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Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Clapsis Delivers Convocation Address

Orthodox Witness in the Public Sphere:
Religious Justification of Human Rights

One of the central educational goals of Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology is to relate the Orthodox faith and tradition to the human quest for meaningful and transformative existence in an increasingly complex, fast-changing, pluralistic and interdependent world. For a just and peaceful coexistence in these challenging times, human rights have been recognized to constitute the minimum requirement that ensures human dignity and equality for all people. The notion of human rights is embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the International Covenants of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) of 1996. In 1978, the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas issued a statement that recognized the value and the importance of the fundamental declarations on human rights. However, in other parts of the world, the human rights discourse has been either severely criticized or even denounced. This apparent divergence of views suggests that the actual Orthodox stances on human rights is related, in some instances, not only to Orthodoxy, but also to the cultural and political conditions in which Orthodox churches find themselves.

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Any theological assessment of the human rights discourse must take into consideration that such discourses are not crafted by the initiative of any particular religious community or Christian Church. They are not primarily theological or religious texts. Rather, they reflect the collective response of the international community to the atrocities and the discriminatory practices that oppressive regimes and totalitarian ideologies committed during and after the Second World War. Their aim is to provide the necessary political and moral principles so all nations and communities can adopt and implement them in their constitutional and legal traditions. The hope is that their implementation and their enforcement would contribute to a culture of peace with justice. Based on these expectations, attention was given initially not to their philosophical, religious, cultural, or political justification but to how human rights can be implemented by all the sovereign nations and to how the international community can hold these nations accountable for their enforcement. Seeking the widest possible adoption and enforcement by as many nations of different cultural traditions, political ideologies and religious faiths made necessary the expression of the human rights in political terms without any religious, philosophical or metaphysical justification.[1]

Since human rights as we know them today have been framed in secular terms, it is important, if we, as Orthodox Christians, recognize their contribution to a culture of peaceful and just coexistence in a plural world, to ground them in the theological and ethical tradition of our Church. It is the scope of this presentation to discuss the importance of human rights for today’s pluralistic world and offer some theological reasons why the Orthodox Church should critically commit herself to promote human rights in today’s pluralistic world.  My hope is that human rights will become even more an integral aspect of Orthodox theological education as well as of the catechetical literature of our Church.

Globalization has constructed a global culture, a broader social context, in which all particular cultures, ethnicities, and religions inevitably coexist in the same living space. Their coexistence, in the compressed social space of the global culture, leads them to a further development of their particular identities. Religious people and communities may opt to critically embrace this emerging global culture or choose to resist it either through militant means that eventually lead to violence or indifference that correspondingly leads to social fragmentation. Embracing this emerging global culture is the path of universalism that celebrates diversity, respects cultural specificity and encourages interconnectedness. Resisting this global culture signifies a rejection of conceiving it as a threat to particularity. It rejects the global culture of interdependence by giving emphasis to the superior distinctness of its particularity, while vocalizing a fear that the purity of its moral beliefs is at risk in a pluralistic world. It is my belief that the unity of the Church in the global context will be tested by the pressure of these paradoxical and simultaneously operating realities that give emphasis either to the universal and cosmic dimensions of the Faith or to fears and fanaticism that reduce the Orthodox faith to a sectarian ideology.

The contributions of the Orthodox Church in the joint pilgrimage of humanity towards a culture of a peaceful and just coexistence in the context of the new social realities will be enhanced by the recognition that in the plural world, we must view difference not as a curse nor as a problem but as an opportunity to relate, to live in communion, and to recognize the others in their irreducible difference as expressions of our profoundly shared humanity. Human solidarity in the global world greatly depends on human rights, the minimum conditions for life in community.

Referring simply to human rights as an ideal against which a person or community might measure themselves and chart their moral vision is a noble thing with some enduring value. But, ultimately, the respect and implementation of human rights will depend on the visions and values of the formative human communities and institutions to give them content and coherence. It is here that religion plays a vital role. It invariably provides many of the sources and values by which many persons and communities govern themselves. Thus, enlisting their unique and important resources is of vital importance to the enhancement of human rights. 

