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Orthodoxy and rights.


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#41 Alexander Ignatiev

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Posted 10 April 2012 - 07:22 PM

Fr. Raphael:

Your chronology is a little off, in that the American Revolution antedates the French Revolution by about 13 years. But more importantly, the concept of rights from which Hobbes and Locke, both in the 17th century, derived their views of the nature and origin of rights, was an ancient notion, common to the city-states of ancient Greece, the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire, although in each case the rights were tied to citizenship. Socrates was radical in that he seems to believe there are rights innate to humanity, and not merely to citizens of Athens, or Sparta, or some other particular entity. The Alexandrian successors in the 3rd century BC speak of preserving the "freedoms of the Greeks" from being trampled upon. These freedoms are of necessity not tied to Christian dogma; however, they are generally tied to a belief in free will and freedom of action for citizens which is analogous in many ways to an Orthodox understanding of free will; that is, the ability to act rightly or wrongly, free of determinism, as a moral actor.

I can assure you from a study of ancient and classical transcripts and speeches from courts, that our modern understanding of rights did not spring whole cloth out of the Enlightenment. Johannes Scotus Eriugena's writings continued a stream of philosophy from Augustine, and although we have a strong anti-Scholastic bent in Orthodoxy, the general ideas are well picked-over and known long before the 17th century.

We can consider the various judicial punishments of the Eastern Roman Empire as an embodiment of the classical understanding of rights, in that ostracism was considered an ultimate punishment, and capital punishment was rare, a fate meted out only to traitors, and often even traitors would not be killed, but maimed or otherwise rendered harmless. Imprisonment was a foreign concept, although confinement to monasteries was used as punishment from time to time.

Now, I can certainly agree that the modern notion of rights is far divorce from the classical understanding, but I think that the emphasis on free will as the originating principle for rights as classically understood is not a concept that would have been foreign to St. Basil the Great, St. Clement of Alexandria, or St. John of Damascus.

Please excuse a certain brusqueness; I am a lawyer by profession, and am not particularly civilized as a result. I tend to argue.

Edited by Alexander Ignatiev, 10 April 2012 - 07:36 PM.
Seeking humility


#42 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 10 April 2012 - 08:11 PM

Dear Alex,

What I mean is not rights in general (legal rights) but specifically the concept of universal human rights, something which I would say the Enlightenment thinkers read back into classical thnking- when really it was a development of their own time.

American, French revolutions- maybe it's from living in Canada. We tend to think of these not in terms of chronology, but of priority, which one was more ground breaking, pace setting for society, etc. The American revolution on the other hand is portrayed as more of a liberal revolution than the French was. But in terms of its impact I am not so convinced any more that its impact was not just as ground breaking as the French.

In Christ
-Fr Raphael

#43 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 10 April 2012 - 08:37 PM

I am a lawyer by profession, and am not particularly civilized as a result. I tend to argue.


Nothing wrong with being a lawyer! And surely we argue in a civilised way, and not in the manner of unsupported prejudice but by a dispassionate appraisal of the facts.

#44 Marcin Mankowski

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 09:02 AM

I am a lawyer by profession


Excellent. Have you read by any chance the book by Mary Glendon "The Rights Talk"? I would be interested in your opinion.

If case you didn't, here is one sample article about (there are many on Internet):


'Rights Talk' Run Amok


#45 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 10:04 AM

Hence the importance of distinguishing rights and social justice.

#46 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 01:19 PM

Actually, for purposes of discussion, I don't agree with the point of view of the article. As I stated in a previous post, what I think we as Orthodox Christians are facing is more a social or cultural question than a legal one. The point for example made in the article that:

When our rights inevitably come into conflict, the only recourse we have is government-the courts, human rights tribunals, or laws that favor one kind of rights-bearer over another. Coercion replaces compromise, “mutual forbearance,” and, ultimately, “peaceful coexistence.”


has been part & parcel of western culture since at least the times of the Romans. This exactly is what government is here for. To protect those whom otherwise could not protect themselves (or assert in act what is legally justifiable). Once in the public sphere then (as this bed & breakfast is) we should not be surprised that the public weal is defendable via the law even if this involves providing a place for a dog to stay overnight with its owner. After all, we were the ones who opened up the Bread & Breakfast, which always involves meeting legal standards that touch the public sphere. So we shouldn't be shocked if someone from that sphere defends themselves. This defense is even to the public good.

