by Marie Notcheva
Earlier this month, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed into law some of the most repressive restrictions on religion since the days of Stalin. Known as the “Yarovaya” laws, the pretext for this crackdown is an anti-terrorism stance that supposedly restricts “extremism”.
Here is some of what the new laws cover:
- Foreign guests are not permitted to speak in churches unless they have a “work permit” from Russian authorities.
- If a friend or relative from outside Russia wishes to share his/her faith in your home the guest will be fined and expelled from Russia.
- Any discussion of God with non-believers is considered missionary activity and will be punishable.
- Missionary activity will be permitted by special government permission. Example: If one traveling on a train shares his faith without written permission the offender will be taken into police custody for the duration of the journey and will be fined 50,000 rubles ($1,000). Offenders from the age of 14-years-old will be subject to prosecution.
- Religious activity is no longer permitted in private homes. (Most churches in Russia are, in fact, home churches).
- Every citizen is obligated to report religious activity of neighbors to the authorities. Failure to be an informant is punishable by law.
- One may pray and read the Bible at home but not in the presence of a non-believing person. You will be breaking the law and be punished.
- If the church has purchased property it cannot be converted into a place of worship.
- In church buildings, it is not permitted to invite people to turn to God. Worship services are permitted but making a non-believer a follower of Christ is against the law.
Why does this matter to Americans?
Ironically enough, the atheist Putin has been seen as a conservative ally by some evangelicals because of his anti-gay policies and lip-service to “family values”. (Considering the abortion rate in Russia is three times the live birth rate, I doubt the preaching of “family values” is much of a priority to the government). More significantly, however, the Western media has been largely silent about this draconian step backward. While everyone was out chasing imaginary Pokemons last week, Russian believers are threatened with arrest for reading the Bible in their own homes, or preaching Christ in their own churches.
Let that sink in for a moment.
The Church in the largest nation on earth is being forced back underground – a full generation after the fall of Communism.
Over 7,000 evangelical churches are fasting and praying for a repeal of these laws. I don’t believe that we Americans are apathetic towards our Slavic brothers’ plight; rather, most people are just unaware with the limited media coverage given to international news – especially stories dealing with the persecution of Christians. But there is another reason it might be hard for Americans to know how to respond: We cannot even relate to legislation restricting religious liberty to that extent.
At least theoretically, this could never happen here. The First Amendment to our Constitution protects our freedom of religious expression and prevents government interference in worship and religious practice. Of course, we American Christians bristle when our Nativity displays are removed; prayer in public school was abolished and God was removed from the public square. Even those of us who are proponents of public education have to admit the progressively anti-God slant the curriculum has taken, and the lack of morality both in education and in society in general. The issue, and this is what leads to many of the problems we see in the counseling room, is that people don’t notice what’s being taught. (As an example, our town’s middle school sex ed week includes making models of reproductive organs out of cardboard tubes and tinfoil. In a school of over 600 students, I was one of only 2 parents who would not permit her child to participate).
Whether across the world or in our own towns, we tend to miss a lot of attacks on the Christian worldview. Busy with careers, preoccupied with petty concerns or entertaining ourselves, much of what is damaging the Church flies below our radar (including entertainment itself, for that matter. I cannot understand how Christians can be comfortable watching the series, “Game of Thrones”). What’s going on in Russia is not so much a warning to us, as it is an object lesson of what a society whose leaders have rejected God can do to believers.
The Early Days of Hope
In 1991, following the coup and disintegration of the Soviet Union, evangelical leaders were invited to the Kremlin for meetings and discussion of how to bring Christianity back into the public sphere. In an initiative called Project Christian Bridge, the Supreme Soviet publicly acknowledged the importance of Christian faith and morals, and how the lack of them had led to a spiritual vacuum in their country. They requested mass-production of Bibles; Christian schools and seminaries to be established; charitable organizations to help the poor and disabled. This ran counter to everything they had taught for the 70 years that Marxism had dominated their nation, and represented a massive turning to God when an evil system was proven to be a failure. In “Praying with the KGB,” Philip Yancey wrote this:
“Everyone is looking for a society so perfect that people don’t have to be good,” said T.S. Eliot, who saw many of his friends embrace the dream of Marxism. What we were hearing from Soviet leaders, and the KGB, and now Pravda, was that the Soviet Union ended up with the worst of both: a society far from perfect, and a people who had forgotten how to be good.
Twenty-five years later, and a demoralized nation has again put despotic rulers into place who, again, will try to stamp out the Gospel. However, as a Bulgarian pastor imprisoned by the Communists once wrote, “The Church is strongest when she is most persecuted. Christianity spreads most rapidly when it is oppressed.” This is unlikely to be the motive for Russian believers’ steadfast faith. When put to the test, the individual is either strengthened or broken.
The Russian Christians currently being put in chains for the Gospel demonstrate what faith under fire looks like. There are at least three lessons American believers can draw from this horrifying new trial:
- Be informed about the persecuted Church. It’s not just Russia – the Middle East; India; Africa; many places all over the globe, believers are suffering terribly for their faith, yet do not renounce Christ. (Russia claims an Orthodox heritage dating back to the 8th century, which makes it somehow more stunning). In 2 Thessalonians, we see the godly character of a persecuted church, and how the faith of those under fire “grows exceedingly.” We are reminded to pray for these believers, that God may again be glorified through them.
Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. (Hebrews 13:3)
- Rejoicing in all circumstances is possible. Realizing how minor and trivial most of our concerns are in light of what these laws mean for millions of Christians is sobering. I get upset over having to pay $30 for an oil change; I cannot imagine being fined $1,000 for sharing my faith. In fact, I’m usually too lazy to share my faith. I have sisters in Russia willing to risk arrest for the sake of Christ. Paul reminded the Philippian church that his chains actually advanced the Gospel and for that, he rejoiced! We have so much more to rejoice over: including living in a democratic society where we are free to proclaim Christ.
- Our freedom should lead to gratitude and action. Our response to the oppression in Russia doesn’t necessarily have to be political, although that is one option. We have privileges such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press and expression of religion that are being denied to millions of other believers, and we should be good stewards of them. Although we cannot build a Utopian society any more than Lenin could, we have the example from recent history of what a society completely devoid of Christ and Christian morals can look like. This should inform how we raise our children; how much attention we are paying to what they’re learning in school; our entertainment choices; how we vote; even how we pray.
Much is said in counseling about giving hope; but the emphasis needs to be on the object of our hope: The Person and work of Jesus Christ. Before we discuss how Christ must reform the culture, we need to focus on how he reforms our individual hearts. And, as the furnace refines silver, it is through trials that our faith grows stronger and impacts others. Perhaps this is the greatest lesson from our Russian brothers and sisters.