5 Lessons Western Christians Should Learn from Persecuted Christians

By: Akos Balogh

I was born behind the Iron Curtain.

But like millions of others, my parents decided to flee our communist homeland to escape oppression.

We became refugees and emigrated to the West. And so, I grew up on stories of communist oppression: of authorities coming in the night and taking my great-grandfather away to prison without trial. Or my grandfather having to leave his family for months and go into hiding in order to escape a similar fate. Communism and its atrocities are very much part of my cultural memory.

And so it was with great interest I read author Rod Dreher’s latest book: Live Not by Lies – A Manual for Christian Dissidents. [1] In his book, Dreher speaks to a number of refugees and dissidents from former communist Eastern Europe. These people grew up under totalitarianism – they know what it’s like. And they’re now seeing disturbing parallels between their communist upbringing and the cultural trajectory of the modern West.

Dreher writes of an émigré professor from Czechoslovakia who now lives in the US:

He began noticing a shift a decade or so ago: [American] friends would lower their voices and look over shoulders when expressing conservative views. When he expressed his conservative beliefs in a normal tone of voice, the Americans would start to fidget and constantly scan the room to see who might be listening.

“I grew up like this,” he tells me, “but it was not supposed to be happening here.”[2]

And so, the aim of the Live not by Lies is to help Western Christians prepare for a future in which religious freedom is severely eroded.

It’s a book that contains many lessons forged in the furnace of severe persecution. It’s not a theological study per se: there’s not much exegesis or theological discussion. But the experience of these dissidents aligns with much of what the Bible says about living as outcasts in a hostile culture.

Here are 5 lessons we should take on board:

1) Prepare For ‘Soft Totalitarianism’

Not out of fear, but for the sake of faithfulness to Christ.

None of the people Dreher spoke to believe the West is heading toward the ‘hard totalitarianism’ of the gulags and prison camps. Rather, we’re trending toward a ‘soft totalitarianism’, which ‘masquerades as kindness, demonizing dissenters and disfavoured demographic groups to protect the feelings of “victims” in order to bring about “social justice”.[3] People who dissent from what’s known as ‘woke’ ideology will face increasing exclusion from the public square. (It will feel like being a Christian panellist on a Q + A episode that’s stuck on repeat – and worse).

Anti-communist dissidents tell us to be aware of these changes, not out of fear, but in order to be better prepared. Preparation is vital, they believe, if we’re to respond well and remain faithful to Jesus, regardless of whatever pressure or persecution comes our way.

2) Beware the Lie of a ‘Therapeutic’ Culture

It weakens our ability to stand firm.

 There is a dangerous lie embedded in our ‘therapeutic’ culture.  Many in the West have fallen for this lie. But as Dreher points out, so have many millennial Hungarians, the children of the last communist generation:

Now, in liberty and relative prosperity, the children of the last communist generation [in Hungary] have fallen to a more subtle, sophisticated tyranny: one that tells them that anything they find difficult is a form of oppression. For these millennials, unhappiness is slavery and freedom is liberation from the burden of unchosen obligations.[4]

Why is this a problem?

Apart from the fact that it’s inherently unbiblical (Jesus never promised us health, wealth or comfort), it also sets up believers for a fall if/when soft totalitarianism comes to our land:

This is the generation that would embrace soft totalitarianism. These are the young churchgoers who would have little capacity to resist, because they have been taught that the good life is a life free from suffering.[5]

3) Value Nothing More Than the Truth

Totalitarianism – whether of the ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ forms – imposes half-truths and lies onto people. It’s costly and dangerous to deny such lies, which is why most people accommodate themselves to them.

But what happens when you allow those lies to shape you?

Former Soviet citizen Vladimir Grygorenko, who now lives in the US, has this to say:

When a people grow accustomed to living in lies, shunning taboo writers, and conforming to the official story, it deforms their way of thinking – and that is very difficult to overcome…To grow indifferent, even hostile, to free speech is suicidal for a free people.[6]

As Christians, we know that lies are anti-God: the devil is called the father of lies (John 8:44). Lies dehumanise. They deform. A society built on lies is dysfunctional and defective, harming its people. And so, Christians should resist these lies – prudently and wisely:

Sometimes you will have to act openly to confront the lie directly. Other times you will fight it by remaining silent and withholding the approval authorities request. You might have to raise your voice to defend someone who is being slandered by propagandists.’[7]

4) Stand in Solidarity with Believers and Non-Believers

A lonely and isolated individual is much easier to manipulate, intimidate, and control. As Dreher points out:

The atomization of contemporary life has left most of us vulnerable to demoralisation – and therefore to manipulation. Christians are no different…By their indifference to solidarity, and surrendering to social disintegration as the new normal, Christians make it easier for those in power who hate us to control us.’

 He continues:

The testimony of anti-communist dissidents is clear: Only in solidarity with others can we find the spiritual and communal strength to resist.  The longer we remain isolated in a period of liberty, the harder it will be to find one another in a time of persecution. We must see in our brothers and sisters not a burden of obligation but the blessing of our own freedom from loneliness, suspicion and defeat.’ [8]

The anti-communist dissidents found great comfort in small group gatherings, encouraging each other in small face to face gatherings. Passages such as Hebrews 10:28 come to mind, which encourages us not to give up meeting together. God knows how much we need each other.

And there also opportunities to stand together with others who would resist the soft totalitarianism. Christians aren’t the only ones who have concerns about where our society is heading. In standing with these non-Christians, we can be a blessing to them, but also be strengthened by them to resist the cultural pressure.

5) Rejoice In the Severe Mercy of Suffering

Many who suffered under communism for the sake of Christ were able to rejoice in their sufferings. They knew Jesus’ followers are called to suffer for his name (e.g. John 13:16).

Dreher writes:

When we…embrace suffering on our own or to share in the suffering of others – we have to let it change us, as it changed these confessors of the communist yoke. It could make us bitter, angry, and vengeful, or it could serve as a refiner’s fire, as it did with Solzhenitsyn…and so many others, purifying our love for God and tortured humanity.’[9]

He concludes:

Will we run from suffering and betray our Lord? Or will we accept it as a severe mercy? The choices we will make when put to the ultimate test depend on the choices we make today, in a time of peace.’[10]

Western Christians have by and large been spared from suffering for Christ, but that’s been an anomaly. As our culture becomes post-Christian, suffering for Jesus will once again become the norm. Now is the time to prepare for what’s (most likely) coming. Not out of fear, but out of faithfulness.

And God is faithful. Christ is with us come what may (Matt 28:20) – just as he was with his persecuted people under communism.

[1] Rod Dreher, Live Not By Lies – A Manual For Christian Dissidents (New York: Sentinel, 2020).

[2] Dreher, Live Not By Lies,  xii – xiii.

[3] Dreher, 9.

[4] Dreher, 184. Emphasis added.

[5] Dreher, 184-185.

[6] Dreher, 103.

[7] Dreher, 108.

[8] Dreher, 180-181.

[9] Dreher, 206.

[10] Dreher, 207.

Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh.

About the Author: Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.

Feature image: Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

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