Christian Orthodox Obligations Versus Secular Human Rights

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Review: Leonard G. Friesen, Transcendent Love: Dostoevsky and the Search for a Global Ethic, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2016, 240pp., $50.00

       In our climate of a possible ‘new cold war’, Immanuel Kant’s vision of an ethical commonwealth based on universally shared human reason appears more utopian than ever. However, Leonard G. Friesen in his new work Transcendent Love surveys the engagement of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, the 19th century’s Russian literary giant, with European human-rights based secularism, arguing that the alternative ethic that P03233Dostoevsky put forward with the “Orthodox Christ” has as much to contribute to our age as it did in his for forging a global ethic. Friesen enters into the field of global ethics that has, as Heather Widdows in Global Ethics: An Introduction points out, only emerged in the past few decades. Global ethics not only concerns itself with global issues such as the ‘war on terror’, global trade, or climate change, but also recognizes that given the interconnectedness of our society due to globalization and the aspirations of global governance, necessity compels us to create a global ethic to address issues that affect us globally. Introductions to moral philosophy such as Torbjörn Tännsjö’s Understanding Ethics and Kimberly Hutchings’ Global Ethics are quite euro-centric in perspective, which Friesen rightly challenges. In this way Friesen’s stands beside works like The Globalization of Ethics edited by William M. Sullivan that likewise sought to include non-European perspectives.

       For Friesen however contemporary global ethics are detrimentally marred by a radical individualism and a secular moral relativism. Friesen proposes that Dostoevsky’s context of 19th century Russia, being caught between the world powers Europe and Asia, offers a unique contribution for us by helping us break out of our common euro-centrism, as well as being a much needed antidote to our individualism and secular relativism by its communal nature and Orthodoxy respectively. While global ethical issues such as climate change are not addressed in depth, Friesen hopes that new framework for a global ethic found in the “Orthodox Christ” of Dostoevsky can give direction for such engagement—much like Patrick Riordan’s Global Ethics and Global Common Goods in seeking to bring the field of global ethics right back to foundational ethical issues of the ‘Good’ for direction. Despite being notoriously difficult to interpret in literary circles Friesen stands confidant with renowned Dostoevsky scholars such as Vladimir Soloviev in interpreting Dostoevsky as primarily an exponent of Russian Orthodoxy. Dostoevsky is read as such a writer who “…was determined to bridge the gap between the People (Russia’s famed narod, the peasantry)…” who carried the spirit of Orthodoxy and “…the empire’s Europeanized elite…” who were possessed by European secular individualism, as exemplified in his novel Demons, with the “Orthodox Christ.”

       Friesen begins by discussing the motifs of orphanhood and suicide prevalent across Dostoevsky’s work, framed in his novella “The Meek One”, to explore what Dostoevsky feared most for Russia. Viewing the ‘progressive’ thought of Russia’s 1840s liberal generation with suspicion, Dostoevsky saw in it a destructive secularism. “Dostoevsky deemed all moderns to be orphans…” left to complete destitution without God. Our ethical gaze was diminished from immortality and the future, unto this world and the present, leaving those who have the most material wealth to wield the most power, seeking to control us orphaned souls. As such, a variety of new ethical preferences such as ends over means, the individual over the community, and indifference over ethical distinctions are brought about. Dostoevsky depicts the Europeanized elite as thoroughly bored and depressed because of this, which results in searching for a life of new diversions ranging from idle chatter to sexual depravity such as pedophilia. Gambling, self-loathing, voyeuristic entertainment, and direct violence, all likewise stem from this indifference to a secular universe. Left to this destitution themselves, the felt need of the powerful to assert their “…rights even precede any particular content to those rights…” The People (narod) being weak are left so alone to scramble for their security that they might even sacrifice their freedom to inequitable conditions. “It seemed that Dostoevsky associated modernity with ethically sanctioned inequality.” If all ended in death “…in a profoundly meaningless world…” then “…it may be that the only truly meaningful act we can undertake is to kill ourselves”, thus suicide for Dostoevsky is the natural resultant of modernity’s orphanhood. Believing that secular Europeans were still searching for a transcendent ethical vision, Dostoevsky held out hope for their conversion. He does not spell out this conversion in propositional form though, but rather expresses it “…relationally, through an absolute embodied truth…” in the characters of his novels.

