“Receive me, then, O Lord and lover of Mankind, even as the harlot, as the robber, as the publican, as the prodigal . . . “
—The Prayer of St. Basil the Great
The Law on Religion passed this year by the Russian State Duma restricts the activities of “non-traditional” religions (Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam, and Catholicism were accorded “traditional” status), requiring a religious group to have been active in Russia for 15 years before acquiring certain legal rights, such as the right to own property. The law breezed through the Duma and was signed by Yeltsin. It is true that the Russians attempted to portray the law as an attempt to curtail the activities of dangerous “cults,” but everybody knew that the real target was Western Protestant evangelizing. The law’s proponents were effectively able to turn the vote into a public test of loyalty: One is either “for” or “against” Russia. The vote could be couched in such terms because the Russian Orthodox Church is to many Russians an indispensable part of the landscape of their homeland and a determinate factor in Russian identity. The familiar onion domes and icons are a warming, soothing element of the Russian lands, like birch trees and the interminable steppe. (Imagine the sensations, sensory and psychological, evoked in many Americans by an image of the tall, narrow spires of whitewashed Protestant churches, surrounded by a canopy of oak trees, alongside streams traversed by wooden bridges which lead to the brick paved streets of the old. Main Street America—an image that says “home.”) Many Orthodox churches were defiled under the communists and lay in ruins for decades. They are just now beginning to be restored.
This imagery is especially evocative of the strong patriotic emotions in the post-communist period, when both the Church and the Russian nation, persecuted by the old regime, are reviving themselves. The distrust of foreign missionaries is not merely an expression of irrational xenophobia or residual Soviet political reflexes, but rather is rooted in a sense that the West wishes Russia ill. Since the Great Schism, Russia and the West have competed: first for the role of leader of Christendom, then, when the old faith withered, for the messianic role of secular savior of an imperfect world.
More to the point, however, is the recent past. Russia has imploded and been torn apart internally by nationalist-religious conflict (the war in Chechnya was clearly a war against Russia and Russians living there and was driven, in part, by militant Islam); NATO, ignoring the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, is expanding, nearing Russia’s borders; international financial institutions are attempting (admittedly, in exchange for money readily taken by the central government) to dictate economic policy to the Russians, who are now buried in the rubble of a collapse many blame, at least partly, on the machinations of the likes of George Soros and Geoffrey Sachs. Russian bookstores, movie theaters, and TV programs are flooded with pornography (both sexual and violent), hard rock music, and the hueksterism of consumerist advertising, all of which either originate in the West or are inspired by Western practices. Simultaneously, cults (the Moonies and worse) are making inroads among younger people, and foreign missionaries, loaded with cash by Russian standards, are competing for the souls of Russians with the Orthodox Church, which is itself attempting an internal rejuvenation as it grapples with its stained past under the Soviets. Catholics are embroiled with both the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches over control of certain church buildings in western Ukraine where uniate congregations are now gathering. Protestantism, on the other hand, associated with consumerist capitalism (in Western as well as in Russian eyes), is viewed by many Russians as the sure path to radical individualism and further social decay.
Against this background, it is hardly surprising that the Law on Religion was passed, even though many of the Duma deputies who voted for it had doubts about certain aspects of the legislation, fearing that the law could once again turn the Orthodox Church into an arm of the state. The present patriarch, Aleksey, is probably the best that could be hoped for under the circumstances. Having disavowed any intention of making Orthodoxy the state religion, he is attempting to combat statist forces within the Church and has repented of past cooperation with the authorities. Moreover, Aleksey backed Yeltsin in the 1991 standoff with the coup plotters and attempted to mediate during the 1993 confrontation between Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet. Aleksey appears a reasonable and tolerant man, but he has had to resist—as did Yeltsin and the Duma—the hypocritical interference of the West (the United States in particular) in Russian internal affairs: The U.S. grants Christian-persecuting China, which traffics in human body parts and forces women to have abortions, Most Favored Nation status, says nothing about harsh restrictions on Christian evangelists in Israel, and defends Saudi Arabia, a country that also suppresses Christianity. Germany legally blocks cults like Scientology and forces taxpayers to subsidize officially recognized churches; Spain, among others, grants the Catholic Church special status. Nevertheless, the United States and its allies have responded to the Law on Religion by threatening Russia with economic and political sanctions if she does not shape up—often after prompting from Protestant groups who are eager to claim Russia’s lost souls for their own. Aleksey may be flexible enough to accept a generous interpretation of the law at some point, but he can hardly be blamed for pursuing what appears to be a moderate—by world standards—policy of religious protectionism.
