Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Future of Russia
How anti-Western are the churches?
M o s c o w -- Russian Protestant rejection of the prohibition of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in early April appears virtually unanimous. It usually runs along the lines of the quote from the revered German church leader Martin Niemoeller (1892-1984): “When the Nazis came for the communists, I did not speak out, as I was not a communist. When they locked up the social democrats, I did not speak out, for I was not a social democrat.” The long quote concludes with the statement: “When they came for me, there was no one left to protest.”
In Omsk on 22 April, the Russian church historian Constantine Prokhorov stated: “Except for a few Orthodox extremists, I do not hear a single voice expressing approval for the prohibition of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. All are defending them, even if we have major theological differences. This is a very positive development, for the Russians have often been very suspicious of ‘Western sects’. Speaking in very wise and Christian terms, even the prominent Orthodox theologian Andrey Kuryaev has categorically rejected their prohibition. That makes me very glad. We must remember that nearly all public organisations, including the Russian Orthodox, have a radical fringe.”
The US-American Bradn Buerkle, an instructor for the Novasaratovka-based seminary of the “Evangelical-Lutheran Church” (once ELCROS), stated that the term “good riddance” does not describe Lutheran reaction to the prohibition. “Generally, Lutherans regret that the freedom for religious practice is no longer the case. But we are seen as a historical confession, so this issue does not affect us directly.” Lutheran leadership is cautious and “there is no willingness on our part to step up and declare that this measure is against the constitution. But the Witnesses should have the freedom of religious practice if they are not a danger to society – and they are not.”
A news article quoting Igor Kovalevsky, General-Secretary of Russia’s “Conference of (Roman) Catholic Bishops”, was entitled: “The Jehovah’s Witnesses may be heretics, but they are not extremists.” The state must distinguish between theological issues and legal rights.
Perhaps there is significant reason for alarm. After all, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are only an extreme form of what we Baptists and Protestants also are: a largely Western-born and -funded movement. Prokhorov sees that somewhat differently. In his recent book pointing to the Orthodox and Molokan roots of Russian Baptists and Orthodox influence upon them, “Russky Baptizm i Pravoslavie” (St. Andrews, Moscow 2017), he describes them – especially prior to Perestroika - as an essentially non-Reformational movement that should not be judged by its Western, top-to-bottom-inspired statements of faith. Yet, in my view, the westward waves of emigration since the 1920’s and the major split within the Soviet Baptist movement in August 1961 indicate a clear affinity for the West.
Our unwritten assumptions are indeed often profoundly partisan and pro-Western. Recently, a Russian Protestant complained that Russian believers are falling prey to Russian state propaganda. But are Western believers any less endangered by propaganda – or perhaps there is none in the West? “Propaganda” is a highly inflationary and inexact term. Under “endangerment” I understand an unquestioning acceptance of the positions propagated by one’s own major media – which is an issue not only in Russia.
Except for strongly totalitarian settings, one should not regard the progression of repression as described by Niemoeller as unavoidable and written in granite. There are measures we Protestants can do take to influence the course of events in Russia. Except for the radically blanket and extremist phases such as the Great Terror (approx. 1936-1940), communist governments have tended to distinguish between “good” and “bad” Christians. In 1956, the Soviet government for ex. awarded the “good” Christian Martin Niemoeller the Lenin Peace Prize.
In 2013, the once-East German author Daniela Dahn pointed out that German chancellor Angela Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, had been allowed to obtain a doctorate in physics in the communist GDR. Her fellow physicist and brother, Markus Kastner, had worked during the late 1980’s at the highly-secret Soviet centre for nuclear research at Dubna north of Moscow. Dahn noted ironically: “This shows that the children of clergymen, as long as the father possessed the right kind of faith, had all doors open to them.” In contrast to the USSR, the GDR always possessed a reserved-for-Christians Christian Democratic Party.
The Soviet order was in many respects a grievous one. But having a look at the English-language Wikipedia report on US torture in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison – or the destroyed countries of North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan – makes one extremely hesitant about global, Western statements on morality. Who could know whether the Western liberal-democratic order truly has a moral edge over other forms of government? How and where shall we measure? Religious freedom is not the only freedom worthy of our concern.
The pro-USA, Christian crowd is betting at its own peril on only a few horses and thereby repeating the mistakes of Cold War I. More importantly: They’re destroying the credibility of the Christian faith they profess in the eyes of the billions suffering or dying at the hands of Western foreign and economic policy. The deep belief that the US and its European allies are more virtuous than the rest of humanity – that the globe’s wealthy are more virtuous than its poor - is nothing short of heresy. If our concern is the credibility of the Gospel, there is no alternative to returning to the words of Romans 3:23: “For ALL have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”
Martin Niemoeller thought “out of the box”. His statement from 1982 is hardly fitting for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation: “I am now convinced that the reformation of the church will come from the East. In the West, there is no spiritual life. (I'm speaking of the Protestant church and not the Roman Catholic church.) We have civilisation and we try to keep up culture, but we have no spiritual life. The East has a spiritual life. They know that colour influences the spirit more than black lines.”
Perhaps Constantine Prokhorov would agree. In times of tension between East and West, he believes that Russian Orthodox and Protestants could “again” join forces in resisting an adversarial West.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
London, 11 May 2017
A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #17-05, 1.035 words.