Human rights are contentious: do they exist? Where are they from? And how do we know which specific rights should count as human rights? Is there an Orthodox case to be made for human rights? Indeed, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic raises the specific question of a right to health and healthcare, as does the current American political debate on capping prices on insulin, a life-saving medication which has been exponentially increasing in price in the last decade.
Any discussion of human rights must begin with what we mean by ‘human,’ and for Christians, the God in whose image we are created. This Creator-given human dignity is the divine stamp of blessing and value upon which rights—existential entitlements—are grounded. As Orthodox theologian Paul Ladouceur has written, “a holistic theology of the divine image, personhood and human rights is entirely consistent with the patristic vision of humanity,” and is a “solid rampart” against all manner of violence against Creation. Even outside of the modern Orthodox world, protestants and Catholics have read the tradition similarly. Prominent Reformed theologian Nicolas Wolterstorff, for example, reads Basil the Great, Ambrose, and John Chrysostom and writes that:
I see no other way to interpret what John [Chrysostom] is doing with his powerful rhetoric, than that he is reminding his audience, rich and poor alike, of the natural rights of the poor…. The recognition of natural rights is unmistakably there: The poor are wronged because they do not have what is theirs by natural right…
(Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2008), 62, cited in Susan R. Holman, “Orthodox Humanitarianisms: Patristic Foundations,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 14.1 [January 2, 2016])
There are very few occasions in our lives—critical, pivotal events—that are truly life-shattering. We Orthodox describe them as kairos moments. World War II was one of these. In my lifetime, there was 9/11. Institutions and individuals are defined by such moments. We might recall how the Roman Catholic Church failed to stand up to Mussolini and Hitler; thankfully there was the selflessness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his staunch resistance to Nazi dictatorship. Or we might remember the hostility and conspiracy spawned by the attack on the Twin Towers; thankfully there was the selflessness of first responders and sacrifice of those whose lives are memorialized at Ground Zero.
Among these moments, I would include the invasion of Russia in Ukraine—arguably a life-changing moment for the autocephalous churches that comprise global Orthodox Christianity. The recent meeting between Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Porfirije of the Serbian Orthodox Church—where the latter was thanked for supporting victims of a war blessed by the former—was exasperatingly hypocritical and shameful. More than anything else, the episode is representative of the present decline of the Orthodox Church as an institution.
In these paschal days when we sing and greet each other with “Christ is risen,” the people of Ukraine suffer hunger, cold, injury, and death. While individually we help through IOCC and other charities, at the level of the global Church we are too often passing them by on the other side of the road. Like the priest and Levite in Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), we may tell ourselves we can’t do anything meaningful or that more important duties call us—loyalty to Church hierarchs perhaps, some who have blessed the invasion and others who remain silent about it. Our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, meanwhile, remain bleeding by the wayside.
On Pascha, a small pan-Orthodox group of Christians in Iowa City decided to change this by launching GOLD: the Global Orthodox Laypeople’s Demonstration Against the War in Ukraine. We call our Orthodox family worldwide to join together on Sunday,May 8, 2022 to pray and witness for the gospel of peace (Ephesians 6:15) against the war in Ukraine and hierarchs who have sanctioned it. Act now and plan a demonstration: contact a friend or two (Matthew 18:20), involve your children, designate one hour to meet together in front of your church, and spread the word on email and social media. Carry icons, signs, flowers, and flags, speak your conscience, and pray for peace in Ukraine. Post pictures and video to social media and to our Facebook group. Let our brothers and sisters around the world, from hierarchs to laypeople, in Russia and Ukraine and elsewhere, hear our testimony: Orthodox Christianity cannot be used to endorse this war. If the war continues, we will plan a second demonstration for Pentecost.
Not all critiques of secular liberalism over the past fifty years have involved flirtations with fascism, but in the apocalypse (literally, the unveiling) that Putin’s war on Ukraine has been, we can see more than ever the horrific consequences of not clearly separating the two.
In January 1975, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, dean of St. Vladimir’s seminary at the time, signed the Hartford Appeal, initiated by the future founder and editor of First Things, John Richard Neuhaus. The declaration named thirteen “pervasive, false, and debilitating” trends its signatories considered characteristic of the age, among them the idea that in comparison to “all past forms of understanding reality,” “modern thought is superior” and “normative for Christian faith and life.” The Hartford Appeal was an early instance of what Andrey Shishkov has called “conservative ecumenism.” It was a joint statement of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians critical of liberalizing, secularizing trends in society and religion.
Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority had yet to be formed in 1975. Among the 25 religious leaders who signed the Hartford Appeal were Peter Berger and Stanley Hauerwas, names little if at all associated with Christian conservatism today. Also notable in light of ascendant anti-democratic tendencies of Christian conservatives of recent years is Schmemann’s great gratitude for the freedoms afforded by liberal democratic society. In this he differed from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose worldview Schmemann in his Journals described after their first meeting in 1974: “Absolute denial of democracy. Yes to monarchy” (p. 43).