We ask that the Russians exercise tolerance and patience; we should ask no less of ourselves. We outsiders should attempt to see things as they see them. The Russian Orthodox Church has suffered much since 1917, and those who called themselves believers during the Soviet period, mostK’ Orthodox Christians, are among the most devout believers I have ever known. Some respect is due from our side, especially from Western Protestants, a respect Russians do not feel they are receiving. A Baptist acquaintance once asked me what religion the Russians were. When I replied “Orthodox,” she asked, “Is that Christian?” Another once flatly asserted that all Russians are atheists. Many see Russia as a blank (read: heathen) slate that enlightened Western evangelists can exploit. Combating such ignorance is a full-time job in the Age of Oprah, but if Christians, assailed by the forces of secular humanism on one side and militant Islam on the other, are to survive —much less overcome —their enemies’ attacks, a measured ecumenism, with respect for doctrinal differences and a recognition that the work of the Lord can be done in any orthodox Christian setting, is a necessity.
A visit to an Orthodox church is not a bad place to start for those whose vocabulary does not (yet?) include the word “Christendom.” On any Sunday morning in Moscow, for instance, a Western guest at the pre-revolutionary National Hotel across from the Kremlin can exit the restored splendor of the old hotel (where once Lenin himself stayed), turn to his right and immediately catch sight of the golden dome of the resurrected—the church had been demolished under Stalin—Cathedral of Christ the Savior, some distance from the old center of the medieval czarist empire on the heights of the Moscow River. As he nears the gray walls of the reconstructed church, the modern world gradually melts away. The sidewalks and empty streets are occupied by strange people, the inhabitants of Dostoyevsky’s “strange nation,” priests with flowing black beards and long black cassocks, old women cloaked in the brightly colored scarves characteristic of the busybody babushky (“grandmothers”) who really run Russia, and a surprising number, considering the atheist past many were raised in, of young people. Inside, the worshippers gather in a large, circular enclosure, where a choir sings to the Almighty in glorious voice and an old woman sells candles for a pittance. The worshippers, candles in hand, stand throughout the liturgy, which is chanted by a priest in richly colored garb. The scene is so moving, even sublime, that the visitor may feel compelled to offer a little money toward the church’s completion in one of the boxes in the foyer, resplendent with drawings of the cathedral as envisioned in its full, glorious reincarnation.
Both the liturgy and the church are a far cry from the relatively austere Protestant services many Americans were raised with, and even Catholics may wonder if they have just had a glimpse into their own past, into the Age of Faith, when Christianity was an integral part of the daily lives of ordinary people. The Russians—despite the fact that the number who are self-identified believers will never match that of Americans—are an almost medieval people by comparison with Westerners, closer in some ways to the Islamic militants of the Caucasus than to the godless Lutherans and Anglicans who preach self-help in liberal congregations from Bonn to Cornwall to Portland. The reason for this phenomenon —the survival of at least a hint of the Russians as a “strange,” spiritually haunted nation—are elusive. The philosopher-polemicist and lay theologian Nikolay Belyayev viewed the Russians as a nation marked by a highly developed messianic streak; for Belyayev, the Bolshevik Revolution and the communist version of the “Russian Idea” were but manifestations of the messianic impulse gone astray. Perhaps the vacuum left by the “god that failed” is being filled once more by Orthodoxy. Whatever the reason, many Russians seem more rooted somehow than Westerners, perhaps more willing to contemplate the tragic fate of the “god” that has failed both them and us: modernity itself.
I claim no special expertise in theology and cannot rationalize away what are, for serious Christians, important doctrinal disputes among Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox. Nevertheless, if an ounce of Christian charity can be mustered among thinking believers of all the Christian confessions, then some doubts about our ability to judge the complexities of the created world and of Christians coping with its fallen state are in order. Perhaps Russian believers, with their emphasis on—no, expectation of, perhaps even longing for—suffering and their universalist bent, the hope of many of them for the universal salvation of a universally depraved mankind, can teach us as much as we can teach them. If we view each Christian confession as one side of a many-sided prism through which the Holy Ghost shines and God’s light reaches the world, each confession developing and reflecting a particular aspect of revelation as the Word of God encounters human experience in various times and places, then perhaps the much desired mutual respect among the confessions can become a reality.
The Western Christian should follow up his visit to an Orthodox church with a cultural sojourn to the strange nation of Russian Orthodoxy. From the icon painting of Andrei Rublev to church architecture, both wooden and stone, to the literature of Dostovevsky and Solzhenitsyn, the Russian Orthodox have attempted to reflect the divine, to reach sublime heights of spiritual ecstasy, and to plumb the mysteries of man’s relationship with God. Indeed, the grand themes of the best of Russian literature are sin, suffering, repentance, redemption, and resurrection.
