variety of destructive and corrupting forces that too often conspire to thwart the pursuit of true freedom. (VII.61)

It is evident that the Orthodox Church accords with the language of human rights, but, in addition, the text of the Social Ethos goes further, stressing the importance of social rights such as “the right to free universal health care, equally available to persons of every economic condition, the right to social security pensions and provisions for the elderly sufficient to insure them dignity and comfort in their last years, the right to infant care, and the right to adequate welfare provisions for the indigent and disabled” (VII.63). Unquestionably, this approach is relevant to the signs of the times because it seems that the problems the world community faces can no longer be solved by invoking the doctrine of human rights. The latter used to be a convenient framework for cooperation between nation states, but decisions are taken today at the global level, with nation states taking a less active part. Moreover, with the coronavirus crisis we have seen how global institutions have taken responsibility for managing the health crisis. What we need even more now is a global ethics, ethics based on love and the relation with the “other.” This is an ethic of relationality that can be traced in the Trinitarian teaching of the Orthodox Church and especially with the interpretation of this teaching by Metropolitan of Pergamon John Zizioulas.46

The Historical Compatibility of Eastern Orthodoxy with the Doctrine of Human Rights: The Lost Opportunity for Byzantine Humanism

A crucial question that arises from the analysis so far is the following: Why do we observe such an intolerance of the doctrine of human rights in the Orthodox world? The Orthodox often believe that the only right way to confront the West or the image of the West that they have in mind is to react against any real change or to adopt a stance of sterile negativism. It is as if they suffer from a fear of persecution, of feeling constantly threatened by the West, which is supposedly planning the erosion of the Orthodox East. This mentality leads to an absolutism, a form of orthodox integralism and theories that not only do not help Orthodoxy but keep it stuck in an imaginary past. This peculiar conservatism often manifests itself in the idealization of the golden age of the church fathers, the praising of the Byzantine system of symphonia and the attachment to a monastic morality that seems outlandish and very far from the issues that the modern world faces.47

The above characteristics marked the thought of many famous Orthodox thinkers. Father John S. Romanides, for example, constructed the idea of Romiosyne, a Manichaean political theory based in an East versus Latin (Roman Catholic) narrative, where the West wants to erode the Orthodox “Romiosyne,”48 both the Greek and Latin-speaking, by imposing the heretical “Francosyne.” As Pantelis Kalaitzidis notes, “hereafter, the West is wholly demonized and proclaimed responsible for all the misfortunes of the Orthodox, both theological and historical/national.”49 A similar anti-Western view has also been constructed by Yannaras since he sees only nihilism and a “religionized” Christianity in the West. It is interesting, however, to note that Yannaras has been influenced by Martin Heidegger, the famous German existentialist philosopher, in constructing these ideas.50 Unfortunately, in this kind of anti-Western ideas, monastic circles play a pivotal role in opposing any attempt for dialogue with the West by identifying it with the “antichrist” or with “evil.” Actually, most monastic circles in Orthodox countries are the avant-garde of fundamentalism and anti-Westernism, being almost incontrollable and influencing a large percentage of Orthodox Christians. Most of the time, this anti-Western sentiment goes hand in hand with fundamentalism. Bearing in mind the conservatism that permeates in Orthodoxy, the detachment of theology from reality and the great influence of monastic circles on the faithful, the chances of theology being controlled only by fundamentalist clerics are even greater, and in such an environment not only human rights but also modernity will be rejected more and more while Orthodoxy is transformed into Orthodoxism.

