Frank Buchman’s Legacy Chapter 14

Frank Buchman’s Legacy Chapter 14


Chapter 14

Action Emerges from Silence – a Russian view

by Grigory Pomerants

Grigory Pomerants was born in 1918 into a Jewish family in Vilnius, but his family moved in 1925 to Moscow where he graduated in Russian language and literature. Through his thesis on Dostoyevsky being judged anti-Marxist he was not admitted to post-graduate studies, but is now a well-known Russian author. He fought in the Red Army against Hitler, was twice wounded and twice decorated. Despite five years imprisonment for anti-Soviet agitation, he is now a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, and the Writers’ Union.

Not only the guerrillas in Sarajevo need to be morally rearmed, but also the citizens of the affluent world. Novove Vremva (New Times]*

ABOUT three years ago the interpreter Andrei Mironov telephoned and asked if he could bring two Scandinavians to see me. They were concerned about how it was possible for Shafarevich, the author of a good book about socialism, to have written Russophobia. They had gone to ask Pavel Litvinov this question and he had sent them to me. I don't remember what I said, but that was the beginning of my friendship with Leif Hovelsen. I am obliged to Shafarevich for that. I don't know whether he wished me well, but fate so decided.

Forgiving your executioner

Leif was a member of the Resistance in Norway. A friend betrayed him. He was arrested and suffered cruel torture, but refused to be an informer and was expecting his death sentence to be carried out. Suddenly everything changed. There was an uprising of Soviet prisoners of war who joined with the forces of the Resistance to free the country. (The remarkable story of Lieutenant Colonel Novobranets, the leader of the uprising, can be read in General Grigorenko's book In the Underground you only meet rats, but this is not our subject now). The SS were taken prisoner and those who had been prisoners were made their guards. The new guards forced the former ones to do the things that they had had to do as prisoners: to squat and jump, squat and jump. One of the SS became exhausted and asked for water. Leif brought it - and saw the hated face of his torturer. In a fit of passion he poured the water over the man's head. Then he felt ashamed. When he had endured the torture it had been his victory. But now they had won - he had acted like them.

Leif applied for leave, went into the mountains and tried to collect his thoughts, to withdraw into silence. At one moment an inner voice - perhaps prompted by the way his mother brought him up - said to him that he must forgive his torturer. Leif went home and told everything to his mother. She supported him: “Tell him that as your mother I will pray for him”. Leif was allowed to visit the SS man, who had damaged his eardrums when
beating him, and told him all this. The SS man was staggered. Others did not withdraw their testimony, and the torturer was executed, but before his death he asked for a priest for the first time in many years. Since that time Leif has given his whole life for the reconciliation of former enemies.

For ten years or so, Leif worked with other members of the Society for Moral Re-Armament trying to bring together French and Germans. He helped dissidents and worked for the award of the Nobel Prize to Sakharov and Walesa. After making friends with Leif I twice accepted an invitation to go to Mountain House, Caux, where the annual MRA conferences take place - 700 metres above Lake Geneva, at the place where the prisoner of Chillon once languished and where later Vladimir Nabokov and Charlie Chaplin ended their days in peace.

The special spirit of Mountain House

The first impression is of the overwhelming beauty of Mountain House. The second is of the people who in no way ruin the beauty. In the Caucasus or in the Crimea there are mountains, valleys and lakes that yield nothing to Switzerland, but the people spoil the beauty with noise and dirt. Here, beside the auto route that skirts the forested slopes, you see no scrap of litter. I saw a car parked (new as if straight from the production line: I never saw any dirty ones; there are fines for dirt) - the radio was not switched on, nobody was intruding on the quietness. They drive quietly and do not interfere with the pedestrians. I never saw a drunk. Bonjour Monsieur, Bonjour Madame. Maybe it's only custom; but a very good custom. In it is the age-old respect for another person, the sense of responsibility to others.

And supported by these customs the special spirit of Mountain House has been created, infusing customary politeness with sincere goodwill...I don't see how to avoid using this old-fashioned word. White, black, coloured come together and all live like one big family. There are no staff. Everyone chooses a team to join: preparing vegetables, cooking the meals, cleaning rooms and so on. The teams meet together; people from different parts of the world come closer to each other. Another way of coming closer is more personal: somehow somebody likes you and invites you to have lunch or supper together. The host lays the table and a conversation ensues - right here in the dining hall, or we cross into the next room for an hour, or two, or three.