In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky’s Ahab figure, Raskolnikov, is tortured by all the internal demons that can haunt the proud sons of Adam, including the need “to embrace suffering,” his strange desire to be found out in his crime, and his guilt, so unbecoming a proto-superman to whom all things are allowed. The investigator Porfiry Petrovich confronts Raskolnikov with the bizarre confession of Mikolka, a tradesman who is prepared to confess to a murder he did not commit—and to take Raskolnikov’s guilt upon himself Mikolka is a “runner,” a member of a particularly irreconcilable sect of Orthodox raskolniky (schismatics; Raskolnikov himself is a schismatic of the spirit, hence his name). Porfiry Petrovich plays on Raskolnikov’s guilt, magnified by the overtones in Mikolka’s confession of an innocent bearing the suffering of sinners and thereby securing the salvation of the fallen: “Won’t you allow,” intones Porfiry, “that such a nation as ours produces fantastic people?” Securing his own salvation (from his internal weakness) by rebellious actions (in this case, the murder of a pawnbroker) is but one of Raskolnikov’s “bookish dreams.” Porfiry Petrovich tells the heir of Cain—and all men —that “I regard you as one of those men who could have their guts cut out, and would stand and look at his torturers with a smile—provided he has found faith, or God. Well, go and find it, and you will live.” Sonya, whom Raskolnikov loves, reads him the Gospel story (frequently alluded to in Crime and Punishment) of the raising of Lazarus, thus foreshadowing his eventual salvation.
According to Dostoyevsky, this view of mankind as murderers all—and of offering sacrifices for the redemption of others—was not his own invention, but merely a literary reflection of a prevalent Russian cultural artifact, the giving of alms to condemned prisoners. In his semi-fictional account of his own prison experience, Notes From the House of the Dead, Dostoyevsky wrote that the “common people” called the prisoners “unfortunates,” implying that the prisoners had done nothing more than what the common people had done many times in their hearts. (It is worth noting that the plot of Crime and Punishment suggested itself to the great writer as the thought of murdering a pawnbroker, from whom Dostovevsky wished to redeem an item pawned to pay off a gambling debt, crossed his own mind.) The prisoners benefit greatly, perhaps spiritually as well as materially, from the alms given by common believers:
The little girl came rushing after me. . . . “Here unfortunate, take a kopeck in the name of Christ!” she cried, running out ahead of me and pressing the coin in my hand. I took her quarter kopeck, and the girl returned to her mother thoroughly satisfied. I kept that quarter kopeck for a long time.
The author’s alter ego reflects on this attitude:
There are bad people everywhere, but among the bad there are some good ones. . . . Who knows? Perhaps these people [his fellow prisoners] are in no way worse than those outsiders, those people outside the prison. I thought this and shook my head at the notion; but—God in Heaven—if only I had known then to what extent it was true!
Dostoyevsky developed this notion fully and tied it to Russian universalism in his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. In the parable of the onion, which he first heard from an old peasant woman, Dostoyevsky hints at the possibility of mankind’s universal salvation—and of the slim chance that this hope will be realized.
Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was as wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman. Aird God answered: now take that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, she can go to paradise, but if the onion breaks, she can stay where she is. The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: here, woman, he said, take hold of it and I’ll pull. And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: “It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion, not yours.” No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away.
Taking into consideration the turbulent history of the Russians and their folk wisdom, which embraces a Christian worldview, one may ask aspiring evangelists: Just what we can teach a civilization that has seen so much of suffering, yet has produced such exalted visions of the relationship between God and mankind, and of the fallen—yet salvageable through Christ nature of all people? Russia has been a more profoundly Christian nation than our own for a much longer period of time. For those who see the Russian Orthodox as heretics, remember the words of the Savior in John 12:32: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” What else can Lutherans teach Russians—who have lost tens of millions to war and tyranny—about the depravity of man? Catholics need not lecture them on good works. Baptists can save their breath on the boundless—and unearned—grace of God. In short, there is no nation that collectively can top the Russians in either its expectations of calamity and sin or its hope and faith that salvation is available. The Bible was translated into Russian (it had previously been available only in Old Church Slavonic) in the 19th century and is no longer forbidden fruit for Russians. Our prayers and our support, both moral and material, for Russian believers and their efforts to make Russia once more a Christian nation are in order, but beyond that, patience and understanding, not hectoring and lecturing, are called for.