New Book: The Russian Orthodox Church and Human Rights

In one of my earlier posts  I have discussed the issue of human rights concerning the Romanian Orthodox Church. Today I would like to draw your attention on the new book of the Austrian political scientist and sociologist Kristina Stoeckl on the position of the Russian Orthodox Church in relation to human rights. “The Russian Orthodox Church and Human Rights” was recently published by Routledge.

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I consider this book as a major contribution to the subject. The author is very well informed and approaches almost all the determining issues of the debate. Her discussion of the crucial pattern of modernization in the Eastern Churches (see my contribution), their relation to post secular globalized and plural world includes subtle analysis from the perspective of sociology, political sciences, politics, international law and even theology. The interdisciplinary approach opens a multitude of perspectives, but bears also some difficulties.

As she frankly acknowledges on page 130, Kristina Stoeckl is “a political scientist” and “has opted for a political-sociological analysis of the Russian Orthodox human rights debate”, but “as an outside observer [she has] not failed to notice the theological dynamic at play”. This is partially true, she notices indeed the theological dynamics, but misinterprets it. A religious scholar familiar with the theological and ecclesiological discourses within Eastern Christianity (the main issues when you have to speak about a ‘Church’) would criticize the lack of religious expertise. Therefor I would like to discuss following three aspects from a theological point of view:

  1. On pages 70ff, the problem of the theological framework of the human dignity in the Russian Orthodox theology. The Author has a false premise when she misinterprets the accent put by Russian theology on the polarity image of vs. likeness to God, made by the Genesis 1, 27: “From the Orthodox Christian perspective, human dignity is related to the creation of the human being ‘in God’s image and likeness’. God’s image in man is described by the document as the source of human dignity. […] The divine-human likeness, on the other hand, becomes for the Church the source for a precise understanding of how human beings should strive to overcome sin and ‘restore human life in the fullness of its original perfection’”. And now her false interpretation of that: “The restoration of human life to the fullness of divine likeness is called in the Orthodox theological tradition theosis (deification)”, followed inevitably by the false conclusion: “From the secular and the religious perspectives, therefore, the consequences of the respect for human dignity are the same (emphasis added, MDG).” This is both wrong: Firstly, nor the Bible neither the Russian Church speaks about theosis, which is not a biblical but a patristic term. The author should stay with the terminology of the text. Septuaginta speaks in Genesis 1, 26 about eikon (image) and homoiosis (likeness), and so does the Russian Church. As I have shown in a previous contribution, in stressing this polarity of the human being, the Russian Church undermines consciously the human rights’ discourse that human dignity is proper to all human beings, making the human dignity dependent on moral behavior and moral becoming like God. Of course the criteria of this process are the ‘traditional values’ indicated and dictated by the Church. Simply said: who is not moral, is a sinner, he is not like God, and so he has only a distorted human dignity, not a full one. Thus the secular and religious perspective is not the same, because the first affirms while the second denies the full human dignity in all human beings by relating it to moral performance (p. 72). So, whom the Church considers to be a sinner, has a hardly discernable human dignity. This is the purpose of the Doctrine, to link the human rights to the moral conduct imposed by the Church. I have shown that such theological dangerous affirmation rise critic even from other Orthodox Churches, like the Romanian one, who emphases the love and not the morality as medium of human dignity.
  2.  Although the author speaks on page 67 about the political implications and goals of the Russian Church’s Doctrine on Human Rights, she ignores the major external political implications. By its statements on Human Rights the Russian Church aims tacitly to overtrump other Orthodox Churches and to appear to other Christian confessions as the standard bearer of the whole Orthodoxy. In my opinion this activism of the Russian Church in the field of Human Rights, when it is very often speaking generally about ‘Orthodoxy’, ‘Orthodox values’, ‘Orthodox theology’ and so on, indicates that the Russian Church tries to arise as champion, leader and spokesman of the whole Orthodoxy. This behavior disturbs and irritates the other Orthodox Churches. Thus Romanian and Greek theologians have articulated their critique of this doctrine by emphasizing the doctrinal and dogmatic failures of the Russian theological framework on human dignity and Human Rights (p. 131). In stressing another theological aspects like love of God for human beings as basis and medium of human dignity, the Romanian Church delimitates itself tacitly from the theological discourse of the Russian Church, because she perceives it as the very attempt to ‘dictate’ and ‘standardize’ the approach of all Orthodoxies to the Human Rights. We speak in fact of an attempt by the Russian Church to gain a hegemonic position. Furthermore, the Russian Church takes over the role of standard bearer of all Orthodox Churches towards other Christian confessions, like Catholic positivism and Protestant liberalism in causa human rights. The Russian Church steps deliberately in the arena of dissentions with other confessions in order to push through its role of the leader its own confession.
  3. I want briefly to infirm the assertion on page 128: “The Moscow Patriarchate did not formulate its position on human rights in order to back up the politics of the Putin government, but because for a religion in the twenty-first century this was a logical thing to do”. We have to consider following aspects: firstly, the political context of the Eastern and Southeastern Europe, with the very acute jurisdictional problems between Russian Church and other Orthodox Churches (the Romanian Church for instance); secondly, the visit of Patriarch Kyrill in Moldavia in the eve of the signing the agreement with EU[1]; thirdly, the assertions of the same Patriarch that he is nor the Patriarch of Moldavia neither of Ukraine, neither of Russian Federation but of “whole Russia”[2], which is of course an imperialist discourse, implying that all ex-Czarist and ex-Soviet provinces still build a common political and cultural unity with the center in Moscow. Under these circumstances it becomes obviously that Human Rights Doctrine may have not primarily a political role, but tacitly contributes to the image of Russian Church as the Church of the Third Rome, the Church of the Russian Empire, the main Orthodox Church among the others. And this coincides of course in many points with Putin’s program.

Despite these divergent opinions I have articulated above, which are in fact rather minor than major objections, the book is a referential publication on the topic of Human Rights in the Orthodox World. I can hardly imagine that there will be soon any other such well-grounded, insightful and fine analysis in the academic world. I would stress especially the potential and the perspectives opened by the book. The limited theological and ecclesiological expertise I have mentioned has also a positive aspect, because in this way the book significantly stimulates the academic dialogue in the field of Human Rights within the Orthodox Churches. Additionally the book offers a brilliant socio-political analysis on the issue of Human Rights. I can only recommend this publication to all who are interested in the topic.


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