Human Rights and Moral Responsibility
Address by Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad at the 10th World Russian People’s Council April 4, 2006, Moscow

Your Holiness,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Most probably, the problems of scientific, technological, economic and social development will remain in the 21st century the most important, if not paramount for Russia and the peoples of the Russian world. It is clear however that energy for any kind of human activity can be drawn only from the spiritual field. Therefore, these tasks will be fulfilled only if they fit in the spiritual parameters of a distinctive civilization, which is Russia and the entire Russian world. Besides, the Russian civilization’s relations with the external world, that is, with other civilizations, especially the western one, will remain an important factor influencing its development. And here the ideological foundation of these relations acquires a special importance. In case of the western civilization, the point at issue is human rights and dignity. Orthodox tradition as culture-forming for the Russian civilization cannot help meeting this challenge, otherwise the Russian world will turn into a marginal phenomenon in the modern world.

Since 1991, the countries that have emerged from the Soviet Union’s disintegration have had human rights and liberties sealed in law as a principal norm of public and political relations. This choice is not challenged today either. On the contrary, political and public leaders have continuously reaffirmed their commitment to these principles.

The recent years however have seen the development of tendencies in human rights area which are assessed by believers as at least ambiguous. On one hand, human rights are beneficial. It should be kept in mind that it was under the impact of this concept on the public opinion in former socialist countries that the Russian Orthodox Church and other religious communities in Eastern Europe got rid of the bondage of atheism. Besides, human rights proclaim struggle with various abuses, humiliations and evils perpetrated against the person in society.

On the other hand however, we can see that the human rights concept is being used to cover falsehood, untruth and offence of religious and ethnic values. Besides, the complex of human rights and freedoms has come gradually to integrate the ideas which contradict not only Christian but also traditional ethical ideas of man in general. The latter development provokes a special concern because standing behind human rights is the coercive poser of state which can force a person to commit sin, to sympathize with or connive at sin for the reasons of vulgar conformism.

All this shifts the theme of human rights from purely political field to the field involving the questions of life and death, to put it in church language, the questions of salvation. I will remind you that soteriology or the teaching on salvation stands in the center of Christian preaching. In this connection, it is important for a believing consciousness that answers should be given to the following questions. Does the recognition and observance of human rights norms as embodied in international and national law come in contradiction with the design of God for man? To what extent can human rights promote or impede the life of a Christian or a believer in general seeking to live in accordance with his faith? Today, the members of the Russian Orthodox Church are called to reflect on these questions. It is necessary that this theme should be studied by the conciliar mind.

There is an opinion that human rights are a universal norm. There is no such thing as an Orthodox, Islamic, Buddhists, Russian, or American conception of human rights. This brings relativity into the conception of human rights, thus limiting to a considerable extent its function in international life. This is how many politicians and public leaders reason about human rights. Indeed, one can understand the desire to preserve the universal nature of the rights and freedoms concept and to make it independent of any variables. Properly speaking, the Orthodox people do not object to the existence of certain universal rules of behavior in the modern world. But these rules should be truly universal. The question arises: are the human rights claiming this role as set forth today really universal?

The point is that this concept was generated and developed in western countries with their own historical and cultural destiny. It should be admitted that in these countries it has had its ups and downs. It is often the heightened individualism that accounts for the population decline and asocial and immoral behavior, that is, all that presents a social problem in the West today. But does it mean that western standards of human happiness are suitable for all countries and cultures? Other civilizations also have their own positive experience of public life. Why don’t they have the right to have their say? Of course, they have. This is a right of every nation.

For the Russian civilization to have its say on human rights it is necessary to undertake a thorough analysis of this concept in its present condition. What is necessary first of all is a talk on the philosophical ideas that underlie the human rights concept and thus influence its development and application.

Central to the modern concept of human rights is the notion of ‘human dignity’. Human dignity is a principal motive and justification of the existence of rights and liberties. It is precisely for the protection of human dignity that particular rights and freedoms have been formulated. In the historical development of western countries, the list of rights and freedoms kept growing to embrace ever new areas of public life. Thus political, economic, cultural and social rights have emerged. This process shows that ever new facets of human dignity have been gradually revealed in history. In recent years however, problems involved in sexual relations, the status of human rights and bioethics have become especially acute. In other words, a new generation of human rights is emerging – the rights determined by what man is on the level of his nature. Therefore, today as never before it is important to clarify what human dignity is.

In various languages, the term ‘dignity’ has always been associated with a certain social status of a person. To do according to one’s dignity meant to do in accordance with the rules and obligations which belong to one’s status. The very word ‘dignity’ means ‘what deserves to be respected and honoured and what has a great importance and worth’. Therefore, this word unites two meanings. First, it means that a certain subject has a worth. Secondly, dignity means that the life of a subject corresponds to this worth. For Orthodox tradition, it is very important that relationship should be established between these two aspects of dignity.