Similarly by law in Canada at least, while in the church, I can preach about the sins of homosexuality. I can if I believe it is correct in the given situation, sanction someone openly espousing a 'gay lifestyle', who wants a position in the church. However I could be arrested, since this involves the public sphere, if I picketed a local grocery store for hiring openly gay check out clerks. The difference then concerns the public sphere, and once law establishes what is legally protected behaviour, then I had better be very discerning as an Orthodox Christian, before attacking the law, which is still designed in principle to defend its citizens, unless I am particularly attracted to the idea of a society in which government defends no one except for the powerful. Otherwise I think it better to back up and address the problem where it really begins- in the heart of society itself- in its given values, desires, and attractions. Maybe we won't be heard so much as if we raised a public uproar every time a dog wants a bed for the night. But at least then we will be addressing society in an Orthodox fashion, in love for the truth and for others, while allowing others their freedom too.

In Christ
-Fr Raphael

#47 Owen Jones

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 01:50 PM

All of what you say is true, Owen, but it is problematic to associate rights with any given political system. Rights, at least classically, are things that exist of themselves as a condition of being human; the Declaration of Independence expressly states "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." This is an unqualified statement not related to the existence of a given political system; rather, they relate to the nature of humanity and man's place in the world. I don't think that in this sentence is anything incompatible with Christianity as the Orthodox Church understands it.


I do think it's incompatible, on both practical and theoretical levels. As Fr. Ralph has tried to point out, there is a big difference between legal rights and defining mankind in terms of rights. What you might call existential rights. These existential rights have morphed into the opposite of their original intent, which was to limit government (at least as regarding the American revolution). Now the same rights are argued in favor of unlimited government. Government as a god.

As for Locke, there is nothing more absurd than the contract theory of government. I never entered into the contract, yet I am bound by it? Unless I engage in violence? Please. Locke's contractarian theory of government is surely influenced by the OT covenant between God and the Israelites. But the New Covenant, if you will, is not a contract. This is symbolized by the Orthodox wedding ceremony, which is not a covenant.

I agree with Andreas regarding his comments on "the pursuit of happiness." But as for social justice, the Christian engages in charity, not for the purpose of some abstraction such as "social justice," but in order to save his own soul. The benefit to the recipient is secondary.

Probably the best political system is the way Athos is structured and governed. Obviously you cannot have an entire society taking a vow of poverty. And Athos benefits from its wealthy patrons (unfortunately this includes the EU), but in terms of actual governing structure, it serves as an excellent model.

Let's not forget that the modern emphasis on the rights of man originated in revolutionary movements.

#48 Marcin Mankowski

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 02:53 PM

Right to life means that God gave us immortal soul and body that will be resurrected. It is better what Locke had in mind.

Right to liberty means that we have free choice between good an evil, and that God provides us with His help with doing that
if we ask Him.

Right to pursue happiness means that we may strive for eternal happiness and foretaste of it in this life.

What more can one ask for?

Edited by Marcin Mankowski, 11 April 2012 - 03:52 PM.
Error - missing word


#49 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 05:27 PM

Since the topic keeps coming up in this discussion I think it would be helpful to outline a bit more the difference that several of us are making between standard legal rights and the modern concept of universal human rights.

The first-standard legal rights- were already enshrined in Roman law and then inherited by medieval/feudal governments and on into modern western society in general. This law applied certain legal rights and responsibilites according to class, estate, etc. In the case of infringement of these rights one could appeal to courts which governed the public sphere. This is the traditional concept of legal rights which, at least to my knowledge, the Church has never objected to.

As compared to this however, (at least as several of us see it) the concept of universal human rights is based on a modern shift in the definition of society and man's place in it. In place of an apparent external authority- God, ruling authority, the Church, etc- one's ultimate authority is ones personal conscience. In other words the shift is towards the self as the ultimate arbiter of all truth. Of course this shft has occurred only gradually over time. People still have an inherent respect for authority and without this no society could maintain itself without falling into the chaos of a million 'Is' all clamouring to be listened to and legally sanctoned. But still this is the drift of society and then law as its reflection. So it is very difficult to see how the genie can be put back into the bottle since the very definition of a person nowadays is self expresion, the fulfillment of ones' desires, feelings, etc. To go against this is seen as the most gross violation of being a person.

So much the more then does Orthodoxy involve a conversion. First on the spiritual level. But nowadays also on the social level, a complete re definition of who and what a person is, needs to be involved. Of course though thankfully we are helped immeasurably in this by the grace of Christ's Passion & Resurrection. For it's hard to see how this matches up very well with the Oprah religion of 'be who you really are'.

In Christ
-Fr Raphael

#50 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 10:25 PM

I agree with Andreas regarding his comments on "the pursuit of happiness." But as for social justice, the Christian engages in charity, not for the purpose of some abstraction such as "social justice," but in order to save his own soul. The benefit to the recipient is secondary.


This is right, of course, and I did not mention it since I took it as given. We might say that satisfying social justice is the consequence rather than the purpose of Christian charity or love. However, I would not automatically keep Christian charity and social justice separate. A desire for social justice may be motivated by Christian love of neighbour, may it not? Surely this is seen in St John Chrysostom, and one thinks of great Christian campaigners such as William Wilberforce.