This tendency, however, has its roots in Orthodox theology itself and, more concretely, in the rejection of a “humanistic” theology that could transform the Byzantine Empire and bring it closer to the West, especially before the emergence of Hesychasm. The turn that Byzantine thought and consequently Orthodox theology took with Hesychasm was a turn towards a closed spirituality, isolated in the monastery, detached from the outside world and largely indifferent to the developments in society. It is exactly this kind of spirituality that is promoted today as ideal for all Christians, regardless of whether they are monks or laypeople, and many consider it to be the only authentic Orthodoxy. Here we would like to add that the relations between monasticism and scholarship in Byzantium were usually characterized by mutual dislike, while Byzantine monasteries – in contrast to Western ones – took a rather hostile stance towards the teachings of antiquity.51 This stance had been strengthened even more in the Orthodox tradition by the affirmation of St. Gregory Palamas’ teaching and the adoption of this teaching as the foundation of the anti-Thomist and more generally the anti-Latin debate in the 14th century. Not all monks were against secular knowledge, however, and some of them had rather interesting theological opinions that can be related to the Christian tradition of the West. One example was Nikephoros Blemmydes (1197–1272) who was closely interested in secular disciplines.52 Blemmydes focuses on the human cognitive faculty, the purpose of which is to understand the wisdom of the world as well as what leads human beings beyond the human dimension of life by emphasizing the human as the image of God. According to him, the pure spirit attains an immediate knowledge of the highest intelligible objects, in which knowledge does not depend anymore on logic, syllogisms or proofs. Blemmydes’ worldview is characterized by two principles: one is a continuous striving towards God and the other a striving towards the logoi, which – in his view – are gifts of God, “a benefaction which is the first in order, in this way science, philosophy and the ascent to God are united and do not negated each other.”53 Moreover, according to Blemmydes, philosophy is precisely the intellectual pursuit that corresponds to the spiritual purpose of human beings. In addition, when he points to the common source of all forms of spiritual life, all of them are unified and harmonized – whether they stand on experiential, extra-experiential or even transcendental grounds. This approach makes it possible to “justify” secular knowledge and consequently secularity, which emerges from this perspective.54 As the Russian scholar Viktor Bychkov points out, it is characteristic of thinkers with a proto-Renaissance orientation to strive to remove all contradictions in spiritual culture and at the same time to unify and reconcile every kind of knowledge acquired by humanity throughout history, whether that of science and philosophy or religious experience.55

Even more interesting for our discourse is how Blemmydes defines philosophy. He underlines rationality and places a strong humanistic emphasis on philosophy, going far beyond St. John Damascene in this respect. Philosophy is an imitatio Dei according to the capabilities of human being and his rational activity.56 On the one hand, the philosopher’s activities come close to the cognitive energies of God by means of which God knows things even before their creation and thus the philosopher contemplates what exists and knows the nature of constituent things (721 C). On the other hand, philosophy in its practical sense guides human conduct and thereby becomes akin to the providential energies of God (721 C). Consequently philosophy in both its theoretical and practical aspects is an image of God – an image of His cognitive and providential energies. The fact that our human wisdom is an image of God is made possible altogether by the fact that God Himself is wisdom, or rather wisdom in itself (724 A). Thus, Blemmydes goes beyond the patristic tradition up to his time since he considers philosophy to be an imitatio Dei.

Blemmydes’ approach proves that Byzantium was much closer to the West and that Byzantine humanism could well have produced a distinct Renaissance of its own if it had avoided well-known historical adventures and its subjugation to Ottomans and if the hesychastic approach to theology, which puts more emphasis on prayer and disdains philosophy, had not prevailed.

In Blemmydes’ thought we see the roots of the teaching of the Byzantine humanists of the 14th century. During the disputes with St. Gregory Palamas and his followers, these humanists asserted the self-sufficiency of natural reason as the highest state of the human being. Blemmydes’ reflections in the Preface of the Epitome of Logic relate his philosophy to the governance of the state. The ruler should rule according to philosophical knowledge, and if he does, he is like God on earth, caring for his subjects on the basis of the knowledge of what exists.57 I believe that this is a validation of a new way of rational governance that is very different from the so-called Byzantine symphonia. The ruler should use philosophy, that is, secular knowledge to rule and truly care for his subjects. Accordingly, as a product of secular philosophy, human rights would probably be totally legitimate for Blemmydes and other Byzantine humanists of his era.

In Place of a Conclusion

In light of the above, it is evident that the Orthodox Church is at a crossroads. One the one hand, the Ecumenical Patriarchate and those Churches under its jurisdiction are friendlier towards human rights and, as can be seen from the Social Ethos text, fully accept them and feel comfortable in a secularized society. On the other hand, the Russian Orthodox Church and probably those Churches closer to it, such as the Serbian Church, are not only reluctant to accept human rights but also maintain a general, consistent anti-Western attitude and project Orthodoxy as opposed to them and at the same time promoting a supposedly alternative “orthodox” worldview and thus political philosophy. It is evident from our brief analysis of Byzantine humanism, however, and more particularly of Blemmydes that the seeds of the acceptance of a secular philosophy result in a different mode of government and possibly the emergence of a human rights doctrine were present in Byzantine thought. Of course, more research will be needed to ascertain this trend and to see whether it could be combined with Western philosophy and theology.


