"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, August 4, 2014

Russian Orthodoxy and Human Rights

In the spring issue of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, of which I am editor, we feature an article by Christopher Brenna on Orthodox approaches to the question of human rights. This is, as the author notes, a relatively new area for theological exploration. But the relationship of Orthodoxy and rights has been examined by sociologists and political scientists in a series of new books over the last decade, the newest of which, released just this spring, is by Kristina Stoeckl, a research associate in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Vienna: The Russian Orthodox Church and Human Rights (Routledge, 2014). I contacted her for an interview, and here are her thoughts:

AD: Tell us about your background and what led to the writing of The Russian Orthodox Church and Human Rights.

Kristina Stoeckl: In the preface of the book I reveal a piece of biographical background and my reasons for engaging in the topic of the Russian Orthodox Church and human rights. Readers of the preface will understand that I have a fairly traditional Catholic background which, in my academic work, has made me sensitive to the topic of religion in politics. They will also understand that the book is the work of a European political theorist who cannot but confront the towering paradigm of “postsecular society” expressed by Jürgen Habermas. I did not come to the topic of Russian Orthodoxy and human rights because I had a pre-determined interested in human rights as such; I was instead interested in the work of “translation” between religious content and secular norms. The Russian Orthodox debate on human rights appeared like a good example.  What readers of the preface will not find out is that I have an academic background in Russian and comparative literature and philosophy. I had the fortune to have very good teachers during my underground studies of Russian literature and philosophy at the University of Innsbruck in Austria: Fedor Dostoevskij, Vladimir Solov’ev, the philosophers of the Russian Silver Age, the generation of Soviet semioticians around Jurij Lotman, and later on also the religious thinkers of the Russian emigration were my early guiding lights for approaching Russian thought and culture. This background is much more evident in my first book and PhD-thesis entitled Community after Totalitarianism and published in 2008. This background explains why, despite all criticism of what the Russian Orthodox Church represents today, my approach to the Russian Orthodox tradition is sympathetic.

AD: Your first chapter notes the different responses to human rights discourse in modern Orthodoxy, from those very critical and dismissive to those who are more receptive. At the end of your chapter you note that the Russian Orthodox Church has adopted rather a middle position here--not totally dismissive, but not fully accepting, either. Why the middle position? 
KS: I call the Russian Orthodox Church’s a middle position, because it really stands for a response to the issue of human rights that steers mid-way between a complete rejection of human rights and acceptance. The Russian Orthodox Church published, in 2008, a document entitled “The Russian Orthodox Church’s Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights”. This document fundamentally changed the position on human rights which the Church had explained eight years earlier in the “Basis of the Social Doctrine” in 2000 (in which human rights are rejected as a sign of apostasy), but it did not go all the way to accepting human rights as a legal instrument that should be fully endorsed and supported by the Church. Why did the Church adopt this middle position? In the book, I give several reasons: relevance - the Moscow Patriarchate recognized that it cannot continue to ignore or dismiss the topic in its internal and external relations; politics – the Moscow Patriarchate recognized that for having a voice in politics, it better speak the language of contemporary politics; soteriology – the Church understood very well that Orthodox believers live in secularized societies and ask from their Church to express itself and provide guiding lines on topics of contemporary relevance; and lastly individuals – the individual members of the Russian Orthodox Church involved in the working out of the document between 2006 and 2008 were not unanimous in their assessment of human rights, some wanted total dismissal, some wanted endorsement. The document is a compromise between these actors. It is important to be aware that the individual dynamics may since have changed. I am not sure whether today, in 2014, a new document on human rights of the Russian Orthodox Church would still occupy a middle-position or would not demonstrate a regress to earlier, dismissive positions.
AD: You also note in your first chapter that religious groups in a majority position tend to be less favourably disposed to human rights than to minority religious groups. Have you found, e.g., that Catholics or Jews or Muslims in Russia invoke human rights language more than their Russian Orthodox counterparts?

KS: In the book I note in the first and analyse in detail in the last chapter that majority religions tend to be less favourably disposed to human rights than minority religious groups, who invoke the right to religious freedom in order to assure their survival and flourishing. Minority religious groups need the protection of the international human rights regime where majority religions simply rely on traditional privileges. This dynamic is clearly visible in the Russian case, both in the debates around the 1997 law on religious freedom and in cases on religious freedom that have reached the European Court of Human Rights. It is, however, not unique to Russia. Also many Western European countries are in the process of discovering that they have become, due to immigration, religiously pluralistic societies where individual human rights trump the historical privileges of waning majority religions. I have not done systematic research on the way in which minority religious groups appeal to human rights, but I refer the interested reader to the work of my colleague Effie Fokas, who is conducting a long-term research project on precisely this point.  

