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Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology
October 4, 2002

David Little, Harvard Divintiy School

Picking up on the idea of "responsibility" in the title I was assigned, let me suggest two ways in which religious bodies, such as the Orthodox Churches, can be "responsible" in regard to human rights in a pluralistic world:

One is, that they take responsibility for embracing and promoting human rights, once they have examined thoughtfully the reasons why we have human rights in the first place, and why they are so important. Secondly, I recommend that Orthodox clergy and laity, along with other religious practitioners, become actively involved in helping to think through sensitive issues in the human rights field such as the treatment of new religious movements and the subject of proselytism.

Let me take these two points up in order.

Why Human Rights are Important. It is widely believed, in the West and outside it, that human rights are the outgrowth of a peculiarly eighteenth-century European cultural movement called the Enlightenment. Accordingly, human rights are interpreted as being militantly secularist, as well as excessively individualistic and bourgeois in the sense of idolizing private property and of elevating individual interest above economic and social welfare and responsibility. If this account were true, it would explain why many religious communities, including some members of the Orthodox tradition, either reject or are deeply skeptical of the language and ideals of human rights.

However, the reality is much more complicated. For one thing, the Enlightenment was not all of a piece. The French Enlightenment, with its emphasis on atheism and anticlericalism, did have a strong secularist bent, but the English Enlightenment did not. John Locke, one of the parents of modern human rights ideas, was a devout Christian believer, who defended the freedom of religion and conscience, as much to ensure the purity of religion as to protect the state from church domination. That emphasis became a hallmark, I would argue, of the American tradition of religious freedom, which owed so much to Locke. Amazing as it may sound, Locke gave as a reason for prohibiting suicide the belief that human beings are ultimately God's property, and not their own!

More importantly, the whole idea of an individual right as something "natural," something inborn and claimable by all human beings, whatever their religion, language, culture, or place of birth, is much older than the Enlightenment. It found its origins in the Christian Middle Ages, as early as the twelfth century. What was absolutely revolutionary about the idea, and what underlay everything else, was that, ultimately, it extended to every human being, simply as human being, "an inherent right of self-defense ... against any oppressive authority, even an oppressive pope." 1

Above all, the original notion of individual rights was a resistance doctrine against arbitrary authority. There were, it was assumed, certain things that existing powers, whether religious, social, political, or economic, simply may not do to any individual, no matter who the power might be. Individuals have a right to protest gross injustice, and, in extreme circumstances, to take things into their own hands, individually or in concert. The implications of the doctrine eventually touched a wide range of issues, including religious freedom, political expression and organization, as well as the protection of "life, liberty, and estates" against both economic and political tyrants.

Over the centuries, and well before the Enlightenment, this doctrine of the right of individual resistance was widely applied. It was advocated, often by fervent religious believers, on behalf of religious minorities in Europe and America, on behalf of the indigenous peoples of the Americas against European colonialism, and on behalf of "all orders and sorts" of English citizens, who, faced in the 1640s with economic oppression, demanded, as they said, "the recovery of our natural human rights and freedoms," since it is "against the radical law of nature ... that any [person] should be deprived of a human subsistence...." 2

There is no denying, of course, that the doctrine of individual rights became, in certain times and places, wedded to excessive individualism and to the idolatry of private property. Such excesses can be found in Locke, and others, and they still undoubtedly inspire a large following in contemporary American society. But that is by no means all there is to the rights tradition. In reality it is a capacious storehouse containing a rich variety of appeals and proposals, many of them invoked on behalf of oppressed peoples, often from strong religious motivation.

All these appeals and proposals must be carefully explored and examined before any religious community is entitled to disparage or reject the tradition out of hand. My guess is that, on inspection, many of the sentiments and concerns registered in the name of individual rights over seven long centuries are in fact strongly consonant with the deepest convictions of many religious communities around the world, including, I would imagine, the Orthodox tradition.

What is more, there is a strong reason to believe that human rights language today constitutes an effective common idiom for articulating severe grievances, and consequently provides a basis for shared ideas of peace and justice in the public sphere among different communities with different, and sometimes conflicting, ideals and convictions. [Note on Ted Robert Gurr, States versus Peoples.]

One critical reason that human rights protections, including the protection of religious freedom, are so important just now is that what we could call the threat of communal domination is so potent under modern conditions. That threat was, of course, most dramatically and perniciously manifested in the form of German and Japanese fascism of the last century, a movement, I remind you, that found expression outside as well as inside the West. But it has also been exemplified in various forms of state socialism, past and present, and, again, in nonwestern as well as western settings. More recently, the threat has taken the shape of ultranationalism, as found in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere.

The central threat is of course the same one the age-old rights tradition has combated, namely, arbitrary authority. But it is many times more sinister under modern conditions because of advancements in the technology of domination. Human rights developed after the war, not so much because of the dominance of Western liberalism, but precisely in response to the expanded capacity on the part of the modern state for exercising arbitrary authority. After the experience of fascism, it would be difficult to dispute the need of each and every human being, regardless of creed, background, race, gender, etc. to have protection against arbitrary injury, confinement and discrimination, against the suppression of speech, assembly, political, cultural or religious expression, or against economic abuse and neglect--all in the name of a supreme set of communal values and ideals.

One of the main problems we face worldwide is that under the impulses of nationalism, or related political and economic interests, governments, often armed with an impressive capacity to regulate and suppress, ally themselves with one from among a wide diversity of ethnic, religious, racial or cultural groups within a society, and give special favors and advantages to the members of that group over all others. As case after case demonstrates, the potential for conflict and bloodshed is palpable. It is not hard to understand why, again and again, members of minorities would reach out, regardless of the culture or country, for human rights protection against religious and other forms of discrimination of that sort.

