Suffering, Love, and Human Rights

Over the last week I have been thinking about uncertainty and language (Gregory of Nazianzus), suffering and responsibility (where does this NOT come up?) and Human Rights (a panel proposal for SCE). In a presentation on icon, ethics and priesthood at this last AAR, I commented John Zizioulas and ethics, which he rejects as inherently reductionistic, based on an inevitable “polarity of good and evil.”1 Instead he posits an “ethos of self-condemnation” in which the Other is “kept free from moral judgment and categorization… not by disregarding evil but by transferring it from the Other to the Self.”2 This “eucharistic ethos” of humility is for Zizioulas a constructive response to Levinas which integrates the insights of the Desert Fathers. It gives priority to the Other, “even if this means going against one’s own conscience.”3

Taking responsibility for the sin of the other runs not only through the writings of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) but lives strong in the work of Dostoevsky. C. Paul Schroeder notes that Zizioulas fails to bring together freedom with love, which is characteristic of Dostoevsky’s “catholic sufferer” who like Christ, bears the sufferings of the world.4 Zizioulas responds to Schroeder in a footnote, in which he rightly points out that seeking suffering for the sake of suffering is not the goal of the Christian life, and that suffering should be resisted. What is odd about the footnote is that a) this is not what Schroeder’s article is arguing, and b) he seems to posit the very kind of suffering he rejects in his proposal of a “eucharistic ethos” by which we are to view ourselves as evil. Zizioulas, so concerned with who we are, with ensuring that persons are persons-in-relation based on Trinitarian model, rejects ethics because it appears solely concerned with what we are, good or evil, instead of focusing on who we are. Yet who we are is all about how we are, and his refusal to talk about how we relate is a problem, leading to a self-condemning ascetic ethos that should rightfully concern women (and men), as Valerie Saiving pointed out over 50 years ago. A more full (and fair) critique is certainly warranted, but instead, I want to propose an alternative terminology, inspired in part by an article by Lori Branch (though to explain how would simply take too much room).5

What if, instead of bearing responsibility for the sins of others, we bear responsibility for the humanity of others. Rather than orient ourselves towards our sinfulness and need for repentance, we orient ourselves towards the goal, achieved by recognition of our sin, by non-judgment of others, and by turning away from sin, which is transformation into our full humanity as participants in the life of God. This semantic distinction seems crucial. It is more faithful to the recognition of the human person as characterized not by sin, but by the imago dei, who constantly struggles towards a more full likeness of God in Christ - theosis. This may also open up not only a conversation with Levinas and Derrida (as Branch does), but allows Orthodox ethicists to do more than simply dismiss Human Rights as a nature-bound Western convention. Orthodox critique (Zizioulas and Yannaras) of Human Rights is correctly identifies its basis in Law which can never express the full sense of goodness or justice. Law is proximate, necessary but not sufficient (as Branch so clearly illustrates in her article). What if our orientation was to speak of Human Rights as not that which is due the other (a classic Aristotelian definition) but as our responsibility to seek the humanity of the other. The “basic needs” language of Catholic Social Teaching is then incorporated as an acknowledgment that food, clothing, shelter, health and education are fundamental pieces in becoming fully human. As Christians committed to solidarity with those in need, we willingly enter into suffering for love by seeking to ensure that basic needs are met, not because they are the “right” of another person, but because we are responsible to seek the humanity of all, and to do all that we can to create a world in which humanity can flourish.

Clearly more thought is necessary, but maybe this is a way to engage in Human Rights discourse, and still be faithful to our Orthodox ethos.

  • 1. John Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church (London: T & T Clark, 2006), 81.
  • 2. Ibid., 83, 82.
  • 3. Ibid., 91
  • 4. C. Paul Schroeder, “Suffering Toward Personhood: John Zizioulas and Fyoder Dostoevsky in Conversation on Freedom and the Human Person,” St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 45, no. 3 (2001): 243-264.
  • 5. Lori Branch, “The Desert in the Desert: Faith and the Aporias of Law and Knowledge in Derrida and the Sayings of the Desert Fathers,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 71, no. 4 (2003): 811-833.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.