Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

On the outskirts of Moscow, there is an Orthodox Christian memorial. The site, known as Butovo, once belonged to a private estate. The Soviets expropriated the land after the revolution and turned it into a firing range. It was there during Stalin’s purges that more than 20,000 “enemies of the people” were shot and buried. I walk among the mass graves on a snowy, steel gray February morning. Nearby, a large board displays dozens of black and white photographs from the late 1930s. They are Soviet secret police mug shots of priests, monks, and nuns just about to be killed: Bishop Serafim (Chichagov) († December 11, 1937), the priest Vladimir Ambartsumov († November 5, 1937), the nun Anna (Makandina) († March 14, 1938), and many more.

I stop and contemplate their faces. Like the saints in Orthodox icons, they seem to look through and beyond this world into eternity. I see terror yet peace, exhaustion yet ecstatic anticipation of another life. And there is spiritual defiance. These men and women had been stripped of every legal and political right, yet are strangely confident that a righteous God holds them safely in his hands. Under the most awful circumstances of persecution, Butovo’s victims discovered what Christians really mean by freedom. I find myself thinking about the United States, how in recent years I have worried about the future of a legal right to religious freedom in our society. Now I understand things differently. The faces of Butovo speak to me. Though about to die, they are free “in the Lord.”

The question of freedom lies at the very foundations of Christianity. Soon after Christ’s death, Paul defended Christian freedom against those who insisted that Gentile converts must fulfill all the obligations of the Jewish law. In the fourth century, St. Augustine stood against the Pelagians, arguing that only God’s grace sets a person free from sin. Martin Luther returned to these themes in the sixteenth century. He proclaimed that faith alone saves us from earthly powers, liberating us to serve God’s purposes.

These Christian understandings of freedom have shaped Western political thought in decisive ways. Liberal democracies often have constitutions that guarantee freedom of conscience. A separation of Church and state embodies a basic Christian commitment to the inherent dignity and freedom of every human being with respect to ultimate questions of God and salvation. Liberal democracies have, in turn, influenced the Christian churches. For many Western Christians, life in a liberal democratic order is what they regard as the essence of freedom.

Butovo and the Russian martyrs call this assumption into question. A liberal democratic order and a legally guaranteed right to religious freedom are worth endorsing, but they are not the ultimate freedom of which Christians speak. As a spiritual reality, freedom does not depend on specific legal or political arrangements. We can be free even under conditions of religious persecution.

This kind of freedom is not just a personal, individualistic matter. It also defines the Church, which is most truly itself as it proclaims and manifests spiritual freedom. No earthly power should dictate how the Church understands truth or organizes its internal affairs. The Church will normally abide by the laws of the land. It must, however, cultivate a freedom of mind and spirit that enables it to judge by its own criteria what is ultimately just and good.

This distinctive Christian approach to freedom differs from a liberal democratic order in fundamental ways. Attention shifts from a right to religious freedom guaranteed by the state to the spiritual freedom cultivated by the Church. The emphasis on personal freedom of expression, so central to a liberal democratic order, is balanced by a concern to guard the integrity and freedom of religious communities. We are no longer just individuals standing naked before a state that recognizes and protects our rights. We are embedded in a religious tradition mediated by church teachings and practices, growing in spiritual freedom as we participate in the Church’s life. What a particular individual believes is less important than what the Church believes. And what the Church believes is expressed not primarily as abstract theological propositions, but rather as a way of life together. Spiritual freedom arises from an existential encounter with a transcendent power, what Christians call God, and this freedom is sustained and deepened by ongoing worship and discipleship in a community of faith.

The fundamental freedom that we need, therefore, is not, as in a liberal democracy, freedom from coercive social or political forces so that we can realize our “true self.” Rather, real freedom involves overcoming the domination of sin so that we can live in obedience to Christ. God created us for communion with him, with each other, and indeed with all that exists. We are meant to experience and manifest joy, gratitude, wonder, beauty, and self-giving love in each other’s presence. Heaven is not simply the promise of God’s peace after this life, but also a way of life here and now. We experience true freedom when we live in loving, rightly ordered community with God and with others.

