11 October 2012

Meditations on sectarianism

Outer entrance to our meeting's [former]
basement location in Moscow
Last Sunday, we were about half an hour into our silent Friends worship when a man burst into our meeting room and loudly demanded to know why we were storing and displaying "sectarian" literature. "This place stinks of sectarianism," he said, or words to that effect. "Remove this stuff immediately and stop your sectarian activities."

One of our members led him out for a conversation about his concerns, while the rest of us tried to settle back into worship. We could hear their animated conversation going on for quite a while, mercifully muted after a while when one of our members gave some spoken ministry. He referred to the story of the healing on the Sabbath in Mark 3 that our former clerk had read near the beginning of the meeting. "What is true healing? What is the true Sabbath? And what is truly a sect?" asked our member.

It's important to note that the word "sect" is not a perfect translation of the word sekta in Russian; in present usage, sekta and sektantstvo (sectarianism) have negative connotations closer to the English word "cult." Apparently, this visitor's worries began last summer, during the month we didn't meet, when in his role as one of the managers of the community center where we gather, he saw some of our Friends materials on a bookshelf. Then he came in last Sunday and saw our leaflet, "Your first time in a Friends meeting?" (in Russian) just outside our meeting room--confirming his worries that we were not just a harmless study group, as he'd hoped, but a sekta.

The Russian Constitution

Article 14

  1. The Russian Federation is a secular state. No religion may be established as a state or obligatory one.
  2. Religious associations shall be separated from the State and shall be equal before the law.
Article 28

Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of conscience, the freedom of religion, including the right to profess individually or together with other any religion or to profess no religion at all, to freely choose, possess and disseminate religious and other views and act according to them.
Eventually we ended our worship and had a chance to meet our distressed neighbor in a calmer setting. After that conversation and some tea, we were able to do what we'd planned to do for our education hour: we watched a beautiful documentary film about the great Russian Orthodox priest and bishop Anthony Bloom, about whom I've written several times. (We still have no idea what our long-term situation is in that community center where we've been meeting just since January.) (Update: over strenuous objections from community-center users, the location was privatized at the end of 2012 and we lost use of it. A promised new location in the same complex did not materialize. We now meet in the offices of a charitable organization.)

A few days later, I had a chance to talk about the events of that day with a friend and former student of ours. In particular, we tried to pick apart that word "sect" and its radioactive contents for the average Russian citizen. She said, "Your visitor probably thought that you were like Jehovah's Witnesses. Many Russians associate 'sects' with these people because they are so active; they knock on doors; their literature is everywhere." It's true, they are active in our corner of Elektrostal; and when we visited Buzuluk near the beginning of our time in Russia, the first nervous question some people asked upon hearing we were Quakers was "Is that like those Jehovah's Witnesses?"

The actual story of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, with its tragedies and complexities, is too large a subject for this current post. The point isn't the good and bad features of Jehovah's Witnesses--most Russians who ask "Are you like them?" probably know very little about them. What typical Russians object to is being asked about their beliefs by someone they do not know. Our friend said, "When we open the door and see a nicely-dressed person who asks us 'Do you believe in God?', we say 'I believe--goodbye!' and slam the door." People here might be slightly more abrupt about it, but how different is this from a typical American reaction?

Some believers who are active in the Russian Orthodox church base their negative reaction to sects on more than a simple dislike of one's spiritual privacy being interrupted. Russia is (they say) the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate; it is the Patriarchate's responsibility to continue to pastor the nation as it has for centuries, and it is the nation's responsibility to care for its pastor and guard the spiritual/cultural heritage that has grown up around this mutual care. On this basis, the Orthodox Church campaigns for political recognition of its special role in the formation and protection of Russian identity and considers this role an aspect of Russia's national security. Many in the government and military agree. Any weakening of this church/state united front, they say, would permit the free importation of heresy and cultural degradation to the ultimate weakening or even destruction of Holy Russia.