    From Dostoevsky’s fears we move to understanding his Russian Orthodox ethics, illustrated chiefly by repentance in his novel Crime and Punishment. Repentance, the beginning of this ethical vision, starts with not only a firm acknowledgement of our wrongs but remembrance of the Orthodox Biblical tradition, seen in Dostoevsky’s various references to the scripture, icons, San Damiano Crossand the sign of the cross all as an reinforcement of it. Dostoevsky asks his “…readers…to think of their future as a memory, for they could approach it by looking backward to the cross and the resurrection of Holy Week” thus recapturing their formally transcendent ethical horizon. Immortality and freedom, such as in his famed exploration of it in his novella Notes from Underground, are likewise essential for his ethical vision, for the vision must be freely embraced in full hope, rather than forced upon the People by coercion and without hope. The transcendence of the Orthodox Christ enables the People to have freedom beyond the brutal determinism of a secular universe and hope beyond the present. The Europeanized Russian elite did provide some lesser version of freedom—the freedom of a variety of equally bad choices as to which debauchery and distraction you wanted to pursue, but they offered nothing to replace the now lost transcendental horizon of Russian Orthodoxy.

     The Russian Orthodox ethic consists in an open invitation to all, especially those deemed ‘unrighteous’. However, both the illusions of moral progress, and a sense of superiority to the peasantry—need to be shown for the sham they are for repentance to begin. Dostoevsky’s common motif of kissing the earth illustrates that “…for Dostoevsky shame was an essential device by which Europeanized, individualized Russians would return to a new identity grounded in the interdependence of the People”, The notion of “joint responsibility” (krugovaia poruka) is prevalent throughout Russian history as shown in Geoffrey Hosking’s Russia and the Russians. Only after this could they move to embrace a life of unconditional, limitless, and personally active love, which flow out of their own sense of their responsibility to others “…even at the expense of their personal joy.” Dostoevsky’s saintly characters manifest this love in pity, the embrace of other people’s suffering, and in bearing collective responsibility. It follows from the last that if we commit a wrong against one person we commit a wrong against all people, resulting in the need for mutual forgiveness, as Christ has forgiven us. For all Russian Orthodox thought this vision, while utterly self-sacrificial, is sublimely beautiful as it develops us into the likeness of Christ like a living icon. Friesen argues then that Dostoevsky would challenge our secular moral relativism with a transcendent vision of the “Orthodox Christ”, as well as our radical individualism by this call to collective responsibility out of repentance.

      In his final section, Friesen looks at Dostoevsky’s speech given at the celebration of the monument to Alexander Pushkin, responding to critics who argued that the Orthodox Christ could not be universalized. Dostoevsky admires that whether Catholic France or Protestant Germany each had its own contribution to global ethical discourse in seeking to be a universal ethic. Europe however made a fatal flaw by forgetting the ideal of the Orthodox Christ. Any ethical vision “…built on a cocktail of atheism, science and liberalism [was] doomed to fail…” and was itself too provincial. For Dostoevsky the ideal of the Orthodox Christ was kept among the peasantry and not in the Europeanized elite, for Russia harbored within itself from its beginning as a nation the Orthodox faith which was always meant to be universal—therefore “…one could be fully Russian and fully universal at the same time.” Dostoevsky further warned that Europeanized Russians who had rejected the Orthodox Christ would seek to impose their ethic by a strong state apparatus that would do anything to reform or be rid of the ‘ignorant masses’—eerily prescient of the Soviet Union less than half a century later.

