Imagine experiencing the misery of totalitarian oppression: losing years of your life to a miscarriage of justice, facing the absurdity of a court system that had eliminated the question of guilt as a concern, and seeing otherwise good men and women do horrific evil to people just like themselves.
This is what Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn went through. In the multi-volume Gulag Archipelago, he collects the accounts of many others who passed through the bowels of the Soviet regime’s prison system, presenting an awful side of human nature.
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
Every human is capable of great evil. Sometimes, it is opportunity alone that makes the difference. That, and a driving ideology.
To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law… Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions.
Solzhenitsyn responds by calling people—especially Christians—to live faithfully and consistently with their beliefs in every area of life.
An Impoverished View of Human Beings
Solzhenitsyn recognizes that religion carries ideology. He notes that ideology drove the Inquisition by invoking Christianity.
This leads the reader to suspect that Solzhenitsyn might call for a naked public square, one devoid of religious reasoning and relying only on pragmatic efforts to find what will work within society and maximize the common good.
Solzhenitsyn argues exactly the opposite.
In his 1978 address at the Harvard University commencement ceremony, Solzhenitsyn chides his audience—largely comprised of Western elites—for their abandonment of God. He prophetically points toward the devastating effect a rejection of a spiritual basis for morality has on society.
The rejection of humanity’s spiritual side leads to reductionistic materialism in society. Solzhenitsyn argues,
Everything beyond physical well-being and accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any superior sense.
Solzhenitsyn points toward the idea that religion, albeit in plural forms, was necessary for Western-style democracy because, “freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility.”
But this responsibility waned, and has more recently been actively discouraged. Thus,
The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer.
What remained was the rule of law built on fragmented concepts of individual rights and freedom without any duties.
In the West, Solzhenitsyn saw a destructive trend toward accepting the de-spiritualization of society. In the Soviet Union, he experienced the horror of a violently enforced anti-religious Communism that had a strange impact of reinvigorating the spirit of the Soviet population.
But Solzhenitsyn notes that oppression led to results the Soviets did not expect:
Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive.
Solzhenitsyn presents a rather bleak picture of the trajectory of the increasingly secularized West and of human nature in general, but by pointing toward the problem he also helps to illuminate ways Christians can provide solutions.
What Can Christians Do?
Even within a society that often discourages overt religious expression and basing political reasoning on religious principles, Christians can have a powerful role in shaping society apart from being political power brokers.
According to Solzhenitsyn, Christians should live out the high calling of Christ in their daily lives in an attempt to influence those around them. Faithful living is evidenced not by seeking political power, but by consistent gospel-oriented living in the mundane realities of everyday life and the pursuit of justice.
Among other things, the Christian is called to stand for the weak and the needy (Ps. 82:3-4).
Solzhenitsyn, in his Gulag Archipelago, calls for speaking against injustice:
In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousandfold in the future.
It is fairly simple, in our democratic society, for every Christian to engage in gracious public activism for justice.
We should also live faithfully and in a distinctly Christian manner because of the hope given to use through our Christian beliefs.
The Apostle Peter urges his readers to be zealous for what is good, to honor Christ in their hearts, and to be prepared to give a respectful defense of the hope drawn from knowing God through Christ. (1 Pt. 3:13-16)
In a world seeking to suppress the notion of a spiritual basis for morality, gospel-powered daily living has the potential to change society and also change the hearts of the people around us.