AD: You note that post-1991, Russia had two very different paths before it, and in the end chose the path of "religious nationalism." What motivated that choice--was it purely an anti-Western spirit, or was there something positive to it?

KS: The two paths I mean are “religious nationalism” and “religious renewal”. A religious renewal would have required a thorough process of critical self-reflection, a laying open of the guilt which the Church had heaped upon itself during the decades of Soviet collaboration and a renewal of the Church in the spirit of religious dissidence. This did not happen; what we got instead was continuity and strengthening of the religious apparatus. I think this choice was motivated less by ideological reasons (anti- versus pro-Western) but mostly by pragmatic considerations. The religious nationalism promised more public echo, more political support, and it apparently convinced many Russians. At the same time, inside the leadership structure of the Church and on the level of parish communities pockets of liberal renewal continued and continue to exist. Was there something positive to the path of religious nationalism? I don’t think so, but inasmuch as I interpret it not as an ideological, but as a pragmatic development, the only positive element there was is that the official religious nationalism has left some space for alternative viewpoints to emerge, which enjoy less visibility, but continue to exist. I should also add that I feel this space is significantly narrower today than it was in the period I study in this book.

AD: You note in your second chapter that the 2000 document "Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church" was very much the product of the Department for External Church Relations, headed by now-Patriarch Kiril, who seems to have positioned himself somewhere between "liberals" and "zealots." Has he maintained that balance since taking over as patriarch?

Source: Mospat.ru
KS: This is the much debated question among scholars dealing with the Russian Orthodox Church! On the first glance, it would seem that Kirill has given up his middle-stance in favour of more fundamentalist positions. He has appointed some real hardliners to important positions inside the Church, for example Vsevolod Chaplin who became responsible for Church-Society Relations. Since 2009, when Kirill became Patriarch, we have also seen a number of events which have tipped the balance in favour of the zealots: for example the trial of the punk-band Pussy Riot, the legislation against “homosexual propaganda” and “offense of religious feelings.” But there are also examples to the contrary, like the relatively balanced stance which Kirill has assumed in the present crisis in Ukraine (which I have analysed elsewhere). Leaving aside for a moment the position of Patriarch Kirill and his successful or unsuccessful attempts to maintain an independent position for the Church, what is clear is that in foreign and also in Russian public perception, this independence has already been lost. The Moscow Patriarchate is now widely perceived to stand unconditionally on the side of Putin and in support of his anti-Western politics.

AD: You note that the history in the "Bases" document attempts to sketch out a very different lineage for any notion of human rights in Russia, away from Western history, and all the way back to Byzantium. Why is that? Why the constant effort to so vociferously differentiate itself from "the West"? 
KS: Not the entire “Bases of the Social Doctrine” document, but definitely its section on human rights conveys a strong Orthodox anti-Westernism that goes back to the Slavophiles and to Orthodox resentments against the Latin West. The paradoxical feature about this anti-Westernism is that it comes in a format that is influenced by “Latin” Christian models of theological reasoning. In my interviews for this book it became clear that the Russian Orthodox Church has learned (and wanted to learn) from Catholic and Protestant theologians in matters of social teaching: conferences were held, working groups were created, position-documents were exchanged. This also explains the deep disappointment about the “Human Rights Doctrine” expressed by the German Protestant Churches, an episode I explain in chapter 4 of the book. These Western theologians felt that they had been part of a real exchange and had accompanied the Russian Orthodox colleagues in a “learning process” – and then they saw that the Russian Orthodox Church had given the entire debate an anti-Western twist.   

AD: You note (p. 101) that the Church today has shifted away from "inward" focus (on church-state relations) to "outward" focus on issues of "society, family, and values." Does that reflect new-found strength in the Church? What are the risks for this strategy? And are Russian Orthodox Christians fully supportive of this shift or--to go back to your opening discussion of the Pussy Riot--are they generally more ambivalent? 

