Thursday, March 06, 2008

Wurmbrand on Orthodoxy

Funny how things come at once. I posted yesterday on Fr. George Calciu's remark about American Christians. This morning I listened to Kh. Frederica''s podcast about another clergyman who suffered under the Communist persecution in Romania--Richard Wurmbrand, a Jewish convert and Lutheran pastor. Wurmbrand will be known to many Evangelical readers as the author of Tortured for Christ, about his experience in Romania, and the founder of Voice of the Martyrs--a publication that brings to light the continuing experiences of Christians under persecution around the world. Here, the tables are turned, and Wurmbrand--who remained a Protestant until his death in 2001--comments on his experience with Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Most of the material in the podcast comes from a pair of Again articles that can be downloaded in a Word doc from Ancient Faith Radio, or read online here and here. The first article refers to a recorded conversation between Hieromonks Damascene and Gerasim of St. Herman Monastery in Platina, CA, Mother Nina, and Pastor Wurmbrand; the podcast contains clips from that recording, including Wurmbrand singing his own arrangement of "Ave Maria" in English and Hebrew.

Wurmbrand speaks with respect of the Orthodox individuals he met, and the monks speak with respect as well of their encounter with him. His stories of these Orthodox confessors are touching and should encourage Orthodox and Protestants alike.


Jon Speed said...

Wurmbrand's experiences and opinions of the Eastern Orthodox inside of a gulag under the Stalinist regime aren't surprising. There's a camaraderie inside of a prison that ignores many doctrinal differences. What's surprising is the Eastern Orthodox reaction to any evangelical or Protestant group in the present-day former Soviet Union, without the Stalinist oppressions. If an evangelical group makes any headway in a community, they are branded a "cult", accused of "brainwashing" or "poisoning the well with drugs". Priests issue ultimatums to their parishes, telling them to have nothing to do with the group. When baptisms take place, Orthodox believers gather out of curiosity and mock the evangelical believers. "I hope they hit their head on a rock" is yelled out when a believer is immersed. It seems to me that we're all a lot more Christian during times of persecution than without it. Wurmbrand's experiences in the 1930's are a lot different than what the majority of evangelical believers experience in the 21st century.

Trevor said...

Certainly, I think the circumstances of the encounter have a lot to do with it. To expand on the idea, I'm guessing that Wurmbrand's Lutheranism was a bit more homegrown--though he himself was a convert (and it probably helps that he was a non-Christian convert), Romania is one of those borderline areas where I would guess Protestants already had some sort of continuing presence. Note in this regard that today Russia, for instance, seems to be much more accommodating toward "traditional" religions--Orthodox Christianity, Islam, and Judaism--than toward those they perceive as interfering outsiders (including, I might add, Catholics, who are hardly newcomers).

But perhaps more to the point, I think you could say that, in the same way Stalinism and other waves of Communist persecution brought people together across denominational boundaries, the Western cultural invasion that has hit Eastern Europe since the 1990s has helped to drive them apart. Where before, Orthodox and Protestant could find common ground in the gulag, since they clearly had a common enemy that was bent on destroying them both; now, it is all too easy for Easterners to associate Protestant missionaries (even indigenous ones) with what they see as a corrupting influence of Westernism. I'm not saying it's fair to lump together the Protestant evangelist with the purveyor of homosexual pornography or the neo-liberal NGO--just that xenophobia has a way of getting out of hand.

I brought up the Wurmbrand piece and yesterday's quote from Fr. George Calciu, largely because it's helpful on all sides to consider deeply what these men have to say. And I'm not just talking about responding to polarization with a multiplicity of voices. For Christianity the voice of those who have endured persecution should be especially influential on our thinking. They have known Christ in his sufferings like most of us have not.

Going back to Fr. George, he clearly shows the thinking that Western evangelism in Romania today is suspect (though I wonder, how often is it the case that some of the groups trying to win converts in these newly open areas are in fact preaching a false gospel by any sane standard?), but at the same time he can see past that concern to a deep appreciation for the genuine faith of rank-and-file American Christians. No one is perfect, and perhaps he does end up lumping together some wheat with tares in his concern for his countrymen. But his ability to distinguish people from movements and organizations, to let his love for the former transcend whatever misgivings he may have about the latter, is important for all of us to catch.

And I think it's also important to acknowledge the complexities of such things. Missionary movements have often had ambiguous relationships with political and social movements. Christianity spread for centuries in conjunction with the ebb and flow of the Roman Empire. The great age of Protestant missions has more or less coincided with the cultural ascendancy of the West and has unfortunately been often intertwined with colonialism. These associations have tended to be both positive and negative. Forced conversions and cultural supersessionism are bad, but political movements have also opened doors for the gospel that would not have existed otherwise.

At the same time, there is the complexity of religious life in Eastern Europe, as in probably most of the non-Western world. Religion is felt as a matter of cultural identity, and many fly the banner of religion for a wide array of causes. For someone who feels like Westernism is only the next wave to follow Communism in attacking "Russianness" or some other cultural identity, it's only natural to see any advance of anything that appears to come from the West (including Protestantism) as an attack on their culture. Then there's the complexity of political leaders vs. religions leaders vs. people, expatriates vs. those who lived through the Communist period, those who cooperated to survive vs. those who went underground. With so little room left to fit Western evangelism in its own box, it should come as little surprise that it gets thrown in with something else.

Needless to say, we are all sinners, and we all need to repent every day, every hour, every minute. I know in my own case, it's easy for me to get caught up in the East-West politics and skew everything in those terms. But as I say, that's why I appreciate the voice of those who have truly suffered for their faith. It's an infusion of love and respect that benefits us all.

Trevor said...

One thing I forgot to include in my absurdly long comment (I guess now I'm making it even longer) is that the lasting effects of the persecution experience are important on both sides. I talked about this somewhat with regard to Fr. George, but we see with Wurmbrand as well that it goes far beyond how he felt about Orthodox believers while in prison. Until his dying day, he continued not only to feel positively about his interactions with Orthodox people, but also to embrace some Orthodox traditions. He continued to confess to an Orthodox priest and to receive anointing for health. He continued with an uncharacteristic (for a Protestant) devotion to the Mother of God. It seems like there was a lasting change of his spiritual sensibilities reflected here.