The human rights issue is meanwhile a familiar theme for the Western Christian Churches such as the Roman-Catholic and the Protestant Churches. After the problematic relation during the 18th and 19th century concerning the human rights affirmations of the American ‘Declaration of Independence’ (1776) and the French Revolution (1789 or 1791) the Roman Catholic Church succeeded to relax its attitude towards human rights and to assimilate the pattern in its own social ethics, of course underpinning it with theological and biblical argumentations in its attempt to de-secularize this discourse. The Protestant Churches demonstrate a broad and differential approach to the social, political and ethical function of human rights, despite their apparent congruity exhibited by the statements of the Lutheran or Reformed World Federations (1970) (as shown by Christopher Voigt-Goy in his previous post).
However, for the Orthodox Churches of the Eastern Christianity – despite contrary assertions – the human rights theme is still a terra incognita. For sure we can identify some orthodox theologians in Greece (John Zizioulas) or Romania (Radu Preda), who find new approaches in terms of orthodox dogmatic. But it took a very long time for an Orthodox Church as an official institution to take up position concerning the present and actual preoccupation of the modern world with human rights.
In 2008 it was the biggest Orthodox Church, the Russian one, to give a direct, systematic and extensive account on its teaching on human dignity, freedom and rights. Unlike the ‘secularized’ human rights argumentation of the secularized West (that ‘West’ of the first affirmations of human rights mentioned previously), the Russian Orthodox Church argues that human rights do not rest upon natural law (jus naturale), but upon human dignity, which consists in two aspects: first, the human being bears the image (eíkon) of God as said in Genesis 1, 27, and secondly, the fully state of humanity is dependent on the moral performance to reach the godly moral perfection, the likeness of God (homoíosis). In the words of the Russian Church: “Therefore, in the Eastern Christian tradition the notion of ‘dignity’ has first of all a moral meaning, while the ideas of what is dignified and what is not are bound up with the moral or amoral actions of a person and with the inner state of his soul. Considering the state of human nature darkened by sin, it is important that things dignified and undignified should be clearly distinguished in the life of a person.” The human dignity is not an objective matter of fact, but a moral dependence on a normative system. According to this interpretation human beings like gays, prostitutes, criminals are indeed only bearers of the objective image of God. But this is not enough. Because they live in ‘sin’ and thus not morally perfect, not ‘God-like’, they do not possess a fully human dignity which is only for those humans characteristically, who possess an un-injured humanity (I mean here, un-injured by sin). This difficult approach met with fierce criticism. At this point I just want to mention the response of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE) which argues that human dignity is not dependent on Christian moral performance and conformity but an objective matter of fact: all humans, sinners or not, Christians or not, possess a full human dignity without any constraints.
The statement of the Russian Church met the tacit opposition of other Orthodox Churches, in fact of the Romanian Orthodox Church, the second biggest Orthodoxy in the world. The Romanian Church does not openly criticize the ‘Sister-Church’ of Russia, but shows its disagreement on the connection between human dignity and moral performance made by the Russian Church in indirect statements. These are not specifically related to human rights, like the Russian declaration. The Romanian approach is rather related to concrete problems of bioethical issues like abortion, euthanasia, or pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Thus the Romanian Church clearly argues that human rights rest upon the attitude of unconstrained respect towards all human beings and human life.
By doing this the Romanian Church abandons the theological terminology of the image and likeness of God to underpin its view on human dignity and emphasize secular terms like ‘respect’ towards human being’s ‘humanity’. Another point of difference is that the Romanian Church argues for the respect towards all humans not by focusing on the dialectic polarity between the objective image of God and performative likeness to Him. The stress lays in the case of the Romanian Church on the Christian category of love of God and of the fellow humans. And this love is endless, without any constrictions. The problem with the statements of the Romanian Church on human rights is that they are only conjectural, indirect and without dogmatic elaborateness. Hence I would call this a pragmatic approach referring concrete situations, when the socially very powerful and influential Romanian Church has to address acute phenomena of Romanian transition society.
I have dealt with all these aspects in a recent lecture given in my habilitation colloquy at the University of Erfurt in November 2013. In my opinion these issues are still an unknown and hardly researched field in religious studies and the history of Christianity. Thus I have written a related article which will be soon published in an edited volume on human rights and the Christian Churches by Vasilios N. Makrides (Erfurt). I will keep you updated on this.
 Vasilios N. Makrides: Die Menschenrechte aus orthodox-christlicher Sicht. Evaluierung, Positionen und Reaktionen, in: M. Delgado/V. Leppin/D. Neuhold (eds.), Schwierige Toleranz. Der Umgang mit Andersdenkenden und Andersgläubigen in der Christentumsgeschichte, Academic Press/Kohlhammer Verlag, Fribourg/Stuttgart 2012, pp. 293-320.