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Talking up the majority’s rights

08 August 2014

David Martin looks at the Russian Orthodox reply to modernity


The Russian Orthodox Church and Human Rights
Kristina Stoeckl
Routledge £90
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LAST September, I sat opposite Metropolitan Hilarion in the atmosphere of a semi-eroticised clerical court, talking about Bach - he has composed his own St Matthew Passion, magnificently recorded by the Moscow Conservatoire - and about the active part played by the Church in Putin's Russia, and specifically Russian foreign policy towards Syria.

I had been speaking about secularisation and secularism (and Habermas's notion of the "post-secular") at Moscow State University, and my first questioner had asked about St Paul's teaching concerning the "powers that be". A little later, Bernice Martin lectured in front of the double-headed eagle of Byzantium about the evanescence of the majorityfaith of Roman Catholicism in Brazil, as an oblique way of indicating the possible advent of serious religious pluralism in Russia.

These are the themes of Kristina Stoeckl's remarkable and penetrating analysis of the way the Russian Church is handling its return to power in a context where it recognises its need to make a response to modernity, in particular human-rights discourse. As someone who regards Habermas's notion of the "post-secular" as speculative, normative, and sociologically ignorant, I am glad Stoeckl shifts to Charles Taylor's notion of a shared fragility and self-consciousness felt by participants in the debate on the public place of religion.

It is this self-consciousness that underpins the need of the Russian Orthodox Church to respond. Moreover, in the person of Metropolitan Hilarion, the responsetacks subtly in the direction of redeploying human rights, understood theologically as an emphasis on divine creation, and on thecommunity rather than the individual, either to defend the rights of majority communities and their specific national traditions,as in Russia, or of religious minorities.

Stoeckl focuses on a series of official statements both from the "European" human-rights side and the Russian Orthodox Church, though she also looks at the clashing rights involved in the prosecutionof the Pussy Riot punk group for invading the rights of worshippers in pursuit of the right to protest at the Church's increasing collusion with Vladimir Putin.

She notes that the Russian Orthodox Church redefines "Christianophobia" as positive discrimination against majority religious traditions: for example, the Lautsi case against crucifixes in Italian classrooms. It also envisages an alliance of conservative Roman Catholics and Orthodox against "critical" RCs and liberal Protestants.

Stoeckl pins some hopes on the idea that the Russian religious intelligentsia will follow in the footsteps of the murdered Alexander Men.

The Revd Dr David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.

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