It cannot be denied that the problems are not only political and civil, but economic and cultural, as well. Many religious communities understand that point well enough. Fortunately, the human rights vocabulary, consistent, as we saw, with the earlier rights tradition, includes protections not only of physical integrity, and of civil, political, and legal rights, but also of economic and cultural rights, as well. That these are manifestly not promoted and enforced as resolutely and persistently as the other rights, is a good reason for religious communities, if they are so disposed, to take up the cudgels and begin to agitate for change. To take up that cause, along with promoting other human rights, would be one way of discharging the "duties to the community" that the Universal Declaration in article 29 imposes upon Cieveryone."

So far as the general purpose and impact of human rights language is concerned, it is by now very difficult to refute the statement contained in the preamble to the UN Declaration against Intolerance that "the disregard and infringement of human rights and fundamental freedoms...have brought, directly or indirectly, wars and great suffering to [human] kind...."

New Religious Movements and Proselytism

A key problem exercising the human rights community these days concerns the question of the limits of proselytism as posed by the growing presence of what are called "new religious movements."3 In the discussion, the right of free religious expression and the right to change one's religion is frequently pitted against the right of privacy and the right to protection against coercive intrusion, or "improper pressure," in matters of religion or belief. A whole series of laws has either been recently passed, as in Russia,4 or vigorously reasserted, as in Greece,5 affirming the right of traditional religions to restrict the efforts, usually of religious minorities, including "new religious movements," to propagate their faith. Some of these laws have been adjudicated by the European Court of Human Rights,6 and while recent decisions in regard, for example, to Greek anti-proselytism laws have ruled in favor of the rights of minorities to engage in the dissemination of their views, the tensions between minorities and established or majority religions raised by the issue of proselytism have hardly been resolved.

In a recent publication, Natan Lerner enunciates some of the remaining areas of tension, and suggests points at which different rights seem to conflict with one another:

... [I]n a democratic society people should be free to disseminate their religious views. They should not be silenced simply because some people prefer not to hear those views. There is, however, a right to privacy, and uninvited speech should not necessarily prevail over this right. [Problem of balancing these rights.]

... [P]roselytism involving material enticement-money, gifts, or privileges-should be considered a form of coercion and, thus, may be limited by law. Such material enticements exceed the area of freedom of speech and expression. However, borderline cases may not be easy to judge. [Should all forms of educational and welfare assistance freely offered by religious groups be considered illicit forms of "material enticement," and thus banned by law? Is it fair for state-supported churches to provide various forms of material assistance while non-established churches are prohibited from such activities?]

In the discussion of these problems, new religious movements have typically been classified, rather disparagingly, as "sects" and "cults." You may have noticed that in Western, Eastern, and Central Europe and elsewhere, there has been in recent years a rather extensive and persistent "anti- sect/ anti-cult" campaign. From the perspective of the human rights community, these campaigns, in general, have not represented the appropriate way in which to think about the problems of proselytism and treatment of new religious movements.

The attitude to the such campaigns on the part of the human rights community has been compellingly stated by the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom, Abdulfattah Amor:

The term 'sect' seems to have a pejorative connotation. A sect is considered different from a religion, and thus not entitled to the same protection. This kind of approach is indicative of a propensity to lump things together ...which is hard to justify and harder still to excuse, so injurious is it to religious freedom.

Sects...are not above the law. The State must ensure that the law-particularly laws on the maintenance of public order and penalizing swindling, breach of trust, violence and assaults...the illegal practice of medicine, abduction and corruption of minors, etc.-is respected. In other words, there are many legal courses open and they afford plenty of scope for action against false pretenses and misdirection. Beyond that, however, it is not the business of the State or any other group or community to act as the guardian of people's consciousnesses and encourage, impose or censure any religious belief or conviction. 7

Directly supportive of the Special Rapporteur's opinion on "sects" and other religious minorities is the Comment by the UN Human Rights Committee on Article 18 of the ICCPR. In expressing its concern over "any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reasons," the Committee suggests as a special danger that groups will be treated with prejudice because "they are newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility by a predominant religious community." The implication is that under conditions of nationalist fervor, which, as we saw above, naturally cater to majority beliefs and ideals, governments must go to extra lengths to guarantee freedom and equality for religious minorities.


I have tried to suggest there are good reasons why we have human rights, and why religious bodies ought to embrace and promote them. I have also mentioned some particularly sensitive areas of current human rights concern that affect religious bodies directly-the problems of proselytism and the treatment of new religious movements and religious minorities. These problems, and others like them, are of urgent concern, and call for the active involvement of religious bodies, like the Orthodox communities. To reflect on the importance of human rights and to contribute to the lively discussions going on around the world are an important way, I suggest, of manifesting "responsibility" "in a pluralistic world."

1 Brian Tierney, "Religious Rights: An Historical Perspective." John Witte, Jr. and Johan D. van der Vyver (eds.), Religious Human Rights in Global Perspective. Religious Perspectives (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1996), p. 29.

2 Richard Overton, "An Appeal to the People" (1647), in A.S.P. Woodhouse, Puritanism and Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947), p. 333.

3 See Soul Wars: The Problem ofProselytism in Russia, Emory International Law Review 12.1 (Winter 1998); John Witte, Jr. and Michael Bordeaux (eds.), Proseltyism and Orthodoxy in Russia ( ); Latin America and Lerner, Religion, Beliefs, and International Human Rights, pp. 80-118.




7 "Implementation of the Declaration on the Elimination of An Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion or Belief," submitted by Mr. Abdelfattah Amor, Special

Rapporteur, in accordance with Commission on Human Rights Resolution 1996/23; E/CN.4/1997/91; 30 December 1996,paras. 94,99.