     Gradovsky is emblematic of the liberal detraction to Dostoevsky’s ethnic conservatism, arguing that a conversion on the part of the elites toward the People was insufficient. What was needed to dismantle an oppressive structure was a progressive movement to work within state structures on behalf of the People. Furthermore, how can it be said that the Russian people held a universal ethic, when they like any other people group were just as provincial as anyone else? Dostoevsky argued that while European liberals may talk of equality, in practice their structures depended on the same servile labor to maintain their lavish lifestyles as they decried in their political rulers—the 19th century Russian equivalent of the ‘limousine liberal’. As for the provincialism of the People, Dostoevsky argued that their exaltation as the bearers of the Orthodox Christ is hardly prideful as it is the exaltation of the ethic of humility itself! What could not have been appreciated however would be later postmodern detraction to Dostoevsky, and by extension Friesen as well, that universalism in and of itself is oppressive because its homogenous impulsive is coercive against any particular difference that it cannot subsume in itself. In the end however, Dostoevsky does not try to propositionally argue with Gradovsky, or much less postmodernism, but instead portrays these two opposing ethical visions in his last novel The Brothers Karamazov—Orthodox Christian communal obligations in Aloysha, the saintly protagonist and secular individual human rights in The Grand Inquisitor—and leaves his audience with the decision between them.

       “We are living out of Dostoevsky’s greatest fears…” as our age is the orphan child with nothing left but violence, and sanctioned inequality. For Friesen the task of forging a new global ethic is necessary given that, arguing in line with Immanuel Wallerstein, the European universalism embraced by Russia’s 19th century elite is of the same legacy that we in the 21st century are now struggling with and in many ways beginning to abandon due to the critiques of postmodernism and post-colonialism. Furthermore, many of the ethical views that Dostoevsky puts forward such as collective responsibility, find much resonance in other traditions such as First Nations peoples and Islam, which have likewise been left out of Euro-centric moral philosophy. Given the centrality of the continuity between modernity in the 19th century and our era for Friesen’s argument however, post-modernism should have been given a vital place of discussion instead of leaving the questions as to how Dostoevsky could address postmodernism and as to how postmodernism is related to the legacy of modernity, mute. For instance, what about animals, do they have rights? How would an ethic of collective responsibility speak to whether we have obligations to animals or not? Illustrating the difference between an ethic based on Dostoevsky’s Orthodox Christ and contemporary secular human rights would more clearly have demonstrated Friesen’s argument for the value of Dostoevsky’s contribution. But perhaps such specifics would have missed Dostoevsky’s ethic entirely, which was that our active love is to be shown to all creatures concretely and not in the abstract. The true test of Dostoevsky’s ethic would seem to be whether, should it be lived out, we would find it insufficient and weak or as beautiful and joyous as he believed it to be.





The New Abortion: Solemn Reflections

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            Normally it is unwise to write on an issue of a particular form of suffering with which one has had little personal experience or even second-hand experience of. Nevertheless, one as an outside observer can be terrified enough to overcome the cautions of ‘wisdom’ to write about a suffering one is personally unacquainted with, out of love for those who are acquainted with it. It is with this then in mind that the term Abortion is here brought forward. It is so stark a term one can only be surprised that another term, perhaps with less violent connotations, has not replaced it in our public discourse. The term can be helpfully illuminated by its second denotation, which evokes the failure of a plan and the attempt to prematurely end such a plan thought of as an inevitable failure, and the like. The second denotation of this term does illuminate the attitude toward the biological sense of the term, which as will be argued here is slowly beginning to erode. The biological sense is quite different obviously but it carried the connotations of a ‘necessary evil’, that something, while tragic in every respect, is nevertheless within the rights of the mother to carry out because the birth of a child was not in the life plan or that the plan of raising such a child was thought of as an inevitable failure (e.g. “We’re too poor to raise a child”, “We wouldn’t know how to raise a child” etc…). Abortion was a process that, while, as has often been argued, is within the legal rights of the woman to carry out and/or is not an immoral act as such, is nevertheless a tragic process, a sad experience. It may be seriously doubted whether there are many women who have felt great joy after getting an abortion, no matter how necessary it may have been. Not necessarily a sense of shame, but still a sense of sadness, loss, and even possible depression accompanies abortion. What has begun to terrify this observer is that even this aspect of abortion, that of it as tragic, is beginning to be eroded, shifted, or morphed, and is being replaced with very troubling ideological comforts in our public discourse.

