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Solzhenitsyn's message: the power of the truth

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 13, 2008

During the past week the CWN home page carried a link to a memorable essay by the late, great Alexander Solzhenitsyn, entitled ”Live Not by Lies.” If you haven’t already read (or re-read) it, I urged you to do so now.

Solzhenitsyn was a prophet: not only in the sense that he spoke the truth, but also in that he correctly identified the force that could, and eventually did, bring down the powerful Soviet empire. “Live Not by Lies” was written in 1974, at a time when the power of the Communist police state was still unquestioned. (In fact Solzhenitsyn was arrested by the KGB on the very day that he completed the essay.) Even then-- long before most of us had ever heard of the Solidarity movement, or learned to recognize the name “Wojtyla,” long before Reagan challenged Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”-- Solzhenitsyn recognized that a corrupt and tyrannical regime cannot endure if ordinary people simply refuse to recognize its legitimacy.

The fearsome Soviet regime, which once threatened to take over the entire world, finally collapsed because it was built upon a friable foundation. Prudent Western leaders and fierce Afghan rebels played their roles, but they were only supporting actors. Ultimately Communism fell because no one believed-- no one even pretended to believe-- an ideology of lies.

For decades this evil form of government had survived and flourished through the systematic use of violence. But in the long run violence is no substitute for honest legitimacy. Solzhenitsyn saw it clearly in 1974:

But violence quickly grows old. And it has lost confidence in itself, and in order to maintain a respectable face it summons falsehood as its ally -- since violence can conceal itself with nothing except lies, and the lies can be maintained only by violence. And violence lays its ponderous paw not every day and not on every shoulder. It demands from us only obedience to lies and daily participation in lies -- all loyalty lies in that.

Not every Russian had the courage of Solzhenitsyn; not many were willing to risk imprisonment in the Gulag Archipelago. But this anti-Communist prophet saw that there was a milder form of effective resistance: “let us refuse to say that which we do not think.” To counteract the power of lies, he said: “Our path is not to give conscious support to lies about anything whatsoever!”

A decade after Solzhenitsyn wrote those words, the Solidarity movement-- refusing to honor the lie that a Communist regime represented the interests of the working class-- had exposed the weakness of the Polish government. The epidemic of honesty spread quickly, and within another decade the Soviet Union was no more.

In their obituary notices on the Russian writer, Western eulogists have generally acknowledged Solzhenitsyn as the foremost critic of Soviet ideology. They have been less willing to recognize the force of his critique of Western consumerism. But there are lies at the heart of secular materialism, too-- as Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have often warned us. Solzhenitsyn’s unforgettable Harvard Commencement address also merits a fresh reading, 20 years after it was delivered.

For now, however, I want to focus on the simple moral strategy suggested in “Live Not by Lies.” It is a sound strategy, which can be used to combat any sort of corruption in places of authority-- even within our holy Church. The Catholic Church has very little in common with the Soviet Union, of course. Yet any offense against truth is an offense against the faith, and so the virtue of honesty has a cleansing effect within the Church.

Solzhenitsyn reminds his fellow Russians that in order to bring about change, they do not necessarily need to be heroes or revolutionaries. He asks them to set a more modest standard, and refuse to participate in spreading lies. An honest man, he said, having committed himself to that standard, “Will not henceforth write, sign, or print in any way a single phrase which in his opinion distorts the truth.” He goes on to suggest the meetings that one should not attend, the committees that one should not join, the publications to which one should not subscribe.

Imagine how much change would be wrought if ordinary Catholics would adopt the same standard, and:

  • refuse to believe that parishes as “vibrant” when the pews are half-empty and the congregations are lethargic;
  • refuse to accept that religious-education programs are “rigorous” when teenage children cannot recite the Apostles’ Creed or name the seven sacraments;
  • refuse to support politicians who crave identification as “outstanding Catholic leaders” but waffle on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research;
  • refuse to send donations to Catholic colleges as long as the campus theologians spout heresy and administrators support gay-rights groups;
  • refuse to participate in marriage-preparation programs that avoid candid discussion of contraception, divorce, and pre-marital shack-ups;
  • refuse to contribute to Catholic charitable agencies if they downplay the Gospel message for the sake of political support.

We cannot right every wrong. We cannot expect instantaneous change. We are not, most of us, in a position to effect positive changes within ecclesiastical institutions. Yet we can all promote reform within the Church simply by recognizing forthrightly that some reform is necessary.

We may not all be crusaders. We may not all be heroes. But we all can recognize and honor the truth. We all can reject the lies.

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