Be encouraged, I have an optimistic post for you.
This week, I was in Vienna for meetings. I met Christian leaders and activists from across the continent, who are involved in different types of work, including pro-life, religious freedom, and that kind of thing. The news is consistently bad and only getting worse. The reason I have found greater satisfaction in doing Benedict Option/Live not by Lies work in Europe over the years is that the small-o orthodox Christians there aren’t under any illusions that they live in a Negative World, as Aaron Renn describes it. No one here is a fan of winsomeness or “kingdom hospitality” or any other honeyed strategies many American Christians believe are the keys to being relevant and effective in a world where Christians are seen as evil and need to be destroyed. They are not unkind people, in fact I was impressed by the sweetness of their spirit. But they also know that this is futile. The stories I heard were amazing. This is true war.
A Spanish man told me how difficult it was to deal with the legacy of Franco and the Spanish Civil War. Franco’s repression was terrible, but this Spanish person reminded me about the atrocities that the Communists committed during the war, including raping nuns and other Christians. If they had won, what would have happened to Christians and anyone else who opposed them? The Spaniard was a proud member of his family. It was an American reminder for me that this cultural war, this religious conflict, was not an abstraction.
The future is looking bleak. Everyone sees this and everyone is trying to figure it out. No one knows the answer but everyone understands that we must work together to find them. I was invited to speak about Living Not by Lies and the lessons that Christians who stood up against Soviet communism can teach us today. It’s always a privilege and even a pleasure for me to speak about Father Tomislav Kolakovic, Kamila bendova, and all of the others. Many people had never heard of the book and asked me to visit their countries to share its message. Some of the people I met were from ex-Communist countries and had experienced Communism. They reaffirmed what I said, which was simply repeating what I had been told by dissidents. They also see a new type of totalitarianism emerging today. They are also having difficulty defining it. While they know that it is similar to what they have experienced before, it’s also very different in many ways that they don’t know how to identify. I advised the western Europeans to return home and find people who have lived under Communist totalitarianism. Ask them if they feel that what we are dealing with today is similar to what they remember. It will be evident to you. (I encourage American readers to do so.)
So why is this a hopeful post? Maybe I should not say “optimistic”, but “hopeful”. These meetings gave me the most important thing: a sense that there was brotherhood. Personally, I think the most important message from the LIVE NOT BY LIES dissidents that I met was the power of small groups. Here’s a passage from the book.
This survival skill was learned decades ago in Soviet Russia by evangelicals. Yuri Sipko is a Baptist pastor who, at sixty-eight years old, recalls the world he was born into. His parents and friends had lived in it for some time during Stalin’s brutal persecution of churches.
“The strongest strike was first against pastors and preachers. They sent the pastors and preachers to prison. Sipko says that other men rose and filled their shoes. “Then, they took their houses for prayer. At that moment, small groups were formed. People who lived near one another would meet in small groups. There wasn’t a formal structure for pastors and deacons. There were only brothers and sisters who shared the Bible, prayed together and sang together.
He continues, “When they imprisoned my father my mother was left alone.” “Several other sisters were left alone without husbands. We all came together. We discovered the Bible they had hidden. They were reading the Bible to us all by the women. They shared their ideas about how people should live and what they hoped for. They prayed together and wept.
These small groups maintained the life of the Baptist Church for many decades until Gorbachev released all Evangelical prisoners.
The pastor muses, “Sixty-years of terror, they were not able to get rid of faith.” It was saved in small groups. It was not possible to find literature or organizations that could teach, and movement was prohibited. Believers manually rewrote the biblical texts. Even songs we sang. These notebooks were even my own. They kept the faith.”
The pastor sits down with a cup of hot black tea and reflects with a palpable emotion.
Many of us didn’t even own Bibles. Sipko states that it was amazing to find yourself in a situation with a group of people and one person reading the Bible to them. This was our little corner of freedom. Everything was godless, whether you were working in the factory or elsewhere.
It is now easy to get a Russian Bible, to attend worship services and to search for religious teachings online. The old pastor said that something has gone wrong among modern Christians. It was something that was held close by small groups.
Christianity is now a secondary foundation in peoples’ lives and not the main one. It’s now all about one’s career, their material success, and their standing in society. When people gathered in small groups back then, Christ was the center of attention. His word was being read and interpreted to be applicable to one’s own life. What is the role of a Christian? What should I do as a Christian? Together with my brothers, I was checking my Christianity.
He says that small groups provided accountability and a tangible connection for believers to the larger Body of Christ. This was amazing. This was true Christianity
The book contains many passages similar to this one. Ex-dissidents spoke out about the importance of fellowship with Christians, both spiritually and psychologically. Viktor Popkov was a young man who believed in Christ when he was in Moscow in the 1970s. He was desperate to find meaning in his life amid the futility and sterility that the Bolshevik dream had brought. He was able to find his way to an Orthodox fellowship that met in Alexander Ogorodnikov’s Moscow apartment. All of them knew they were being monitored by the KGB and would be taken to prison. Popkov explained to me that just being together, singing hymns and praying, and conversing with other faithful Christians was heaven, which justified the risk and gave them something to live for.
