III. 1. Every individual is endowed by God with dignity and freedom. The use of this freedom for evil purposes however will inevitably lead to the derogation of one’s own dignity and humiliation of the dignity of others. A society should establish mechanisms restoring harmony between human dignity and freedom. In social life, the concept of human rights and morality can and must serve this purpose. At the same time these two notions are bound up at least by the fact that morality, that is, the ideas of sin and virtue, always precede law, which has actually arisen from these ideas. That is why any erosion of morality will ultimately lead to the erosion of legality.
The concept of human rights has undergone a long historical evolution and precisely for this reason cannot be made absolute in their today’s understanding. It is necessary to give a clear definition to Christian values with which human rights should be harmonized.
III. 2. Human rights cannot be superior to the values of the spiritual world. A Christian puts his faith in God and his communion with Him above his earthly life. It is inadmissible and dangerous therefore to interpret human rights as the ultimate and universal foundation of societal life to which religious views and practice should be subjected. No reference whatsoever to the freedom of expression and creative work can justify the public defilement of objects, symbols or notions cherished by believers.
Not a divine institution, human rights should not come into inflict with the Divine Revelation. For most of Christendom the category of doctrinal and moral tradition is no less important than the idea of individual freedom and the individual should reconcile his freedom with it. For many people in various parts of the world it is not so much secularized standards of human rights as the creed and traditions that have the ultimate authority in their social life and inter-personal relations.
No human institutions, including various forms and mechanisms of the socio-political order, can in themselves make people’s life more moral and perfect and eradicate evil and suffering. It is important to remember that public and social forces have a real power and duty to stop evil in its social manifestations, but they cannot prevail over sin as its cause. The essential struggle with evil is carried out in the depth of the human spirit and can succeed only if it is waged through personal religious life:
‘Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ (Eph. 6:12).
In Orthodoxy, there is an immutable conviction that in ordering its life a society should take into account not only human interests and wishes but also the divine truth, the eternal moral law given by the Lord and working in the world no matter whether the will of particular people or people’s communities agree with it or not. For an Orthodox Christian, this law sealed in Holy Scriptures stands above any other rules, for it is by this law that God will judge the individual and nations standing before His throne (cf. Rev. 20:12).
III. 3. The development and implementation of the human rights concept should be harmonized with the norms of morality, with the ethical principle laid down by God in human nature and discernable in the voice of conscience.
Human rights cannot be a reason for coercing Christians into violation of God’s commandments. The Orthodox Church believes it inadmissible that the believer’s view of the human being, family, communal life and church practice should be subjected to a non-religious understanding of human rights. Christians should respond to such attempts as Ss Peter and John did, saying, ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God’ (Acts 4, 19).
It is inadmissible to introduce in the area of human rights the norms that obliterate or altogether cancel both the Gospel and natural morality. The Church sees a great danger in the legislative and public support given to various vices, such as sexual lechery and perversions, the worship of profit and violence. It is equally inadmissible to elevate to a norm such immoral and inhumane actions towards the human being as abortion, euthanasia, use of human embryos in medicine, experiments changing a person’s nature and the like.
Unfortunately, society has seen the emergence of legislative norms and political practices which not only allow of such actions but also create preconditions for them by imposing them through the mass media, education and healthcare systems, advertising, commerce and services. Moreover, believers, who consider such things to be sinful, are forced to accept sin as admissible or are subjected to discrimination and persecution.
According to the law in many countries, actions harmful to others are punishable. However, life experience shows that the damage inflicted by a person on himself tends to spread to those around him, those who are tied with him by the bonds of kinship, friendship, neighborhood, common work or citizenship. The individual is responsible for the consequences of sin since his choice for evil has a baneful influence on his neighbours and on the whole of God’s creation.
The human being is called to good works by virtue of his dignity. The individual is obliged to take care of the world and people around him. He should seek in his life to do good and to teach good, not evil:
‘Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt. 5:19).
III. 4. Human rights should not contradict love for one’s homeland and neighbours. The Creator has laid down in human nature the need for communication and unity, saying, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone’ (Gen. 2:18). The love of a person for his family and other loved ones cannot but spread to his people and the country in which he lives. It is not accidental that the Orthodox tradition traces patriotism back to the words of Christ the Savior Himself: ‘Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends’ (Jn. 15:13).
The acknowledgment of individual rights should be balanced with the assertion of people’s responsibility before one another. The extremes of individualism and collectivism cannot promote a harmonious order in a society’s life. They lead to degradation of the personality, moral and legal nihilism, growing crime, civil inaction and people’s mutual alienation.
The spiritual experience of the Church however has shown that the tension between private and public interests can be overcome only if human rights and freedoms are harmonized with moral values and, most importantly, only if the life of the individual and society is invigorated by love. It is love that removes all the contradictions between the individual and those around him, making him capable of enjoying his freedom fully while taking care of his neighbours and homeland.
Actions aimed at respect for human rights and improvement of social and economic relations and institutions will not be truly successful if the religious and cultural traditions of countries and nations are ignored.
Some civilizations ought not to impose their own way of life on other civilizations under the pretext of human rights protection. The human rights activity should not be put at the service of interests of particular countries. The struggle for human rights becomes fruitful only if it contributes to the spiritual and material welfare of both the individual and society.
III. 5. The realization of human rights should not lead to the degradation of the environment and depletion of natural resources. The rejection of divinely-revealed guiding lines in the life of both the individual and society leads not only to disorder in interpersonal relations but also to people’s disastrous clash with nature, which has been given to human beings by God to own (cf. Gen. 1:28). The unlimited desire to satisfy material needs, especially excessive and artificial, is essentially sinful, for it leads to the impoverishment of both the soul and its environment. It should not be forgotten that the natural riches of the earth are not only the property of humanity but first of all the creation of God:
‘The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein’ (Ps. 24:1).
The recognition of human rights does not mean that people can squander natural resources in favour of their egoistic interests. Human dignity is inseparable from the calling of the human beings to take care of God’s world (cf. Gen. 2:15), to be moderate in meeting their needs, to preserve the richness, variety and beauty of nature. These truths should be taken into account with all seriousness by society and state in defining the basic goals of socio-economic and material-technical development. It should be borne in mind that not only the present but also the future generations have the right to use the natural wealth given by the Creator.
From the point of view of the Orthodox Church the political and legal institution of human rights can promote the good goals of protecting human dignity and contribute to the spiritual and ethical development of the personality. To make it possible the implementation of human rights should not come into conflict with God-established moral norms and traditional morality based on them. One’s human rights cannot be set against the values and interests of one’s homeland, community and family. The exercise of human rights should not be used to justify any encroachment on religious holy symbols things, cultural values and the identity of a nation. Human rights cannot be used as a pretext for inflicting irretrievable damage on nature.