The Church & The Coming Darkness
Before I went to church this morning, I received an email from a friend who said he really loved Live Not By Lies, and expects it to sell well. But, he said, “I wonder how it will compare with The Benedict Option. The message of this book is much more uncomfortable.”
He’s right about that, though the messages of both books are consonant. If you read The Benedict Option, you’ll remember that Father Cassian Folsom, then the prior of the Norcia monastery, said that if Christian families don’t do some form of the Benedict Option (he was speaking specifically of the Tipi Loschi of San Benedetto del Tronto), they aren’t going to have what it takes to make it through the trials to come. In that book, I offered a variety of things people could do to create communities of resistance — and by “resistance,” I meant communities of lively, believing orthodox Christianity within which people could shelter and strengthen themselves for living in a hostile post-Christian world.
As you know, many people (who didn’t read the book) assumed that I was talking about constructing bunkers in the hills within which we could shield ourselves from Bad Things. That’s not what the book is about at all, but for some reason, people have this craving to see things in a binary way. I do not believe, and have never believed, that we lay Christians can fully escape the world, but we can do things that build ourselves, our families, and our communities up so that when we go into the world, we can do so as resilient Christians. That’s what The Benedict Option was about.
Live Not By Lies is an narrowing and intensifying of The Benedict Option. My friend is right: the message is more uncomfortable, but I think this book will be more popular because over the past three years, since The Benedict Option was published, it has become even more difficult for serious Christians to deny the reality of what is happening. Heck, in the past six months, the quickening has become undeniable.
I was praying during the liturgy at church this morning about all this, and it became absolutely clear to me that anybody who comes toLive Not By Lies hoping to find a formula for escaping suffering is going to be disappointed.
I hope that people who read the book will have a better understanding of what’s happening in the world from the first part, and will organize to fight this dragon wherever it raises its head. There are still some victories to be had! Many of us aren’t even aware that there’s a massive spiritual and cultural battle going on. Live Not By Lies should be part of a red-pilling.
But the primary lesson of Live Not By Lies is that suffering is coming, and Christians have to learn to suffer well, even victoriously. The late dissident Vaclav Havel was not a religious believer, but in his Parable of the Greengrocer, he speaks to the power of choosing to suffer for one’s convictions. From Live Not By Lies:
Solzhenitsyn was not the only dissident to make “live not by lies” the core of anti-totalitarian resistance. Czech playwright and future postcommunist president Václav Havel’s most famous injunction to would-be dissidents was to “live in truth.” In his most important piece of political writing, which was secretly passed around by samizdat, Havel wrote about “the power of the powerless,” which was the essay’s title.
Havel knew that he was addressing a nation that had no way to rise up against the might of the Czechoslovak police state. But he also knew something most of them did not: they were not entirely powerless.
Consider, he said, the case of the greengrocer who posts a sign in his shop bearing the well-known slogan from the Communist Manifesto, “Workers of the world, unite!” He doesn’t believe in it. He hangs it in his shop as a signal of his own conformity. He just wants to be left alone. His action is not meaningless though: the greengrocer’s act not only confirms that this is what is expected of one in a communist society but also perpetuates the belief that this is what it means to be a good citizen.
Havel goes on:
Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.
This costs him. He loses his shop, his salary is cut, and he won’t be able to travel abroad. Maybe his children won’t be able to get into college. People persecute him and those around him—not necessarily because they oppose his stance but because they know that this is what they have to do to keep the authorities off their backs.
The poor little greengrocer, who testifies to the truth by refusing to mouth a lie, suffers. But there is a deeper meaning to his gesture.
By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted facade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power.
He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth.
Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can co-exist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.
A Russian Orthodox mystic of the nineteenth century, Saint Seraphim of Sarov, once said, “Acquire the Holy Spirit, and thousands around you will be saved.” In that sense, what the greengrocer has done is a small act of rebellion that may act as the spark of revolution.
A person who lives only for his own comfort and survival and who is willing to live within a lie to protect that, is, says Havel, “a demoralized person.
“The system depends on this demoralization, deepens it, is in fact a projection of it into society,” he writes. “Living within the truth, as humanity’s revolt against an enforced position, is, on the contrary, an attempt to regain control over one’s own sense of responsibility.”