The USA has its roughly equivalent attitudes and groups campaigning for the special role of Christianity in stopping our own cultural and moral decline, One important difference is that there is no obvious candidate for the role of State Church in the USA. But whether or not we feel that Christianity in some form should have a privileged role in our national life, many of us do not like assertive proselytizers of the kind represented, fairly or unfairly, by Jehovah's Witnesses.

So what should Quakers in Russia do? With our tiny numbers, we are very good at staying under the radar--even though on occasion we do make public statements on political and spiritual concerns. Individual Friends are scattered across the land, but only two groups meet with any regularity, and (assuming we can continue to find places to meet!) we can probably keep doing that indefinitely without serious problems. But is this the right thing to do? Are invisibility and sektantstvo our only two choices?

A few years ago I tried to draw a distinction between evangelism and proselytism.
Evangelism is the persuasive, experience-driven communication of spiritual truth, combined with an invitation to experience a community formed by that truth. Without the invitation, evangelism is never complete, but without hospitality, the community is not truly accessible. If being a Friend is not simply a matter of happy historical accident, the reality must be as available as the theory.

In a world full of competing loyalties and oppressions, evangelism must be rooted in God's love for all creatures. Practically speaking, it must have the recipient's best interests at heart; it must be truly liberating. Proselytism, on the other hand, simply aims at a transfer of the listener's affiliation from one spiritual home to another (ours); in the worst case, it serves our interests, not theirs.
We Quakers do not proselytize. We are not trying to sell our spiritual community at the expense of another's: our responsibility is strictly limited to informing people about our faith and experience, and making the doorway accessible to those who want to test and see whether what we say is true. Furthermore, as a teacher, I believe that I have the responsibility to (as Douglas Steere put it) "confirm the deepest thing in another," and if that deepest thing is his or her Orthodox faith, I will do nothing to weaken it. If anything, I'd seek to make it stronger!

Keeping that doorway open, however, remains crucial!! Without the refreshment--and the scrutiny--of new people, we run the danger of stagnation, of becoming a chaplaincy for a small self-absorbed group. There's a question that some Quakers seem to pose whenever we suggest putting more energy into evangelism: "If we get new people, how do we know they are really Friends?" I love the way Jane Boring Dunlap of Wilmington Friends Meeting in Ohio responded to that question in a discussion: "Why do we assume that new people would be dumber than we are?" On a sadder note, I remember how some people in the old Elektrostal Meeting (when it existed) asked me, "Why is it so difficult to become a Friend? Aren't we good enough?" Yes you are!!--Friends are nothing more exotic than Christians who simply want to clear a way to the Source.

What did that unexpected visitor see when he burst into our meeting, with its quiet circle of Russians (and Judy and me), and the candle and Bibles on the table in the center? Maybe in this complicated age of gurus and special knowledge and ever-more-fragrant varieties of Gnostic elitism (and you find them here in Russia, too), a group of people sitting in reverent silence might at first glance resemble a special rarified group of adepts. No, no, no! We gather neither for self-confirmation nor for self-enhancement; we gather to meet with God in full reliance on the promises of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Do you want to meet with God in friendly company and in simplicity of faith? That's the sole basis of our warm invitation. In the realities of today's Russia, it's more important than ever that we remain completely transparent, faithful to our essential simplicity--and accessible.

Some context for today's lively discussions of the role of the church in Russian society.

From the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: "'No religion' on the rise." Trends such as those cited in this study make me more convinced than ever that Friends' low-overhead approach to faith is a crucial witness for our time.

"My favorite 'Jesus music' group." As a person who worked--decades ago--in three Christian bookstores that sold music, I enjoyed reminiscing by way of this article.

My students first told me about this musical group. I'm impressed.

It's Nobel season, and we're just hours from the Peace Prize announcement. In the meantime, why Einstein never got a Nobel for relativity.

Thanks to Dawn L. Rubbert on Facebook: John Calvi on "Healing, Pain, and the Power of Goodness." (The title is especially attractive to me: Power of Goodness is the English title of the Chechen-Russian-English peace education book that we're getting ready to print for a new community mental health project in Chechnya.)

Dessert, courtesy of the great Albert Collins:

Post a Comment