It was something I felt this week in Vienna. Mind you, none are experiencing anything (yet), like the Christians living under Communism. For me, however, it’s easy to feel alone and besieged when I live as I do. It was so comforting to be surrounded with people who could tell me, “Ah, I see it too!” It was so comforting and confidence-building. This week, I was thinking a lot about Dr. Silvester Kramery. He spent the 1950s in Czechoslovak prison. Later, he wrote about how he and other Christian prisoners shared their burdens and found joy in sharing their suffering. To be truthful, I also thought about the Bolsheviks during their Siberian exile. Do Not Believe
Marxists had to destroy Christianity in order to create utopia. They saw it as a false religion, one that sanctified the ruling classes and kept the poor superstitious. Russian radicals hated the Philistines, which was their term for deplorable people who live in the present without any regard for anything greater or less. The Philistines were viewed by the radical intellectualsia as their complete opposites, the brutish and beastly Goliaths to the clever Davids. They hated the Philistines intensely, no doubt because so many of them were from such families.
The Philistines, who were comfortable and obedient, weren’t willing to die for their beliefs. Bolsheviks were. Many of their leaders were sent into exile by the tsarist government in Siberia, which didn’t break them but strengthened them.
“Exile was a symbol of suffering, intimacy, and the transcendent immensity that is the heavenly depths. It was a metaphor for what was wrong in the ‘world full of lies’ as well as what was central to socialism’s promise, writes historian Yuri Slezkine. In those days, to be revolutionary was to share a sense or purpose, of community, and of hope. There was also an electrifying bond that contained contempt, which we see today in the social justice movement toward all who disagree with its religious claims.
Exiled Bolsheviks were motivated by a shared hatred but also a deep commitment to their vision. Yuri Slezkine’s wonderful history of Revolution, The House of Government is a great way to explore in detail the lives of exiled Bolsheviks. They didn’t play around. They were not afraid to go into exile. They lived in houses deepest Siberia but were able to gather. They didn’t waste any time. They read Marx, Engels and all the rest. They spoke. They planned. They formed bonds of revolutionary kinship. They acted years later when they had the opportunity. The rest is history.
We small-o Orthodox Christians are not being sent to Siberia or any other place like that. We are still exiled from post-Christian society in a meaningful way (and if it isn’t obvious, spend some time talking to Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox from Europe about the jaw-dropping hostility in their countries — something most Americans don’t deal with yet, but will soon). We still enjoy a lot freedom. How are we going to use it? Father Kolakovic interpreted the signs of times and spent the three years he was given by God to train young Christians spiritually and for resistance. He also established a small network of committed believers that would be able to continue the underground life of the Catholic Church when it became necessary. There are many things we can do right now if Christians first understand the seriousness and second embrace their vocation as “creative minority”, meeting the challenges of this moment with hope, vision and intelligence.
Yesterday, a Christian leader stated that “We all know the problems.” It’s time to stop talking about the problems and instead focus on finding solutions. She’s right. We have to all work together because nobody knows everything. It was so, so encouraging to know that I wasn’t alone and that there are other believers who believe in me and are willing to work with me. Jan Simulcik (a Slovakian historian of the underground Church), who was a student at the college in the 1980s, said that he felt truly free when he was in contact with the young men in his underground Christian activist cell. This week, I was able to see the results in Vienna. To be clear, I am not trying to compare the current situation of Christians to what Communism left behind. To be clear, I was able to spend a few days with a diverse group of Christians from across the continent and exchange stories, including miracle stories of conversion (on Substack last evening, I wrote about an Austrian young woman to whom Christ appeared,leading them to convert) — which helped me to feel more free than I had felt for quite some time.
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If you’re a Christian and you find the following things to be helpful, I encourage you to form small groups and networks of smaller groups now. We will need them. We already have. You already do. It’s impossible to know where your allies may come from. One activist said she was approached recently by a lesbian feminist who she had fought in the past. The feminist apologized to her and stated that she had not seen how evil her own side was until they turned against her for refusing to endorse transgender activist demands. She believed these demands were erasing women. On this trip I met a Muslim woman who was deeply committed to her faith but also fiercely pro-life, pro-family, brave, and eager to work with other like-minded Christians. When I spoke, I tried to emphasize to the audience that Courage was the most important quality dissidents were looking for in allies. Kamila Bendova, her late husband Vaclav, explained to me why it was so easy for them to work with all the dissident hippies surrounding Vaclav Havel. She and her husband were Catholics. This was because these hippies, unlike many Czech Christians, were courageous. We saw it in America recently in Dearborn (Michigan), where Muslim parents led the fight against the corruption of their children’s education by LGBT activists who had taken over public schools.
Be positive! Although everything is horrible, we all share the same goal, which is to be of good cheer. You never know what might happen. The future is uncertain. None of the anti-Communist dissidents I spoke to expected to see the sickle and hammer fall. They did because Communism was a liar. The lies that dominate our public square today are also lies. They will also not last. Be aware of this and you will find hope.