In Christian culture, the worth of a person is immutable and objective. Man belongs to God’s creation, about which the Lord said that ‘it was good’ (Gen. 1:25). But God singled out man from all the creation because the Book of Genesis says that after their creation God blessed the first human beings (cf. Gen. 1:28). This means that God wished good to the human race, and God’s wish is unchangeable. Therefore, the worth of man is determined by his worth in God’s eyes. A confirmation to it is the presence of the seal of God Himself – His image in human nature. This we also know from the Book of Genesis (1:26).

Even the fall did not diminish this worth. God did not destroy man who fell away from Him, but did and continues to do everything for him to return to his calling, that is, everything for the salvation of man. An especially important testimony that man was not abandoned by God after his fall is the fact of the incarnation of the Son of God. The Lord Jesus Christ assumed human nature and purified it from sin. The divine incarnation points to the highest worth of human mature which was assumed in Jesus Christ and included in the life of the Triune God.

After the creation, man was not only worthy before God, but man also conformed to this worthiness through his life. In other words, he had dignity. The task of man was to grow in this dignity. The Book of Genesis relates that God put man on this path, blessing him for cultivating the created world. Reflecting on the biblical information about human nature, some Holy Fathers pointed to the presence of both static and dynamic elements in human nature. The existence of God’s image implies an intransient worth of man, while the likeness implies the task to develop this worth. According to St. John Damascene, ‘For He created him after His own image, endowed with intellect and free-will, and after His own likeness, that is to say, perfect in all virtue so far as it is possible for man’s nature to attain perfection’. Therefore, in the process of his life, man should become more and more like God and therefore grow in his dignity.

The fall did not change this task, but made it impossible to attain without the help of God. By wishing to attain perfection without God, man lost his relationship with the source that nourished his creative activity. What happened? While human nature as bearing a seal of the image of God continued to be worthy in God’s eyes, man ceased to correspond to the worth of his nature, which means he lost dignity to a considerable extent. Now the goal of man is to return the lost dignity and to enhance it. In connection with the above, not all human actions can be considered correspondent to the norms laid down by God in his creation. Therefore, there are actions which cannot be sealed among human rights and freedoms.

The most important thing man’s returning to his dignity is the direction of his will. Man has freedom without which the help of God Himself cannot reform man. Thanks to his freedom, man has a choice to follow what is good and thus return his dignity or to chose evil and thus to demean himself. One cannot deny that the modern humanistic thought, too, does understand that man always stands before the choice between a good and evil action. For this reason, there are norms of behavior encouraged by law and actions punished by law. However, the difference between secular humanism and religious tradition concerns the solution of the problem of what is to be considered authority in defining good and evil.

For some reason, the idea has taken root ever since the time of Jean Jacque Rousseau that it is sufficient to provide man with freedom and rights and he will inevitably choose what is good and beneficial for him. Therefore, no external authorities are to point out to him what is good and what is evil. Man himself defines moral norms of behavior. This is called the moral autonomy of a person. And this autonomy may be limited only by the autonomy of another person. In this ideology there is no notion of sin but there is a notion of pluralism of opinion; that is to say, a person can choose any version of behavior provided this behavior does not restrict the freedom of another person. A regrettable consequence of such an anthropocentric approach lies in the fact that many countries today have developed a social system that connives at sin and withdraws from the task to promote individual moral perfection. Society, including our society, is confronted with a cynical substitution. The admissibility of immorality is justified by a teaching on human dignity which, as was mentioned above, has religious roots.

Indeed, man enjoys full autonomy in accepting or rejecting particular rules. It is God who has endowed man with this ability of self-determination. It is a freedom before which God Himself stops. I would like to underline that Christianity cannot challenge this affirmation in its dialogue with secular humanism. What it challenges is rather the affirmation that man can autonomously make a choice that is invariably beneficial for him. Man in himself, sinful as he is, cannot always discern without fail between good and evil. Not because he is inherently stupid but because his mind, will and feelings belong to the sphere where sin works and man can err in defining his vital goals. The tragedy is that while man preserves the very idea of good and evil as existing, he cannot always distinguish clearly between good and evil. God helps man to preserve this ability of discernment through His Revelation which contains a well-known code of moral rules accepted by almost all the religious traditions.

