The Paschal Mystery of the Church: Fr. Alexander Men and the End of the Soviet Empire

This series, Theology from under the Rubble, has looked at faithful Christian responses to a wide range of crises, external and internal, personal and corporate. Today I’d like to look more specifically at the crisis of the Church, which has itself undergone that same range of external and internal, local and universal calamities.

Internally, the Church, though founded upon a Gospel of love, peace, compassion, and grace, has been used throughout history as an instrument of oppression; the Church has made many of its own martyrs, and still today, we are more likely to hear words of hatred and fear-mongering from ‘Christian’ public voices than words of love and peace. The Church has similarly, both historically and today, faced all sorts of external crises, including political persecution and foreign invasion. Lest we think that this is ancient history, the past century has seen the most persecution of the Church around the globe than any in history (and I’m talking about real persecution here — harassment, imprisonment, and execution — and not the silly claims of persecution made by comfortable Western Christians when they don’t get their way). What’s going on here?

Our guide today will be Fr. Alexander Men (1935-1990), a Russian priest and theologian who is widely considered to be the last of the many thousands of martyrs of the Soviet Union. Specifically, we’ll look at how Fr. Men understood his life and times, and how he framed the Church’s long history of failures and setbacks in light of the Gospel.

Though of Jewish heritage, Fr. Men was baptized and raised as a Christian within the Russian Orthodox tradition. As an adult, he became known for his preaching, teaching, and evangelism; his casual ‘table chats’ were written down, copied, and transmitted throughout the Soviet Union and, when the iron grip of the Communist regime loosened in the late 1980s, he became a common guest on matters of faith on television and radio. In 1990 Fr. Men opened the Russian Bible Society and founded a school dedicated to teaching Russians the basics of Christian faith. He was an open and broad-minded intellectual, who was fascinated by — and sought harmonies with — both the Western and Eastern religious and intellectual traditions. He thought in big, beautiful strokes that made his teaching universal, approachable and engaging, but also made him at times suspect in the details within Eastern Orthodoxy.

The crisis of the Church dominated Fr. Men’s whole career. For most of his life, it was external persecution from the state that was the problem: When he was a child, his father was sent to a labour camp; he was later expelled from university for being a Christian; and when his influence as a Christian leader grew in the 1970s, he was harassed by the KGB. In one of the conversations recorded in About Christ and the Church*, he reflected on the persecution of the Church under the Soviets as the state “openly declar[ing] war on the Church.” He continued:

[E]verything was desecrated, spat upon, scorned — I remember the publications of that time with their blasphemous caricatures drawn by people who had earlier attended the churches and had been faithful. They trampled on the holy things with sadistic pleasure as only these people who had at one time communed with the sacred can. (74)

Ultimately, Fr. Men was murdered in September 1990, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing — a murder that was never investigated and is widely believed to have been sanctioned by the secret police, with the support of Christian nationalists.

The possible religious motivation for Fr. Men’s death speaks to the increasingly internal nature of the Church’s crisis towards the of his life. Specifically, this crisis was about a rising Christian nationalism, the triumphalist and nostalgic blending of Church and nation in which to be Russian Orthodox was becoming far more about being Russian than about being Christian. In an interview given just four days before his murder, Fr. Men was asked if Russia was “living through a phase of narcissism.” He answered:

I’d say it’s just beginning. But it’s harmful and dangerous because it makes society idealize itself. This is very characteristic also of our clerical circles. They think they’re wonderful. When we believers celebrated the millennium of Christianity [in Russia, celebrated in 1988], there was not a single word of repentance, not a single word about the tragedy of the Russian Church, only triumphalism and self-congratulation.

For Fr. Men, Christian nationalism is impossible, for Christianity is something that far transcends the nation. (This is similar to St. Augustine’s strict differentiation between his ‘earthly city’ and City of God.) There is no room for either nostalgia or triumphalism in Christianity. In an impassioned talk given the night before he was killed, he said:

Christ calls humanity to bring about the divine ideal. Only near-sighted people can suppose that Christianity has seen its time. Christianity has only taken its first, I would say timid, steps in human history. To this day many of Christ’s words are incomprehensible because we are still moral and spiritual cavemen. The gospel arrow is aimed towards eternity, and that which we call Christian history is in many ways a series of clumsy and unsuccessful attempts to bring Christianity about. (”Christianity,” talk given September 8, 1990)

Yes, Russia, like every nation, has had its saints, but these are “precursors who stand out against a black sea of dirt, blood and tears.” The historical reality of the times for which Russians are nostalgic was one of “wars, torture, treachery, violence, fires and barbarity.” This is far from a history worthy of the name “Christian.” This isn’t just a Russian problem, but is true everywhere; he concludes that “Church history is a somewhat melancholy study because essentially it is a description of people’s sins” (50).

