It is a shocking report, “Russia’s Campaign Against Jehovah’s Witnesses,” the latest in a long line of shocking reports. Throw it on the stack. I did, and then wrote up the following response to it:
Sergey Lavrov, one of the six Russian officials whom Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide were invited to write, later grumbled at a press briefing that “Russia is blamed for everything that goes wrong on this planet.” I wrote in I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses: Searching for the Why, “Ought he not look in the mirror for the reason?” When you arrest, jail, persecute, and in some cases even torture, the most peaceable people on the planet, you send a clear signal to the world that sanity does not prevail in your land.
“Why would a nation of some 144,000,000 risk its international reputation to persecute a religious sect numbering no more than 175,000 followers?” columnist Andrew Sorokowski wrote. Yet Russia has done so—it has gone ahead and trashed its international reputation—and it suggests to the unpracticed eye that all charges directed its way just might be true, that there is no accusation too fantastic to be dismissed out-of-hand. On Twitter, one Russian outlet sarcastically writes: “Don’t forget to check under your bed before you go to sleep tonight. There may be a Russian under there ready to give bad dreams.” “Thanks for the tip!” says anyone familiar with the plight of Dennis Christensen, jailed for nearly a full year [now much longer] without trial [he later had and lost his sham trial] for merely leading a Bible study, as he peaks under the bed to check. How can people not imagine Russia capable of unlimited villainy? Perhaps whatever they hear is but the tip of the iceberg.
This ABCNews story is painful to watch. In researching what I hoped would be like the modern-day (Russian) Book of Acts (all particulars of this post are taken from that book, the ebook version of which is free on most venues and a print version also available through Amazon), these were names I’d run across before and I felt as though I knew them. They are ordinary people like me, manifestly harmless, manifestly decent, manifestly doing no more than worshipping the God of the Bible. Might there even be a little survivor’s guilt? We in the West may be targets of sporadic opposition, but the notion of violent repression is foreign to us (though not to Russians, who have historically known little else). Along with praying for our brothers, we pray that should our turn come, we will be a courageous as our Russian brothers are proving themselves to be.
In one rare Russian court decision that went our way, a Witness escaped imprisonment when a judge ruled a prior judge had shown prejudicial bias. She had rebuked the Witness with: “You are not a prisoner of conscience and you have nothing to do with the first Christians. You should not speculate on this.” He is, he does, and he should; the second judge ruled the first out of line to muzzle the thought.
The parallels with the “first Christians” are exactly what to focus on. Russia’s outlandish persecution of Christians rivals even that of the first century in all but the ultimate price. The numbers are even comparable. Bart Ehrman, scholar of early Christianity, numbers Christian martyrs of Roman times as no more than a few hundred. Then as now, the unprovoked and irrational cruelty of it all sent disproportional shock waves down through history. The witness given ultimately reached and moved spiritually hungry persons everywhere.
Again and again in the ABCNews report comes the observation that nobody knows just why such atrocities are happening. Indeed, the story’s byline is: “Hundreds have been targeted in a crackdown that no one can fully explain.” Tanya Lokshina, when asked in interview, can’t figure it out. She is a human rights researcher and journalist; she is accustomed to figuring it out, so as to be able to better counter it. Here she admits that she just doesn’t know. It “doesn’t add up,” she says as she floats and discards one possibility. Putin himself famously commented that he didn’t understand why Jehovah’s Witnesses are persecuted, since they “are Christians, too.” Whenever things defy human explanation, surely believers can be forgiven for supposing something superhuman is also at work. Time and again the Bible narrative assures that “all those desiring to live with godly devotion in association with Christ Jesus will also be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12)
Just after the ban on the Jehovah’s Witness religion was imposed, when it was not clear just what would be the practical aftermath, authorities raided a campground. It was feared that Jehovah’s Witnesses were teaching their religion to their children. It didn’t sit well with those who commented on the news article. “Something is too much. Even I, being an inveterate and convinced atheist, against such interference in the personal life of citizens, even if they are any Witnesses (this is still to be proved). People are adults, they went out with their tents to rest, yes, and with their children.” Nearly all of the 54 comments attached were supportive and sympathetic to Witnesses, and the few that were not were mostly traceable to a single vitriolic person—Witnesses would call this one an “apostate,” for they almost always are; no one else could work up such a frenzied passion, even infecting entire nations.
The Witness organization gives this unjustified persecution maximum exposure. As Paul told Agrippa, “this thing has not been done in a corner.” This Witness organization did not permit that, even if they failed to stop what is in essence a sure Bible prediction. Our Russian brothers will forever know that their courageous stand spurs honest, hungry, and humble persons to look into the faith now on display as heretofore uninterested persons check jw.org to see if it is truly extremist. When they see that it is not, how will they respond? The world reels from one calamity to the next, and distressed people seek explanation and comfort. Perhaps that is the greatest contribution our Russian brothers make to Jehovah’s service—to point to where answers may be found, even if “with persecutions.” (Mark 10:30)