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Living In Truth, Together

The joy, the consolation, and the urgent necessity of small groups
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Brace yourselves, here's an optimistic post from me.

I've been in Vienna this week for meetings. I've met some Christian leaders and activists from all over the continent who are engaged in various kinds of work -- pro-life, religious liberty, that sort of thing. The news is uniformly bad, and getting worse. Over the past few years, I've found more satisfaction doing Benedict Option/Live Not By Lies work in Europe than in my own country, simply because the engaged small-o orthodox Christians here are under no illusions that we live in what Aaron Renn calls Negative World. Nobody here noodles on about winsomeness, or "kingdom hospitality," or all the other honeyed strategies that many American Christians seem to think is the key to staying relevant and effective in a world in which more and more people think Christians are evil people who need to be taken down. It's not that they're unkind people -- in fact, I was struck by the sweetness of spirit of everyone I met -- but rather that they know this is pointless. Man, the stories I heard. This really is war.

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I met a Spanish person who told me about how difficult it is to reckon with the legacy of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco years. As bad as the repression was under Franco, this person reminded me of the shocking atrocities the Communists carried out during the war -- raping nuns, the works -- and what would have been done to Christians and anybody else who opposed the Communists, had they won. The Spaniard had family stories. For me, as an American, it was a reminder that for many people around the world, this religious clash, this culture war, is not an abstraction, or at least has not been an abstraction within living memory.

The days are darkening. Everybody sees that, and everybody is trying to figure out what to do. Nobody has the answer, but everybody understands that we have to work together towards whatever answers there are. I was invited to talk about Live Not By Lies, and the lessons that the Christians who resisted Soviet communism have for us today. It is always an honor and even a pleasure to talk about Father Tomislav Kolakovic, Kamila Bendova, and all the rest. A number of people who had not heard about the book told me they are eager to read it, and invited me to come to their countries to talk about its message. A couple of those I met came from former Communist countries, and had lived through Communism. They emphatically affirmed the things I was saying, which was simply repeating the message I had been given by the dissidents. They too see a new form of totalitarianism rising today. They too are having trouble defining it: they know -- they know -- that it's like what they endured before, but it's also different in ways they can't really identify. I told the people from western Europe to go home and seek out people in their lives who lived under Communist totalitarianism, and ask them if what we're dealing with today reminds them of what they left behind. You'll hear it for yourself. (I urge you American readers to do the same.)

So, why is this an optimistic post? Well, maybe I shouldn't say "optimistic," but rather "hopeful." The thing I took away most from these meetings was a sense of brotherhood. For me personally, the most underappreciated message of the dissidents I spoke to in Live Not By Lies is the power of small groups. Here is just one passage from the book:

In Soviet Russia, Evangelicals learned and practiced this survival skill decades earlier. The Baptist pastor Yuri Sipko, now sixty-eight, recalls the world that he was born into—a world that his parents and their friends had been living in for some time under Stalin’s merciless persecution of the churches.

“The strongest strike was against the preachers and the pastors, first of all. They took the preachers and pastors to prison. Other men stood up and filled their shoes,” Sipko tells me. “Then they took their houses of prayer. Then at that point began the practice of small groups—people who lived close to one another would gather in small groups. There was no formal structure of pastors or deacons. There were just brothers and sisters who read the Bible together, prayed together, and sang.”

“When they jailed my father, my mother was left alone,” he continues. “Several other sisters were left without husbands. We all got together. We found the Bible they had hidden. The women were reading the Bible to all of us. They were telling how people should live, what we had to hope for. They prayed together, and cried.”

These small groups continued the life of the Baptist church for decades, until Gorbachev released the last Evangelical prisoners of conscience.

“Sixty years of terror, they were unable to get rid of the faith,” the pastor muses. “It was saved specifically in small groups. There was no literature, no organizations for teaching, and even movement was forbidden. Believers rewrote biblical texts by hand. Even the songs that we sang. I even remember writing these notebooks for myself. But they preserved the true faith.”

Over steaming cups of black tea, the pastor reflects with palpable emotion.

“Many of us didn’t even have Bibles. Just to be able to find yourself in a situation where there was a group, and one person was reading the Bible to others, this was the greatest motivation,” Sipko says. “This was our little niche of freedom. Whether you were at work in the factory on the street or anywhere else, everything was godless.”