James W. Nickel, Making Sense of Human Rights: Philosophical Reflections on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1987), 1–27; idem, “Human Rights,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021 edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, (accessed 5 December 2021).


Magdalena Sepúlveda & Theo Van Banning et al., Human Rights Reference Handbook (Ciudad Colon: University of Peace, 2004), 6; United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, What are Human Rights? (accessed 5 December 2021); B. H. Weston, “Human Rights,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 5 March 2020, (accessed 5 December 2021); Amnesty International UK, What are Human Rights? 24 July 2018, (accessed 5 December 2021).


United Nations Human Rights, What are Human Rights?

4 Dictionary, s.v., “Human Rights,”, (accessed 5 December 2021).


Andrew Clapham, Human Rights: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), xiii.


Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010), 11, 8; See also, Gary J. Bass, “The Old New Thing,” The New Republic, 20 October 2010, (accessed 5 December 2021); See also Samuel Moyn, Christian Human Rights (Philadelphia PA: University of Pennsylvania Press).


Charles R. Beitz, The Idea of Human Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 1.


Malcolm N. Shaw, International Law, 8th ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 210–3.


Clapham, Human Rights, 47.


James W. Nickel, “Human Rights,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (accessed 6 December 2021); Alan Gewirth, “The Basis and Content of Human Rights,” American Society for Politiial and Legal Philosophy Nomos, vol 23, Human Rights (1981), 119–47; James Griffin, On Human Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); John Rawls, The Law of Peoples (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 78–82.


Christos Yannaras, Ἡ Ἀπανθρωπία τοῦ Δικαιώµατος [The Inhumanity of Right] (Athens: Domos, 2006; my translation), 246.


For a more thorough critique of Yannaras’ thesis, see Kristina Stoeckl, “The ‘We’ in Normative Political Philosophical Debates: The Position of Christos Yannaras on Human Rights,” in Alfons Brüning and Evert van der Zweerde (eds.), Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights (Leuven: Peeters, 2012): 187–201; Aristotle Papanikolaou, The Mystical as Political: Democracy and Non-Radical Orthodoxy (Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012), 89–92.


Michel Villey, La Formation de la pensée juridique moderne (Paris: PUF, 2013), 225–6, 261.


Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law 1150–1625 (Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 35.


Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights, 35; See also Paolo Grossi, “Usus facti: La nozione di proprietà nella inaugurazione dell’età nuova,” Quaderni Forentini per la storia del pensiero giuridico moderno I (1972), 285–355. In this paper, Grossi deals with the Franciscan stress on the individual will as the origin of subjective rights.


Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights, 46.


Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights, 58–77.


Tierney, Ἡ Ἀπανθρωπία τοῦ Δικαιώµατος, 68.


Yannaras, Ἡ Ἀπανθρωπία τοῦ Δικαιώµατος, 49.


Yannaras, Ἡ Ἀπανθρωπία τοῦ Δικαιώµατος, 49–50.


For more on this, see Josiah Ober, Mass and Elite In Democractic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989); idem, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998); idem, Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008); idem, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015); idem, The Athenian Revolution: Essays on Ancient Greek Democracy and Political Theory (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996); Melissa Schwartzberg, “A Discussion of Josiah Ober’s The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece,” Perspectives on Politics 14, no. 4 (2016): 1144–5, DOI:


A great example of such an individual is St. Maximus the Confessor, who refused to submit to the official doctrine of the Byzantine authorities and was consequently condemned, had his tongue and his right hand cut off and died in exile. By today’s standards, this saint could be considered a true dissenter or anarchist for the greater glory of God. If he was living in 19th-century Russia he would have been sent to Siberia as a political criminal. Regarding the anarchist dimension of the teaching of St. Maximus the Confessor, see Emma Brown Dewhurst, “To Each According to their Needs: Anarchist Praxis as a Resource for Byzantine Theological Ethics,” in Essays in Anarchism and Religion, ed. Alexandre Christoyannopoulos and Matthew S. Adams, volume II (Stockholm: Stockholm University Press, 2018). For more on anarchism and Christianity from a political science perspective, see Alexandre J. M. E. Christoyannopoulos, Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2010); for anarchism from an Orthodox Christian perspective, see Davor Džalto, Anarchy and the Kingdom of God: From Eschatology to Orthodox Political Theology and Back (New York: Fordham University Press, 2021). Here we should also note what Pantelis Kalaitzidis says about the early church supporting his argument in the Epistle to Diognetus in Pantelis Kalaitzidis, “Church and Nation in Eschatological Perspective,” The Wheel 17/18 (Spring/Summer 2019), 52–3: “The early church was not just a voluntary association for ‘religious’ purposes. It was rather the New Society, even the New Humanity, a polis or politeuma, the true City of God, in the process of construction. […] [T]he church was conceived as an independent and self-supporting social order, as a new social dimension, a peculiar systema patridos, as Origen put it. Early Christians felt themselves, in the last resort, quite outside of the existing social order, simply because for them the church itself was an ‘order’, an extra-territorial ‘colony of Heaven’ on earth. Nor was this attitude fully abandoned even later [in Byzantium] when the empire, as it were, came to terms with the church.”


Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights, 55.


Nikolai Lazarev, “Hohfeld’s Analysis of Rights: An Essential Approach to a Conceptual & Practical Understanding of the Nature of Rights,” Murdoch University Electronic Journal of Law 12, nos. 1–2 (2005), (accessed 8 December 2021).


Clapham, Human Rights, 12; speaking of revolutionary violence, it is interesting that Karl Marx did not like the idea of human rights because he believed that rights were not useful in creating a new political community, according to Clapham: “For Marx, these rights stressed the individual’s egoistic preoccupations, rather than providing human emancipation from religion, property and law” (Human Rights, 12).


B. Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights, 55; Alan Harding, “Political Liberty in the Middle Ages,” Spectrum 55 (1980), 423–43; Alan MacFarlane, The Origins of English Individualism: The Family Property and Social Transition (New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 1979).


For this and the following two quotes, see Konstantinos Delikostantis [Κώστας Δεληκωσταντής], Τὰ Δικαιώµατα τοῦ Ἀνθρώπου: Δυτικὸ Ἰδεολόγηµα ἢ Οικουµενικὸ ἦθος; [Human Rights: A Western Ideology or Ecumenical Ethos?] (Thessaloniki: Kyriakides, 1995), 73.


Delikostantis, Τὰ Δικαιώµατα τοῦ Ἀνθρώπου, 79.


Delikostantis, Τὰ Δικαιώµατα τοῦ Ἀνθρώπου, 80.


For this and the next quote, see Delikostantis, Τὰ Δικαιώµατα τοῦ Ἀνθρώπου, 76.


Delikostantis, Τὰ Δικαιώµατα τοῦ Ἀνθρώπου, 82.


Pantelis Kalaitzidis, “Individual versus Collective Rights: The Theological Foundation of Human Rights. An Eastern Orthodox View,” in Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights in Europe: A Dialogue Between Theological Paradigms and Socia-Legal Pragmatics, ed. Elisabeth-Alexandra Diamantopoulou and Louis-Léon Christians (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2018), 288.


Kalaitzidis, “Individual versus Collective Rights,” 289.


Here we can refer to the persecutions, exclusions and purges of “heretics” and all kinds of dissenters from the “one and only truth,” from the official doctrine of imperial Christianity, which was formulated by the Ecumenical Councils. The massacre of 30,000 civilian Byzantine subjects by Justinian and Theodora at the Hippodrome of Constantinople in 532 AD was an actual inhuman event that was established de facto and de jure in the principle of absolute monarchy. The ruthless controversy between iconoclasts and icon worshipers lasted from 727 to 843 AD with numerous victims on both sides, along with the destruction of works of art and books. There was the inhuman act, one of the greatest atrocities in human history, by Emperor Basil II the Bulgar Slayer following his victory at Kleidi (1014 AD): he divided 15,000 Bulgarian captives into companies of one hundred men each, blinded 99 in each company and removed one eye from the hundredth in order to lead the remaining blind soldiers! When King Samuel of the Bulgarians saw this, he fainted and died shortly afterwards of a heart attack. The above facts indicate that the situation in the Byzantine Empire was far from the idealized version that some Orthodox writers support.


Anastasios Yannoulatos, “Eastern Orthodoxy and Human Rights,” International Review of Mission 73 (1984), 454–66.


Nanovic Institute for European Studies, University of Notre Dame, “The Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity Freedom and Rights,”


Kristina Stoeckl, “The Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Liberty, and Rights: Analysis and Interpretation,” in Lucian Leustean (ed.), The Russian Church and Human Rights (New York: Routledge, 2014), 71; in this study Stoeckl offers a thorough analysis of the document in question.


