April 25, 2021

Shafts of Light, II: Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Passage: Psalm 27

Howard Thurman, author of the Opening Prayer for the Easter Season, was a Christian prophetic mystic and pastor for the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King famously carried with him wherever he went a Bible, a copy of the constitution and a copy of Howard Thurman’s book, “Jesus and the Disinherited.” Thurman introduced Gandhi to King. In 1953 Time Magazine listed Thurman as one of America’s twelve greatest preachers of the century. Among other jobs, he served as chaplain though out his career at Moorehouse, Spelman, Howard and Brown Universities. It was at Bethune’s funeral that Thurman preached, calling her a “shaft of light,” the inspiration for our sermon series title.

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me
to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes—
they shall stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.
For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they are breathing out violence.
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!

At the NFL Draft in Cleveland on Thursday, the Jacksonville Jaguars will almost certainly select Clemson Quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the first pick in the first round of the draft. That’s as safe a bet as anything in professional football.

NFL football is not a very courteous game; it’s often violent and concussive; it looks like they’re trying to kill each other. But have you ever noticed how civilized the NFL Draft always is? They take turns. Politely. And the losers always get to go first. The worst team gets the first shot at the best player. That is so polite.

When Katie and Christine and I sat down to plan this sermon series on the Shafts of Light in the stained-glass windows of the Malott Chapel, we conducted our own version of the NFL Draft.

We took turns picking the heroes we wanted to study and talk about with you. And the loser got to go first. The loser is also the Boss, so I got the first pick in the first round.  Katie had the second pick and choose Corrie Ten Boom. And on and on it went.

My first-round draft pick is Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He’s been one of my personal saints for over 40 years, ever since I learned about him in a World Lit class at Calvin College in, maybe, 1978.

He was a brilliant student in his youth, studied Math and Physics at a Rostov State University, and was headed for a career in academia, teaching science to high school or college students, when at the age of 23, in 1941, he was drafted into the Russian Army during the most brutal hostilities between the Nazis and the Red Army.

During the war he served in an artillery reconnaissance unit responsible for locating and destroying giant, hidden German guns.

He survived bombardment after bombardment, served with distinction, earned a chest full of impressive medals, and eventually rose to the rank of Captain in the Red Army.

But in friendly letters to comrades near the end of the war, Mr. Solzhenitsyn had the unmitigated gall to insult not just one, but both, of the most powerful and unforgiving Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union.

He referred to Vladimir Lenin as “Old Baldy,” and to Joseph Stalin as “The Mustachioed One.” You can’t say he was wrong about that.

For his insolence, Mr. Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years of hard labor in the prison camps of the Soviet Union. Think about that.  Eight years. What would happen to Kate McKinnon or Stephen Colbert if they staged their relentless, slanderous shenanigans in the Soviet Union? Thank your Ever-Loving God your Constitution has a first amendment.

The Soviet prison camp system was famously called The Gulag Archipelago. “Gulag” is a Russian acronym referring to the main administration of the camp system.

And the Gulag was an archipelago because these thousands of individual prison camps sprawled across the entire length and breadth of the Soviet Union like a necklace of oceanic islands. On a map, from above, the Gulag resembles an archipelago, like the Hawaiian Islands or the Galapagos or the Florida Keys.

For mildly insulting Lenin and Stalin, and for insufficient loyalty to the Communist Party, Mr. Solzhenitsyn laid bricks for eight years at a camp in Kazakhstan, in suffocating heat and at 30 below zero, on a daily diet of a crust of bread and a cup of potato-peel soup.

Many of the inmates at these brutal prison camps were loyal Soviet soldiers who’d fought valiantly for the Red Army against Hitler. When Germany was collapsing near the end of World War II and the United States Army began liberating Nazi POW camps, thousands of Russian soldiers captured and imprisoned by the Germans fell into the custody of the Americans.

Many of them were shipped to the United States to await repatriation to Russia and ended up in temporary confinement camps at Ellis Island and Fort Dix in New Jersey.

