March 17, 2018

Mark Shea: Heavenly Samizdat

Christians need to hear words of encouragement from each other, Mark Shea writes.

A reading from the Book of Wikipedia:

Samizdat was a form of dissident activity across the Soviet bloc in which individuals reproduced censored and underground publications by hand and passed the documents from reader to reader. This grassroots practice to evade official Soviet censorship was fraught with danger, as harsh punishments were meted out to people caught possessing or copying censored materials. Vladimir Bukovsky summarized it as follows: “Samizdat: I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend jail time for it myself.”

People living under the yoke of Communist tyranny created their own underground literature in order to resist that tyranny.

This has happened throughout history, not merely in Communist lands. Sometimes, it’s done largely in order to conduct business, whether private enterprise or revolutionary. So, for instance, in my own country of America, the revolutionaries created Committees of Correspondence so that the colonial governments, all thirteen of them, were all on the same page and could respond to His Majesty’s perceived offenses and slights (whether real or imagined, I will leave to you members of the British Commonwealth Down Under) as one.

Things like the Stamp Act and sundry taxes on goods were regarded as affronts not merely to American business, but to American dignity. “No taxation without representation!” was our cry and we began doing something for which Americans have had a particular genius, whatever our flaws may be: organizing against a common enemy. (Once the enemy is gone, we have an equal genius for falling into near-fratricide and sometimes actual fratricide, as our Civil War would later demonstrate.)

But the point is this: when oppressed, people will often turn to this way of communicating. They will develop their own literature, jargon, and ways of speaking in order, not merely to avoid detection by the oppressor, but in order to buck up one another and, just as importantly, remind each other that “You are not crazy. I see what you see too.”

In a culture that tells us the Gospel is an escapist lie, it can be a lonely experience to believe in the Resurrection of Christ, unless Christians support and encourage one another.

A minor historical example of that is on display in my madhouse country right now as our President, before the eyes of a wondering world, tells incredible lies and, often within hours, denies having ever said such a thing. To give just one example from the choking cataract of lies that pour from his mouth, Mr. Trump declared after the massacre in Parkland, Florida, “You know, I really believe you don’t know until you test it, but I think I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon.” This mind-boggling lie–from a man who dodged the draft five times complaining that his feet hurt, who bragged of his disinterest in a bleeding, injured old man (“I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s disgusting!’ and I turned away”) in what he obviously considers a thigh-slapping exchange with Howard Stern–provoked such a gale of laughter from around the globe that within hours, Sarah Sanders, tasked with lying in order to cover up his lies lied that “He was just stating that as a leader he would have stepped in and hopefully been able to help.”

It was all good fun for us here, across the Pond, and a very minor example of what people living in an Empire of Lies have to deal with all the time: namely “gaslighting”.

Gaslighting comes, creatively enough, from a play called Gas Light. In it, a husband attempts to convince his wife and others that she is insane by manipulating small elements of their environment and insisting that she is mistaken, remembering things incorrectly, or delusional when she points out these changes. The original title stems from the dimming of the gas lights in the house that happened when the husband was using the gas lights in the flat above while searching for the jewels belonging to a woman whom he had murdered. The wife correctly notices the dimming lights and discusses the phenomenon with her husband, but he insists that she just imagined a change in the level of illumination.

Now the thing about regimes running on lies is that there are different ways in which they work. Some just beat you up and kill you and your friends. That is the least effective form of oppression because it tends to galvanize and steel the oppressed, leading to scenes in the Roman Colosseum where the mobs felt ashamed of themselves as Christians were fed to lions.

Much more effective are the regimes that tell the oppressed, “I’m not lying. You’re mad!” That’s what we saw in Orwellian regimes like Stalin’s Russia and the Iron Curtain realm that followed and that’s what gave rise to samizdat to combat it.

That’s also what we see (in a very minor key) with Trump as he declares all information sources that counter his lies to be “fake news”. When that happens, the people trying to maintain their sanity against the lies need not merely to communicate; they need to frequently check in with other sane heads who will tell them,

“No. You are not crazy. I see what you see.”

St Paul told Christians to encourage one another in order to remain strong in the faith.

Just as that was a major function of Soviet era samizdat, so it is major function of Resistance literature here in the age of Trump. Samizdat helps free minds from lies by circulating the truth among resisters. (Not, of course, that I mean to in any way compare the oppression suffered by victims of Communism with the aggravations of living under a dumb and incompetent aspiring authoritarian like Trump and the paltry 30% of the electorate who have been brainwashed to believe his lies. The point is to note the similarity of tactics, not the similarity of power. The US still has a free press and freedom of speech and we are still able to speak out about the lies. Heck! The work is largely being done by late night comedians who, under a truly oppressive regime, would long ago have been shot or poisoned with plutonium like Putin’s critics. This is a liberty that the brave critics of Communism never enjoyed and I thank God for it.)

Anyway, all this business of samizdat got me thinking. One of the oldest bodies of samizdat in the world is called the “New Testament”. It was written by a community living, not only under the threat of persecution by a brutal Roman regime that killed its Master by crucifixion and which periodically killed his servants by equally brutal means, but also under the rejection of its very own fathers, mothers, siblings, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who were constantly telling the early Christians that they had lost their minds, that everything they believed is a lie, and that they are either crazy or liars too.

Such a community, telling the world such a tale as the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the God-man, needed to hear words of encouragement from one another—a lot. Its members needed to remind each other not merely to be brave against mobs that wanted to kill them, but against moms who pled with them to stop chasing after this nutty new cult that believed in a risen Messiah and claimed to have seen him with their own eyes. The great danger they faced was not persecution but seduction: the pleading call of friends and loved ones to see reason, abandon Jesus, and come along with them “for fellowship.”

The early Christians needed to tell each other, “No. You are not crazy. We saw the Risen Lord too. We heard his words. We saw the miracles. We saw the signs. We saw the apostles do such signs. We even saw each other do them. It’s all real. It’s all true. Be not afraid.”

This is why the letters of Paul are replete with admonitions to “encourage one another.” As Orwell noted, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. One thing that helps toward it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events.” The New Testament is the Church’s diary. Every liturgy is a reading of that diary: a reminder of what happened, of what it means, of what the truth of things really is, that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. It is a call from our most ancient ancestors to hold fast to those truths no matter how much the world may lie to us.

For, of course, we still live in that world that lies to us because our enemies are not, in the end, merely human beings:

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Eph 6:12)

The world still tells us that the gospel is an escapist lie, because the world is still ruled by those who hate escape more than anything else: jailers. But the truth remains as Jesus told us in his heavenly samizdat: “He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).

You’re not crazy. I see what you see. It all happened. It’s all true. It’s all real.

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