Stoeckl, “The Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching,” 75.


Papanikolaou, The Mystical as Political, 93–95.


Kalaitzidis, “Individual versus Collective Rights,” 277–9.


Panteleimon Kalaitzidis, “The Temptation of Judas: Church and National Identities,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 47, nos. 1–4 (2002), 357–79; Rev. John Chryssavgis, “Alfeyev & Lavrov/A Glimpse into Church-State Relations in Russia,” Volos Academy for Theological Studies, 2 July 2011, (accessed 6 December 2021).


Dilyan Nikolchev, “‘Политическа религияи православна църква в източна и югоизточна Европаполитически процеси и тенденции,” [“Political Religion” and Orthodox Church in Eastern and Southeastern Europe – Political Processes and Tendencies] Християнство и Култура 4, no. 91 (2014), 36 [in Bulgarian].


Patriarch Kyrill, “Выступление Святейшего Патриарха Кирилла на торжественном открытии III Ассамблеи Русского мира,” [Address by His Holiness Patriarch Kyrill at the official opening of the Third Assembly of the Russian World], Русская Православная Церковь, November 3, 2009 (accessed 11 December 2021) [in Russian]; see also Sveto Riboloff, “Ἡ Ἁγία καὶ Μεγάλη Σύνοδος καὶ ὁ Ὀρθόδοξος νεοσυντηρητισµός” [The Holy and Great Council and Orthodox Neoconservatism], paper presented at the 8th International Conference of Orthodox Theology under the Auspices of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Thessaloniki, 21–25 May 2018.

44; see also Dietman Schon, Berufen zur Verwandlung der Welt: Die Orthodoxe Kirche in sozialer und ethischer Verantwortung (Regensburg: Friedrich Pustet, 2021).


Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, “For the Life of the World: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church,”


For this, see John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997); Aristotle Papanikolaou, “Personhood and its Exponents in Twentieth-Century Orthodox Theology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Metropolitan John (Zizioulas), “Communion and Otherness,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, vol. 38 no. 4 (1994), 347–61; idem, “The Church as Communion,” keynote lecture given at the World Council of Churches’ Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order, Santiago de Compostela, Spain, 3–14 August 1993, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 16 (1994), 3–16.


Nikolaos Asproulis, “‘Orthodoxy or Death’: Religious Fundamentalism during the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries,” in Fundamentalism or Tradition: Christianity after Secularism, ed. Aristotle Papanikolaou and George E. Demacopoulos (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020), 180–204.


In the thought of Father John S. Romanides, the term “Riomiosyne” does not have a Greek nationalistic character; rather, it defines all the Orthodox Christians East and West that stay true to the Orthodox fathers and adhere to the sacramental and hesychastic tradition of the Orthodox Church.


Pantelis Kalaitzidis, “The Image of the West in Contemporary Greek Theology,” in Orthodox Constructions of the West, ed. George E. Demacopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 143.


Basilio Petrà, “Christos Yannaras and the Idea of ‘Dysis’,” in Orthodox Constructions of the West, 161–80.


Anna Kladova, “The ‘Autobiography’ of Nikephoros Blemmydes on the Issue of Relations Between Monasticism and Scholarship in Byzantium,” in Patrologia Pacifica Tertia: Selected Papers Presented to the Asia-Pacific Early Christian Studies Society, ed. Pauline Allen and Vladimir Baranov (Piscataway NJ: Gorgias Press, 2013), 229.


Kladova, “The ‘Autobiography’,” 230.


Kladova, “The ‘Autobiography’,” 234.


Ivan Christov [Иван Христов], Византийското Богословие през XIV в.: Дискурсът за Божествените енергии [Byzantine Theology in the 14th Century: The Discourse on Divine Energies] (Sofia: Iztok-Zapad, 2016), 35.


Victor V. Bychkov [Виктор В. Бычков], Малая история византийской эстетики [A Short History of Byzantine Aesthetics] (Kiev: Put k istine, 1991), 342; (accessed 10 December 2021).


Nikephoros Blemmydes, Epitomes Logicae, PG 142, 721 C–D; Cf. Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita, “De Divinis Nominibus,” in Corpus Dionysiacum, ed. Beate Regina Suchla (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1990), 193.


Nikephoros Blemmydes, Epitomes Logicae, PG 142, 689 AB; See also Ivan Christov, Byzantine Theology in the 14th Century, 36.

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