Father Alexander Men, Father Malcolm Rogers.

Father Malcolm Rogers

30 years ago, on September the 9th 1990, Father Alexander Men was murdered. The Library of Foreign Literature (Moscow) organised an online conference to discuss his life and work on September the 10th and 11th of this year (2020). Father Malcolm Rogers, the pastor of the Anglican St. Andrews Church in Moscow was invited to participate, this is in itself a notable event, as it is wonderful, and significant, to see a continuing breeze of conciliation and mediation blowing between these two branches of the same religion in our troubled times of increasing fragmentation of just about everything (editor). 

Here is the English version of Father Roger’s speech, named: Alexander Men: Freedom and Human Rights.

Thank you for the invitation to speak here today. I did not have the privilege to meet Father Alexander as I arrived in Russia three years after he died. At that time, I was a student in the Orthodox Theological College in St. Petersburg, having been sent by the [Anglican] Church Mission Society to Russia to develop contacts with the Russian Orthodox Church in those incredibly difficult but yet amazing years, which were full of hope. I heard about Father Alexander, about his teachings, about his thirst for people to come to God, and of course I heard about his martyrdom. He was one of the spiritual jewels which the Russian Orthodox Church gave the world. 

Freedom and Human Rights

Freedom is a major theme in Father Alexander’s thought.

Human beings have been created with the freedom to either choose to be part of God’s plans, to follow God’s ways and to fulfil God’s purposes for humanity and creation, or to reject God and follow their own way. 

When Christ came, he did not come as a Divine despot. He did not come with any of the usual things that could have compelled people to serve him. He did not come with soldiers or a battalion of civil servants. 

When Jesus was in the wilderness, he rejected the three temptations, and in rejecting them – as Dostoyevsky makes so clear in his story of the Grand Inquisitor – he rejected the temptation to compel people to believe.

When Herod ordered Jesus to perform a miracle – and yes, he could have called down 12 legions of angels – all that there was, was silence. 

In his love, Christ empties himself, and comes as a servant. He is born among the poor, and lives among the insignificant. He died on a cross. The command that he gives is not the command to obey him, but the command to love him. 

A robot can obey and can serve, but only a genuinely free agent can love. And in giving us this freedom, he gives us responsibility and he gives us dignity. 

Father Alexander was, however, pessimistic about what we do with this gift, and the human desire for freedom. 

In his lectures on the Old Testament, and in particular in his lectures: On the Exodus, entitled From Slavery to Freedom, he described the slavery of the people of Israel: ‘Even when they were in the wilderness, physically free of the slavery of Egypt, when things got difficult, they longed for Egypt and they turned back again to Egyptian worship.’ 

Father Alexander continues: ‘People do not like to be free, and never consciously.’

In his article, Religion and the Secular State, Father Alexander writes: ‘The tendency to avoid freedom, to place the responsibility for risk, initiative, actions and words on someone else’s shoulders is just as characteristic of people as their love of freedom. This tendency is very accurately described in articles by the psychologist, Leonid Radzikhovsky. ‘People fear the world,’ he wrote. ‘They fear reason, they fear the unknown. They are reluctant to think for themselves, to use their senses. They need faith, mystery and authority. They need everyone to merge together, to lose their individuality, to become part of the crowd – only thus can they live without fear, in this they see some kind of higher meaning, a pledge of immortality.’ (p.112)

And because of that, those who do rule, whether in society or in the church, by choice or obligation, who are in positions where they make decisions which impact the lives of others, can rule in one of two ways. They can choose the approach of the Grand Inquisitor: they can offer people the illusion of security and superficial happiness, by taking away their real freedom; or they can choose the approach of Christ. One is the approach which strips people of freedom, of the power to choose; the other is much harder and more costly, but it is the way of love. It is the way which sees the dignity of human beings, which longs to build them up and empowers and encourages them to genuinely choose. 