Today, it is easy to obtain a Bible in Russia, easy to meet for worship services, and easy to find religious teaching on the internet. Yet something among contemporary Christians has been lost, the old pastor says—something that was held dear by those small groups.

Sipko goes on:

Christianity has become a secondary foundation in people’s lives, not the main foundation. Now it’s all about career, material success, and one’s standing in society. In these small groups, when people were meeting back then, the center was Christ, and his word that was being read, and being interpreted as applicable to your own life. What am I supposed to do as a Christian? What am I doing as a Christian? I, together with my brothers, was checking my own Christianity.

Small groups not only provided accountability, he says, but also gave believers a tangible connection to the larger Body of Christ. “This was so wonderful. This was true Christianity”

There are lots of passages like that in the book. Former dissidents talked about the spiritual, psychological, and strategic importance of being together in tight fellowship with other Christians. One man, Viktor Popkov, came to believe in Christ in Moscow of the early 1970s, when he was young, and desperate for something to give his life meaning amid the futility and sterility of the failed Bolshevik dream. He found his way to a small fellowship of Orthodox believers that met in Alexander Ogorodnikov's apartment in Moscow. They all knew that they were being watched by the KGB, and would eventually be hauled away to prison. But, Popkov told me, just being together, praying and singing hymns, and talking with other faithful Christians, was like heaven itself, justifying the risk and giving them something to live for.

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I got a sense of that this week in Vienna. Mind you, none of us are enduring anything (yet) like what the Christians under Communism did. But for me, living as I do, it is all too easy to feel isolated and besieged. To be surrounded by people to whom I could say, "Ah, you see it too!" was so comforting, and confidence-building. I thought over and over this week about Dr. Silvester Krcmery, spending the 1950s in a Czechoslovak prison for his faith, writing later about how he and the other Christian prisoners carried their burdens together, and found joy in their shared suffering. And, to be honest, I thought about the early Bolsheviks in their Siberian exile. From Live Not By Lies:

To create utopia, Marxists first had to rout Christianity, which they saw as a false religion that sanctified the ruling class and kept the poor superstitious and easy to control. The Russian radicals also hated the so-called Philistines—their word for the deplorable people who live out their daily lives without thinking of anything higher or greater. The radical intelligentsia regarded the Philistines as their complete opposites: the rough and beastly Goliaths to their clever Davids. They hated the Philistines with all-consuming intensity—no doubt partly because so many of them had come from such families.

The comfortable Philistines were not the kind of people prepared to suffer and die for their beliefs. The Bolsheviks were. The tsarist government sent many of their leaders into Siberian exile, which did not break them but made them stronger.

“Exile stood for suffering, intimacy, and the sublime immensity of the heavenly depths. It offered a perfect metaphor for both what was wrong with the ‘world of lies’ and what was central to the promise of socialism,” writes historian Yuri Slezkine. To be a revolutionary in those days was to share a sense of purpose, of community, of hope—and an electrifying bond of contempt, a contempt we see in the social justice movement today toward anyone who differs from its religious claims.

The exiled Bolsheviks were driven by a bond of shared hatred, but also a profound commitment to their vision. Yuri Slezkine's great history of the Revolution, titled The House of Government, is really good in discussing in detail the lives of the exiled Bolsheviks. They did not mess around. The Tsar sent them into exile, but not into prison. They all lived in houses in deepest Siberia, but had the freedom to gather. They did not waste their time. They read Marx, Engels, and all the rest. They talked. They plotted. They built bonds of revolutionary kinship. And years later, when they had the chance, they acted. You know the rest.

We small-o orthodox Christians have not been sent to Siberia, or anything like that. But we are in exile from post-Christian society, in a meaningful sense (and if you doubt it, spend a morning talking with Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox from around Europe, especially about the jaw-dropping hostility they face in their own countries -- things most of us in the USA don't yet deal with, but will soon). Yet we still have a lot of liberty. What are we going to do with it? Father Kolakovic read the signs of the times, and spent the three years God gave him before his expulsion from Czechoslovakia training young Christians, spiritually and otherwise, for resistance, and establishing a network of small groups of dedicated believers who would be capable of continuing the life of the Catholic Church underground, when the time came. There are so many things that can be done right now, if only we Christians will first grasp the seriousness of the times, and second embrace our vocation to be "creative minorities," meeting the challenges of the moment with hope, vision, and intelligence.

