Fairy Tales and Soul Searching
A Russian folk tale explains that when the devil fell from heaven, God cast him to earth with the promise that no matter where he hid, God would always find him. According to the tale, during a fierce storm, the hand of God produced lightning and thunder, causing the devil to move from trees to fish to people in an attempt to avoid God's wrath. But God showed grace toward people struck by lightning: they are to be considered saints. And according to the tale, all good Christians should make the sign of the cross upon seeing lightning, thereby keeping the devil at bay.
The people of ancient Russia feared lightning and in an attempt to explain the phenomenon, they created a tale that provided them with some measure of protection against the ferocity of nature at the same time that it allowed them to maintain a certain level of faith in their God. These days Russia's fears are different, so the devils roaming the land demanding explanations have changed. Depending on whom you ask, today's devils are either ultranationalists, or newly revived Communists, or Westerners, including foreign missionaries.
Devils from the West
The current backlash against almost all things Western means that people who were welcomed into Russia with open arms after the fall of Communism are now viewed with cynicism and distrust. Broken promises, staggering inflation, the need for a certain level of saving face, and the memory of times in the past when Russia was a powerful player in the world arena, all have played a part in renewed hostility towards the West.
Even the moderately reform-oriented political party headed by Vice-President Victor Chernomyrdin made the following assertion in print ads leading up to the December 1995 parliamentary elections: "Realizing our full measure of responsibility to society, we are taking a stand against the activity of totalitarian sects and foreign preachers in the territory of Russia. We will not permit the destruction of the moral foundations of Russian society. We are backing up our words."
As a growing number of Russians work to be rid of foreigners in their midst, what do Western religious workers have to say? More often than not they inevitably end up talking about the Russian soul. No one seems to question that Russians are distinctly different from other Europeans, Asians, or Americans. But when foreign religious workers start to talk about the soul of Russia, what they say often reveals more than intended about their view of just about everything.
Western Perspectives on Russia's Soul
I sometimes think we Westerners can either make the Russian soul an excuse for our ineffectiveness in adapting to their culture or a reason for denigrating our own culture, background, and heritage.
On the one hand, some people place the souls of Russia far above any other national soul on earth. Russians love the arts and literature. Russians love to talk about important issues more than watch television. Russians are more intuitively in touch with the spiritual realm than are Americans or other Europeans whose thinking is shaped by the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment.
I must confess to leaning toward this positive view. In my relationships with Russian people, a kind of epiphany has often occurred during the course of a discussion about life or history or faith or literature that would not seem likely in the West. But I cannot bring myself to chalk this up to the character of an entire people. Rather, it is the result of individuals from different cultures coming together and learning from one another. If anything, it is an experience of soul that is in its nature cross-cultural rather than culture specific.
On the other hand, some people would view the Russian people as two-faced to such a degree as to render them beyond hope. Russians cheat every chance they get. Russians never tell you what they really think about anything. Russians don't trust people and therefore can't be trusted. People expressing this view most often are approaching burnout, but not always. Sometimes they've been on the field just long enough that the initial excitement is over and first impressions give way to harsh realities.
All these views contain elements of truth, contrary as they seem to one another. But they also contain falsehoods that could harm the souls of both mission workers and the people for whom they work. Perhaps too, the criticism of Westerners--even many Western Christian workers--has more validity than many of us would care to admit. Clearly, idealistic hopes have given way to grim realities. Life is harder for many people today than it used to be. So where is our hope?
Reconsidering the Cross of Christ
The folk tale suggested protection in the sign of the cross. Beyond politics, economics, and all the vagaries of the modern world, the cross of Christ is our only hope in facing the devils in ourselves and others. God can fill our souls--whatever our nationality--with Christian truth that transcends culture. We may not agree with one another on all the specifics of taking up the cross, but perhaps we can at least consider a few implications.
Can any of us claim complete and absolute understanding of all that the cross means? Surely, the sufferings of Jesus are not to be taken lightly. Two millennia later, perhaps we can strive to tie our souls more closely to Christ than to either the culture of Russia or that of any other nation.
Can there be room for an arrogance of soul toward ourselves or the people we serve in light of humanity's fallen nature? No one would have predicted the meaning of the cross when it happened. All the disciples were fraught with confusion and grief. It is in the shadow of the cross and the light of the resurrection that all people should be humbled and grateful to God.
What is our perspective--the forest of God or our not-so-impressive tree? Peter had a great soul for God, yet he betrayed Christ in fear. Be we Russian or foreign religious workers, our personal legacy is more like Peter's on the night of the trial than Christ's on the cross. Without Christ guiding us, what good are we or the things we do? Even with God on our side, as so many claim He is, we must not forget that much of what Christ's followers did during His life on earth, they did in spite of themselves--that realization is perhaps the beginning of what grace is about.
What is grace? That is the true lightning from heaven for which we long. May it strike us all. Let us not run from grace, but find our sainthood in the life and work that rests completely in it, rather than in national character or "soul."
Will Triggs is director of communications for Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries, Wheaton, IL.
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© 1996 Institute for East-West Christian Studies