A Society That Repents Together

Writing in 1973 upon recognizing that the USSR was entering the final phase of its political life, he as well as certain others of his fellow dissidents began speculating on Russia’s future, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn asks in his essay titled Repentance and Self-Limitation,

“Why are the standards and demands so necessarily and readily applied to individuals, families, small groups, and personal relations, rejected out of hand and utterly prohibited when we go on to deal with thousands and millions of people in association?”

Solzhenitsyn’s point is simple: that the nation, like the individual, is liable to commit great and terrible sins must repent of past sins before it can begin to heal and to once more thrive. He recognized then what many did not, that at the heart of the Soviet Union was not a political problem, but a spiritual one. The politics of communism were but an outgrowth of spiritual confusion and perversion, founded entirely upon ideology and thus sought to replace the freedom that comes through truth with the servitude that comes through lies. Having submitted full tilt to the false gods of ideology, he thus suggests that for Russia – or any nation – to grow healthy once more, it must look not outward but inward.

This sentiment informs Repentance, one example among many that demonstrate Solzhenitsyn’s profound pre-political mind. Solzhenitsyn abhorred politics, preferring to address the spiritual matters that lie at the foundation of humanity. He believed, rightly so, that all men are spiritual first, and that his deepest problems are, accordingly, of a spiritual nature. This theme appears any number of times during Solzhenitsyn’s exile years. In his Harvard commencement address (1978) he addresses the spiritual weakness and failures of the West, pointing out that the decadence and materialism that was (and sadly remains) at the root of modern Western culture has weakened the Western spirit. Today he would likely agree that the Western spirit is altogether dead, and a forgettable, unworthy-of-mourning death it was. He went so far as to suggest that the hungry woman waiting in the bread line in Moscow is a spiritual monolith when compared to the average American. Five years later in his Templeton Lecture titled Godlessness, the First Step to the Gulag (1983), Solzhenitsyn proclaims unabashedly and repeatedly that there is but one conclusion to be taken from the constant state of chaos, poverty, and war in the modern world. He boldly claims that, “Men have forgotten God. That’s why all this has happened.”

We say that the society is going to hell, but can a society be divorced from its native culture? Without the latter there cannot be the former. And what is our society constituted of in not we individuals? We therefore openly acknowledge that “we” are the problem, yet not we, but they – our neighbor, the grocer, the man in the car next to us as we sit all in traffic. It is they who are the problem, but not I; yet, if this is true and transferrable, then it is I who is the problem, for to them I am one of “they.” But if our society is made up of individuals, of whom you and I number, then the character of a society will naturally reflect the character of the individuals of whom it is made. A society of liars and thieves will be a society of dishonesty and thievery. On the contrary, were the individuals within a society to embrace repentance, and by extension wisdom and humility enough to see their own imperfections and to regularly seek forgiveness, the larger society would be one not of rancor and hostility, but rather of mercy and grace. There is neither honor among thieves, nor thievery amongst the honorable.

It is sadly commonplace for man to criticize and denounce others while ignoring his own shortcomings. He blames everyone else – whether his neighbor or a distant, nebulous people – never the while considering that he may not be alone in being right or good. What he forgets, if he ever knew it in the first, is that though we are all individuals, we make up a larger body – a society. Saint Paul in 1st Corinthians refers to this as the Church being one body with many parts. Solzhenitsyn, in Repentance, calls this the “integrated organism.” Regardless of terminology, being in community means that we must learn to live together if there is to be anything approaching peace, the nature of which is beyond the scope of this essay alone. As St. Paul writes, when one member suffers, all suffer. When one man does evil to another, the evil is not limited to the two men. It expands throughout the society, and the fruits are obvious. There is no trust among society, no humility in public debate, no amicable disagreement.

Solzhenitsyn wrote in Repentance,

“We have not merely lost the gift of repentance in our public life but have ridiculed it. This feeling was precipitately abandoned and made an object of contempt, the place in the soul where repentance once dwelt was laid waste.”

All the more is this true some 44 years hence. Repentance is not so much ridiculed, as it is altogether ignored. He goes on to point out that for 50 years Russians had blamed all their troubles on the tsars, the bourgeois, and so on, but had never stopped to consider their own complicity in their troubles. This is the lesson we must learn from.

We are all of us guilty of something. No one’s hands are clean in this life, though we would pretend otherwise. What we hold against our neighbor we should rightly hold against ourselves, if not the specific sin, then surely the general sense that they – and we – are imperfect and that it has brought some mild or severe evil or harm into the lives of others. Our actions, however seemingly benign or limited, have real consequences, and this we must accept, lest we reject to our detriment.

In this year, 2017, there has been so much proverbial weeping and gnashing of teeth. More is coming; it always does. Take away the ugliness of the recent presidential election, and one still finds a decadent Western Civilization eager to remove from existence anything good, beautiful, and true. We have brought this on ourselves; whether by action or inaction we have made this hostile world. It is a dark world, because we have extinguished the light. Can things improve? Yes and no. Infinite progression, the comforting ideal of the age, is impossible, and in the tension of pursuing the impossible we find much of our present conflict. This does not mean, however, that there is no good to be done. Things can improve, but only with humility and wisdom, and those are gifts given in celebration of true repentance.

The only appropriate conclusion must come from Solzhenitsyn himself:

“The greatness of a people is to be sought not in the blare of trumpets – physical might is purchased at a spiritual price beyond our means – but in the level of its inner development, in its breadth of soul, in unarmed moral steadfastness… We cannot raise a clean crop on a false, unsound, obdurate soil.”


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