Religious communities need human rights norms both to protect them and to challenge them.  Religious communities may opt to accept the current protections of a human rights regime—the guarantees of liberty of conscience, free exercise, religious group autonomy, and the like. But passive acquiescence in the secular scheme of human rights ultimately betrays the religious understanding of personal and communal life.  Religious communities must raise their own voices within the secular human rights dialogue, and reclaim the human rights voices within their specific traditions. They cannot allow secular human rights norms to be imposed on them from without; they must rediscover them from within. It is only then that religious traditions can bring their full doctrinal rigor, liturgical healing, and moral persuasion to bear on the problems and paradoxes of the modern human rights regime.

The endeavors to provide religious justification of human rights can be differentiated in three distinct but related trends.[2]  Firstly, there are those who seek to justify human rights by embedding them within a richer and substantive set of religious commitments and traditions. They are seeking to contextualize their understanding of human rights within the comprehensive vision and values of their respective religious tradition(s). They insist on the necessity to ground human rights religiously if they are to retain their theoretical coherence, normative force, or practical efficacy. They claim that human rights not only can be conceptualized within a larger vision of the good than what is explicitly stated in normative texts of human rights but they must be so embedded.  If not, then there is a risk that human rights for all cannot be adequately safeguarded at all times and in all places. They argue that only religion can sufficiently respond to the ultimate question of morality – why be moral - when expedience tempts people instead towards indifference or the immoral course of action.

Secondly, there are those who consider the religious and philosophical justification of human rights to be unnecessary. They argue for the separation of the concept of human rights from the larger matrix of either Enlightenment or monotheistic beliefs with which human rights are so commonly - but as they see it, unnecessarily – identified. They believe that the defense of the universality of human rights does not depend on any philosophical, religious or cultural traditions. Thus, they suggest that by adopting simply a political and practical defense of the universality of human rights, they succeed to avoid any dependence on any contentious philosophical or religious premises for their defense.

Finally, there are those who seek to integrate these apparently opposite views concerning the justification of human rights. They argue that the world community could affirm and honor the political importance of the human rights provisions, but they would also retain the freedom to justify their importance based on their particular religious, philosophical or cultural tradition. It is possible, as the philosopher Charles Taylor has noted, that different people can endorse human rights for dissimilar reasons. He provides a picture what a “genuine, unforced international consensus on human rights” would look like:

Different groups, countries, religious communities, and civilizations, although holding incompatible fundamental views on theology, metaphysics, human nature, and so on, would come to an agreement on certain norms that ought to govern human behavior. Each would have its own way of justifying this from out of its profound background conception. We would agree on the norms while disagreeing on why they were the right norms, and we would be content to live in this consensus, undisturbed by the differences of profound underlying belief.[3]

By permitting each community to ground human rights on their own terms and perspectives, the justification of human rights is embedded in multiple faith traditions and cultural systems. People of faith adopt the human rights discourse because they are indispensable elements of the social witness of their religious tradition. Thus, respect and advocacy for human rights gains passion and depth once it is rooted in various religious traditions as reflecting the value of sacred texts and authoritative teachings. This approach might make more transparent the unique contributions that each cultural or religious tradition could offer to others. In general, the strategy of distinguishing the politically and legally enforceable standards of human rights from the multiple possible ways of their justification allows each culture or religion to retain their diverse perspectives and increase possibilities for cross-cultural learning and influence. 

An Orthodox Justification of Human Rights

Does the Orthodox Church base its discernment of human rights—despite their secular orientation—on some aspects of the Church’s belief about the dignity and the sanctity of every human being? How does she converse and collaborate with other Christian churches, communities of living faiths as well as humanists of all sorts in the public realm without compromising the uniqueness of the Christian faith?

The Orthodox Church in a post-secular, democratic, and pluralistic society enjoys the freedom to express her understanding of the common good and its contents. In such democratic and dialogical settings all the interlocutors must express their moral views of shared life with persuasive and communicable arguments so others who do not share the specificity of their tradition may receive their insightful contributions with appreciation.  In some instances, this can be done, without words and reasonable discourse. Their active identification with and support of the most vulnerable, the victims of history, suffice.

It is important to note, here, that democratic and free societies should unceasingly explore ways to jointly work for common goals – like liberty, equality, and fraternity. Constructing a democratic life together depends more on being able to engage in such shared positive pursuits than any agreements on all the reasons to engage in them.  This suggests that we should not understand the public sphere entirely in terms of an argumentation about truth-value propositions. It is a realm of creativity in which citizens give shared form to their lives together. People need to find ways to treat each other’s basic commitments with respect and hopefully in this process they may find considerable overlap in what they value. In such joint deliberations, not everyone will recognize the importance of the Orthodox theological and ethical contributions but this under no circumstances undermines their importance and value. The Orthodox churches must respect the freedom of others to believe as they do. Their different beliefs should not raise any doubt as to their possessing the equality and the rights inherent in human existence as a result of the indelible mark of God's image.       