Freedom does not come automatically to humans, not even to those who follow Christ. In ways Christians don’t fully understand, original sin causes us to reject communion with God and each other, a paradoxical use of our freedom to reject true freedom. The powers of evil assault us and make us anxious about our lives. In a desperate effort to secure ourselves, we commit any number of actual sins as we assert our selfish interests over and against others. The result is resentment, rivalry, defensiveness, and fearfulness. Violence and war, rather than harmony and trust, characterize the human condition.

The blessings of relative peace, prosperity, and humane governance in the modern West may further encourage us to think of freedom as the ability or right to fulfill our physical and emotional desires. Yet these desires, in fact, mostly control us. While we may believe that we have freely chosen to pursue what we imagine to be personal well-being and happiness, we are, in fact, driven by pride and sloth.

In this fallen, distorted world, Christianity invites people into divine transfiguration. In the Church, we receive the possibility of becoming a community in which we encourage others, and are encouraged, in a righteous, holy way of life. Together, we aim to become, in the words of the Beatitudes, “pure in heart.” Worship and the sacraments unite us to Christ and to each other. Spiritual disciplines—prayer, moderation in eating, sexual restraint, and outreach to the needy—redirect our physical senses and desires, drawing us into the energizing and purifying work of God’s Spirit.

Our failure to practice perfectly this way of life awakens us to our sinfulness. Like the disciples on the Mount of the Transfiguration, we fall down in fear and trembling before Christ, who is as pure as light. But our Savior is merciful, picks us up, and sends us to seek again communion with him and with others. Strengthened by spiritual practices and transformed by divine worship, the pure in heart attain spiritual freedom: the freedom to resist powers of evil and to live for God by worshipping him alone.

True freedom is therefore an inner, spiritual matter, not a question of external, political-legal arrangements. If we do not embrace the spiritual freedom that the Church cultivates, we cannot be truly free, even if the state guarantees us a right of religious freedom. Religious freedom must be grounded in spiritual freedom, not vice versa.

From its earliest days, the Church has honored those who, under great persecution, manifest true spiritual freedom. The martyrs are venerated for their refusal, even under harsh interrogation and threat of execution, to deny their loyalty to God above all else. Their spiritual freedom has two key aspects: The martyrs are free to speak the truth, and they are free to love their fellow humans, including their enemies.

The freedom to “speak the truth in love” flows from Jesus himself. On trial before Jewish and then Roman authorities, Christ claims an authority above theirs, yet refuses to resist them violently and even prays to God to forgive them, “for they know not what they do.” In a similar fashion, Paul boldly proclaims the truth of the Gospel, but he wishes to throw up no obstacles to others. Christian freedom unites rather than divides. It is the foundation of a community of trust in which people commit themselves to the truth of the Christian faith, representing it to each other and the world in love.

Like the wider company of Christian martyrs, those of the Russian Orthodox Church under Communism witness to this remarkable freedom to speak the truth in love. The persecution that the Russian Church experienced was especially brutal. By the end of Stalin’s Great Terror in 1939, only two to three hundred parishes remained open, and they were little more than Potemkin villages, allowing the Soviet Union to claim that it protected religious freedom, even as it crushed the Church into the ground. During that era, every monastery and theological school was shut down. Nearly 90 percent of the nation’s nuns, monks, and priests were arrested. Most died in prison camps, either by execution or by willful neglect. While exact numbers will never be known, historians estimate that as many as 350,000 people died for their faith under the Soviet regime.

