In the early 1980’s I became a smuggler. I smuggled bibles, history and theology books, as well as medicine, into the Soviet Union. I smuggled suitcases full of theological books into the Czeck Republic. I was helping to set up a secret seminary for the underground Catholic Church.
It was a particularly brutal time for believers. If you were a Christian you would have no access to state medicine or state education; hence the medicine as well as the books. We were warned to avoid getting caught at all costs.
Once however, I was caught. I had an unforgettably unpleasant time at the hands of the KGB. What they wanted from me were the names of the contacts I carried inside my head. They had formidable interrogation techniques. They didn’t in the end get the names; but they never knew how close they came. A year later in Czechoslovakia, I was arrested again, but slipped through the security forces’ fingers, in what seemed to me an astonishing way that appeared to me to amount to the miraculous.
I sometimes wonder where my interrogators are now.
They would be about Putin’s age. He was a KGB major at that time. I should like to meet them again and we might talk about how the world has turned since then. None of us could have imagined the changes that have taken place, or the way in which the world we all thought we knew has flipped under our feet.
I thought that the West was indestructibly Christian. They though the Soviet Union (and for that matter Communist China) was indestructibly atheist. I had no idea that Europe would begin to turn its back on the figure of Jesus, Christian morality and its culture.
It’s certainly true that Marx and Freud and other atheists at the beginning of the twentieth century, prophesied the death of religion. Marx thought socialism would produce a kind of heaven on earth, making the longing for heaven, and the Church, irrelevant; and Freud saw humanity as being ready to ‘grow up’ and grow beyond what he thought of as an infantile reliance on God.
The reasons Europe (and America) are turning their back on Christianity are complex (as well as painfully interesting.) But it’s certainly not because people have become more grown up. If anything, our culture has opted for a perpetual pleasure-driven adolescence.
But so far from Russia becoming free from faith, communism’s ‘heaven’ collapsed and was exposed as the hell it really was. No one was prepared for what happened next. After doing everything possible to eradicate faith, closing and then bulldozing churches, murdering monks, persecuting priests, sending believers to prison camps in Siberia, over three generations, faith in Christ has erupted from the ashes.
By 2008 the number of Russians claiming to be Orthodox Christians rose from 31% in 1991 to 72%. The Pew Research Centre has documented this astounding conversion of a nation. The Russian Government is spending $100 million rebuilding the churches it destroyed. Putin has dedicated himself to Christian moral virtues.
Contrast that with America. Could you imagine Obama spending taxpayers money on building Churches for the nation? It would be illegal, but even if it wasn’t?
Instead Christians are being driven out of State education and health if they don’t sign up to the new cultural agenda, or if they are in the private sector, being sued in the Courts. And it was the Americans who wittingly or not, destroyed the centuries old Christian communities in Iraq following their clumsy and ill-advised invasion.
It is the Americans, with the Saudis whispering in their ears, who have done the same in Syria, where Christian communities stretching back two thousand years used to be safe and respected. Not any more. They have been wiped out. America, like Europe, seems to be rethinking its allegiances and values. Faith is not inevitable. You can choose it, reject it or ignore it. Each has different consequences.
But the place where faith in Christ is most surprisingly being encountered and then chosen, is China. In 1976, after Mao’s death, the iron grip of atheism began to gently soften. In a way that few people in the West would either know about or notice, Christianity is growing faster even than in Russia.
“By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon,” said Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University.
“It is going to be less than a generation. Not many people are prepared for this dramatic change.”
Professor Yang, believes that if things continue as they are, the number of practising Christians in China will touch 160 million by 2025; and 247 million by 2030; more than in Mexico, Brazil and the United States, making China the largest Christian national presence in the world.
If I did meet my interrogators again, its not impossible the boot might be on the other foot. Perhaps by 2030, the Russians and the Chinese will be smuggling bibles into Europe? Watch this space.