Andrey Shirin on Why America Today Feels Like Russia in the Early ’90s and Why That’s an Opportunity for Christians

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Andrey Shirin is an asTsociate professor of divinity and director of transformational leadership at John Leland Center for Theological Studies Arlington, Virginia, where he researches and teaches at the intersection of theology, leadership, and public life.


The country seems to be divided as it has not been for a long time. The grand narrative that has united the country is being vigorously questioned. People cannot agree on basic values. Public discourse has become toxic. Deep divisions run through nearly every public institution. The media have become polarized. You can tell people’s political leanings by the media outlets they draw information from. People on the other side are not simply wrong on some issues, they are bigots, entitled elitists, foreign agents, ivory tower weirdos, or some combination of these. Reasonable discourse with them is not possible, so eventually they have to be shut out of public life.

It is becoming more and more challenging to have a calm, lighthearted conversation about public issues with friends who disagree. Tension is palpably in the air, and sporadic street clashes are beginning to erupt. There are some who call for peace and reconciliation, but their voices are drowned out by those who think that peace and reconciliation with their opponents are impossible. And, to make matters worse, a deadly contagious disease has arrived from another continent.

You may be thinking that I am describing the current state of affairs in the US, but I’m actually describing my experience of living in the Soviet Union during the final years of its existence. Lately, though, my experience of living in the US feels eerily similar.

As a seminary professor, I often wonder how Christians should respond to this situation. But divisions among Christians tend to mirror divides in society at large. Moreover, these divisions have seeped into my classroom, and sometimes they burst into the open. How should I react? Should I steer clear of discussing this subject? If not, what answers should I give? Is one of the sides clearly in the wrong? Questions like these have been on my mind a lot.

Once, I asked William Galston, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow and Wall Street Journal columnist, how seminaries, churches and other religious institutions can serve the society best at the present moment. His answer was “by emphasizing reconciliation.” Galston added that they should model what my former Soviet leaders called peaceful coexistence. Even though I felt ambivalent about the concept at the time, by and large I agree with Galston, primarily because I feel that the polarization that is tearing American society apart is not being taken with the seriousness it requires.

Déjà vu

In March 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev ascended to power, everyone expected the Soviet Union to be around for a long time. However, I remember vividly the feeling in the air during the mid-1980s; everyone knew changes needed to be made. Gorbachev shared this intuition and encouraged an open discussion. But when that discussion started, the dark sides of Soviet history came to the fore. The media was full of stories about the horrors of Stalin years, and this quickly devolved into the debate of whether the country’s history contained substantial moral flaws to be accounted for.

Some called for dismantling memorials to founding fathers, such as Lenin. The dominant narrative began to be questioned. As a result, the narrative could no longer discharge its unifying function. Subsequently, the societal fissures that were thought long healed resurfaced with vengeance. While riding public transportation, I could tell people’s leanings from the papers they read. There could be no compromise between the right and the left. Gorbachev tried to govern from the center, but the center was left with increasingly shrinking room for maneuvering.

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Source: Christianity Today