One might rightly wonder why all this is the case: Why has the Church faced such external opposition and internal failure over the course of its entire history? For Fr. Men, “the tragedy of the Russian Church,” and indeed the whole, universal Church, should not be surprising to us. It is nothing other than, “the Paschal Mystery of the Church,” a genuine participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus, whose “body” the Church is on earth.

“From the very beginning,” he writes, “the Gospel story means victory arising out of catastrophe. Disappointment, defeat, despair, confusion — and all of a sudden, an unexpected display of the miraculous power of God” (67):

One can say that Christianity is the religion of death instantly transformed into life, and in the words of the Apostle Paul about himself and the Church one was able to see to what extent the life of Christ was fulfilled in the life of His disciples: “they counted us as dead, but lo we are alive”. These words spoken by the apostle then, have resonated for all time. Throughout the Church’s history there were incredible disappointments and it often seemed that she was crushed, but by the power of God she resurrected as many times as were victorious her enemies, both external and internal. (69)

In his characteristic bold strokes, he then relates a whole history of suffering, death, and resurrection within the Church. In ancient times, he points to the near-victory of the Arians over the Orthodox (which saw all of the bishops but Athanasius go over to the Arian side in the lead up to the Council of Nicaea) and the almost universal acceptance of the Roman imperial takeover of the Church, with monasticism as almost the only source of resistance to imperial ideology. In more recent centuries, he points to the eighteenth-century power grab of the Russian Empire over the Church there, as well as the thorough secularizing impulses of Modernity in the West — and the recovery of new sources of spiritual life that both inspired, including the rise of the ‘elders’ in Russia, such as St. Seraphim of Sarov (who was the inspiration behind the wonderful Elder Zosima in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov), and the awakenings, revivals, and holiness, Pentecostal, and charismatic movements in the United States. Just when it seemed like all was lost, new life appeared.

Understandably, Fr. Men’s focus was on the experience of the Church under the Soviet yoke. Despite the intense persecution of the Church, which led to their only being 100 churches left in the entire USSR at the end of the Second World War, and a thoroughgoing, secularist and anti-Christian education system, the 1950s saw requests for the opening of new churches from 25,000 communities (75). Despite surveillance and harassment from the secret police, Fr. Men himself is believed to have baptized thousands over the course of his thirty-year ministry.

He concludes, “Each time that the grave seems to be closed, sealed, there is a new eruption and once more the angel asks, ‘Why do you seek him among the dead, he is Risen, he is not here’” (76).

So what does all this have to say to us today? On the one hand, it’s a discouraging message, for it rejects the premise that the Church will ever be able to live up to its values in the world in freedom and peace from both internal and external pressures. We can expect our long history of failure and persecution to continue, for the Gospel to be ignored, abused and misconstrued by the loudest voices talking about it, and for Christians to be threatened, imprisoned, and killed for our faith. But on the other hand, it is also a hopeful message, for it insists just as strongly that there will always be new life, that “the gates of Hades will never triumph” over us. And so, it’s ultimately a realistic message. The servant is not greater than his master; so we should not be surprised when the path of our lives as Christians, both individually and collectively, takes us to the cross, just as Jesus’ own path took him to the cross.

This perspective stands in harmony with much of what we’ve seen throughout this series. Like St. Augustine’s two cities, it rejects any Christian nationalism or naive faith in ‘progress’ that would confuse us into thinking our hope is ultimately in, for, and from within ‘this world’. But, also like St. Augustine, Dr. King, Bonhoeffer, and Moltmann, it urges us to responsibility in this world, to follow the trajectory of “the arrow of the Gospel” which is aimed always “towards eternity.” What it adds, I think, to these older perspectives, is a theological framework through which to understand the failures and sufferings of the Church throughout history and in our world today. By framing these within the life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus — the most basic yet most profound part of the Christian story — Fr. Men reminds us that our true calling is to follow the way of Jesus, which always leads to the cross, but which always, through the cross, leads us to resurrection and new life.

* Note: All page numbers in this post refer to this text. Please see the full bibliography for the series for details.

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