Since the collapse of Communism in 1991, the Russian Orthodox Church has canonized nearly two thousand “new martyrs.” Among them are Tikhon (Bellavin) and Petr (Polianskii). In 1917, just days after the October Revolution, Tikhon was selected patriarch of the Russian Church. Desperately needing someone to run the Diocese of Moscow and negotiate church interests with state authorities, he asked his close associate Petr, a layman, to accept monastic tonsure, priestly ordination, and appointment to the episcopacy in quick succession so that he could occupy a position of ecclesiastical leadership. As Petr prayed about what to do, he told a friend, “If I refuse, I will be a traitor to the Church, but if I agree, I know that I will be signing my own death warrant.” In the end, Petr acceded to Tikhon’s request and assumed responsibility for church relations with the Soviet government, which also meant negotiating with Evgenii Tuchkov, head of the Soviet secret police, to whom Lenin had assigned the task of liquidating the Church.

When Patriarch Tikhon died under suspicious circumstances in 1925, Petr became acting head of the Russian Church. Like Tikhon, he believed that the Church should follow Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 and respect the Soviet authorities as “instituted by God” yet resist their efforts to control the Church and thereby destroy its internal life and spiritual freedom. Within a few months, Tuchkov had Petr sent into internal exile. Amid these tribulations, the honesty and frankness with which Petr engaged Tuchkov are striking. In a letter to Tuchkov in January 1926, Petr, newly under arrest and in prison, does not rail against the demonic godlessness of the Bolsheviks. Instead, he exposes his innermost convictions—and uncertainties—about Church-state relations. He confesses his vulnerability, as though emptying himself to take on the form of a servant, even unto death.

“Russian Church history,” Petr writes,

has hardly known such a remarkably difficult time for governing the Church as during these years of genuine revolution. Those to whom oversight of the Church has been given are in a hard spot between believers (who in all probability take different political positions), the clergy (also not of one mind), and the state. On the one hand, it is necessary to resist the pressure of the people, while attempting not to undermine their trust in the person exercising oversight of the Church. On the other, it is essential to remain submissive to the state and not harm one’s relations with it.

Petr goes on to concede that “the question now arises as to what I will do.” Emphasizing that he has no intention of disobeying the state, Petr nevertheless makes clear that he has “decided to be with the people,” who on the whole, he tells Tuchkov, trust those church leaders who have called for defending the Church’s freedom against the Bolsheviks, rather than compromising with them. Without attacking Tuchkov personally or putting him on the defensive, Petr boldly yet gently asserts that he will not abandon his persecuted flock: “I have no grounds for breaking relations with them; moreover, that would be tantamount to breaking a certain spiritual bond with the people, which of course would be very difficult for me.”

Tuchkov pressed Petr to renounce publicly his position as patriarchal representative, which, Tuchkov hoped, would allow the Bolsheviks to extend their control over internal church matters such as the appointment and placement of priests and bishops. Petr refused, though without vitriol or bitterness. Even as his health steadily declined under the harsh conditions of exile in Russia’s far north, he continued to address Tuchkov with respect and even dared to appeal to him for mercy. In 1936, state authorities, frustrated by Petr’s recalcitrance, sought to undermine his authority by spreading false rumors of his death. On October 10, 1937, they finally executed him, just as other church leaders were going to their deaths at Butovo.

According to Vladimir Vorob’ev, the current rector of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University in Moscow, Petr exemplified the proper pattern of Christian life under Communist persecution. It was necessary “to ‘give no excuse to those seeking one.’ Only one path remained,” which was “to try to find in one’s enemy, even an enemy of the Church, some dimension of humanity and to appeal to this humanity in the hope that he would suddenly be moved . . . and ashamed . . . and choose mercy. This strategy required meekness and humility.” In Vorob’ev’s estimation, Petr’s inner, spiritual freedom enabled him to engage Tuchkov, his persecutor and the Church’s adversary, with both truth and love.

