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Russia's Golgotha

March 22, 2017


Since returning from Russia, a lot of people have asked me, "What was your favorite part of your trip." My favorite part of visiting Russia was visiting the Butovo Firing Range.


Let me back up for a second and share with you that I am a huge history nerd. I am especially a huge history nerd about Communist Russia. It has been a lifelong dream of mine to visit Russia and see some of the places I have read about. I remember studying about the Butovo Firing Range in one of my Russian History courses at Pitt.


During Stalin's Reign of Terror (1937-1938), more than 20,000 people were executed in Butovo. Russians refer to Butovo as Russia's Golgotha. Golgotha being the place where Jesus suffered for the sins of the world. At Butovo Stalin ordered the executions of political opponents, priests, and foreigners. Prisoners were lined up at the edge of a pit, and shot in the neck. Our tour guide told us that executioners had unlimited access to vodka at Butovo to help them remove the smell of blood from their hands.


But my favorite part of Butovo was learning how the Orthodox Church honors its history. From what I understand, Russian Orthodox Christians have a Deuteronomic understanding of theodicy. According to this understanding of suffering, priests were executed because they failed to stand up to the Communists. It is only recently that the Orthodox Church has begun to understand those who died at Butovo as holy martyrs. Or as men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their faith.


 As I pastor, one of the things I have learned is that suffering, like anger, has to go somewhere. If we cannot make meaning of our suffering, we are likely to spend our lives making other people suffer. Think of the father who was abused as a child, who grows up to abuse his own children. I am so grateful that the Orthodox church is helping people make meaning of their suffering by turning Butovo into a memorial. That way family members and loved ones of those who died here have a place to go to pay their resects. They can pray at the mass graves. Light a candle in the church. Place an icon at the foot of the peace cross.


While we don't have mass graves in America like they do Moscow, I think there is something for American Christians in how Orthodox Christians are trying to reckon with their history. While we can't turn the clock back and stop the executions, studying history allows us to see what may happen to a church that allows the state to have the final say in who they are as a people. Studying history forces the church to question their own complacency in the face of sin. Sins like slavery, segregation, gun violence, and mass incarceration- to name a few.


I will always treasure my trip to Butovo. Especially during Lent. Where we sit with the reality of human sin. And wait with eager longing for the promised resurrection of all of our bodies.


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