Some of them committed suicide rather than return to the Soviet Union and be sent to the Gulag. Hitler’s camps, they said, were nothing compared to Stalin’s. For Russian soldiers, it was better to be killed dead rather than to be captured alive by the Germans.[1]

When he was released after eight years of hard labor in 1953, Alexander Solzhenitsyn spent the next 20 years cataloguing his experiences, along with the experiences of thousands of his comrades, in the two most important books of the twentieth century.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is about, well, about one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, aka, Alexander Solzhenitsyn himself in the Gulag. It is a lean, efficient, 159 pages.

This book had scant hope of ever seeing the light of day in the Soviet Union, but Mr. Solzhenitsyn sent his manuscript to Alexander Tvardovsky, the enlightened editor of the progressive journal Novi Mir.

I’ve probably told you this story before. When it came to unsolicited manuscripts, it was Mr. Tvardovsky’s habit to throw them into his briefcase at the end of the day in order to scan them haphazardly at home in the evening. He would go home, have dinner, pour himself a vodka, put on his pajamas, and read these manuscripts disinterestedly in bed.

After a few pages of Ivan Denisovich, though, Mr. Tvardovsky realized that he was reading an epochal masterpiece. So he got out of bed, changed into his professional suit and tie, and sat at his desk to show requisite honor to a towering accomplishment.[2]

Ten years later, in 1973, Mr. Solzhenitsyn published The Gulag Archipelago. It’s a very different book from Denisovich, not about one day in one prisoner’s life, but about millions of days in the lives of millions of Gulag prisoners. It is not lean and efficient; at 1,930 pages, ten times the length of Denisovich, it is sprawling and disjointed and obese.

But these two books together exposed for the first time the revolting monstrosity and ruthless inhumanity of the Soviet system. Fifty million people spent time in the Gulag; 11 million died; its ravenous tentacles reached into every single Soviet home.

Until Alexander Solzhenitsyn, many liberal, enlightened Americans had been champions of Soviet Communism; after Alexander Solzhenitsyn, such an ideological stance became impossible for anyone who cherishes freedom, dignity, and equality.

This unassuming Math major, this loyal artillery Captain, changed the entire trajectory of twentieth-century history. It would take 20 years before the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, but Mr. Solzhenitsyn started that crusade. His life and work demonstrate the eternal truth of that old adage: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”  He was born in 1918, about the same time as the Soviet Union, but outlived it by 20 years.

Well, what does that have to do with us 50 years later in a secure democracy like ours? Well, I’m glad you asked. “One word of truth shall outlast the whole world,” he said.

We have to tell the unvarnished truth about what implacable power is capable of. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a bodycam or a cellphone video before there were bodycams and cellphones.

“You’re fixin’ to ride the lightnin’, Son!” shouted a Windsor, Virginia, police officer at a Lieutenant in the United States Army who had done nothing wrong. Then he pepper-sprayed him, beat him, and handcuffed him. A Lieutenant in the United States Army.

“You’re fixin’ to ride the lightnin’, Son!” In other words, “I could kill you in one second.” Where does such violent language come from? What made that officer think he could speak to an American citizen like that? Power runs amok.

Seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazier trained her iPhone on Derek Chauvin for nine endless minutes. She refused to look away. It would never have occurred to her teenage mind to put it this way, but she was demonstrating the accuracy of Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s adage: “One word of truth will outweigh the whole world.”

This is our country; it’s up to us to bear witness. Like Alexander Solzhenitsyn. One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.

My heart just swells with admiration when I think of Gil Bowen and the likes of you who installed these windows in the Malott Chapel 30 years ago. Mary Macleod Bethune. Alexander Solzhenitsyn. These are the Shafts of Light by which our children learn. These are the saints and heroes who shape their virtue and build their character. Tell me whom you admire, and I will tell you who you are.

“The Lord is my light, and my salvation. Whom then shall I fear? Though an army encamp against me, my heart will not be fear. Though war rise up against me, yet will I be unafraid.”

[1]Ian Frazier, “On the Prison Highway,” The New Yorker, August 30, 2010, p. 31.

[2]Eric Ericson, Solzhenitsyn: The Moral Vision (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980), pp. 34–35.

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