Living in truth, living not by lies — that concept means nothing without the willingness of individual believers and entire churches to accept suffering as witness to their faith. Over and over in my book, I quote those of the Soviet bloc who suffered for the faith saying that there is no other way out. If you are not willing to endure hatred, deprivation, even pain for the sake of Christ, your faith is built on nothing. We Christians know from the Bible that it is better to die for your faith than to betray Christ. In the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) book of Daniel, we have the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the three Hebrew men who worked for the King of Babylon — but who were willing to go into the fiery furnace to their death rather than apostatize by praying to an idol. The consistent testimony of the Christian martyrs — from St. Stephen, the first martyr, all the way up to the martyrs of the Bolshevik yoke and beyond — is the same.
This morning I heard from a reader whose family left their longtime church because it had veered into teaching politics instead of the Gospel — or rather, to be more specific, they have baptized politics with the Gospel, making it into a false Gospel. I’m not going to tell you whether this reader’s family departed from a left-wing church or a right-wing church. You can find both kinds of churches — and I hear each week from readers who are grieved by the “left wing at prayer” or the “right wing at prayer” aspect of their churches.
You can also find plenty of churches that don’t want to take a side on the left or the right, but in which the leadership and the laity both prefer not to face the crises around us, relying instead on the groundless assumption that This Too Shall Pass. Don’t you be fooled by the spiritual tranquilizers that therapeutic Christianity hands out like opioids.
Dare to accept the idea that the persecutions now coming upon us, however mild at first, might be instruments of our sanctification. More from Live Not By Lies:
“Bless those who persecute you,” Jesus taught. Vengeance is easier to resist if you have that mindset. In his masterwork, The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reveals how he and his fellow inmates were beaten, humiliated, deprived of liberty, made to live in filth and freezing temperatures and crawling with lice, and to endure many other grotesque manifestations of communism’s determination to create heaven on earth. That’s why nothing in that epochal book’s pages shocks more than these lines:
And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison! . . . Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”
Solzhenitsyn’s audacious claim was that suffering had refined him, taught him to love. It was only there, out of the experience of intense suffering, that the prisoner began to understand the meaning of life and first began to sense the good inside himself.
To be clear, there is nothing in the Gospels that require Christians to seek out suffering. The Word of God is not a prescription for masochism. But life of Christ, as well as the Old Testament’s example of the prophets, compels believers to accept the impenetrable mystery that suffering, if rightly received, can be a gift.
Father Kirill Kaleda, the Russian Orthodox priest who pastors a church dedicated to the memory of the martyrs of the Bolshevik persecution, offers a prudent view on suffering in the life of a Christian.
“Taking up your cross and carrying it is always going to be uncomfortable. We can say clearly that this current ideology of comfort is anti-Christian in its very essence,” says Father Kirill. “But we should point out the fact that the church, not once, ever call its followers to look for suffering, and even made it clear that they are warned not to do that. But if a person finds himself in a situation where he’s suffering, then he should bear it with courage.”
One more passage:
The faith that martyrs and confessors like the Christians cited here is a far cry from the therapeutic religion of the middle-class suburbs, the sermonizing of politicized congregations of the Left and the Right, and the health-and wealth message of “prosperity gospel” churches. These and other feeble forms of the faith will be quickly burned away in the face of the slightest persecution. [Lutheran] Pastor [Richard] Wurmbrand [a survivor of Romanian torture] once wrote that there were two kinds of Christians: “those who sincerely believe in God and those who, just as sincerely, believe that they believe. You can tell them apart by their actions in decisive moments.”
The kind of Christians we will be in the time of testing depends on the kind of Christians we are today. And we cannot become the kind of Christians we need to be in preparation for persecution if we don’t know stories like this, and take them into our hearts.
Order the book and read the whole thing. If you would like to read it with a group at church or elsewhere, this free, downloadable study guide might be helpful.
Once more: do not come to this book expecting to find a ten-point strategy for avoiding the scorn and hatred of the world, or a game plan for defeating the Left and owning the libs. You may certainly gain insights into how this radical ideology is working its way out in this world, and may come up with ideas for how to resist it in particular instances. But my view is that there are forces at work in this crisis that run far deeper and are much more powerful than mere politics or culture-war skirmishes. There is a reason why the Benda family of Prague turned to reading Tolkien to help them understand better understand the forces at work in their struggle with the Evil Empire. The attentive reader of Live Not By Lies will understand that the shadow has fallen over us too, and we are being called to play our part in this great battle.
This is hard news for people to take, I know, but painful truths are always better than cheerful lies.