Kotkin, “Stalin”

9781594203800Rounding out this week’s posts, here is a new and well-received book from Penguin Random House, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941by Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin. The book focuses on the period of forced collectivization, during which Stalin consolidated the Communist regime and, in the process, killed almost a million people. The 1930s were also the time of the most vicious persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church, led by the so-called League of the Militant Godless. Tens of thousands of churches were closed, and hundreds of thousands of clergy executed. After 1941, when Stalin needed the help of the Church in rallying opposition to Hitler, the persecution lifted a bit, but the real damage already had occurred. Here’s a description of the book from the publisher’s website:

Pulitzer Prize-finalist Stephen Kotkin has written the definitive biography of Joseph Stalin, from collectivization and the Great Terror to the conflict with Hitler’s Germany that is the signal event of modern world history

In 1929, Joseph Stalin, having already achieved dictatorial power over the vast Soviet Empire, formally ordered the systematic conversion of the world’s largest peasant economy into “socialist modernity,” otherwise known as collectivization, regardless of the cost.

What it cost, and what Stalin ruthlessly enacted, transformed the country and its ruler in profound and enduring ways. Building and running a dictatorship, with life and death power over hundreds of millions, made Stalin into the uncanny figure he became. Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941 is the story of how a political system forged an unparalleled personality and vice versa.

The wholesale collectivization of some 120 million peasants necessitated levels of coercion that were extreme even for Russia, and the resulting mass starvation elicited criticism inside the party even from those Communists committed to the eradication of capitalism. But Stalin did not flinch. By 1934, when the Soviet Union

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Rommen, “Into All the World”

intoalltheworld__33962.1509128445.300.300Earlier this week, I posted about the new Pew Report on Orthodox Christianity, which focuses, in part, on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. I argued that the Ethiopian Church, an ancient Christian communion without colonial associations, is well positioned to do missionary work in Africa, where Christianity is booming. To do so, though, the Church may have to overcome a mindset that views missionary work as something for other Christians. I don’t know too much about the Ethiopian Church, but one often hears expressed, in other Orthodox circles, a reluctance to engage in missionary work–a reluctance that may be more comprehensible to Western Christians when one realizes that such work exposes missionaries to a real threat of murder in many areas where Orthodox live.

A new book from the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Into All the World: An Orthodox Theology of Mission, by Edward Rommen (Duke Divinity School), explores these issues. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Fr Edward Rommen makes the case that it is now time to reexamine the theological underpinnings of the Eastern Orthodox Church’s mission to the world. Globalization has clearly altered the various fields on which missions are carried out. Christians in the West, to their credit, have been actively developing a missional response to these changes. As a result, missiology and missions theology are well established in the academic institutions of the West. However, the Orthodox Church has, in spite of its rich history of missionary activity, been notably absent from these discussions. But now this is changing.

As the constraints of political and religious oppression have eased, the Church is awakening to its own history, but more importantly to its own missionary responsibility. There has been a great deal of fresh activity among Orthodox scholars that can enrich our reexamination of the Church’s mission. So it is now indeed an opportune time to tap into the biblical, historical, and traditional resources of the Orthodox Church and attempt to reformulate a systematic, theological statement of the rationale and goal of mission, to reaffirm the centrality of the Church in missionary outreach, to describe for a new generation the nature of the gospel and the basic content of church education, and to rearticulate the guidelines that should govern our mission work.

Vosganian, “The Book of Whispers”

9453aa94e9dd50e2c55ac53c0b7d9ad2Continuing our focus this week on Orthodox Christians, here is a new book from Yale University Press on the Armenian Genocide of 1915, an ethnic cleansing campaign against Armenian Orthodox Christians in Ottoman Turkey that also swept up Greek and Syriac Orthodox Christians, as well as Catholics and Protestants. The Book of Whispers, is by Romanian parliamentarian Varujan Vosganian. Here’s the description from the Yale website:

A harrowing account of the Armenian Genocide documented through the stories of those who managed to survive and descendants who refuse to forget

The grandchild of Armenians who escaped widespread massacres during the Ottoman Empire a century ago, Varujan Vosganian grew up in Romania hearing firsthand accounts of those who had witnessed horrific killings, burned villages, and massive deportations. In this moving chronicle of the Armenian people’s almost unimaginable tragedy, the author transforms true events into a work of fiction firmly grounded in survivor testimonies and historical documentation

Across Syrian desert refugee camps, Russian tundra, and Romanian villages, the book chronicles individual lives destroyed by ideological and authoritarian oppression. But this novel tells an even wider human story. Evocative of all the great sufferings that afflicted the twentieth century—world wars, concentration camps, common graves, statelessness, and others—this book belongs to all peoples whose voices have been lost. Hailed for its documentary value and sensitive authenticity, Vosganian’s work has become an international phenomenon.

Frankfurter, “Christianizing Egypt”

9780691176970_0The Coptic Church today is suffering one of the worst periods of persecution in its history. Yet few Americans, including American Christians, know much about it. In fact, I’d guess that most Americans, including American Christians, assume that Egypt is uniformly Muslim, except for a handful of American Evangelical missionaries and their congregations. In fact, Christianity has ancient roots in Egypt, and the Coptic Church preserves some of the earliest Christian traditions.

A new book from Princeton University Press, Christianizing Egypt: Syncretism and Local Worlds in Late Antiquity, by Boston University Professor David Frankfurter, discusses some of that history. Here’s the description from the Princeton website:

How does a culture become Christian, especially one that is heir to such ancient traditions and spectacular monuments as Egypt? This book offers a new model for envisioning the process of Christianization by looking at the construction of Christianity in the various social and creative worlds active in Egyptian culture during late antiquity.