            Let us look at three recent phenomena, going from the least extreme to the most. The issue of gender selection has recently arisen anew when Ann Furedi, head of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Britain’s largest abortion charity, had argued that, “The law is silent on the matter of gender selection, just as it is silent on rape.” Strictly speaking technically and legally she is absolutely right that the law in Britain does not specify the reasons for abortion and theoretically would even allow the possibility that if the woman wanted to abort a child because of the ethnicity of the child it is within her right to do so, though Furedi does not go so far to argue such. Naturally there has been an outcry, even from the likes of the feminist community as represented by Rahila Gupta’s piece in the Guardian, where she argues that ” It seems irrational to support a system that allows women to abort girls in order to protect themselves from the fury of patriarchs…A girl’s right to life has to be a basic tenet of any feminist position and cannot be compromised by an absolutist pro-choice narrative.” Gupta has very insightfully pointed out the central tension now concerning gender selection that, ironically, abortion could be used by patriarchy to rid societies of female children in particular, and that a ‘pro-choice-at-all-costs’ stance could sustain this abuse. Gupta argues against Furedi that, though an absolutist pro-choice narrative is installed legally, feminists in particular should be wary of such appeals which unwittingly play into the hands of patriarchy.* What is of even more interest for our purposes now is how the tragic element of abortion has shifted from the process itself for the woman and the family, to the ideological realm of battle between the need to preserve the long fought for ‘pro-choice’ legal right to abortion, and the equally long fought for ‘pro-life’ legal human right of the foetus. The tragic element has then shifted so that the question of tragedy now concerns whether one is ideologically compromising or losing the legal battle, for either side, instead of the very practice itself in our public discourse. The ideological threat and impeding sense of loss can be seen in Furedi’s insistence that to ‘give in’ on this aspect, that is gender selection, would be to compromise the long fought for right to abortion, which would be the tragedy. For Gupta to not make this exception to the right of abortion would be to betray the cause of feminism and the right of every woman to life, which would be the tragedy. Either way, the frame of tragedy in essence is the ideological battle and not the process itself.

            The second of our more recent phenomena would have to be the new conservative attention given to the coat-hanger jewelry given out to donors by such organizations such as the DC Abortion Fund.

abortion-coat-hangerWhat is so offensive about this symbol? What may first immediately come to mind, or at least the Christian mind, of a comparative example, would be the symbol of the Cross. The Christian cross was originally a symbol of a violently horrific act of state execution of criminals by the Roman empire, which only with the advent of Christianity was subsequently transformed into a symbol of redemption, of the suffering of God’s son on behalf of humanity. Recently in fact, James H. Cone has put forward in his work The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis Books: 2011), a comparison between the crucifixion of Christ and the lynching tree of African Americans, when he writes aptly and profoundly,

“…another type of imagination is necessary—the imagination to relate the message of the cross to one’s own social reality, to see that “They are crucifying again the Son of God” (Heb 6:6). Both Jesus and blacks were “strange fruit.” Theologically speaking, Jesus was the “first lynchee,” who foreshadowed all the lynched black bodies on American soil…The lynching tree is the cross in America. When American Christians realize that they can meet Jesus only in the crucified bodies in our midst, they will encounter the real scandal of the cross.”**

Indeed, both the Cross and the lynching tree may be seen as symbols of incredible suffering, which paradoxically in the Christian faith may be transformed into symbols of God’s work of redemption, of God present most especially with those who suffer for the sins of others. Such a categorization of the symbol of the coat-hanger is made by Val Violett of the DC abortion fund when she says, “The coat hanger is a reminder of women’s suffering when abortion is placed out of reach…where women might have to resort to horrific alternatives like a coat hanger. That’s why our supporters love the pendants and wear them as a point of pride.” Can the coat hanger really be put into the same category of the cross or the lynching tree, as a symbol of horrific suffering endured on our behalf for our sins? Unfortunately for Violett and others the comparison is not apt. The coat hanger was indeed an extremely unsafe and harmful method for women to get illegal abortions, often causing harm to themselves, but it cannot be said, like it can be of the cross and the lynching tree, that the suffering has therefore been redeemed. To what end did this women suffer? Is it so now that our methods for abortion are safer? Violett argues yes, but that has hardly meant the end of suffering for women because of abortion.***