Perhaps what I am about to say is a generalization, and maybe it is unfair, but as I work with people here I find that those who are older, who have been formed by the Soviet system, are far less willing to make autonomous decisions than those who are younger – even when they are given the authority to do so. The fear of failure or of rebuke from on high is paralysing. The 1990s, with their many paradoxes, did begin to allow and encourage a generation of people to make decisions and to take responsibility for them. 

Declarations of human rights have many faults. They are often based on a pseudo-philosophical foundation (especially when they are lifted out of their Jewish-Christian context and they end up appealing to a secular natural law). They can be short sighted: two of the classic declarations of human rights, which declare the equality of men, were both written on the assumption that women were of an inferior class. They over-simplify and at times contradict each other (for instance, the right to choose and the right to life). They often deny uniqueness and difference; they exalt the individual and they can pit the individual over and against society. They neglect the notion of responsibilities, and they attempt to turn morality into law.

But with all their faults, declarations of human rights do at least come from a good impulse – the impulse to reject tyranny (one thinks of the American and French declarations on human rights – which also, incidentally, included the right to rebel), and they recognize the dignity of each individual human being. 

And that is good. I quote from Father Alexander in An Inner Step Toward God: Writings and Teachings on Prayer.

‘When society is unjust, God’s will is trampled upon and thrown out. …it is a challenge to God’s will when evil and injustice rule in the world. Of course, the goal of Christianity is deeper and more all-encompassing than simply a political reconstruction (Perestroika) in one area or another. The life of society can be described with the following metaphor: You cannot build a good, strong house out of bad stones or bricks that are breaking and crumbling. Similarly, you cannot build a society on the best of laws if the people themselves, the members of the society, are in a state of moral decline. The will of Christ on earth is for both our societal life and our personal life, in the most intimate depths.’

Declarations of Human Rights may help, but they are not the answer. You can make a declaration of rights one day, for it only to be annulled or reinterpreted the next day. The barons may have got King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, but he tore it up in 1216. 

However, the problem goes deeper than the abuse of power for selfish interests. On one hand, there is the fear of freedom or responsibility. On the other hand, the problem, for Father Alexander, lies in our separation from God, our slavery to sin and in death. 

But there is an answer. Christ; the coming of the Godman into human history. For Father Alexander, it is when people are in a relationship with Christ, in Christ, as part of the body of Christ, living in a rightful relationship with God and with each other, part of Him and, through Him, part of each other, in a communion that transcends space and time, that they can truly begin to be free from sin and death.

And he teaches that when a person is in Christ, they are set free to be who God created them to be; to love. When God brought the people of Israel out of Egypt, He gives them the 10 commandments, His moral law. The Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the law are linked together. The preamble to the commandments is brief, ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’ And then God gives them the first of the commands, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.’  The people have been brought out of physical slavery and now they are called to real, spiritual, freedom, freedom to walk the way of God, free to love. 

And Father Men teaches that as a person prays ‘Thy Kingdom Come,’ they are changed by the Holy Spirit. They become people who can begin to see this creation and other people as they really are – created by God, beloved, with a potential glorious destiny. 

Vladimir Lossky writes of a staretz (elderly monk), who ‘by virtue of a special gift is able to see each being as God sees him, and he searches for a way to help him, opening his interior sense without doing violence to his will, so that the human person, freed from all hidden fetters, can bloom forth in Grace.’ But it is not just for that staretz. Through the Holy Spirit, people in Christ will be set free. ‘Free to worship Him without fear’ (in the words of the Benedictus which Anglicans use daily in morning prayer). Free to do what is right. Free to take on the responsibility of freedom. Free, even if they are subject to terrible tyranny (many of the first Christians were slaves), free from the fear of what those who would crush freedom will do, and free to love their enemy and the one who persecutes them.  

Farther Alexander taught that, but he also had the courage to live that, and he died for that. 

And we thank God for him. 

Malcolm Rogers

7 September 2020