KS:Yes, I do believe that this reflects a new-found strength in the Church structure. For a large part of the 1990s and 2000s the Church was busy with sorting out its own matters: the restitution of Church property once confiscated by the Soviet state, the establishment of courses that teach Orthodox “culture” in public schools, the building up of a system of Orthodox military chaplaincy, etc. Under Patriarch Kirill the Church has now moved to issues of society, family, and values. It has taken a firm moral conservative stance on issues of life, sexuality and gender, and religious freedom. I argue in the book that this shift does not only come from inside the Russian Orthodox Church, but is also the result of cooperation between Russian Orthodox actors and traditionalist sections inside the Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical Churches. My feeling is that ordinary Russian believers feel somewhat puzzled by this shift. The remaking of post-Soviet Russia as the world’s leading nation that respects “traditional values” is deeply paradoxical.
AD: Your data (p. 106-07) revealed that "since 2008, representatives of the Church and the Russian government have pursued an active human rights agenda at international level, in particular in the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations." Clearly it seems to me that one area where we have recently seen evidence of this is Russia's support for Syria against US intervention in the on-going civil war. Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church claim to have been motivated here by their concern to protect the rights of fellow Orthodox Christians in Syria. What do you make of these arguments?
I have not followed the Church’s argumentation on Syria closely and I was not aware that Putin has motivated his support for Syria (and Russia’s veto-position in the UN Security Council) on grounds of intra-Orthodox solidarity. I would interpret this stance merely as a rhetorical tool to cover up what the Russian agenda really is about: preventing regime-change at all costs.
AD: In your opening, and then again in the conclusion of your book, you return to the idea of Charles Taylor in speaking of a "mutual fragilization" as taking place in the encounter between Russian Orthodoxy and modernity. Explain this for us a little bit. 
Charles Taylor's concept of “mutual fragilization” adds an important feature to the paradigm of the “post-secular”. Habermas’ notion of post-secular society confidently assumes that religious and secular actors may learn from each other for the good of society as a whole; mutual fragilization reminds us of the fact that getting to know the other better may not always result in greater understanding, but in greater insecurity and self-reflexivity. Insecurity and self-reflexivity are positive, because hardened-up and doubt-free identities can be very frightening, whether religious or secular. In the history of the Russian Orthodox tradition, the period of the Russian émigré-theologians Sergij Bulgakov, Vladimir Lossky and Georges Florovsky strikes me as an example of “mutual fragilization”, where both the Orthodox as well as some of their Western interlocutors were faced with the moral breakdown of their respective traditions (Bolshevism in the East, Fascism and Nazism in the West), recognized that they were facing similar questions, learned from another and enriched their respective standpoints through encounter with the other. In that particular case, the encounter resulted in the neo-patristic turn in theology, a point I have made in my book Community after Totalitarianism.
AD: Very interestingly for me in a theology department, you end your book by noting that you are not a theologian but a political scientist, but nevertheless "it is there--in theology--where the future trajectory of the encounter of Orthodoxy and modernity is being mapped out" (p.131). Why do you say that? Tell us a bit more about how you see this trajectory being mapped out.
KS: I have studied the Russian Orthodox intellectual tradition for many years now and I have covered important periods from Solov’ev and Dostoevskij to the émigré-theologians, to late Soviet dissidence and contemporary debates. My impression is that during all this history, the Russian Orthodox Church has found itself tied to the state, has actually actively tied itself to the state and has failed to give an independent response to society and the world. These responses have come from elsewhere inside and outside the Church, from theology and religious philosophy. Such voices also exist today and many of my Orthodox friends and colleagues understand themselves as engaged in precisely this endeavour. It is them that I had in mind when I wrote those pages, obviously with the hope that theology may at one point prevail over reasons of church-state relations. At the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna we organized a workshop on “Orthodox political theologies” earlier this year, where we brought together theologians from Russia, Western Europe and the United States. The aim of the publication that will come out of this meeting is precisely to take stock of the ways in which Orthodox theologians map out the relation between their churches and politics.
AD: Sum up what you hope the book accomplishes

KS: The book wants to make a contribution to contemporary debates on the compatibility of religious claims and secular norms. It wants to challenge the prevailing theories of religious-secular accommodation by studying a “difficult” case like the Russian Orthodox Church’s treatment of human rights. I may not have managed to give full answers in chapter 5 of this book, but I am confident that I raised relevant questions which I intend to explore further. The book also wants to offer a balanced account of the ideas and politics inside the Russian Orthodox Church. It wants to highlight one aspect that is frequently overlooked in research in this field, and that is the interactions and relatedness of the Russian Orthodox Church with religious actors outside Russia, its engagement on the level of international institutions and its external relations.

AD: What projects--books, articles--are you at work on now?
KS: Since finishing the book I have tried to work further on the theoretical questions that emerge from my Russian case study. I have made some preliminary considerations on what I perceive as “theology's blind spot” in contemporary theorizing of religion and politics here and I plan to develop these ideas further into a full-fledged theoretical contribution. I am also working on a project to study present-day Russian moral conservatism. You can follow my work on my website and at the IWM.

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