The JESUS Film Project
"Never mind Big Macs. The former Soviet republics are now opening their public school doors to teaching about Christianity," proclaimed USA Today.1 What provoked this headline? On 5 November 1992 three officials from the Russian Ministry of Education asked Christian educators to join the CoMission--a group of over 80 Christian organizations formed to instruct Russian public school teachers how to teach Christian ethics. This unusual invitation originated from the JESUS Film Project's efforts to show the JESUS Film in Russia.2 Six months after the first JESUS film premiere in the Soviet Union in 1989, education officials from 15 Communist countries and republics had asked for the film to be shown in their public schools. Many of these officials eventually accepted a JESUS Film Project proposal to help train teachers to teach Christian ethics. As a result, the JESUS Film Project created a new department that became known as the International School Project (ISP). Beginning in 1991, ISP started organizing four-day convocations in 10 different countries3 with the permission and assistance of former Communist officials. During the convocations educators viewed the JESUS film, learned to teach a Christian morals and ethics curriculum, and heard lectures about such topics as Jesus Christ's resurrection, the reliability of the Bible, and other facets of the Christian worldview.
The Need for Followup
The CoMission grew out of the need to follow up the evangelistic and educational efforts of ISP's four-day convocations. ISP possessed neither the finances nor the human resources to meet the need. Thus, Campus Crusade for Christ joined with over 80 other Christian groups to build on the Christian witness of ISP convocations. The Russian Ministry of Education and the CoMission signed a Protocol of Intention providing for a five-year partnership to develop morals and ethics programs and curricula for Russian public schools, to distribute education materials, and to conduct educational conferences and consultations. This unique partnership between the CoMission and Russian educators noted by USA Today appeared to be a test for Russia's attempts to find noncommunist foundations for moral education, its efforts to embrace religious liberty, and its willingness to accept ideological pluralism in education.
To determine the consequences of this project, I undertook a qualitative analysis of both the International School Project (ISP) and the CoMission. I spent seven months in Russia and Ukraine visiting CoMission activities and interviewing 116 educators from the region and 119 Westerners involved with both groups. In addition, I conducted a quantitative survey of 212 persons from the former Soviet Union involved with the CoMission.
The Need for New Moral Foundations
Overall, I found that ISP and the CoMission clearly filled a need. Over half of the teachers I surveyed ranked moral and/or religious decline as the most serious problem facing their country today. Only a little over one quarter ranked the economy as the most serious problem. Even for these teachers raised on Marxism, their countries' major problem was first and foremost the need for new moral foundations. As one teacher lamented, "It is very hard to live without believing in anything." Still another shared, "It is hard to find something to believe in. All the Communist principles failed. Now people need something to believe in."
The problem was that while post-Communist education officials, ISP and CoMission leaders, and Orthodox Church clergy all wanted to replace Communist moral education, each had different ideas about how it should be done. All three groups sought to use the public education system to accomplish their particular goals, and as a result the relationships between these different groups were plagued by social conflicts, ethical dilemmas, and church-state difficulties that eventually resulted in the cancellation of the CoMission's protocol with the Russian Ministry of Education.
Moral Education or Evangelism?
On the Western side, ISP and the CoMission experienced two particular tensions. First, they faced the difficult task of balancing the dual goals of moral education and evangelism. The tension between offering Christian moral education and leading teachers and students toward a conversion to Christianity was clearly noticeable in the curriculum. Kenneth Woodward wrote in Newsweek magazine:
In theory, the visiting Americans are supposed to train Russian teachers in teaching Christian ethics, not doctrine. To the Russians, this means demonstrating how the values Jesus taught, such as forgiveness, can benefit secular society. But in fact, the CoMission's teaching manuals say very little about the ethics Jesus taught: the Sermon on the Mount, for example, is ignored. Instead the manual's entire thrust is to lead students step by step toward making a "voluntary" commitment to Jesus as "Savior and Lord." In short, to act like Jesus, students must first have faith in him.4Woodward overstates his point. Nonetheless, he recognizes the fundamental tension between evangelism and education found in ISP's curricula.
Second, the attempt to teach not only Christian ethics, but also to present an evangelistic message through government-sponsored channels, raised thorny church-state issues. Marketing the CoMission to American churches, parachurch organizations, and fundraisers required being explicit about their evangelistic intentions. Thus, the leadership formulated the following purpose statement:
The CoMission exists for the purpose of calling together the Body of Christ to cooperatively share resources in order to maximize the accomplishment of the Great CoMission in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) through forming strategic alliances and planting indigenous Bible studies for children, youth and adults in each of the 120,000 local public school districts throughout the former Soviet Union as well as Bulgaria, Albania, and Romania no later than December 31, 1997.5An earlier version of the mission statement had explicitly indicated that the CoMission would aim to start churches. However, due to opposition from the Ministry of Education, the statement was changed. The fact that the CoMission sought to use the state-run education system to begin church planting bothered some missions-minded evangelicals. As a result, some groups decided against joining.