As David Frankfurter shows, members of these different social and creative worlds came to create different forms of Christianity according to their specific interests, their traditional idioms, and their sense of what the religion could offer. Reintroducing the term “syncretism” for the inevitable and continuous process by which a religion is acculturated, the book addresses the various formations of Egyptian Christianity that developed in the domestic sphere, the worlds of holy men and saints’ shrines, the work of craftsmen and artisans, the culture of monastic scribes, and the reimagination of the landscape itself, through processions, architecture, and the potent remains of the past.

Drawing on sermons and magical texts, saints’ lives and figurines, letters and amulets, and comparisons with Christianization elsewhere in the Roman empire and beyond, Christianizing Egypt reconceives religious change—from the “conversion” of hearts and minds to the selective incorporation and application of strategies for protection, authority, and efficacy, and for imagining the environment.

New Pew Study on Orthodox Christianity

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Ethiopian Orthodox Cathedral, Addis Ababa

 

All this week, I’ll be posting items on Orthodox Christianity, an important but understudied (at least in America) Christian communion. To start, here’s a new report from the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life, “Orthodox Christianity in the 21st Century,” released this month. Orthodox Christianity has relatively few communicants in the United States, mostly immigrants from Orthodox countries and their descendants, as well as a small number of converts, especially from Evangelical denominations. But, globally, Orthodoxy is the third largest Christian communion, after Catholics and Protestants, with a combined number in the hundreds of millions.

Orthodox leaders are becoming increasingly visible in global affairs. For example, the Ecumenical Patriarch has been active on environmental questions. Thanks to an increasingly assertive Russian Church, Orthodoxy is beginning to have an impact in human rights fora like the UN Commission. In fact, even in the US, Orthodox Christians may have had an impact on the last presidential election. At a panel at Fordham University earlier this month, scholar Nicholas Gvosdev pointed out that Donald Trump appealed to Orthodox Christians in places like Michigan–which Trump won with a narrow margin.

The Pew report reveals that although their numbers across the globe are growing in absolute terms, the number of Orthodox Christians has declined relative to Catholics and Protestants. In the Middle East, at least, that decline is explained in part by persecution against Orthodox (and other) Christians in the twentieth century, which continues today. Seventy years of Communist repression in the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc also didn’t help. But the report reveals a hopeful resurgence of Orthodox Christianity in former Communist countries.

The report pays a lot of attention to the largest Orthodox Church outside Europe, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (36 million members), one of the five so-called Oriental Orthodox Churches. This is commendable, as people often assume that Orthodoxy is an entirely European phenomenon. Although declining in its historic European home, Christianity is soaring in the global south, including in Africa. In fact, the Ethiopian Church, an ancient Christian body without any colonial associations, may be well positioned to do missionary work across the continent in the coming century.

The report details many interesting facts about Orthodox practice and belief — compared to Catholics and mainline Protestants, for example, the Orthodox are deeply conservative on social issues like gender and marriage — as well as prospects for ecumenism. It will be very valuable for anyone interested in the sociology of Christianity today. (H/T: George Demacopoulos at Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center, who served as a scholarly adviser on the report).

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Chappel, “Catholic Modern: The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church”

Here is an extremely interesting looking book about a complicated period for the RomanCatholicism Catholic Church: Catholic Modern: The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church (Harvard) by James Chappel. The book explores the Church’s changing approach to the issue of international human rights in this period, as well as other changes in response to the horrors of the early twentieth century. And it also appears to take on the question of the relationship of Catholicism and modernity very thoughtfully.

In 1900 the Catholic Church stood staunchly against human rights, religious freedom, and the secular state. According to the Catholic view, modern concepts like these, unleashed by the French Revolution, had been a disaster. Yet by the 1960s, those positions were reversed. How did this happen? Why, and when, did the world’s largest religious organization become modern?

James Chappel finds an answer in the shattering experiences of the 1930s. Faced with the rise of Nazism and Communism, European Catholics scrambled to rethink their Church and their faith. Simple opposition to modernity was no longer an option. The question was how to be modern. These were life and death questions, as Catholics struggled to keep Church doors open without compromising their core values. Although many Catholics collaborated with fascism, a few collaborated with Communists in the Resistance. Both strategies required novel approaches to race, sex, the family, the economy, and the state.

Catholic Modern tells the story of how these radical ideas emerged in the 1930s and exercised enormous influence after World War II. Most remarkably, a group of modern Catholics planned and led a new political movement called Christian Democracy, which transformed European culture, social policy, and integration. Others emerged as left-wing dissidents, while yet others began to organize around issues of abortion and gay marriage. Catholics had come to accept modernity, but they still disagreed over its proper form. The debates on this question have shaped Europe’s recent past—and will shape its future.

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Good and Evil at Notre Dame

I’m delighted to be participating in the annual conference of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, which begins tomorrow and runs through Saturday. This year’s theme is “Through Every Human Heart” and focuses on ideas of good and evil.

I’m on a criminal law panel moderated by Rick Garnett and together with Cecelia Klingele, John Stinneford, and Meghan Ryan. My remarks will consider the fate of evil as a concept in scholarship about criminal law and punishment. If I have some time left over, I’ll talk about good too. My general thesis is that both of these ideas are basically irrelevant in academic discussion of criminal law (I wrote something about this years ago in an old blog post…time flies).

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