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.





Symbolic Acts: Assessing the Effectiveness and Nature of Art and Gesture

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Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching…

…to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness. 

I am the Lord, that is my name;
    my glory I give to no other,
    nor my praise to idols.
 See, the former things have come to pass,
    and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
    I tell you of them.

(Isaiah 42:1-4, 7-9 NRSV)

            Pope Francis, in his first visit to the Holy Land, made an extremely provocative gesture on his way to Bethlehem,  by stopping at Israel’s “separation wall”, in particular at a spot that read in graffiti “Bethlehem look like Warsaw ghetto. Free Palestine”, to pray against this symbol of conflict and apartheid. The immense amount of power captured in this gesture, encapsulated many messages from a subtle hint against the US’s recent failed attempts at a peace process, to comparing the suffering of Palestinians to the suffering of those in the Warsaw ghetto, to even implying that the realm of “sensitive politics” was a religious issue.*Screen Shot 2014-05-26 at 11.15.45 AM However, as a good friend, Jared A. Walker** has said, “What happens when an infallible Pope meets an unmovable object…” Indeed, it is the key question to see what happens as a result of this loaded gesture. In fact, it may be instructive to compare this gesture alongside of another instance of symbolic protest, that of the Vodka boycott against Russia’s stance on homosexuality.*** The goal of many bars across North America essentially with this boycott is to protest Russia’s ‘anti-gay’ laws+ that have been enacted recently, as a form of cutting off one of Russia’s main exports in the hopes that the laws will change, though as Robert Joseph Greene notes, the boycott is “mainly symbolic”. Alongside of other forms of symbolic protest such as Pyotr Pavlensky nailing his own scrotum in Moscow’s Red Square, it is thought that drawing attention to what are seen as socially oppressive laws, will not only show the solidarity of the LGBT community around the world, but perhaps even force Vladimir Putin’s hand.

            The boycott of vodka and Pavlensky’s actions are also loaded symbolic acts that encapsulate messages arranging from the willingness of the LGBT to abstain from a beverage as a way of ‘voting with their dollars’ and identify with the sufferings of those like them around the world, to even denying that sexuality is the key issue in Russian discrimination and instead highlighting that the key issue is the denial of the humanity of those of the LGBT community. In either of these cases, that of Pope’s Francis in Palestine and of bars across North America, there can be no question about their effectiveness as a means of spreadings particular messages against the particular powers that be. What can be questioned however is their effectiveness as a means of protest. In line with a previous essay concerning a return to politically radical theocracy, it may be asked as to how such a perspective can contribute to an understanding of effective protest. Symbolic acts are frequently found throughout the Christian tradition, such as the incident of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, but an important question to ask in our times of turbulence and social upheavals is what are the elements of an effective protest? Furthermore, if we should find that symbolic acts are not an effective means of protest, then what is the use of symbolic actions? For whom are the messages embedded in the gestures for, if not the powers whom they are against?

            The first thing to notice about both Pope Francis’ and the LGBT community’s actions is that neither of them had an major impact.++ As Daniel Levy of the European Council on Foreign Relations has said, the meeting that Pope Francis’ hopes to arrange between the different leaders would “mean nothing in big-picture terms”, and as David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel has also pointed out that while psychologically the meeting would be helpful, it would be politically insignificant. In parallel then, it can also be pointed out that Pavlensky’s actions effected no political change,photo_0_1 and as Mark Lawrence Schrad has noted, “…the Kremlin’s historic reliance on vodka revenues is largely over…” as many of the companies serving vodka in the United States are made and branded outside of Russia, thus making the boycott effectively futile. If we want to bring this much closer to the Christian tradition, what did Jesus’ cleansing of the temple actually accomplish other than creating a mess, giving his opponents an excuse for his death, and making it look like Jesus’ has an anger problem? In all of these symbolic acts and gestures then we must remember that they are symbolic actions, not concrete actions. One of the great confusions for many in our times is quite clearly not only the substitution for, but the confusion of, symbolic acts and gestures for literal actions. As a result our culture of protest creates various contradictions such as people who protest the destruction of forestry by holding signs made of paper, or protesting capitalism by buying communist memorabilia, or even people who protest religion by going to church. It is these forms of powerfully symbolic but materially ineffective forms of protest that drive us back to our two questions of (i) what makes an effective protest? and (ii) what then is the use of symbolic acts and gesture?

            Without much argumentation for sake of brevity, we can note that effective protests protest not only the messages and beliefs embedded in oppressive actions, but that the matrix and means that make these oppressive actions possible. For a simple example, how might one wish to materially and effectively protest abortion if one wished to do so?+++ Often it is thought that one should change the laws to outlaw abortion, or even violently eliminate abortion clinics and doctors to protest abortion materially and effectively. Of the first, however we may question how many fetuses would be rescued by such a procedure, and the answer is not necessarily any because abortion will then be accessed in much more dangerous ways outside of government regulation. The change of the law then would be a ineffective symbolic action meant to express the political change of opinion concerning the morality of abortion, nothing more. What of the second? As for the second, is it not an embodiment of the very ideology they wish to oppose- “You get rid of your problem by killing it”? Neither of these options actually protest the matrix and means that make what they perceive to be a societal evil possible. An effective, non-symbolic, concrete protest against abortion would be inaugurated perhaps by an alleviation of the poverty many women are trapped in that drives them to get an abortion in the first place, or perhaps by massive campaigns at adoptions for the mothers who cannot raise the fetuses they are carrying. Neither of these means of protest are symbolic, nor do they exist within the matrix within which abortion is carried out or participate in the means by which it is carried out. Rather either of these means would be literal actions in protest of abortion because they would not merely send a message against the societal evil, but try effectively to see its decline in society.

            Having then given one brief example of what an effective, non-symbolic, concrete protest would be in the face of a societal evil, and left with the project of creating others in the face of other oppressive powers and societal evil~, we are still left then with the question of what then is the use of symbolic acts and gesture? Should symbolic actions like Pope’s Francis’, like the LGBT community’s, like Jesus’ simply be abandoned in favour of further dedication to concrete protest? If then symbolic acts are ineffective as protest, then the potential for them may be found in the messages they carry, as a form of proclamation. The proclamation is a means to send a message not only to the enemy but to the community itself, to remind one another of one’s own mission and formation. Proclamation is not a materially effective form of protest against any power, but it is a wonderful trumpet to announce, “This is who we are and this is what we’re about”, which is as much to warn an enemy as it is to rejuvenate the base. Pope Francis’ action reminded Catholics around the world that the Church is the ministry of reconciliation, the LGBT community’s boycott reminded the community and others that it was not alcohol or sex that defined the problem but the stake of humanity itself, and Jesus’ action in the temple was to remind Israel that the temple was the refuge, not the institution of exploitation.

            Protest then is the synonym for alternative action, and proclamation the synonym for symbolic action. One should never confuse creating a piece of art or a symbolic gesture for actual protest, as much as one should never dismiss the need for symbolic action out of zealousness for concrete action, and it is this point on which we shall end. Quite often there is a dismal of philosophy, in parallel with the dismissal of symbolic action or performance art, as a cheap elitist non-sense showing our culture’s lack of ability to address materially and concretely. As Jonathan Jones has said with regard to Milo Moiré’s ‘performance art’ in Germany, where she pushed eggs filled with paint out her vagina in the nude to show the power of the creative feminine, “If performance art did not exist, bile-filled commentators on the modern world would have to invent it. For what else so perfectly captures the cultural inanity of our time?” Perhaps for the example of Moiré we could dismiss it as a piece of art, not for the fact that it is symbolic action however, but for the fact that it is actually a terrible symbolic action in that it embodies the exact opposite of that which it wishes to proclaim, the creative feminine. Symbolic action, for any community of a different social order is necessary, alongside of protest, in order to constantly remind others and itself of its vision of justice against all attempts that would wish to distort it for the community. In religious discourse symbolic action is called ritual, and it is ritual paradoxically that is necessary to keep a community away from the abstract vision of justice as defined by the social order, namely ‘the real, the everyday etc…’ As Slavoj Žižek has rightly written,

“…the highest form of ideology lies not in getting caught up in ideological spectrality, forgetting about its foundations in real people and their relations, but precisely in overlooking this Real of spectrality, and pretending to address directly ‘real people with their real worries’. Visitors to the London Stock Exchange are given a free leaflet which explains to them that the stock market is not about some mysterious fluctuations, but about real people and their products- this is ideology as its purest.” (The Fragile Absolute, 16)

Ritual/Symbolic action, then is necessary for constant reminder of a community’s vision of justice, though it itself does not enact this justice (for this is the job of concrete protest), because visions of justice can be derailed and distorted by other visions constructed by the very ones one wishes to protest against.

            At the beginning of this exploration, the prophet Isaiah prophesies that God’s servant while not making loud his voice in the streets like an activist, still “faithfully brings forth justice”. God’s servant will not confuse the bringing forth of justice in concrete protest in the healing of the blind and the freeing of the prisons, with the proclamation of “his teaching”.  In perfect harmony with recognition of how to faithfully bring forth justice, is the proclamation and remembrance act as to who defines this vision of justice, which while is a gesture of a non-concrete nature is vitally necessary for the community to remember in their pursuit of this God’s vision of justice, and furthermore to remind the powers which the community is protesting against as to who this community follows exclusively. Thus is the vision of justice in protest and proclamation, word and deed, focused in the politically radical theocratic perspective.

* Many news reports confuse Pope Francis’ statements about his visit to the Holy Land to be “purely religious” to be misleading, while missing the fact that for Pope Francis it was a perfectly accurate statement because the politics of peace and conflict are for him “religious” issues. For such an example:  Cole, Juan. “Pope Francis Prays at Apartheid Wall, Calls for Palestinian State.” Alternative news Site. Truthdig, May 26, 2014. http://www.truthdig.com/eartotheground/item/pope_francis_calls_for_palestinian_state_prays_at_apartheid_wall_20140526.

** His work to be accessed here: http://jaredawalker.com/blog/

*** Branson-Potts, Hailey. “Vodka boycott spreads to protest Russian anti-gays laws.” Toronto Star, July 31, 2013, sec. News/World. http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2013/07/31/vodka_boycott_spreads_to_protest_russian_antigay_laws.html.

+ For an interesting examination of which see, Brian M. Heiss’ report, found and summarized helpfully here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btAUWI0rYJg&safe=active

++ Of course the verdict is still out on both of these cases, but in of and themselves, neither of them had huge impact and arguably in all probability, neither of them will lead to any great impact. However f0r an argument that Pope’s Francis’ actions will lead to political change see:  Vallely, Paul. “For the First Time, the Holy Land Will Witness a Fearless Pope.” The Guardian, May 22, 2014, sec. Comment is free. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/22/pope-francis-holy-land-two-state-palestinians?CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2.

+++ For another one of Mr. Upton’s essays concerning abortion see: https://calebdupton.wordpress.com/2014/04/07/the-new-abortion-solemn-reflections/

~ Veganism may be an excellent example of such a protest against the food industry and animal cruelty.

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