From the moment the CoMission started, ISP officials had urged that the message being given to the larger American public and the message being given to post-Soviet education officials be consistent, systematic, and formalized. Despite this advice, different messages about the CoMission continued to be communicated on the two continents. One Western missionary warned the Executive Committee of the CoMission in April 1993 that these mixed messages would create problems with the Orthodox Church:
As we understand it, the Ministry of Education and the CoMission have an agreement, stating that the CoMission will provide a Christian based morality and ethics curriculum and training for teachers, by teachers, within Russian school districts. On the U.S. side of the ocean, however, we all hear that it is being advertised as the largest evangelism outreach ever, that it will change the course of history, and that anyone can be a part, regardless of qualifications. The gap between these two definitions of CoMission's role in Russia is huge. It is not unlikely that the Orthodox will use the CoMission's own advertising to support their accusations of "hidden agendas" within Protestantism. They may subsequently apply pressure to have CoMission and very possibly Protestant ministries expelled from Russia. The point we are trying to make is this: CoMission cannot afford, for its own sake and for the sake of all Protestant ministries working in this country, to be anything other than "squeaky clean" in its representation and fulfillment of its intentions in Russia.6These prophetic words would soon be fulfilled. In the summer of 1993 Father Ioann Ekonomtsev, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department of Christian Education and Catechization, joined Patriarch Aleksii II on a trip to the United States. During the visit American Orthodox priests raised with Ekonomtsev their concern that the CoMission was composed of Protestant church-planting groups that were not making full disclosure of their activities. In August 1993, after returning to Russia, Father Ekonomtsev met with ISP leaders Alexei Brudnov, Alexander Asmolov, and another deputy minister of education to discuss their relationship and his concerns. Ekonomtsev's greatest complaint was that the CoMission did not fully disclose its goals of starting new churches through its Bible studies.
Ultimately, Russian Orthodox opposition broke the fragile political partnership between the Russian Ministry of Education and the CoMission. In early 1995 an Orthodox priest in the city of Nizhny Novgorod learned that a CoMission member was teaching the curriculum on "Christian Ethics and Morality" at the request of a Russian teacher during regular school hours. Since the agreement with the Ministry of Education stated that CoMission team members would only work with teachers and not with students to teach the course in the voluntary after-school classes, the act was a breach of the Protocol of Intention. What further confirmed Orthodox suspicions were CoMission documents found by the same priest that outlined the goals of the CoMission as communicated to American audiences. The documents related the CoMission's intention to send 12,000 missionaries to Russia over a five-year period to start Bible studies that would eventually form churches. On 3 February 1995 the Ministry of Education suspended the Protocol of Intention with the CoMission.
In a religiously pluralistic society such as Russia, allowing various forms of ethics (Protestant Christianity being one) to be taught in voluntary, supplemental education classes appears quite just. In theory, each ideological or religious group could hold a supplemental education class on its particular brand of ethics. The voluntary nature of the class would preclude students from being indoctrinated into one particular ideological or religious view in a way that would violate their consciences. The Russian Ministry of Education actually envisioned this type of equal playing field among religious groups. The CoMission was asked to teach those Christian beliefs that were common to all Christian groups, and they claimed that their curriculum adhered to this request. The reality was that the curriculum represented a distinctly Protestant approach to Christian ethics and Scripture. As a result, the Orthodox Church believed that the Ministry of Education was favoring an evangelical Protestant form of Christian education in the public schools. If religious liberty for all religious groups was to exist, the Orthodox wanted it to be granted fairly. Yet Orthodox leaders wanted more than honesty and fairness. Father Vladimir Yashchenko, assistant to Father Ekonomtsev, claimed, "We can't do as Americans do, because we can't have such sects equal to our traditional Orthodox Church. We need legal laws to prevent them from their activity."7
Orthodox leaders believed the state should prohibit the access of Western missionaries to Russia in order to help the Orthodox Church recover its special place of privilege in Russian society. This attitude proved fatal not only for the CoMission's government partnerships at the national level, but also for religious freedom in Russia. In the fall of 1997 Orthodox efforts to inhibit the work of foreign missionaries succeeded. Under the strong influence of the Orthodox Church, Yeltsin signed a new law restricting both religious liberty and foreign missionary activity. In the end, the Orthodox Church preferred to struggle against the CoMission and other Western missionaries not by the power of its ideas but by the use of government power to restrict their activity.
Edited excerpt used with permission from Perry Glanzer, "Teaching Christian Ethics in Russian Public Schools: The Testing of Russia's Church-State Boundaries," Journal of Church and State 41 (Spring 1999), 285-305; and Perry Glanzer, "A Critical Analysis of the CoMission: A Study in the Loss, Replacement, and Establishment of an Ideology of Moral Order," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Southern California, 1998.
Perry Glanzer teaches at the Yaroslavl branch campus of Moscow State University.
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