"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, October 10, 2011

Orthodoxy and Human Rights

A few years ago, in a long review essay I wrote of new books on Orthodoxy and sociopolitical questions, I noted the fact that Orthodoxy is almost invariably ignored in any recent attempts to ask "What do Christians think about social, economic, or political issues?" If attention is paid, it is usually to slag Orthodoxy as being hopelessly, helplessly bound up with some configuration of "Caseropapism" or other, notwithstanding the fact that no serious scholar accepts that label today.

Happily, we are seeing better attempts today to be more rigorous and precise in analyzing Orthodoxy and its relations to politics and the state, and in particular that uniquely modern question of the nature of human rights. Two recent studies aid us in this task. The first is from the prolific John McGuckin, "The Issue of Human Rights in Byzantium and the Orthodox Christian Tradition." This essay may be found in a new collection, John Witte and Frank Alexander, eds., Christianity and Human Rights: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2011), 400pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Combining Jewish, Greek, and Roman teachings with the radical new teachings of Christ and St. Paul, Christianity helped to cultivate the cardinal ideas of dignity, equality, liberty and democracy that ground the modern human rights paradigm. Christianity also helped shape the law of public, private, penal, and procedural rights that anchor modern legal systems in the West and beyond. This collection of essays explores these Christian contributions to human rights through the perspectives of jurisprudence, theology, philosophy and history, and Christian contributions to the special rights claims of women, children, nature and the environment. The authors also address the church's own problems and failings with maintaining human rights ideals. With contributions from leading scholars, including a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, this book provides an authoritative treatment of how Christianity shaped human rights in the past, and how Christianity and human rights continue to challenge each other in modern times.
Later this year, Peeters has a forthcoming book that will make for very interesting reading, treating the topic at length:  A. Brüning and E. van der Zweerde, eds., Orthodoxy and Human Rights (Peeters, 2011), x+387pp. 

The publisher provides the following blurb:
Orthodox theology and the Orthodox Churches had, and continue to have an ambiguous relationship towards the concept of Human Rights: principal approval often stands alongside serious criticism. This is especially true for those Orthodox Churches which have their centre in a country of the former Soviet sphere. On the one hand, especially since the fall of Communism they enjoy religious freedom that forms a central element within the framework of Human Rights. On the other hand, the transformation process of the 1990s and the challenge of pluralism and globalization have all confronted them with aspects of freedom that could not but affect their stance towards the Human Rights concept in general. This also means, that doubts and reservations related to this concept came to the fore again, which had yet existed already decades before. These reservations focused on such issues as Church and secular society, Church and state, furthermore on the understanding of central terms such as "freedom", "dignity", "rights" - central also for an Orthodox anthropology, that needs to be reconciled with the partly differing approaches behind the Human Rights concept.
The chapters of this volume try and explore as much the philosophical and theological as the social, historical and practical aspects of this complex relationship. Based either on the discussion of differing theological concepts, or on empirical and concrete case studies respectively, they clearly show the tensions and fractures that do exist. On the other hand, in this way they also hint at possibilities to overcome these tensions, to continue a dialogue that already has begun, and to avoid the numerous misunderstandings between East and West which currently tend to form a hindrance to this dialogue at various points.
I look forward to seeing this discussed on here, and reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. 

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