An Orthodox theological justification of human rights should be framed primarily in positive, but nevertheless critical, terms so it can be an essential component of the Church’s public witness. A mere reference to the human rights discourse based only on their political and legal contributions towards a more humane and peaceful world would suffer from a theological deficit. It would signify the abandonment of the Church’s theological claims. The Orthodox acceptance of human rights must unequivocally affirm that they cannot be perceived independently of humanity’s intrinsic relationship with God.

The Orthodox theological justification of the dignity and equality of all humans has its origins in the fundamental belief that humanity depends on God’s creative and salvific love. The nature of this relationship is understood in Orthodoxy not in legal or contractual terms of duties and obligations but rather as a life of communion empowered by the Holy Spirit. Human beings by virtue of being created in God’s image and of the continuous loving relationship of God with them enjoin a divinely given equality and dignity. As St. Basil states:

Do not say, this one is a friend, a relative, a benefactor; that one is a stranger, a foreigner, and an unknown man. If you do not see them as equals, you will receive no mercy. Nature is one; this one and the other are both men. Want is one, need is the same in both... Do not turn your brother away and make the stranger one of your own...for all are relatives, all brothers, all the offspring of one father. [4] 

The unity of humanity for Orthodox theology is grounded in God’s loving presence in all through Christ and the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:6). All human beings - despite their apparent cultural, national, racial and religious differences - are endowed with an inherent dignity reflecting their qualitative relationship with God being created in His image.  In the history of the Orthodox Church, the dignity of the poor, the defenseless, the abused and the downtrodden is unequivocally affirmed. In fact, the Capadocians have elevated the dignity of the poor and the downtrodden by privileging them to be the iconic living presence of Christ in the travails of history.  In the words of Fr. Stanley Harakas, defending the dignity of the defenseless defines the nature of rights as the “basic claims, which persons need to exist as human beings.”[5]

The recognition of Christ’s identification with the poor, the homeless, the abused and the marginalized moves those who want to be with God to serve the poor and defend their God-given dignity.  Generally, Christians must disclose in their human relations the love of God for all human beings. This love is not contingent on whether they believe, act or think like us. In the words of Archbishop Anastasios, “The criterion of a person's true faith in the Christian ideal consists of his/her taking the initiative to become neighbor to every person, regardless of race, religion, language, virtue or guilt.”[6]  It is in such relationships that we actively recognize and experience the human dignity and equality of all people

However, the affirmations of the importance of human rights should not elevate them to a political ideology that aspires simply through human efforts to overcome the evil and the inhumanity that prevails in history. In the history of humanity, as well as in the history of every human person, there is a constant tension and antithesis between God’s benevolent presence in him or her as well as in history and the evil that also operates in them. As a consequence of this, Christians rejoice in whatever contributes to a more humane, less violent and unjust world but they desire to transform themselves and the world looking for more, knowing that no declaration of human rights nor any well intended action can ever be exhaustive or definitive.  This however, does not permit an outright rejection of human rights since it would imply a denial of God’s active and continuous presence in history. It rather invites us to be vigilant in light of the hypocrisy, violence and the inhumanity that prevails in the world.

Human rights as an indispensable expression of the Church’s public witness in a plural world requires fervent prayers, thoughtful deliberations in discerning God’s will in the highly complex and ambivalent world, and joint actions with other Christians, people of other living faiths, and secular people who desire to work for peace and justice in a world that is increasingly plagued with social inequality, injustices and violence.



[1] Johannes Morsink, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights:  Origins, Drafting, and Intent (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999)

[2] Grace Y. Kao, Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2011).

[3] Charles Taylor, “Conditions for an Unforced Consensus on Human Rights,” in The East Asia Challenge for Human Rights, edited by Joanne Bauer and Daniel Bell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 124.

[4] St. Basil, On almsgiving, paragraph 5

[5] Stanley Harakas,” Human Rights: An Eastern Orthodox Perspective,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 19 (1982).

[6] Anastasios Yannoulatos, “Eastern Orthodoxy and Human Rights,’ International Review of Missions 73 (1984), p. 458