One Christian leader said yesterday, "We all know what the problems are. We should stop talking about them, and only focus on solutions." She's right. Again: nobody has all the answers, so we have to work them out together. For me, though, it was so, so upbuilding just to know that I am not alone, that I have brothers and sisters in the faith who see themselves as on the same path, and who are eager to collaborate. Jan Simulčik, a Slovak historian of the underground church, who served it as a college student in the 1980s, told me that it was only when he was with the young men in his underground church activist cell that he truly felt free. I got a glimpse of that this week in Vienna. To be clear, I don't mean to compare what we Christians today are dealing with to the grim situation that believers struggled with under Communism. Still, to share a couple of days with a highly diverse group of Christians from all over the continent, and trade stories -- including miracle stories of conversion (on my Substack last night, I wrote about a young Austrian woman to whom Christ appeared, leading her to convert -- helped me, personally, to feel free in a way I have not for a while.

If you are a Christian, and the things I write about here make sense to you, I urge you to start forming small groups, and networks of small groups, now. You -- we -- are going to need them. We already do. Here's a link to a free Live Not By Lies study guide I wrote, that you can download. (And also, Muslim and Jewish readers for whom my stories of coming persecution of traditional religious believers resonate, I urge you to do the same thing.) You never know from where allies might come. One activist told me she was recently approached by a lesbian feminist with whom she had bitterly clashed in the past. The feminist apologized to her, and said that she (the lesbian) had not realized how wicked her own side was, until they turned on her over her refusal to endorse maximalist transgender activist demands -- demands that she believed were erasing women. I met a Muslim woman on this trip, strongly dedicated to her faith, but fiercely pro-life and pro-family, courageous, and eager to collaborate with like-minded Christians. This is a point I tried to convey to the audience when I spoke: that the most important quality the dissidents sought in allies was COURAGE. I quoted Kamila Bendova explaining to me why it was easy for her and her late husband Vaclav to work with all the dissident hippies around Vaclav Havel, even though she and her husband were conservative Catholics. It was because these hippies -- unlike most Czech Christians -- were brave. In America, we saw the same thing recently in Dearborn, Michigan, where Muslim parents took the lead in publicly fighting the corruption of their children by LGBT activists who have captured public schools.

So, be of good cheer! Everything is terrible, but we are all in this together, and that's not nothing. Besides, you never know what's going to happen. The future is not decided. Not one anti-Communist dissident I interviewed ever expected to live to see the hammer and sickle fall. But they did, because Communism was a lie. So too are the lies that rule our public square today. They too will not endure. Know that, and know hope.

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JON FRAZIER
JON FRAZIER
This is why I prefer small church congregations to large ones. Ideally you should get to know everyone in your church even if you like some of them better than others. Large congregations tend to be unwieldly and to give rise to cliques.
schedule 2 weeks ago
Bogdán Emil
Bogdán Emil
You're hitting the nail on its head. Personally, until a much longed-for moment of sublime mystery and conversion arrives, I aspire to be one of those radically courageous hippies who isn't afraid to breathe fire to scorch his own side when it's _most certainly_ called for, and seeks the company of other passionate, honest critics and crunchy counter-culturalists, in order to work together toward realizing the hope that we won't remain forever in the minority. It's right and proper to have this kind of personally uplifting, clear-eyed attitude, for realism isn't the same as hopelessness, pessimism isn't the same as despair. We ought to be pessimistic about our chances, but unyielding and unbroken, armed with spines, chests, and souls. After all, common sense prevails in the long run, because there is an order to things, there is a certain "quality" to this world, one which everyone is trying to discern on some level, scientists and mystics alike.

Maybe I shouldn't say Everyone, that's a bit of my liberal utopianism cropping up. But for those of us that are legitimately trying to discern the "something," and doing so courageously, instead of just sitting on our hands or outright conforming, we should definitely keep finding each other, and also take the time to rejoice in the good company. For my part, I'll take quality over quantity any day. I have to, after all, quantity shows up, inevitably. Quality, meanwhile, is achieved via a sharpening stone, for we gather with a purpose.
schedule 2 weeks ago