Must I Love?
During the communist era, the word "must" was used extensively. Every day they told us: "You must believe in communism! You must love comrade Stalin (Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, etc.). You must love the socialist motherland! You must not read any books or magazines printed in the bourgeois West! You must this.... You must that...."
I am perplexed at the combination of the two words: "must love." The words are incompatible and mutually exclusive. You love somebody or something because you choose to love them or simply because it so happens that you love it. You must pay your debts, you must care for the elderly and the disabled, you must serve your country. But I certainly must not love my wife (my mother, my children, my country, etc.), because I love them anyway, without outside interference or coercion. If you must love somebody, it actually means that you don't want to, don't feel like doing it, but you have to do it nonetheless.
In Russia phrases such as "You must love Jesus" or "You must accept Him as your Lord and Savior" sound inappropriate. A Russian hears this and bristles: "Oh, no! Not that again! Please let me make my own choice. Please let me come to the decision myself without constraint, without musts...."
"Do You Have Children?"
Sometimes a good-natured American Christian comes to Russia and desires to make immediate friends with Russians. How does he do it? By asking the first question: "What's your name?" Then comes question two: "What do you do?" So far, so good. But when the foreigner asks the third question, "Do you have children?," he makes a mistake. According to the centuries-old Russian cultural tradition, intimate relations within one's family are exactly that: intimate. Don't be surprised when you receive unfriendly replies like "How does that concern you?" or even, "This is none of your business." In today's extremely difficult economic situation, many people in Russia simply cannot afford to have children, though they might love to. To have children in Russia is now an act of either enormous bravery or else utter irresponsibility. You must remember Russia's awful shortage of living space.
Despite one's motive, it is unwise to raise the issue of abortion with Russian women. You will hardly find support for your convictions. While Russian Christians might agree with you spiritually, on a practical level, there is little chance. I am aware of some other social problems where the evangelical community adamantly defends its stands: issues such as [opposition to] "gay rights" and pornography. My advice for Americans would be to stay away from these controversies. Right now people in Russia remain preoccupied with more pragmatic matters: how to provide for the family, how to move into better apartments, where to find good clothes, and the like.
Reading the Bible
Believing old myths, Western Christians still believe that Russia needs more copies of the Bible than anything else. This is only partially true. In the larger cities you can now easily get almost any religious publication. But receiving a Bible is only phase one of a long and laborious path. Phase two would be actually reading the Bible, and that would be a qualitative leap forward for the majority of Russians. I would not say that Russians do not read the Bible at all. But they usually read it just like any other book, for leisure, or spiritual enjoyment, or the interesting stories. The tradition of reading the Bible was not lost in Russia--it simply never existed. My suggestion is not to press this issue. Be understanding and patient, and give them time to acquire the habit. Phase three, incorporating the principles and ideas of the Bible into everyday life, is the most difficult, but would be the most rewarding, and result in the greatest change in our nation.
The Power of a Word
A good knowledge of the Russian language is unfortunately not the strongest trait of the average American preacher. Even when the preacher uses the very best Russian interpreter, it is not the best solution. The result is that you are being evangelized primarily by the interpreter and not by the original preacher. We must find devoted Christians who are Russian nationals. Give them a fitting preparation for the job and let them evangelize. [To that end] knowledge of Russian Orthodoxy, its history, heritage, traditions, rituals, etc., is indispensable for informed evangelism to take place. It is my observation that much of what is [currently] going on in the name of evangelism is discouraging and confusing.
One of the problems is that nice, clean-cut Russian men and women graduate from short-term schools of evangelism, oriented in evangelical Christian theory and practice. But their newly acquired ability to play country-style chords on the guitar and sing the very inept Russian translations of English hymns will do them little good in evangelizing Russians in Russia. Frankly, I don't see a great future for this type of evangelism in Russia.
Boris Gontarev, Ph.D., is the founding president of the Moscow Academy of World Civilizations. In recent years he has been closely associated with Campus Crusade for Christ. He currently is professor of general studies at Hope International University Center for International Education, Fullerton, California.
Reprinted with permission from Sharon Linzey and Ken Kaisch, eds., God in Russia: The Challenge of Freedom (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, forthcoming).
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© 1999 East-West Church and Ministry Report