On compromise

Looking back on the Soviet era, what Christians do you remember? Richard Wurmbrandt, perhaps, tortured for Christ in Ceaușescu’s Romania. Or Brother Andrew, risking his life to smuggle Bibles to believers. Or the pastor Georgi Vins, allowed out of prison to the west after an intensive campaign by Christians here. Or Solzhenitsyn, whose multiple accounts of believers both widely known and nameless, inside and outside the Gulag, show how the Spirit of Truth suffered under, yet finally triumphed over, Communism.

Rod Dreher’s recent book, Live Not by Lies, is built around the stories of many such Christians ready to risk all for the truth. Some kept both the gospel and culture alive as they met in secret; some were even instrumental in ending the system peacefully. Dreher’s work is a great handbook to guide our church life, perhaps, in the not too distant future. Many of his Soviet émigré sources sense alarmingly familiar signs of decreasing freedom in the west, and even an elderly church friend of mine, who spent some years in Poland, recognises the familiar sour taste of propaganda in the media now.

Yet I remember, when I was member of a large and prosperous Baptist church in the early 1980s, one of the deacons speaking from the pulpit on her return from a holiday in Moscow. The burden of her account was how wrong it was for people to smuggle Bibles into Russia. It was against their laws, which we ought to respect as Christians, and in any case there was no need. She had been to the Central Baptist Church in Moscow and it was full to bursting: Christianity was alive and well without outside help.

It didn’t seem to occur to her that Central Baptist Church might have been so full because most of the other Baptist Churches had been forcibly shut down or demolished.

I doubt that any Christians who lived under the Soviet regime would now agree with her assessment of life back then. In fact, even at the time there was plenty of material to show how the Soviet system had worked tirelessly to eradicate the Church, and that for the same reason that the New Left and its modern offshoots hate Christianity. That reason is that they believe theorists from Marx to Marcuse and Robin DiAngelo who say that it is the nuclear family that is the source of all oppressive systems, and the Church that is the malevolent power that has been promoting the nuclear family for 2000 years. Christianity, to them, is the very heart of the world’s problems.

It is well known (though sadly not to the younger generation, who do the evils of fascism but not of Communism in school) that, until Gulag Archipelago blew the gaff the Soviet system covered its tracks well amongst the Western intelligentsia. From the start visitors like H. G. Wells were shown carefully stage-managed vignettes of Communist superiority over Capitalism, in including smiling prisoners being humanely reformed in the camps. Visitors wanted badly to believe it, as Marxists or anti-capitalists themselves, and it was of them that Lenin coined the term “useful idiots.”

I remember visiting a Soviet Exhibition in London in 1968 (mainly to see a real Vostock capsule!) and being handed a copy of the USSR’s constitution, guaranteeing freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and probably free food as well. Not being from the intellectual elite class I didn’t believe a word of it, and history proved the hated bourgeoisie had been right all along.

But the Baptist lady did believe, and it is easy to assume it was because she was “managed” by the official tour guides or whoever. If so, she was exceptionally naive. However I have another possible theory for why she not only believed all was well with religion in Moscow, but that Soviet Law was more important than Bibles. I suspect that the idea came to her from members of that Baptist Church itself. After all, she must surely have been offered at least a few words of greeting from other members of “the Baptist Family” when she attended, and even with an official interpreter in tow (which should surely have raised suspicions in itself), she would surely have picked up some nuance that believers were not quite as free as appearances suggested.

And even if no-one had muttered “Don’t believe everything you see” when the interpreter’s back was turned, and even if no one even dared raise a quizzical eyebrow at her enthusiasm, the general demeanour of the brethren would give the game away to some extent. Certainly, after another church party spent time in occupied Czechoslovakia a couple of years later, what struck them above all was the downcast and guarded faces of nearly everyone they met. That sign of oppression of the spirit can’t be hidden – except by mandatory face-masks, of course.

I would suggest that the church stayed open only because it had demonstrated a willingness to toe the line, to make whatever compromises to the faith that were necessary to keep within the Krem;in’s good graces. In 1959 Izvestia had said:

The Baptists and other evangelical sects mislead people with high-flown words, and try to divert them from industrious life, from the enlightened happenings of our great era. They try to disrupt Soviet morality.

Faced with that official attitude, unregistered churches, many of them Baptist, felt constrained to meet secretly. The state was increasingly unhappy with the interest young people were showing in religion in the last decades of Communism, and so controls were scarcely being relaxed in the 1980s.

The Soviet government itself formed the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists after World War 2 not out of libertarian principles but to control the church (and of course as “freedom of religion” propaganda). The pastors, many of whom had suffered dreadfully under Stalin, were concerned to prove their loyalty to the State in order to maintain the very survival of the Church. For some, dropping the names of over-zealous members to their KGB minder seemed a necessary sacrifice.

For ordinary members, the actual dangers were less acute post-Stalin, and if one was not particularly committed to the Kingship of Christ, but rather were sufficiently comforted by the trappings of Sunday worship, then there was really no conflict between being a good Baptist and a good citizen. You just had to turn a blind eye to daily realities and focus on that opiate Sunday hour.

Bibles are hard to come by, and risky to own? Well, that’s the law, so our family will manage quite well without a Bible. The government printed, or allowed to be imported, only 840,000 Bibles between 1945 and 1987, for some 80 million Soviet Christians. But although that was actually deliberately repressive, one might remain a good Baptist and spin it that they had more important priorities, or simply shrug and ask no awkward questions of oneself.

You and your church might be essentially ineffective in society, but what can you do, since that’s the way it is if you want to remain a “normal person” and not be seen as a dissident fanatic? It’s easy to persuade yourself that the guy who ends up with a “tenner” in a camp under Article 58, for evangelism or for distributing Bibles, deserves all he gets.

It would be easy, after that compromise, to be totally sincere in communicating the same attitude to your English visitors, since people like David Hathaway, arrested and imprisoned a few years before for bringing Bibles in from England, are simply making life more difficult for you. When you prefer it easy.

Journalist Peter Hitchens said recently, after nearly a year of lockdowns and masking, that if you ever wondered how you would respond to living under a repressive regime, you now know. But our governments had only to say “Save the NHS” for our churches to close themselves down for a year. That’s much easier than sending in the army or forming an organisation of Militant Dialectical Materialists. And it can be continued indefinitely, like the current ban on political protests, and on the same “public health” basis, until the churches and the political organisations fall apart from Zoom fatigue or lack of funds.

After all, one can always rationalise that it’s the people’s health that is in danger at present, and not their souls. I’m not sure the apostles would agree.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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