Friday, May 16, 2008

Religion and Terror: Death of a Myth

I'm pleased to bring this blog's readers the first original article on this blog written entirely by someone else (which should guarantee the quality will vastly outshine everything on this site). This guest post was written by Dom James Deschene, a priest and monk at Christ the Savior Monastery (colloquially known as "Christminster"), a Western Orthodox monastery in the Benedictine tradition. After reading our blog post on how the KGB of Belarus is trying to discourage veneration of the Russian New Martyrs, this obedient son of the Russian Church sent in this reflection on militant atheism, the sources of violence, and a wizened slander of religion:
by Fr. James M. Deschene

In the wake of 9/11 – its memory still fresh in our minds – we tend, somewhat understandably, to cling to a myth common to our age: that the primary source of violence, terrorism, and persecution in history has been religion and its dogmas. And to put an even finer point on it, it is alleged that the prime offender in this (at least until the recent rise of Islamic terrorism) has historically been Christianity. The myth usually alludes at this point to witchcraft trials, the Inquisition, and similar atrocities, all of them propagated by religious powers, usually the Christian Church in the days when it wielded the power to commit such offenses. The myth includes, usually implicitly and without stating it, the belief that we have come a long way since those darker ages and have made much civil progress, having left behind us in the detritus of history such blots on our humanity. Our belief in our own modernity adds to our shock at recent terrorist attacks, as if they were a curious relic of the middle ages, an alien and benighted anachronism oddly popping up in our own allegedly enlightened times.

But have we lived in enlightened times? Have we really progressed that much from these crimes of a former age? And has religion really been the bloodiest contributor to human evil? In fact, a case can easily be made that the bloodiest century in western history – a century marked by martyrdoms, persecutions, massacres and holocausts on an unprecedented and epic scale – is the century just past: the twentieth. There is a greater irony still: the deaths of these millions by violence, terror, and holocaust were carried out not by any dogmatic church or religious power, nor by isolated terrorist groups, but by militantly and explicitly atheistic regimes. These killings were carried out not in the name of God, but of men – Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot. These men ruled with absolute power, unchecked by any higher divine authority, and their killing and terrorism were systematic, sustained, governmental – not at all like the limited and random acts of underground terrorist organizations. It has been estimated that Communists in Russia killed in a single day more martyrs than the Inquisition executed in its entire history. We are understandably appalled by the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11, having seen it with our own eyes. But no less real, though hidden among the facts of history, is the appalling amount of death-dealing committed in the twentieth century in the name of a powerful atheistic mentality able to incarnate itself in governmental and social forms.

By happy circumstance, a part of that tragically tattered twentieth-century tapestry of death has been mended. On 17 May 2007, one of the greatest wounds inflicted by Stalin’s atheistic regime was healed, after nearly a century of pain. With the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, there began in that vast empire a programmed and systematic attempt to deconstruct the long-established Orthodox Church. From that date, until shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union seventeen years ago, literally millions of churchmen, both clergy and layfolk, were brutally and systematically imprisoned, humiliated and put to death for no reason other than their religious beliefs. So powerful was the machinery of death that some prominent church leaders were persuaded, in exchange for their lives and some measure of comfort, to tell the world outside the Soviet Union that there was no persecution of religion at all in their country, that all was well. Those who refused to proclaim the party line – i.e., those who refused to lie – were snuffed out or took themselves into hiding into what became known as the Catacomb Church.

Meanwhile, Russian émigrés, having fled successfully this dark regime to the safety of Europe and America , struggled to keep alive the flame of the persecuted Orthodox faith. Blessed with the freedom permitted in their adopted countries, these émigrés spoke out against the godless regime in their former “Holy Russia” but their voices were often drowned out by the more strident messages coming from their fatherland, where both civil and church authorities, in a united front, proclaimed that there was no religious persecution in Russia. The world outside Soviet influence had to make up its own mind whom to believe, and it was often, for reasons of politics or diplomacy, that the voices of the émigré Church – known then as the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile – were ignored or disbelieved. Subsequent history, of course, has proven their claims of persecution to be true and by no means exaggerated.

Inevitably, in the ensuing seventy years, relations between the two parts of the Russian Church were strained and volatile. But with the death of the former Soviet Union and its systematic and governmentally administered atheistic program, the long divorce between the two estranged parts of the Russian Church has reached a point of healing. In May 2007 the numerically small, but symbolically significant Church in Exile (known in recent years as the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad or the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia), rejoined its mother church – numerically the largest of the Orthodox Churches – in a series of jubilant celebrations in Russia as all past divisions were buried and forgiven. The united Russian Church firmly believes that its present fortunate state is due in no small part to the blood and sacrifice of its millions of martyrs under the scourge of an atheist regime.

What makes this so very poignant for me, as a native American with no Russian roots, but as a convert to Russian Orthodoxy, is a book that vividly sets forth much of the bloody history I have referred to here, written by Father Seraphim Rose, also an American convert to Russian Orthodoxy. Russia's Catacomb Saints is a harrowing but edifying history of the humiliations and torments these modern martyrs underwent in defense of their faith. But the real eye-opener for me is the epigraph Fr. Seraphim wrote after the title page: “Today in Russia, Tomorrow in America.”

What a tragic irony indeed if that were to turn out to be true. But there is no open religious persecution in America – yet. On the other hand, one can legitimately ask whether this country is as solidly religious as it once was; whether it is as religious as it still thinks it is and claims to be. If the Russian experience is any example, the first downward step is the desire for liberation from the past, especially the religious past. The next step, inevitably, is civic godlessness – abolishing God from the public square. Only then, with any higher court of appeal or value abolished and nullified, can persecution freely begin. In the mean time, perhaps we can lay aside the baseless modern myth that religion is the cause of most human suffering and oppression. Modern history just doesn’t bear that out.

And there is this further hopeful sign. In 1931 under orders from Stalin, the magnificent Cathedral of Christ the Savior was dynamited and reduced to dust and rubble. And yet, even with unprecedented military might and absolute political power on its side, an officially atheistic regime in power for eighty years has itself passed into dust and rubble; and the Russian Church it sought to divide and spoil and demolish celebrated its resurrection on May 17th in a newly rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. On that happy day the words of Fr. Seraphim Rose took on a new poignancy for us: “Today in Russia, tomorrow in America.”

Fr. James Deschene
Christminster Monastery
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

Copyright 2008, James M. Deschene. All rights reserved.

Editor's Note: As always, Dom James has given us much to think about, perhaps also to comment upon. I hope we'll have many more such contributions in the future.

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