There were some encounters similar to Ivan and Alyosha's talk in the tavern. Evidently this does not only happen in Russia! We spent such an evening with an American Presbyterian minister, Robert MacLennan, telling each other about the turning points of life that formed his view of the world, my view of the world and my wife Zinaida Mirkina's view of the world. Sometimes the presence of the interpreter seemed a little strange, but Andrei Mironov was not just an interpreter. There were some perestroika characters that he simply could not bring himself to translate for, whereas he joined in this conversation heart and soul. MacLennan caught our attention when he conducted a meeting of Israeli rabbis with Palestinian mullahs at a plenary session, and said that the deeper you go into the essence of your own religion the more you understand other religions. Somehow my wife and I hit it off well with him; from the very beginning our conversation went like the one with Leif in Moscow. I remember that Robert had a psychotherapist friend who had helped him greatly at a difficult moment, but upset him by going rarely to church. When asked why, he said, “I don't have to”. At first MacLennan was offended, but a few years later he understood that this might have been the most profound thing he had heard.

Whatever you do, don't over-repent!

Another remarkable meeting was between Zinaida Mirkina and Djurdjica from Croatia. A passionately devout Catholic, Djurdjica, despite the difference of spiritual paths, sensed a direct spiritual experience and was drawn to it. At the conversations of the two women I stepped aside into the role of interpreter (from German into Russian and from Russian into German). Then sometimes it was the other way round and the whole conversation was with me. After my presentation in a seminar, two intellectuals, Professor Pierre Spoerri and Ambassador Mackenzie, invited us to supper and showered me with questions about the theory of sub-ecumenism. I passed the examination fairly well and even tried to answer in the same language in which they were posing their questions (Mackenzie belongs to that minority of British who pronounce words distinctly, and scholarly terminology in all European languages is more or less the same). I only flopped on one question: what form might a world government take? I have never fantasised about that and so answered honestly: I don't know.

Out of the group discussions and seminars I would particularly mention the meeting of Russian speakers. In the local understanding this did not mean an ethnic group, but all who speak Russian. Professor Landsbergis and his wife came as well. Dmitri Nikulin, the author of a good little book Metaphysical Reflections, in his philosophical distraction called the Lithuanian leader ‘Brazauskas’. Landsbergis continued the comedy of errors by addressing Nikulin as ‘Brezhnev’. However, not everything was so funny. There was a provocative intervention by Dr Ernst, a German physician who had treated Belorussians at the time of the war and kept his links with Belarus. He started to speak about the guilt of the West (and particularly Germany) concerning all the woes of the East. This stirred my wife Zina and she hotly supported him. Then Landsbergis took the floor and cautioned that under no circumstances should we over-repent. Of course, he admitted, the Nazis had done a lot of terrible things to the Jews, but stressing that distracts our attention from the threat of Russia's imperial claims, which have still not receded into the past. In his words, Russia must prove its sincerity by liberating Chechnya.

I tried to switch the focus to the personal feeling of guilt; in my experience it doesn't follow any rules, whereas repentance by a whole state can become just a symbolic gesture. Still, one of the Russians added, repentance, even as a symbolic gesture is a good symbolic gesture. No fear of over-repentance emerged amongst the others present. Mrs Landsbergis sensed this and decided to support her husband. “This is all words”, she said, “We need action” (apparently granting independence to Chechnya). She spoke as “the only one here of those who suffered”. It is true that she grew up in Siberian exile, probably a very hard one. But amongst those present were others who had gone through Stalinist and post-Stalinist repressions; there was a Russian woman who had been born in Sevastopol harbour in 1920 (her mother gave birth having just boarded the ship, and the new-born girl was almost thrown out as a bundle of rags when the ship was being unloaded). Mrs Landsbergis brushed all this aside: “You belong to the ruling nation”. In the general atmosphere of openness to the sufferings of others this imperviousness to others’ concerns (such as is customary on Earth) appeared strange. On the planet MRA the spirit of reconciliation reigned: northern Sudanese with southern Sudanese, Israelis with Arabs, Khmer Rouge with Khmer of royal blood, and so on.

