I’ve Experienced This Cultural Moment Before … in Russia
Written by TM of JC on August 10, 2020
The country seems to be divided as it has not been for a long time. The grand narrative that has united the country is being vigorously questioned. People cannot agree on basic values. Public discourse has become toxic. Deep divisions run through nearly every public institution. The media have become polarized. You can tell people’s political leanings by the media outlets they draw information from. People on the other side are not simply wrong on some issues, they are bigots, entitled elitists, foreign agents, ivory tower weirdos, or some combination of these. Reasonable discourse with them is not possible, so eventually they have to be shut out of public life.
It is becoming more and more challenging to have a calm, lighthearted conversation about public issues with friends who disagree. Tension is palpably in the air, and sporadic street clashes are beginning to erupt. There are some who call for peace and reconciliation, but their voices are drowned out by those who think that peace and reconciliation with their opponents are impossible. And, to make matters worse, a deadly contagious disease has arrived from another continent.
You may be thinking that I am describing the current state of affairs in the US, but I’m actually describing my experience of living in the Soviet Union during the final years of its existence. Lately, though, my experience of living in the US feels eerily similar.
As a seminary professor, I often wonder how Christians should respond to this situation. But divisions among Christians tend to mirror divides in society at large. Moreover, these divisions have seeped into my classroom, and sometimes they burst into the open. How should I react? Should I steer clear of discussing this subject? If not, what answers should I give? Is one of the sides clearly in the wrong? Questions like these have been on my mind a lot.
Once, I asked William Galston, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow and Wall Street Journal columnist, how seminaries, churches and other religious institutions can serve the society best at the present moment. His answer was “by emphasizing reconciliation.” Galston added that they should model what my former Soviet leaders called peaceful coexistence. Even though I felt ambivalent about the concept at the time, by and large I agree with Galston, primarily because I feel that the polarization that is tearing American society apart is not being taken with the seriousness it requires.
In March 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev ascended to power, everyone expected the Soviet Union to be around for a long time. However, I remember vividly the feeling in the air during the mid-1980s; everyone knew changes needed to be made. Gorbachev shared this intuition and encouraged an open discussion. But when that discussion started, the dark sides of Soviet history came to the fore. The media was full of stories about the horrors of Stalin years, and this quickly devolved into the debate of whether the country’s history contained substantial moral flaws to be accounted for.
Some called for dismantling memorials to founding fathers, such as Lenin. The dominant narrative began to be questioned. As a result, the narrative could no longer discharge its unifying function. Subsequently, the societal fissures that were thought long healed resurfaced with vengeance. While riding public transportation, I could tell people’s leanings from the papers they read. There could be no compromise between the right and the left. Gorbachev tried to govern from the center, but the center was left with increasingly shrinking room for maneuvering.
As a result of these developments, the public no longer trusted societal institutions. There was the general sense that country’s elites were corrupt and self-serving. The situation was exacerbated by the arrival of HIV/AIDS. People thought elites were mostly concerned with preservation of their power and privileged access to resources, not with the common good. Populists seized on these sentiments successfully. Eventually these snowballing developments damaged the heretofore dominant narrative beyond repair. Within a few short years, the Soviet Union was gone. Many said good riddance, myself included.
Some of the developments in North America over the past few years echo those I saw in the Soviet Union back then, such as renewed questioning of the grand narrative that unifies the country, the attendant societal polarization, the resurfacing of racial and ethnic tensions, a populist wave, and the contempt for the elites. Seemingly apolitical things, such as wearing masks, have become subjects of heated political debates. How should evangelicals address these developments? What, if anything, can they take away from developments in the Soviet Union more than a quarter of a century ago?
First, they need to contribute to healing cultural divides. To do so, they should heed Galston’s advice and model to the world diverse communities where reconciliation in Christ is taking place. This will not be easy. As a leadership professor, I believe there is no alternative to modeling as the first step. Unless Christians lead by example, their entreaties will ring hollow. Having fellowships intentionally designed to bring together people with different cultural backgrounds and views could be a viable starting point.
Second, there must be broad societal consensus that the order that emerged is just. The Russian revolution was set back when people saw elderly teachers digging in dumpsters while moneyed mobsters were driving around in expensive cars. To that end, Christians need to present a robust model of justice that, among other things, would provide a meaningful redress to past and current inequities.
The third lesson could be the most encouraging. Christians will do well to remember that a desecularization, even a rapid one, is possible. It happened in Russia a quarter of a century ago, and it can happen in North America today. Being a christian can become cool again, as it did in Russia of the late 1980s. Thankfully, given North American traditions, desecularization is unlikely to take the form of Christendom 2.0. Nor is it likely to mean a complete return to pre-secularization forms. But it would mean, I hope, renewed interest in christian spirituality in all walks of life.
Fourth, Christians must balance their undeniable prophetic responsibility with the equally important emphasis on peacemaking and bridging cultural divides. The Scriptures provide ample references. Jesus blesses peacemakers in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:9); Paul maintains that the kingdom of God is “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17); and James says that “peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (Jam. 3:18). Jeremiah calls his fellow Jews to seek the peace and prosperity of their city, even though that city was in a foreign land (Jer. 29:7). Peacemaking does not need to impede our prophetic ministry. As Martin Luther King Jr. has shown us, prophetic responsibility is best discharged in peaceful, nonviolent ways. Today we need to strive for that fusion of peacemaking and prophecy without losing sight of either.
Andrey Shirin is an associate professor of divinity and director of transformational leadership at John Leland Center for Theological Studies Arlington, Virginia, where he researches and teaches at the intersection of theology, leadership, and public life.