The Russian Orthodox Church’s Approach to Willful Public Blasphemy and Slander against the Church
Adopted on February 4, 2011, by the Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church
As is emphasized in the Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights, freedom is one of the manifestations of God’s image in human nature (II. 1). It is wrong however to use this freedom to oppose God who created man (Gen. 1:27) and who rules the world through His Providence (Acts 17:28). This freedom should not be used to blaspheme God or to talk slanderously about His Church and people. Such resistance to the Creator destroys the order of the universe established by Him and leads to much distress and suffering in the life of the creation.
1. Blasphemy and slander: the Church’s view
In the Church’s tradition, blasphemy is understood as an outrageous or disrespectful action, statement or intention about God or a sacred thing. The sin of blasphemy is mentioned in the Old Testament books (for instance, Lev. 24:15; Ps. 74: 18). It is repeatedly mentioned in the New Testament (for instance, Mk. 7: 21-23; Jn. 10: 33; Rev. 13: 1). St. Paul describes blasphemers as those who made shipwreck of their faith (1 Tim. 1:19), understanding blasphemy not only as an outrage against God or His holy name but also any act of falling away from the faith.
As an expression of the desire to outrage or profane the Creator, blasphemy is one of the gravest moral crimes. Open and persistent opposition to the Creator renders a person incapable of repentance and distorts the godlike constitution of the human personality. Blasphemy involves such sins as sacrilege, profanity and defilement of things sacred.
One of the forms of blasphemy is slander against the Church as the Body of Christ, a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). At the same time, slander as deliberately false accusation of non-committed or immoral action is a sin against the truth destructive for the universal order established by God. In other cases, the notion of slander repeatedly found in the texts of Orthodox tradition is understood as a sin against one’s neighbor (Rom. 1:30; 2 Cor. 12:20; 2 Tim. 3:3).
It is necessary to distinguish between slander and criticism of negative occurrences in the life of the earthly Church, which need to be reformed and overcome from the point of view of Christian teaching.
As any sin, blasphemy destroys in man the ability to love God, thus darkening the image of God in him. ‘Just as he who believes the sun to be dark does not humiliate this star but presents a clear proof of his blindness and just as he who calls honey bitter does not diminish it sweetness but reveals his infirmity, just as those who condemn the deeds of God… Blasphemy does not humiliate the magnificence of God… He who blasphemes inflicts wounds on himself’ (St. John Chrysostom, Homily on Psalm 109). A slanderer deprives himself of the joy of love for the other. ‘A slanderer injures the one he slanders, for he commits a grave sin. He injures those who listen to him, for he gives them a pretext for slander and condemnation and thus brings them to pursue the same lawless cause he himself is involved in. Just as many people get infected from one infected person and die so many Christian souls get infected from one slanderer and die’ (St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, The Spiritual Treasure Collected from the World).
Blasphemous words and actions are often caused by a low level of one’s religious culture and lack of knowledge about religious life and deficiency of spiritual experience.
Willful blasphemy or slander as provocation called to discredit Christian teaching or to do damage to the Church of Christ represents a special case. Imperfections in the life of the earthly Church are used by her antagonists to justify blasphemous actions and slanderous accusations which become instruments of a public campaign aimed to propagate socially important decisions contradicting Christian morality and to have anti-church ideas rooted in the mass consciousness.
However, blasphemy and slander are used more often as a means of struggle against religion justified by references to freedom of conscience, expression or creative work.
2. Notions of blasphemy and slander in the secular law
The legislative systems of societies, in which a vast majority of people belong to one religious tradition and in which the high value of religion is evident, have developed norms aimed to oppose the public dissemination of blasphemy. Such legislation, rather wide-spread in the past, continues to exist in many countries with various political systems. The use of such norms in a legal system deserves to be given a positive assessment and every possible support if this does not lead to discrimination. One of the Justinian’s Novels states it rightly that ‘If blasphemy when uttered against men is not left unpunished, there is much more reason that those who blaspheme God himself should be deserving of chastisement’ (Nov. LXXVII).
However, as the equal rights of religious communities have been asserted in the course of history, legislation on blasphemy has changed. Nowadays, legal protection is increasingly focused not on religious ideas proper but rather on the rights and legitimate interests of believers, their dignity and religious feelings. This situation in modern law is justified by the need to ensure equal legal protection to people of various worldviews in a society consisting of adherents to different religions and non-religious people and by the idea that civil law cannot enter into the discussion on religious truths thus invading the sphere of theology.
Since religion occupies an important place in the private and public life of most people, it is still of immediate relevance that legal norms be articulated to regulate statements and actions concerning the religious beliefs of groups of believers made by those who do not share the beliefs of these groups. Thus, there is a pressing need to respond to the cases of Christianophobia observed in various countries and expressed in intolerance and hatred towards Christian values, traditions and symbols which most of the world population believe to be an integral part of their worldview. Christianophobia is also manifested in actions which humiliate human dignity and insult the religious feelings of Christians, instigate religious enmity towards and discrimination against them. Outrage against the religious feelings and humiliation of the human dignity of such a sizeable social community presents a real threat to civic accord.