A believer thus aware of the problem of self-determination of his will would doubt the affirmation that moral anthropocentrism is a universal principle that regulates public and private activity. An important criterion, which helps to distinguish between good and evil, is conscience. It is not without reason that there is a popular saying: conscience is God’s voice; for it is the voice of conscience that helps man to recognize the moral law laid down by God in his nature. But this voice can also be muffled by sin. Therefore, in his moral choice, man has to be also guided by external criteria, first of all, the commandments given by God. An important fact in this respect is that the Ten Commandments represent a framework within which all the major world religions converge in defining good and evil. Religious tradition thus contains a criterion for discerning good and evil. From the point of view of this tradition, there are things that cannot be recognized as norm. Among them are mockery of shrines, abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia and other forms of behavior which are actively defended today from the human rights concept. Today, regrettably, the absolutization of state characteristic of modern times is being replaced by the absolutization of individual sovereignty and individual rights without moral responsibility. This absolutization can erode the foundation of modern civilization and lead it to death. As is known, the violation of moral law led many a strong civilization to collapse and extinction from the face of the earth. Humanity cannot live outside moral context. No laws can help us to keep society sustainable, to stop corruption, abuse of power, disintegration of family, appearance of lonely children, declining birth rate, destruction of nature, manifestations of militant nationalism, xenophobia and insult to religious feelings. If man does not see that he commits a sin, everything becomes permissible for him, to paraphrase Dostoyevsky’s well-known expression.

Recent examples of brutality may shock our society. People ask themselves, why all these things happen in our country. It’s because we have forgotten morals and our duty to work to maintain it. The language of moral norms is clear to everybody. Moral law is one and undivided. If we appeal to rights and freedoms of man to unleash sin, if we do not stop human savagery, when they chop icons in the center of Moscow, in Manezh, when they organize a ‘Beware of Religion’ exhibition, or mock believers’ feelings with cartoons in some other places, so what makes us so surprised when we get to know some people can be killing others on grounds of their race or religion? An instinct of destruction, having been set free, has no mercy on either believers in synagogue or children with a varying skin color. All these things are linked together. Our society has to realize it is impossible to achieve respect towards different races and faiths without reconsidering attitude to morals held in the spheres of media, education, politics, economics, culture.

No doubt a society where human being is disrespected and all his or her rights are commissioned to the state or community is unstable and inhumane. But a society also become unstable and inhumane when human rights in it become a means to set free instinct and principles of right and wrong are mixed up and replaced with the idea of moral autonomy and pluralism. Such a society loses any tools of moral influence over persons. However, in a civilized society (let us put it like that) a balance between the two must be held. It should be based on understanding that every person is indispensably valuable by nature, but also that every human is called to grow in his or her dignity and be responsible for his or her deeds.

Of course, God’s help as given in religious life must be considered a priority. Communion of God and human being helps him or her to learn to distinguish between right and wrong as well as to be strong enough to choose right. In prayer, in Church’s sacramental life and in doing right things a union between God and man occurs resulting in coming of help to do good things. That’s why for a believer religious life and what comes alongside with that are of supreme priority. Together with freedom it becomes a main prerequisite of living well on earth and in eternity.

However, human efforts are also important. They should be aimed at betterment of social relationships, which, on the one hand, could guarantee personal freedom, and from the other hand, could help persons follow moral law. Probably, it wouldn’t be correct to establish criminal prosecution for games of chance, euthanasia, homosexualism, but neither would it be right to accept all these as a legal norm, or even as a publicly approved norm.

Let’s come and see, what usually happens if some of those lifestyles are legalized. They stop belonging to some small groups of those who have already made their choice. The new laws become a base for unrestricted propaganda of those lifestyles in the society. And as long as sin is attractive, it rapidly infects vast masses of people, especially if its propagation is well money-supplied and most recent way of mind-influence are used.

This is the case with the homosexualism. The resolution past this January in the European Parliament, orders that school education should be homosexuality-friendly and even appoints a special day dedicated to combating homophobia. So what comes out? The society is not simply called to respect a certain minority, but also is encourage to propagate homosexualism as a norm. As a result, this propaganda discourages those people who could have fought this disease to create normal families.

There is an example from our life too. Today a lot of gaming hoses have turned out in many cities. Of course, no one is forced to game over there. But they advertise so aggressively and passion for gaming is so easy-to-occur that we can face real family tragedies. Fathers, mothers, children lose there little money playing and leave their families needy. Men and women come to churches crying because their families are falling apart. As a result unrestricted freedom of gaming of chance is corrupts the society.

I have said all that to highlight some dangerous tendencies challenging believers when an unbalanced by moral norms approach comes to claim a uniquely true understanding of human rights. According to this logic all other traditions must keep silent and submitted. That’s not fantastic. I do not overestimate totalitarian trend of those who favor the like interpretation of human rights. This approach is already taking its place in the international legal systems of today. For instance, in 2005 the PACE passed the Women and Religion in Europe resolution, which reads: ‘Freedom of religion is limited by human rights’. This statements makes religious life subject to human rights. It means it should be changed if it does not meet the particular understanding of freedom. For a believer that sounds to be a call to reject God’s will for the sake of human ideas.