Vorob’ev and other contemporary Russian Orthodox leaders also praise Petr for defending the Church against efforts to politicize it. Petr remained true to Patriarch Tikhon’s call for the Church to ally itself with neither the Bolsheviks nor the armed defenders of the monarchy, the so-called Whites. Only a posture above the political battle lines, they believed, would enable the Church to hold every Russian as a beloved child of God. Moreover, Tikhon and Petr insisted that the Church’s unity is based on its sacramental life and especially the Eucharist, not on political arrangements negotiated with the state. The spiritual freedom of the Church—its freedom to be true to its central beliefs and practices—meant freedom to worship God and the freedom to seek that social reconciliation that would allow Russians to be liberated from ideologies that pit one group in society against another.

The Russian martyrs from the Soviet era demonstrate that a person does not need a legal guarantee of religious freedom in order to be spiritually free. Petr and other Russian martyrs spoke freely about God in a spirit of love—even to their enemies—because they had acquired the purity of heart cultivated by the Church’s rhythms of worship and prayer. When imprisoned, priests secretly celebrated the liturgy with other prisoners or with their spiritual children, who sometimes journeyed thousands of miles to visit them in exile. The priest-martyr Sergei (Mechev) wrote from internal exile to his spiritual children in Moscow, “Do not grieve about yourselves, because you still have what is most important but has been denied to many, including me: worship. Guard it. Indeed, this is my commandment to you, not only to my spiritual children but also to my friends. Guard worship, guard the clergy.” Although Sergei was unable to celebrate or participate in the liturgy, his followers incorporated him into the life of the Church as it continued elsewhere.

Petr’s situation was similar. Consigned to solitary confinement, he could observe the Church’s rhythms of worship only imperfectly—in Orthodoxy, celebration of the Divine Liturgy requires at least two people. Yet Petr remained spiritually bound to the inner life of the Russian Church. As long as he was alive, refusing to abdicate his post, believers throughout Russia included him, their patriarchal representative, each day in their petitions in the liturgy and the hours of prayer.

Over the centuries, Christians have often recognized that they are more apt to discover spiritual freedom under conditions of persecution than when they are afforded toleration. When the Church is socially acceptable and when religious affiliation is more a matter of custom than faith, those who call themselves Christians are easily tempted to sell their inheritance of spiritual freedom for the pottage of social privilege and material wealth. This temptation is, perhaps, also ours in America today. A legally guaranteed right to religious freedom may too easily be mistaken for true Christian freedom.

We must be on guard against the notion that persecution will necessarily bring forward a deeper faithfulness, however. Recognizing that human faith is feeble, Christians over the centuries have generally concluded that they should not seek persecution, even though we should be prepared to accept it. Petr’s witness was extraordinary, even miraculous. Only a divine power could sustain him in his efforts to live the truth in love. Most Russian believers were not like him or the martyrs at Butovo. Many folded under social pressure or police interrogation and confessed to crimes they did not commit, or falsely implicated others in “counter-revolutionary” activities. Others denied their faith by distancing themselves from the Church and its sacramental life.

There is an additional reason not to romanticize religious persecution. We must be confident that the Lord will protect the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, but we cannot know with certainty what will happen to any church in a particular historical moment. The Russian Church survived as a public institution, but just barely. In retrospect, we can imagine that circumstances might have been otherwise, as was indeed the case in Albania. A church in the catacombs may survive for a while, but ultimately it needs air above ground if it is not to die and wither away.

Thus, for the sake of cultivating truth in love, the Church rightly seeks a legal space that allows the Church to worship God and serve society within the political order. Even if Christians do not need a legal right to religious freedom, faithfulness to the Gospel requires them to try to secure it. Here, however, we must be very careful. The ways of Caesar are not the ways of God. In pursuing freedom from political control, the Church can be tempted too far in the opposite direction: to use the power of the sword to become politically established and to restrict and even persecute those who believe differently. Established churches have often sought with the help of the state to save people from the false freedoms that the church sees rival groups propagating and that, in the church’s view, are ultimately destructive of individuals and society. This kind of establishment has been the dominant model in both East and West throughout most of their histories—and in the eyes of many Western observers, again characterizes Orthodoxy in post-Soviet Russia.

