Book explores how Christians dealt with realities of totalitarian regimes

Book explores how Christians dealt with realities of totalitarian regimes

(Credit: New City Press.)

Jeremy N. Ingpen retired from a long career in management consulting and affordable housing and began translating little known works of French Orthodox theologians into English.

[Editor’s Note: Jeremy N. Ingpen retired from a long career in management consulting and affordable housing and began translating little known works of French Orthodox theologians into English. His first translation, Olivier Clément’s Transfiguring Time was published by New City Press in 2019. His second translation, Michel Evdokimov’s Two Martyrs in a Godless World was released by New City Press in May, 2021. He is currently working on the translation of Olivier Clément’s major work, The Dialogues with Patriarch Athenagoras, which will be published next year as part of the celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America, and the 50th Anniversary of the death of Patriarch Athenagoras. He spoke to Charles Camosy.]

Camosy: What drew you to translate a book like Two Martyrs in a Godless World? Can you tell a short version of the story that led you to it?

Ingpen: As a translator I am looking for books that say something a bit different, that bring a different perspective, voices that perhaps haven’t been heard in America. This book intrigued me for two very different reasons. First, when I came back to the Church, some twenty years ago, I wrestled with the question of how one could believe in God after the Holocaust. Was belief still possible? Where was God? I think this book goes a long way to providing an answer to this question. God is with the person in their suffering. God has entered the deepest depths of human misery and pain.

Secondly, having come back into the Church, I met those priests who wanted to condemn the outside world. We, the worthy, were inside the Church: outside was the dangerous, secular world. I found this unacceptable and even hypocritical. This book clearly lays out why we should not fear the secular world and how we should bear witness in it.

Many Crux readers will be familiar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but fewer, I suspect, will know Alexander Men. Can you say more about who Men was?

Born in a time of great religious persecution in Russia, raised in the underground church that worshiped in the forests, barred from a prestigious academic career because his parents were of Jewish ancestry, barred from college graduation because he was a practicing Christian, Father Alexander Men became one of the most outspoken, dynamic Orthodox priests of the last years of the Soviet regime. He wrote extensively, he lectured extensively, he attracted a thriving congregation. He taught the basics of the Christian faith to a country that had tried to eliminate all traces of belief. He was assassinated one Sunday morning on his way to church. His murderers have never been identified.

Why do you think it is especially fruitful to compare these two figures?

To quote the author, Michel Evdokimov, ‘my decision to place them side by side came from a flash of intuition, from a desire to walk in the ways of the Lord in the company of these two great men, whose prophetic vision of the modern world so often coincides.’ They each practised their faith and bore witness in a totalitarian world that was intent on destroying them, and what they stood for. They can tell us a lot about how to speak about God, and how to be a believer in a world that seems to have turned its back on God.

They are very different people. One was a Lutheran theologian from one of Germany’s leading professional families, born into highest levels of German society. The other was an outsider to Soviet society, a brilliant Christian of Jewish descent. Alexander Men’s intellectual mission, it seems, was to recover all the Christian learning that the Marxist regime had sought to wipe out. And yet they each had the capacity to meet a person where they were, to stand and pray with them. They each placed the Eucharist at the very center of human life. And they were each targeted for assassination by the ruling regime.

The catastrophizing we see today, especially on social media, seems almost totally unaware of history. Yes, contemporary racism is a very serious problem that we must all confront, for instance, but it is nothing when compared to what it was just 60 years ago. And certainly 160 years ago. Another example I often see today is many Christians imagining themselves as deeply persecuted today–with apparently no sense of what real persecution looks like, especially the kind Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Alexander Men experienced. 

Comparisons, as they say, are invidious. There can be no comparing one hideous death to another hideous death. Today’s social media act as an amplifier. Images resonate around the world. So it is harder to silently murder five million people, as in the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s, or to deport whole villages for extermination, as the Nazis did from Greece in the Second World War. Much of what was done in the past was done silently, with few witnesses. And yet whole villages are still being targeted, as in Nigeria, and whole groups of people are still living under the shadow of fear and discrimination.

There is a move for social justice and for reparations. Nations and cities are being held to account for past atrocities, such as those committed by Britain during the independence struggle in Kenya and Cyprus, those committed by Germany in Namibia during its period of colonial rule, those committed by the City of Evanston, Illinois against its Black population. But the same social media that amplify the campaigns for social justice and reparation also amplify prejudice and hatred.

I have been rereading a book from 1968 on The Underground Church. Much of its raging anger against the Establishment and against embedded prejudice still rings true today. We need fearless people to speak out. In the words of ‘Two Martyrs in a Godless World’, ‘we need prophets of life to emerge, prophets of a life so complete that it is a resurrected life.’

I remember one of my theology professors blowing my mind by suggesting that, historically speaking, we may still be in the very early stages of Christianity. What would it mean for us to consider, as the title of Chapter VI suggests, that Christianity is only just beginning?

It has long seemed to me that one of the most powerful words in the New Testament is Hodie, today. In the Gospel of Luke, it says: “Today is born to you a Savior.” In the Orthodox Easter hymns, we sing: “Today is the Day of Resurrection.” Today is when the crucifixion of a new martyr occurs. Today is when we meet our neighbor, and have the chance of an encounter, with someone ‘whose face is the prophesy of the kingdom.’ In taking communion, in entering into marriage, in our joy shared with a child or our spouse, we are offered the chance, today, to re-enter paradise, to have a taste of the kingdom.

Today, the Christian message of the transformation of the human heart is perhaps the most important message. And in this sense, to use the language of Olivier Clément, whose ‘Common Mission of Christians in the Secular City’ serves as the Afterword to this book, Christianity is always just at the beginning, of a transformation, of a transfiguration of the person and the universe.

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