Here I have to underline it wouldn’t be just to say it was the human rights’ fault that such a concept appeared. In this particular case human rights are used as a disguise for a philosophy shared by a minor group of people. According to this philosophy, if women cannot be ordained as priests or bishops in a certain community, the community itself should be brought under legal punishment or public criticism. But for believers’ consciousnesses norms of their religious traditions have more authority than temporal laws. If this militancy of secular humanist approach, which is seeking to become a part of the international law, is not removed now, conflict will break out. Thanks God, in case of Council of Europe, this organization’s decisions are not have no legal power, but they still form a public climate.

There’s one more liberal thesis claiming universality, according to which human rights prevail over public interests. It was re-stated in 2005 in the UNESCO Declaration on Universal Norms of Bioethics, which says that ‘Interests and well-being of an individual should prevail over single interest of science and society’. It’s obvious that a thesis like that has positive impact when it comes to state or public decision-making on something touching lives and well-being of particular citizens. The society must value every life, every human being.

But this approach may be very dangerous if people start basing their behavior on prioritizing their interests over society’s ones. That may support nothing but egoism and individualism. Orthodox Christianity has always encouraged selfless love to one’s neighbors, i.e. to one’s family, community, and native land. Individual should be able to reject egoism for the sake of the other person. That’s why it seems right that freedoms and rights be always balanced with public solidarity.

Orthodox Christian believers are ready to accept that some other nations have chosen different worldviews. But they cannot stay silent when they are pressed to accept alien norms contradicting to the Orthodox faith’s fundamentals. I think Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and other faith communities are of the same opinion. In order to avoid conflict in the modern world it is necessary to work intensively to harmonize various worldview systems. Common life principles of the world community should be elaborated by different civilizations together.

So how should a modern society with a harmony of human rights and morals be organized?

First, the law must be sensitive to moral norms dominating in the society. Of course the state machine itself ought not determine what is good or bad, but in the same time the law has to reflect moral norms shared by the popular majority. If the society believes that encouragement of alcohol consumption of commercial exploitation of sex instinct are unacceptable, it should lead to legal prohibition to advertise that.

Second, there should be no vacuum of moral education in our society. Rights and freedoms are important achievements of human civilization, but citizens have to be prepared to use these rights considering moral norms. This preparation should be done by the state in close cooperation with public institutions for moral education, including school and faith communities of our country. The latter means the state should take the responsibility to elaborate legal norms for religious organizations’ presence in public education, social services, army.

All faith communities of the country should be active in all spheres listed accordingly to their weight in society. And what is most important, any mission competition must be totally excluded in those spheres in order to avoid conflict between faiths, which is inescapable if religious organizations struggle to gain new adherents.

Finally, nowadays a very important role in the cause of harmonization of human rights and morals belong to the media. They should give some positive examples of how freedom may be used. But as long as the TV demonstrates consumption, violence, adultery, gaming and other vices as signs of life success, then how can we expect people to use their freedom morally? Media people justify themselves saying such things are demanded and profitable. But no one argues the vice is well sold because it is easily accepted by the inclined-to-sin human nature. It’s what has always been called leading into temptation.

However it’s not true that modern people demand only vice. They rather seek joyfulness, peace, real love and other good things. It’s surprising, buy nowadays it is old Soviet movies, as well as new Russian and foreign ones, dealing with serious problems of life understanding, that are of great demand.

Orthodox people are ready to accept the human rights norms and work to foster them, but on the condition that these norms will promote the perfection of man, not the justification of his sinful condition. The task of the human rights concept is to protect the worth of man and to promote his growth in dignity. In this we see from the Christian perspective the only possible calling of this concept.

It is bad and sinful when the rights of nations and ethnic groups to their own religion, language, culture are infringed, freedom of religion and rights of believers to their own way of life are restricted and crimes on religious and ethnic grounds are committed. Our moral feeling cannot keep silence when the individual is left to the mercy of functionaries and employers, when the soldier is made powerless before his fellow-soldiers, when the child and the elderly person become objects of humiliation at social institutions. Rebuff should be given to manipulations of conscience by destructive sects, involvement of people in crime, slave traffic, prosecution, drug addiction, reckless gambling. Such things should be opposed because such actions drive man away from his dignity. Our society today is called to struggle with these vices, and the Church should participate in this struggle. From the Orthodox point of view, it is what gives meaning to human rights work today.

The WRPC would be right to take an active part in human rights advocacy. We could cooperate with all the human rights organizations and institutions which share these views of human rights. Last July, the Council was granted consultative status at the UN Social and Economic Council. This opens up for us addition opportunity for dialogue and cooperation globally in developing a common approach to the solution of key-problems of today, a truly universal conception of human rights and dignity.

It is important that the Council should use this and any other opportunity for making an ideological contribution of the Russian civilization in the building of a peaceful life with justice on our planet.