Certain tendencies developing in national and international law allow stating that in the world today there is a gradually growing understanding of the need to protect the dignity of religious communities. It is important that continued support should be given to the development of international legal norms and appropriate national legislations which guarantee the protection of beliefs collectively shared by citizens against attacks, mockery and insults towards collective religious as well as ethnic and racial feelings and human dignity of social groups.
A whole number of provisions in international documents on human rights confirm the need to consider cases of blasphemy including blasphemous actions to be humiliation of the human dignity (defamation) of a religious community as a community of individuals united by the same religious faith**. Legislative measures worthy of support are those which reinforce the protection of religious symbols, sacred names and notions, as well as places of worship as most important for those who confess religious beliefs.
At the same time, the defence of religious notions by believers does not prevent other people from expressing their own beliefs or representatives of various religious and non-religious worldviews from discussions. Those who express criticism with regard to people of particular religious worldviews should not be prosecuted under the pretext of opposing blasphemy or defamation of a religion. At the same time, it is necessary to observe the principles of mutual respect, honesty and correctness in interreligious and philosophical dialogues. Attitude to different beliefs should not be expressed in a language of insult and humiliation, nor should it be associated with substitution of notions, falsifications and calls to use violence against those who confess different views.
The secular law means by slander the dissemination, in a written, oral or graphic form, of information about one or more persons, their actions and statements or their characteristics as well as other information which is deliberately false with the person who disseminates it being aware that his allegations contradict or may contradict reality.
Slanderous information dishonors and disparages one’s human dignity, disgraces or tarnishes one’s reputation by making, among other things, false allegations that a particular person has violated the legislation in effect or moral principles or committed a socially-condemned action.
In case of public slander against the Church of Christ, legal protection should be given to the dignity of the Church as inseparable from the integral collective dignity of all her members.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights points out that ‘modern law normally protects not only people’s life and property but also symbolical values, such as the memory of the dead, burial places, historical and cultural monuments and national symbols. This protection should be applied to the faith and things held sacred by religious people’ (IV. 5).
3. Opposition to blasphemy and slander
Those who blaspheme and slander God and the Church do a great and sometimes even irreparable damage to their own selves, dooming their souls to eternal agony. In addition, they tempt people who hesitate in their faith, drawing them into blasphemy, consent to slander and dissemination of slander and blasphemy.
They seek to sow the seeds of confusion even in the souls of the weak from among Orthodox Christians, sometimes shaking their faith in God and the Church and sometimes provoking a sharp and ill-considered reaction to outrage against their religious feelings.
Precisely for these reasons, members of the Orthodox Church, both clergy and laity, should give a sensible and effective response to blasphemy and slander against the Church and her supreme authority, using various means so that the weak could be protected against temptation and the sinners themselves could be stopped on their sinful ways and brought to possible repentance.
3.1. Opposition to blasphemy
Man is created in the image and after the likeness of God but because of the fall he has proved to be weak in face of the temptation of any sin without excepting blasphemy. For this reason, everyone needs the help of God combined with one’s own efforts keep away from blasphemy and oppose the development of this sin in one’s own mind and heart. Instruction in Holy Scriptures and the Tradition, regular and conscious participation in the Holy Sacraments of the Church of Christ, prayer and good works – all this helps a Christian to grow spiritually and to securely protect himself from blasphemous thoughts, words and deeds against God and from insulting his neighbor.
The Church addresses herself to the Orthodox Christians who have fallen into the sin of blasphemy with words of admonition, calling them to repentance and healing the consequences of their actions. The assessment of an action and its qualification as blasphemy as well as the choice of a canonical and moral reaction to it within the Orthodox Church should be made in keeping with her canonical and moral norms. Excommunication is the extreme measure for bringing pressure to bear on blasphemers since due their own actions they at their own will cease to be members of the Holy Church. This ban is called to reform sinners and put them on the road of salvation so that they may learn not to blaspheme (1 Tim. 1:20). An excommunication decision shall be made by a competent church authority, such as a Bishops’ Council, the Holy Synod or a diocesan court, to be approved by the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.
The cases of blasphemy perpetrated by those who do not belong to the Church require a different approach. Christians cannot be indifferent and unresponsive to public manifestations of disrespect for God, holy places, basic Christian teaching and church rites.
The most acceptable and effective way of opposing blasphemy perpetrated by those who do not belong to the Church is the personal example of righteous and God-fearing life of Christians themselves so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled (1 Tim. 6:1; 1 Pet. 3:1-2; Rom. 2:24).
The reaction to unconscious blasphemy should include an intelligible explanation of which words and action are blasphemous and why. This response may be both public and private. Its aim is to make a person aware that it is inadmissible to utter things which can damage his soul and insult the feelings of believers.
