Thursday, August 4, 2016

And you shall find rest

People will probably think I’m off my rocker when I tell them that I support the new laws passed in Russia that severely restrict the activities of Christian churches and missionary outreaches in Russia. Yes, I live in America, and here, in spite of a persistent anti-Christian bias in the media, in government, and in intellectual circles, we could pass no such laws. We have freedom of religion. Most ‘progressive’ people here agree with the proposition that America is not a Christian nation. Well, I don’t know about that. I would rather say, it’s not a nation whose identity is defined by a single expression of Christianity. Though the Episcopal Church has held a sort of tacit ‘Church of the United States’ status, being the denomination most closely identified with the American revolution (George Washington, among others, belonged to it), the nation as a whole can only be called ‘Christian’ because despite denominational divides, most people who believe in God here also believe in Jesus Christ. Bingo! a Christian nation!

Russia, on the other hand, is not in this position at all—seriously! We have no concept of what it is like to live in a country with a state church like England, Denmark, Greece, or… Russia. My family is Greek Orthodox. Our experience is that of living in an Orthodox village surrounded by indifferent neighbors, people whose lives are either molded by some other philosophy or religion, or by nothing at all, except self-indulgence. Three of my sons have visited or lived in Orthodox countries—Greece, Russia. The son who visited and for a short time lived in Russia returned a changed man. He had not realized until then, growing up in our Orthodox village in pluralistic America, what a whole country would look like that was molded by the same faith, where when someone told you they were going to church, that only meant one thing—the Divine Liturgy. American evangelicals and evangelists that are sent to Russia don’t quite get it. They think they want to bring Russia to Jesus Christ. Some of them get evangelized by Russia!

When the Soviet Union was beginning to lose its hold on the Russian and other peoples, Christianity was gradually allowed to be ‘out’ again, to be practiced openly. As of 2012, the Church in Russia was about eighty-seven percent Orthodox, and about thirteen percent Other (our word for it is Heterodox, which means the same thing). Of that thirteen percent, eight percent are Christians but unchurched, and five percent are split among Old Believers, Protestants, and Roman Catholics, in that order. Of the whole Russian population, however, only forty-seven percent claim to be any type of Christian at all. These statistics are somewhat misleading, because of the history of the country, where for seventy years being or admitting to being a Christian was punishable in various ways. Russian statistics should be read as ‘at least that much’ in contrast to American statistics which should be read ‘at most that much.’

The historical and cultural legacy of Russia is, undeniably, Orthodox Christianity. When, after the thaw in religious curtailment, Protestants were flooding in, bringing bibles, the Russian Orthodox Church was supportive. Why? Because bibles were being printed and distributed. Eventually, the Russian Church began to resent and finally repel the evangelicals. Why? Because they were no longer satisfied to distribute the bible to Orthodox believers, they began to evangelize them, as if that were possible, or necessary. In other words, they placed themselves and their doctrinal teachings in conflict with the Orthodox faith and order in the country. The Orthodox follow the scriptural teaching of Paul the Apostle, who says, ‘My ambition has always been to preach the Good News where the name of Christ has never been heard, rather than where a church has already been started by someone else’ (Romans 15:20).

The bible-thumpers apparently take this text lightly, for they have no scruple about what they are doing. The Russian Orthodox Church is not actually a ‘state church’ as the new Russian constitution also stipulates a separation of Church and State. Due to historical circumstances, this is hard to carry out, because Orthodoxy has left its symbols in Russian culture at all levels. The new laws that are being enacted are without doubt intended to prevent further infiltration of historic Russian Christianity by disruptive and unhealthy aspects inherent in evangelicalism, particularly the American brand, where boys of twenty-two years are routinely set up as pastors in congregations, and acceptance of marijuana use, desecration of the human body, and other symptoms of degeneracy are common. What the new laws are attempting to do is prevent ignorance from corrupting the wisdom of ancient Christianity.

Other countries have similar laws. I am told that public evangelism is illegal in Greece. Not even the Greek Orthodox Church can do evangelism on the streets. Of course, there, it’s not needed or wanted. In Greece, everyone is Orthodox except a handful of non-comformists, and traditional ethnic minorities like Italians or Turks. If you’re a Greek, you’re either pious and sometimes learned, or you’re usually indifferent yet patriotically attached to the Church. If an evangelical missionary is looking to bring the Greek people to Christ, he might be met with a response from either type of Greek that says as much as, ‘What do you mean, bring the Greek people to Christ? He’s here with us, and has been here all this time!’ Again, this is something I don’t expect evangelicals to understand.