            If the comparison be made exact, the coat hanger as a symbol of redeemed suffering would be the equivalent of Christians wearing a cross so that they may celebrate how much more humanely people are executed by the state now with lethal injections, or African Americans wearing the lynching tree to celebrate how much more humanely black people are now tortured by the prison-indutrial complex. The coat hanger would only be a symbol of redeemed suffering on the actual level of the cross or the lynching tree if it were the celebration of the suffering of women and aborted fetuses so that we may now have no need for abortion because of the newly instituted child-care programs because of their suffering, but it isn’t. The coat hanger in this context is the celebration of how much more safe the procedure is now for women, and its cynical. Against the conservative critics then we may rightly say that the coat hanger is not a symbol of a ‘death cult’ or the celebration of the joyful procedure of abortion, but we may also rightly say that it is an offensive symbol, not because it is a symbol in the category of redeemed suffering such as the cross or the lynching tree, but because it is the celebration of the redemption of the process of the suffering itself. The tragic element of abortion even under modern procedural abilities is lost in the celebration of the coat hanger, and has been morphed into the tragedy of unsafe procedures in the past, to which we must never return, rather than the process itself.

            Finally, let us move to our final example of how even the tragic element of abortion is slowly being lost, shifted, and morphed in our public discourse, that of the shocking revelation of the incinerated aborted fetuses to heat UK hospitals in recent years. In the past two years alone, 15, 500 foetal remains from both aborted and miscarried babies were incinerated by 27 National Health Service trusts, either as clinical waste or as part of ‘waste-to-energy’ programs to heat various hospital locations. The hysterical conservative critics’ comparisons of abortion to ancient child sacrifice rituals is now beginning to look a lot more accurate than it appeared to at first. It is important to note that this practice, that of incinerating fetuses, does not appear to have been approved beforehand by the institutions, and that figures such as Sir Bruce Keogh, the Medical Director of the NHS, have called for the immediate end to this practice. What is the tragic element here however? Is it in the process of abortion itself? That there are 15, 500 remains to be incinerated in the first place? Well, the only tragic element that can be discerned from the public statements made so far for some is that the parents of the child were not consulted first. As if the practice were to be okay on a mass scale, to heat hospitals and keep alive other patients with energy of the incinerated remains of the lost babies, if there were consent. In addition to this shift of tragedy, from the process of abortion and the subsequent incineration to the lack of consent, is also some ideological comfort for the wider society concerning the process itself by the means of environmental reasoning. One wonders how these programs were to be implemented in the first place, how the thought process came to be justified? Below is an exemplary case of environmental reasoning, regardless whether it is an accurate assessment or not, which in no doubt took place within the minds of many within the medical institutions that carried out these practices.

What we have in our three examples then, namely, the gender-selection issue, the coat-hanger symbol, and the incineration of foetal remains, are arguably the ‘first-fruits’ of a change in public discourse concerning abortion, where the tragic element of the process itself is either lost, shifted, or morphed, and is comforted by troubling ideological stances. It is important to note that whether one ‘agrees’ with the practice and right of women to abortion or not, or even whether one agrees with all the ideological stances used to comfort the remaining tragic element of the issue or not, that what will be slowly lost is the tragic element of the process itself for the women who go through it and their families. In this respect, from the perspective of this observer anyway, abortion should only be argued for (if one wishes too argue for it that is) on the basis of it being a necessary evil, much in the same way war should only be argued for as a necessary evil in society. Like war, if abortion is going to be argued for on the basis of spreading freedom in absolutist pro-choice manner, or on the basis of the safety of the process itself, or even on the basis of the benefits of the process for the wider society, it will begin to look like an ugly joyful slaughter, which even the most staunch defenders of the right to abortion know that it is not.


* We will leave aside the issue of consistency of arguments for the right to abortion, of which Furedi is surely more so. Gupta’s argument would depend upon the foetus being a human female, which of course the argument for abortion, if it were consist, would deny. 

** An excerpt of Cone’s work may be read at : http://www.truthdig.com/arts_culture/item/god_of_the_oppressed_20111221

***Astute readers will know that I am intentionally leaving out the suffering of the aborted foetus for the sake of the argument here. 

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