At the same time, any hasty accusation of blasphemy can lead to a wrong judgement. A sinner is not only the one who blasphemes God but also the one who falsely accuses someone of blasphemy. In cases of public outrage against God or a holy place it is important that appropriate Synodal or diocesan church body shall make a qualified assessment of the action and determine the ways of opposing blasphemy in a concrete case. These ways include:
To try to enter into negotiations with a respective mass medium, journalist, political or public or religious leader and to hold an open and honest discussion. If the attempt to reach understanding and reconciliation has failed, it is necessary to end cooperation with them and recommend church members not to use these mass media;
To publish materials explaining the wrongfulness and social danger of a blasphemous or other sacrilegious utterance as humiliating human dignity and insulting the religious feelings of believers;
To assist lay people in giving an active response to blasphemous actions with the use of information tools and other legitimate actions such as well-reasoned criticism, boycott and picketing;
To give a blessing to lay people and their organizations for peaceful civic opposition to blasphemy as a form of humiliating the human dignity of believers and insulting their religious feelings;
To lodge a complaint with a self-governed journalists’ organization or arbitration body against the author of a blasphemous or other sacrilegious material humiliating the human dignity of believers and insulting their religious feelings;
To appeal to governmental bodies according to the legal procedure for settling a conflict as well as for stopping and punishing the perpetrator of an action aimed to desecrate religious symbols and to insult the feelings of believers if his action is illegal.
To put under canonical bans the perpetrators of sinful actions if these perpetrators are Orthodox Christians.
3.2. Opposition to slander
In a case of slander perpetrated in the midst of Orthodox Christians, both clergy and laity, an examination should be carried by church means in keeping with the spiritual experience of the Orthodox Church in building relations of fraternal love. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself instructs His disciples as to what should be done in such cases (Mt. 18:15-22). The church legal procedure based on canon law is an important instrument of achieving reconciliation and justice within an Orthodox community.
When slander against the Church and her representatives is disseminated in the mass media, public statements or actions, the ways of reacting are defined by authorized Synodal or diocesan institutions. Depending on the gravity of an action and the scale of public reaction to it and considering the procedure defined by the Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Social Concept, it is possible to take the following actions:
To enter into negotiations with a respective mass medium, journalist, political, public or religious leader with the aim to clarify his position and to hold an open and honest discussion. If the attempt to reach understanding and reconciliation fails, any cooperation with them should be stopped;
To demand that the mass medium’s editorial board publicly disclaim the untrue information disseminated by it as tarnishing the honor and dignity of the Church and her representatives.
To publish materials refuting the slanderous information disseminated;
For a believer or an Orthodox organization, to realize your legitimate right to give a response (commentary or remark) in the same mass medium as disseminated information which is untrue or which infringes on your rights and legal interests;
To lodge a complaint with self-governed journalists’ organizations or arbitration bodies against the author of a slanderous material;
In case of an individual, to bring in an action to the court of civic justice for the protection of honour and dignity or, in case of an Orthodox organization, to bring in an action for the protection of professional reputation;
To demand that criminal proceedings be established for slander and insult, and in case of slanderous information disseminated about an uncertain circle of persons on the grounds of their belonging to Orthodox Christianity, to demand that criminal proceedings be established over the instigation of religious enmity and humiliation of human dignity on the grounds of religious affiliation or to demand that a warning be issued that such actions are inadmissible;
To put perpetrators under canonical bans if they are Orthodox Christians.
Cases of blasphemy and slander can be opposed in the public space by the clergy and laity of the Russian Orthodox Church both with a blessing of the supreme authority or at one’s own initiative. In doing so, they should be guided by holy canons and officially adopted church documents.
Lifting up her prayers to the Lord, the Church does what she can to prevent the grave sin of blasphemy and slander from spreading in the life of society and from provoking civic disorders and from separating people from God.
The initial text of this document was written by the Inter-Council Presence’s Commission for Information Work and Relations with the Mass Media in the period from January 29, 2010, to October 1, 2010.
On December 16, 2010, the draft was considered and approved in the first reading by the Inter-Council Presence’s presidium. After that the document was sent out to dioceses for response and was published in the Internet for a public discussion.
The draft was reviewed by the drafting committee chaired by the Patriarch at its meeting on January 25-27, 2011, taking into account comments and proposals which either came from dioceses or were voiced during the public discussion.
The Inter-Council Presence, which met in plenary on January 28-29, 2011, chaired by the Patriarch introduced amendments to the draft document and resolved that it be submitted to the Holy Synod for further consideration by the Bishops’ Council.
The Holy Synod, at its meeting on January 31, 2011, resolved that the document be included in the agenda of the Bishops’ Council.
On February 4, 2011, the Sacred Bishops’ Council adopted the documents with amendments.
See, for instance, the Final Document of the Review Conference on the Durban Declaration and Program to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (April 24, 2009).