The Way History Happens

IMG_9648“What’s the good of a street that doesn’t lead to a church?”

As the 1980s became the 1990s, and the world was watching the Soviet Union implode, its first indication that something was changing was what they themselves called “glasnost.” Russian for “openness,” it was the Soviet policy of open discussion of political and social issues instituted by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s which began the democratization of the Soviet Union.

A film led the way, “Repentance,” first made in 1984 but not allowed to be seen until 1987, and in the West we didn’t see it for two more years. The way history happens is always complex, and there are literally thousands of players. It is impossible to honestly say, “This is what happened,” as if one factor could ever account for the complexity of what happens and why. But deep in my own view of the way history “happens” is that the culture is upstream from politics.

The stories and songs, the ideas and attitudes that mark a moment in history, eventually find their way “downstream” into the political world.

Keeping it local for a moment, and very American, Trump and Cruz, Sanders and Clinton, don’t come out of historical vacuums, and they don’t become competitive political candidates— at least through Iowa —without strange things going on “out there” in the culture at-large. None of the above four have the cross-over appeal at this point to win the national election. Could it happen? Lots of crazy things happen in the world. But it is the culture that is “upstream,” resisting moral seriousness about who we need to be and why we need to be that, that makes for this political moment. I never tire of thinking of Postman and “amusing ourselves to death,” which is sordid if true.

But back to the Soviet Union. When Gorbachev began to open the eyes of his own heart to an honest conversation about what happened in his homeland, there was something in the air being breathed by his own people, brilliantly captured in the film directed by Tengiz Abuladze. The story of a Stalin-esque figure who had for decades been the mayor of a city in the Republic of Georgia, it focuses on the outrage of one family for the devastation brought about by the mayor’s policies. Cruelty, malice, horror, sorrow, unfolded over a generation. A court is convened to hear the case, and the story is publicly told for the first time.

At a break in the proceedings, the grandson of the mayor stays in the courtroom after everyone else has left, pondering all that he has heard. His father, the mayor’s son comes back in, looking for his son. “What you are doing!? Why are you still here?!” The son and grandson looks up into his father’s face, “But did you know that grandfather had done these things?” “What? What’s the problem?” his father protests. His son simply says, “But wasn’t he first of all a human being before he was a politician?”

repentanceThe film continues, asking the most important questions for human beings everywhere. The last moments of the film are remarkable, for Russians in the last days of totalitarianism and for all of us, everyone of us. A babushka slowly walks up a street, and stops by a house, asking, “Is this the way to the church?” She hears a fierce “no!” and moves on. As she walks up the street, she says to no one— no one but to heaven above —“What’s the use of a street that doesn’t lead to a church?” And the credits roll.

Over the last days here in the former Soviet empire, spending days in Prague and Bratislava, several times this film came into the conversations. I was glad that I knew it, and in fact had drawn on it many times in my years of teaching at the American Studies Program, particularly in the days of glasnost, and the falling apart of the Soviet Union. But its meaning still echoes across the world.

Not in the pandering of politicians, whatever their allegiance. That is always cheap, as it is rarely connected to any coherent account of a vocation in service of the common good. And not because we can find quick answers for our present and future. In an evermore pluralizing and pluralist world, understanding what “faith” means for the public square is hard work, and that is not very appealing to most. But being here, walking the streets that Havel walked, meeting people whom he knew, listening to people whose lives were profoundly affected by his words and very presence, I come home with an even deeper weight in my heart.

“When we lose God in the modern world, we lose access to these ideas, these words: meaning and purpose, accountability and responsibility.” In speeches all over the world, Havel made that argument, again and again. So when I saw this church at the end of the street in Vienna– a church that has become a Persian rug store –I remembered “Repentance,” and I wondered about Austria, reflecting on my walks through the Czech Republic and Slovakia the last week, of course thinking too about the backward steps that Russia has taken under Putin’s leadership the last generation.

The culture is upstream from politics, always and everywhere. We get what we want, which is sobering— and sometimes what we want wounds us, personally and politically.

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  • Pete Smith

    Thank you, Steve. We need the Church to be salt or the culture will putrify. I have been rereading the Sermon on the Mount. I turn to it regularly, and encourage my congregation to return to it frequently. Thank you for adding salt.

    • Steven Garber

      You are welcome, Pete. We are in this together.

  • Steve Gregg

    “Repentance” is a tremendous movie, Steve. Thanks for reminding me of it. This is critical time for the church in central and eastern Europe to be not only talking about these things but seeking to live out of these “gospel” implications.

  • Laura Lynch

    Powerfully said. I was particularly struck by three things- that “culture is upstream from politics- we get what we want, which is sobering” and the son’s question in the movie Repentance, “Wasn’t he first of all a human being before being a politician?” And the initial question “what’s the good of a street that doesn’t lead to a church?” My husband and I joke that after this political season we might want to move out of the States, but where to go? Ah, that is the question. Our longing is for a place we’ve never been to before, but we’ve had glimpses of here…

  • Patricia Harrison

    Very well said! And I will be looking for this film….