Defending Human Dignity

by Fr. Robert M. AridaSusan Ashbrook Harvey, David Dunn, Maria McDowellTeva Regule, and Bryce E. Rich

The authors of ‘The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World’ are to be commended for framing our shared ecclesial mission as one of making present the eschatological hope of the new creation in which “race, gender, age, social, or any other condition” are no bar to shared eucharistic celebration. The document rightly reminds us that “the purpose of the incarnation … is the deification of the human person” which establishes the dignity of all persons, and demands its protection. As co-workers with God, the church and its members enter into “common service together with all people of good will,” seeking to establish peace, justice (3, 6), and social solidarity (6.4, 6.5, 6.6), gifts of the Holy Spirit which come from God (3.2) but “also depend on human synergy” (3.3). These gifts, and this work, is required for the flourishing of human dignity.

The document would be strengthened by making an unqualified commitment to human rights, while simultaneously acknowledging that such rights, as they are understood by the international community, are the minimum required for the flourishing of human dignity. The church’s mission then, is aligned with shared works of justice and peace, but also extends to both persons and communities, embodying and encouraging communities that bear the fruits of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” (Gal 5:22-23) which form the virtues of the Christian life.

The document leaves the impression that the Orthodox mission is to defend human dignity only when it does not conflict with its own interest.  This is especially found in the condemnation of discrimination. Denouncing violence and injustice, hatred, enmity or intolerance (5.1), “The Orthodox Church confesses that every person, regardless of color, religion, race, gender, ethnicity, and language, is created in the image and likeness of God, and enjoys equal rights in society” (5.2). What follows in the section 3 is, then, surprising: “The Church, in the spirit of respecting human rights and equal treatment of all values the application of these principles in the light of her teaching on the sacraments, the family, the role of both genders in the Church, and the overall principles of Church tradition. The Church has the right to proclaim and witness to her teaching in the public sphere.” In other words: since tradition appears to teach practices which advocates of human rights consider discriminatory, the church not only maintains the application of its own principles, but reserves the right to preach these publicly.

The document could be strengthened by acknowledging that some traditions found in the church, itself, are historically and culturally dependent and have, at times, diminished the dignity of the other.  For instance, the boldness, honesty, and humility of the Inter-orthodox Rhodes Consultation of 1988, “The Place of Women in the Orthodox Church,” acknowledges that “owing to human weakness and sinfulness, Christian communities have not always and in all places been able to suppress effectively ideas, manners, and customs, historical developments and social conditions which have resulted in practical discrimination against women” (The Place of Women in the Orthodox Church, B.VII.24).  Furthermore, Section 6.14 is overly broad.  It condemns efforts “to legalize and in certain Christian communities to justify theologically other forms of human cohabitation” as undermining the “divinely-granted institution of the family,” without ever mentioning that such arrangements may be desired or necessary for companionship, financial stability, or especially in response to the threat of family violence which puts women and children in particular jeopardy.  Such living arrangements, when undertaken with love and mutual respect, can also include meaningful religious development for the people involved:  committed parish/ecclesial involvement, shared devotional piety, and the cultivation of life lived in the service of love of God.

Thus, the document’s claims to solidarity, shared anxiety and commitment to compassion for all of God’s creation are undermined by its selective understanding of human rights and its refusal to acknowledge the shortcomings of Orthodox in these areas.  It undermines the longstanding engagement of Orthodox theologians and pastors with the world, shaped by the world, so that it may exist and live for the life of the world. Unfortunately, by repeated contrasts between the church and a secular, violent, morally-lax world, this document tends to encourage a church turned in on itself rather than turned outward to engage truly in service.  It is unfortunate, but perhaps telling, that “freedom understood as permissiveness” (8.13) is corrected simply by a reminder that freedom comes with responsibility. Rather, in light of the deifying purpose of the Incarnation, and the hope it offers, would that this document offered a vision of freedom for the other, freedom not to fear the “infinite anxiety” (2.2) which fills humanity, but freedom to love the other with “joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

Fr. Robert M. Arida is rector and dean of Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Boston.

Susan Ashbrook Harvey is Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University.

David Dunn is an independent scholar who writes on Orthodoxy and religion and politics.

Maria McDowell, an independent scholar of Christian ethics and Orthodox theology, belonged for many years to the Orthodox Church and is now a communicant in the Episcopal Church U.S.A.

Teva Regule is a doctoral candidate in the theology department at Boston College.

Bryce E. Rich is a doctoral candidate in theology at the University of Chicago.

This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Special Project on the Holy and Great Council and published by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.