#51 Richard A. Downing

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Posted 12 April 2012 - 08:34 AM

When I was growing up, teachers wanted to produce adults who had Character as well as Learning. Today the emphasis seems to be on Personality and Qualifications. I suggest that this is, in part at least, the problem with our society.
A person with Character stands up for the weak and vulnerable, while a person with Personality is concerned mainly with how his or her actions are viewed. The evil cult of personality is a proximate consequence.
Our Christian practise of standing in the spiritual struggle with God is principally one of denying or subduing the personality and allowing the development, by the Holy Spirit, of a Christlike Character. If it were otherwise the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax collector would not make sense.
Thus for us the word Responsibility shines much more brightly than Rights.

Love, Richard.

#52 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 12 April 2012 - 01:29 PM

A few months ago I purchased the two volume Law and Revolution (The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition) by Harold J Berman. Law greatly interests me, for in western societies it reflects the moral stance of that society. For example, for many people the law is as close to absolute truth as they will ever get, since the police for example detain someone, not according to how that person feels about what they have done, but according to an objective legal standard. The disconnect between the person detained, who often is living in a mentality where the person determines and is arbiter of their own world, and the law which determines the right & wrong of actions according to a determined set of standards, is very interesting. Often the person acts in great shock that anyone or anything is capable of calling them to account.

In any case I will look forward to reading Law and Revolution.

In Christ
-Fr Raphael

#53 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 12 April 2012 - 03:09 PM

For me, the attraction of the English common law system (which, of course, is the basis of law in Canada (except for Quebec), America, Australia, etc) as opposed to the cvil code type of system, is the concept of equity. Equity complements the law by providing courses of action and remedies which are not available at law. Equity arose as the application of the king's conscience to a case where the law was too rigid to achieve a just result. The king's conscience was informed by the Christian faith. What is significant today as in previous centuries, is that equitable remedies are in the discretion of the court. This is in stark contrast to the claims under rights law. Equity can not only provide a remedy to achieve fairness but award punitive damages against a party to punish its civil wrongdoing. The Christian origins of equity arguably still form its foundation.

#54 Stephen Hayes

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Posted 23 April 2012 - 05:52 PM

This is one for the bloggers here.

Call for contributions: Synchroblog on Theology and Human Rights

http://su.pr/1ckCIi

It has been suggested that we have a synchronised blog (Synchroblog) on
the topic "Theology and Human Rights" on Thursday 26 April 2012.

The aim of a synchroblog is that a group of people blog on the same broad topic on the same day, and post links to the other posts. This means that people can surf the posts, going from one to another, and seeing the different views, and commenting if they feel moved to do so.

If you would like to join in, then write your blog post on the topic. I
suggest that people in the Americas do it in the morning, those in Africa
and Europe do it about midday and those in East Asia, Australia, New
Zealand etc do it in the evening.

As soon as you have posted your contribution, copy the URL for your post
from your browser and send it to me in an e-mail message in the following
format

NA Poster's name
BL Poster's blog name
TI Title of your post
URL Url of your post
REL Your religious background
EM Your e-mail address

If you use that format -- with the preceding tags in capital letters
followed by a single space, and each piece of information on a separate
line (it can word-wrap), I will be able to import it straight into a
database without re-typing, and produce a report with the HTML code for
the links which can then be appended to your post. I will post them on my
contribution, and the easiest thing will be to copy and paste them from
there. But I will also send it by e-mail to all the registered
contributors (to the e-mail address you provide, so don't munge it).

If you send it to me by e-mail at

shayes@dunelm.org.uk

it will avoid cluttering up the mailing lists with lots of messages about
addresses and titles of blog posts.

Afterwards we can discuss the Synchroblog on the forum Christianity and
Society

More details here:

http://su.pr/1ckCIi

#55 Jonathan Gress

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Posted 24 April 2012 - 12:12 AM

If an Orthodox Christian accepted the concept of rights, wouldn't he conceptualize them as a legal framework in which he can fulfill his obligation towards his neighbor? I.e. the law might say a man has a right to hold onto his property, but do we actually interpret that to mean he has an inalienable right given by God, or rather that such a law is useful for society to carry out its obligation not to steal, and to make efforts to prevent theft from occurring.

I suppose another way of looking at it is this: I'm not sure I'm convinced that Christ's command to turn the other cheek was intended as a command to surrender our right to self-defense, since that presupposes there IS a "right" to self-defense in the first place. I always understand it as a command to deny our natural inclination to preserve ourselves, an inclination which is not harmful or evil in itself, because God planted it in us so that we would preserve ourselves from harm, but instead as Christians we are meant to live according to the spirit and not be governed by our passions. I wonder if Alexander or anyone might provide some patristic passages towards this issue.




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