Religious establishment comes in different forms, and in some instances legal measures are consistent with the true spiritual freedom that Christianity promises. Regulation of work and leisure organized around the Sunday Sabbath and church feast days may serve the good of society as well as the interests of the Church. Nevertheless, the experience of persecution teaches the Church that the state cannot be trusted to serve God’s purposes. Moreover, in its history of close association with political power, the Church has too often betrayed Christian freedom. The Church easily deceives itself into imagining that it can advance faith through state coercion. The Church often forgets that popular affiliation with Christianity does not always mean genuine belief and discipleship.

At its best, Christianity insists that people must respond freely to the invitation to live in the spiritual freedom that the Church cultivates. A coerced faith is merely a new form of enslavement, not the freedom of the Gospel. Even participating in the central activities of the Church—praying, fasting, reading the Scriptures, reciting the creed, or receiving the Eucharist—benefits us spiritually only to the degree that they draw us into deeper trust in God and greater love for our fellow humans. And the Church has no precise instruments by which to measure faith’s integrity. The Church trusts in the apostolic inheritance and dares to guide individuals toward God. Yet the Church, if it is truly the Church, recognizes that only God knows the secrets of a person’s heart.

These ambiguities suggest that we should favor the disestablishment of the Church, which is what the American Constitution stipulates. But here, too, I find myself ambivalent. A liberal democratic society such as ours may guarantee free exercise and prohibit establishment, but it is not neutral about religious matters. The liberal democratic ethos seems inevitably to promote a vision of human freedom as limitless choice and self-definition, in contradiction to Christian faith. Orthodox theologian Thomas Hopko once wrote, “As the grandson of Carpatho-Russian immigrants to the United States, I cannot imagine my life in any other society . . . [without] gratitude for my personal destiny. As an Orthodox Christian, however, . . . I also cannot imagine a way of life more insidious to Christian Orthodoxy and more potentially dangerous to human being and life.” Other religious communities face similar challenges. A Jewish friend of mine is thankful that America has given his Orthodox congregation a protected space in which to practice its distinctive way of life. But he laments the degree to which North American culture, rather than his congregation, has formed his children and shaped their values, so much so that they no longer attend synagogue or practice the faith.

Western liberal notions of religious freedom emphasize the individual: his freedom to believe what he chooses. As legal scholar Peter Danchin argues, this approach to religious freedom worked well for mainline Protestants as long as they were socially dominant in North America and could depend on the wider culture to represent and promote their values. But in a society in which individual choice for its own sake has obscured traditional Christian or other religious teaching, we easily become captive to the spirit of our age, and captive to its litigious spirit. Mainline Protestants such as I are learning that we too—like Native Americans who use peyote in religious ceremonies, Amish who refuse to send their children to high school, or Sikhs who insist on wearing turbans while serving as police officers—need a protected public space in which to cultivate a distinctive way of life together. Some of the newly marginalized Christians among us are even looking to lawyers and legislators to secure “religious freedom,” meaning the legally guaranteed right to dissent from the judicial and legislative decisions of recent years that establish the “theology” of the unencumbered self.

Lawyers, litigation, and legislation are important for protecting the Church’s public space. Yet the Russian martyrs challenge us to think more deeply and more theologically about religious freedom. The Trump administration and Republican Congress may relax the pressure that many Evangelical and conservative Christians have been feeling from progressive political forces. But let’s not kid ourselves. Every government has totalizing tendencies; every state aspires to tell us what freedom is, and to persuade us that the state alone can provide it. And it’s not just the dominating power of government that threatens us. The principalities and powers of this age—advertising, mass culture, and secularized education—work day and night to make us subject to the “theology” of the unencumbered self. In order to enter into the freedom for which Christ has set us free, we need to learn to live like Petr (Polianskii) and the martyrs at Butovo.

John P. Burgess is James Henry Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift