Individuals throughout human history have found themselves at odds with their societies. But only in modern times has the view taken hold that the authentic inner self is intrinsically valuable, and the outer society systematically wrong and unfair in its valuation of the former. It is not the inner self that has to be made to conform to society’s rules, but society itself that needs to change.
In my most recent article, I gave a brief overview of the history of the breakdown of community (and thus of identity) in the West. The shattering of Christendom — the single most important historical event of the last thousand years — has led directly and inevitably to the disintegration of our nations, of our societies, and even of our families. There now scarcely remains any institution in the modern world which is not generally viewed with some combination of apathy, skepticism, and mistrust.
It is truly a testament to the effectiveness of modern propaganda that such a dismal state of affairs has been widely greeted with what can only be described as triumphant self-congratulation. We boast insipidly of our bereavement, using buzzwords such as “progress,” “liberation,” “open-mindedness,” and “self-determination” to describe the development of our existential isolation. Even our greatest pessimists, deep down, believe placidly in the unparalleled advancement and enlightenment of our own times — at least, relative to any other human civilization which existed prior to the modern era. This is obvious, as someone once quite perceptively pointed out to me, since even those who like to complain loudly that “things have never been this bad” would doubtless react to the proposition of reverting society to the state in which it existed even a scant hundred years ago with nothing short of petrified horror. By and large, we implicitly assume that most people who lived more than fifty years before us were, at best, well-intentioned saps; it certainly never occurs to us that they might have known something important about life of which we ourselves are ignorant. We imbibe the Myth of Progress with our mother’s milk (or with our mass-produced baby formula, as the case may be).
But in order to relate all this to the subject at hand — the anthropological underpinnings of Antichristianity — let us approach the matter from a slightly different angle.
Few have ever intentionally set out to destroy Christendom, or society, or the family (although it must be said that there are indeed those who have done so — and it should probably give us pause to realize that what began as the totally ludicrous fever dream of a few 18th-century radicals somehow became the world in which we all live today). But even those who did deliberately intend to overthrow the foundations of traditional society were clever enough not to do so openly; they did not simply walk around saying “Down with Christendom! Down with society! Down with with the Church! Down with the king! Down with the family!”
So how has it happened that Christendom, monarchy, and nearly every once-universal cultural norm have nevertheless come to be overthrown? The answer is really quite simple: somewhere along the way, we discovered that human beings have these things called “rights.”
It has been famously alleged by certain revolutionaries that these rights were bestowed upon us by God. I am not sure precisely how Jefferson discovered that God had bestowed these “inalienable rights” upon us, although the cut-and-paste Bible he put together for himself might have had something to do with it. In any case he did not undertake to prove his theory in the Declaration of Independence, instead declaring it “self-evident” that, for example, men owe no earthly allegiance to anything higher than their own opinions about how they ought to be governed.
It is somewhat baffling that so many Christians today accept that such rights are indeed self-evident, God Himself having been remarkably silent on the subject of human rights throughout the more usually accepted canon of Sacred Scripture. In fact, when one pauses to think about it even for a moment, it becomes rather uncomfortably clear that the Lord at no time encouraged His followers to go about demanding various and sundry rights to such things as whatever form of government they personally preferred.
The Declaration of Independence asserted “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, [evincing] a design to reduce [the Colonies] under absolute despotism.” Regardless of the veracity of such a claim (regarding which there exists some cause for doubt), there can be no question that throughout the history recorded in Sacred Scripture, the Israel of God was often to be found in such straits — whether under the Egyptians, the Babylonians, or the Romans. Nevertheless, even in the times of the Old Testament God and His prophets taught that such oppressors were to be seen by Israel as the instruments of the Lord for the ultimate good of His chosen people — and even when God commanded Moses to lead His people out of slavery, when Pharaoh betrayed them and sent an army to return them to captivity, Moses said only: “The LORD shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace.” And in the New Testament this radically otherwordly view of oppression became even more clear: when the occupying forces of pagan Rome indeed habitually subjected the people of Israel to “a long train of abuses and usurpations,” the Lord, far from urging His followers to stand up for their rights, famously counseled them rather to meekly accept even violent mistreatment and to freely give to their enemies twice as much as was being stolen. And in the Sermon on the Mount, He commanded not only to allow all men to mistreat us as much as they like, but even to rejoice in this — since it is actually much better for us than the alternative — and above all else, to love even our enemies and repay them only with good for the evil they have done us.
All of this sounds remarkably dissimilar to the modern gospel of the Rights of Man.
If you doubt me, consider this: when Christ came, even His disciples expected Him to bring about an end to the heavy injustices and profound sufferings of His people. But that is not what He came to bring.
He came to bring us the Cross.
But alas, so many of us been found unwilling to accept the Cross as the supreme manifestation of love. Many who sang “Hosannah in the highest” on Palm Sunday shouted “Crucify Him!” only a few short days later, once they saw that He would not judge Caesar but that Caesar would rather judge Him. They jeered and spat in His most pure face once they discovered that He had not come to abolish suffering, but rather to summon us to embrace our suffering with patience and hope and love — in short, to take up our own cross, and to follow Him.
“And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” It is the Cross that unites heaven and earth, and that unites all men to their Creator — and to one another. And if we are called to be mediators between heaven and earth, if we are called to fulfill our vocation as human beings by uniting within ourselves the entire cosmos with the eternal God, then it is only upon the Cross that we can become truly human. It is only in the midst of suffering and sacrifice and vulnerability that we can ever truly open ourselves to Love.
And now we begin to see how all this has happened. We begin to see that by demanding our rights and casting off those we name oppressors, we have turned our backs upon the way of humility shown to us by our Lord — and in so doing, we have turned our backs upon our very humanity.
If to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail, then in this case we might say that to a man with a right everyone looks like an oppressor. Rights, after all, are fundamentally defensive instruments — and defensive instruments are instruments of war.
Sure enough, it was not long after discovering our rights that we also discovered that those rights were being constantly oppressed. Rousseau gave the clarion call: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” It turned out that the churches were oppressing our right to freedom of conscience. The monarchies were oppressing our right to popular government. The aristocrats were oppressing our right to social equality. The indissolubility of marriage was oppressing our right to happiness. And so on, and so forth.
The war was on.
And as our list of rights continued to mystically proliferate, the number of social institutions which were discovered to be oppressive and unjust continued to increase apace. More and more of these institutions began to weaken and collapse under the assault of the Permanent Revolution. And more and more of the communities built upon those institutions began to crumble.
And mark it well: this entire war has been fought precisely in the name of love.
In the name of love, God has been derided and forgotten. In the name of love, authority has been overthrown. In the name of love, family has been abandoned. In the name of love, we are now being told that our children must be disfigured. God only knows what will come next.
But here is the question: after all the dust settles, what of man will remain?
In modern anthropology, man is a fortress, buttressed and hedged about on all sides by the rights he has built up to protect himself from an oppressive society and an unjust universe.
But what lives inside that fortress? What remains within, when nothing in all the wide world is allowed inside unless we freely choose to permit it? What remains to define who we are, when even the ties of kith and kinship are subject to the whims and preferences of each passing moment?
There can be only one answer: we are our desires.
This is the fundamental anthropological principle of Antichristianity: we are our desires, and we have the inalienable right to pursue their fulfillment.
I feel obliged, given some of the responses I have received to this article, to clarify that in writing against the idea of human rights, I am not at all denying the intrinsic worth and value of each and every human being. I am not denying that each one of us is obligated to do absolutely everything in our power to love and to do good to all of our fellow human beings, without exception. I am not even denying that those entrusted with political power and authority are duty-bound to treat each one of their subjects with respect and decency and care and love.
What I am arguing against is the attitude that society owes us certain things (because that is what a right is: something which society owes to us). An attitude of entitlement — and the conviction that we have the right and the duty to extract such entitlements from society by force — is infinitely far from the spirit of true Christianity. As Christians, we are to expect from this world precisely nothing. Or rather, we are to expect to be crucified.
Christ meant the words that He said: it is better to be poor than to be rich, it is better to weep than to laugh, it is better to be hungry than to be well fed, it is better to be despised than to be praised. He really meant it when He said to let people mistreat us, and steal from us, and enslave us. He also really meant it when He commanded us to obey those in authority, giving no caveat as to whether they are good rulers or bad, just or unjust, godly or ungodly. St. Paul wrote to those living under the rule of pagan Rome: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.”
These are radical ideas, and to the wise of this world they are folly. But let us never allow ourselves to be shaken from our faithfulness to the folly of the Cross. If anyone was ever owed anything in this world, surely it was Christ — and yet look what He received. And it is no accident that He told His followers to expect the same: “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
But let us also always remember what He afterward said: “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”
The message of the Cross is that the path to peace and joy is not to be found in eradicating suffering, but rather in embracing with joy and faith whatever suffering the providence of God allows to come upon us for our salvation. All paths that do not lead through the Cross are wrong turns and dead ends, and those who follow them will never come to the paradise for which they seek.
“We the people…do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.
I’ve always found it interesting that the framers chose the word “ordain” to describe what “the people” were setting forth in the document. Were they attempting to give this self assertion of enumerated rights a patina of religiosity and thus legitimacy?
As an American convert to Orthodoxy, I basically agree with your conclusions concerning our nation’s origins and values, and I appreciate your shedding light on the differences between those values and those of the Gospel. At the same time, I feel that in the years since my conversion I have also lost something of my rootedness in my country and my land, something that those from traditionally Orthodox lands continue to enjoy to some degree. I’ve noticed for example in ROCOR churches a strong identification with the Russian land and people in which I can never fully participate. Now I grant that the loss I have experienced has been more than compensated by the truth of Holy Orthodoxy. But I still feel that loss, as others surely have as well. And in these times of greater isolation, the loss of one’s assent to his nation’s founding principles is significant. I would be interested in hearing your perspective on this matter.
This is actually something that I plan to address in more detail in a later series of posts. The short answer is that the defining American characteristic — love of freedom — is, at heart, a good and holy desire. The problem is that it has been distorted, not that it is inherently sinful. It is only in Christianity that Americans can find their true patriotism.