Roman Catholics, on the other hand, understand this concept quite well, yet even they sometimes launch a crusade into Orthodox territory in order to ‘heal the schism’ between East and West. Thankfully, this is mostly a thing of the past, except in countries which straddle the East-West divide, such as Ukraine, Slovakia, the former Yugoslavia, and some areas in the Near East.

To close, I’m not entirely sure that the ancient way of ‘one nation, one faith’ which began in ancient Egypt, was institutionalized in the Christian Roman and Byzantine Empires and their successor states, right up to the Protestant Reformation, isn’t perhaps the best way. Again, I think this kind of development is part of the evolutionary processes that create and mold human societies and nations. What we have going for us in America seemed very good on paper to our founding fathers and we are still engaged in trying it out, this separation of Church and State. Will it end up being one of the principles that ensures the survival of the American nation, or will our descendants look back at us with amazement, ‘How in the world did they think that the body politic could survive when it was parsed out and the pieces put ahead of the whole? Thank God we took the prophet’s advice and saved America!’

‘Put yourself on the ways of long ago, inquire about the ancient paths: which was the good way? Take it then, and you shall find rest’ (Jeremiah 6:16 Jerusalem Bible).


Sasha said...

> Of the whole Russian population, however, only forty-seven percent claim to be any type of Christian at all. These statistics are somewhat misleading, because of the history of the country, where for seventy years being or admitting to being a Christian was punishable in various ways. Russian statistics should be read as ‘at least that much’ in contrast to American statistics which should be read ‘at most that much.’

That would be a misleading picture too. I lived there and I know that many - if not majority - of those who call themselves Orthodox Christians in those lands say that out of following a tradition only (such as "my ancestors were that, so obviously I am that too"), and to them Jesus and Christian principles are at best just nice ideas, not necessary to adhere to when that is not profitable.

Doesn't really change your main topic of the post, brother, I know. Just wanted to add an important piece to this picture.

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Thanks, Sasha, for your additional facts and observations.

I got into trouble big time a few years ago, being torn limb from limb verbally by a very angry female Russophile, for pointing out that the huge turnouts in today's Russia of people coming to venerate famous ikons and relics and the like was not necessarily proof that Christianity in Russia was healthy and thriving.

I asked in my original post, The Glory of Holy Russia (September 25, 2009:, "Where were these Christians when the [Kursk] ikon was still overseas in safety? Were they in hiding just as she was, waiting for the opportune and safe moment to come out? Where were these crowds when Holy Russia was being trampled under the feet of Godless criminals? Would there have been enough bullies and bandits to keep a crowd this big in check? Would there have been enough bullets to slay them all and put Holy Russia forever under the earth, just a memory in the pages of history?"

My questions were meant to be rhetorical, meaning just to point to the fact that visible signs of revival can be misleading. I was attacked verbally, at first in comments on my blog, later, in her blog Voices from Russia, by Varvara Drezhlo, an outspoken proponent of Russian superiority and archenemy of us whom she calls 'konvertsy.' I cringe to even remember the toxic exchange. I continued to be vilified in her blog long after the original tiff:

Anyway, I have learned to stay away from making even what I believe are accurate evaluations of national, that is, ethnic, events that are probably not what they seem. As a Pole, even though I am an Orthodox one, I refrain from criticizing Russia or Russian Orthodoxy. If I were a Greek, I would do the same. There's nothing to be gained by inflaming people's historical passions.

Back to the jist of my article, I really do believe that Orthodoxy shaped the Russian nation, just as evangelical Christianity shaped America. The difference is, America's Christianity was never uniform, but Russia's was, and I respect that. I respect and believe in the conversion to Christ, not only of individuals (which I think is a mostly American phenomenon) but of families (1 Corinthians 1:16), and tribes, and entire nations. And moreover, I believe in one Church, and that denominations are a temporary aberration in the Body of Christ which I predict will end soon.

Again, and as always, brother, I appreciate your input.