The opposite of Babel

After Switzerland I went to Latvia to give lectures and again found myself on planet Earth; everywhere one could feel the mood of two national communities gripped by anxiety and mistrust. The Russian Cultural Society in Latvia is trying to start a dialogue, a conversation in which both sides listen to each other and are ready to understand the arguments of their opponents. However, the extremists on both sides are not yet ready for that. Meanwhile, a Russian in the audience came up to me and said that the situation in Russia alarmed him even more than the situation in Latvia. The reconciliation of the communities in the Baltic states is primarily a matter of time. Disaster is not breathing down their necks. Perhaps MRA will help to start the process that succeeded on the Rhine in these former Soviet republics.

Speaking at the last plenary session, Zinaida said that in Mountain House the exact opposite is happening to the building of the Tower of Babel: then a single language broke up into many languages, whereas here people are taught to speak a common divine parent language and we, like children, are learning to understand this silent language which opens the soul.

The spirit of the founder of the society, Frank Buchman (1878-1961), lives in the people who gather in Caux. He has been compared with the son of Mr Pickwick transported to America, and to St Francis of Assisi. Buchman was a descendant of Swiss Germans who left Europe in 1740, but in him there really was something from Pickwick and from Francis; a spiritual energy coming from a feeling of inner calling, a kind of charisma, and the enlightened optimism of Mr Pickwick, and something else uniquely American, a kind of inspired practicality. The idea of the society came to Buchman at a conference on disarmament at the start of the 1930s (he attended it as an expert); if the spirit of the nations does not change profoundly, nothing will come out of the negotiations, war is inevitable. The source of energy for the transformation must be sought in silence, in a place where nature itself bears the imprint of God's thought and evokes in the mind evangelical callings.

Hardly anyone would listen to Buchman on the eve of the war. In Russia, in Germany, in Japan, the cult of force was growing headlong. Fear of communism made western politicians seek understanding with Hitler. Then fear of Hitler caused the building of the atom bomb. In the war years Buchman went into seclusion with a few friends at Island House (on one of the American Great Lakes) and contemplated what would need to be done following the destruction in Europe. In 1946, he came to Switzerland. With the money of ninety families the dilapidated hotel in Caux was bought. Here the first post-war conference was to take place.

Buchman's order

There were no Germans amongst the arrivals. They did not yet have the right to leave their country without the special permission of the occupying powers. Buchman knew a few Germans about whose convictions he had no doubts. At his request the American Command gave them permission to go to Switzerland. One of these Germans was Adenauer. Soon Buchman introduced Adenauer to the French foreign minister Robert Schuman. And at the ‘grassroots’ the society worked for about ten years trying to erase the traces of national hatred and to encourage the French to believe in the sincerity of German repentance (our friend Leif worked on this with others). At the same time, a major work began in Asia and Africa. Buchman did not doubt that the end of the colonial system was near, and the society did everything in its power to make the transition to independence peaceful and bloodless. Many statesmen of the new countries became friends of Buchman and members of the society. Last year one of the leaders of MRA, Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, visited us in Moscow.

Buchman remained a passionate Christian, but the search for universal community caused the accent to be moved onto the spirit of love common to all great religions, and today MRA has become a kind of universal order where Muslims and Jews, Buddhists and Hindus have joined with Christians. The movement has its own unsolved problems which have accumulated since the death of Buchman. However, the spirit of Buchman comes to life at the meetings when the openness of faith traverses the boundaries of the religions.

Poisons and antidotes

Today, we are talking not about regions in crisis but about a global crisis, the impulse for which comes from the West. Development is not a simple movement towards better things. It creates poisons which must be counteracted. When development is too fast (in countries catching up with the West) there is no time to produce the antidote, and the illnesses which are tolerable in Europe become murderous in other parts. The West has accumulated good habits - of inner discipline, responsibility and respect for the law - and these habits allow it to hold firm despite amusing itself with destructive ideas and passions. However, after a few decades the good habits can disappear, or almost disappear; that is the experience of our country. And that is why Moral Re-Armament is not only necessary for regions in crisis. It is necessary for the whole world.

Translated by O. Tatishcheva and P. Thwaites.

*No 45, Moscow, November 1994, pp.36-38

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