Academic journal article Theological Studies

Post-Gulag Christology: Contextual Considerations from a Lithuanian Perspective

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Post-Gulag Christology: Contextual Considerations from a Lithuanian Perspective

Article excerpt

A worldwide conversation in Christology has been taking place over recent decades, during some of which theological voices of Eastern Europe were silenced. Now many of these voices are free to speak; this article represents one line of thought emerging to contribute to the global effort to answer for our day the Gospel question, "Who do you say that I am?" In the context of Lithuanian experience, my article offers a test case for contextual Christology from an Eastern European perspective by critically reflecting on the theological implications of the Communist era, of which the system of the Soviet Gulags symbolically stands out as an unmistakable and grim token.

Since most readers are scarcely familiar with this grievous reality, I first describe the context in which my interpretation of post-Gulag Christology emerges and why the Gulag experience calls for a new attempt to "name Jesus Christ again." (1) Then, drawing on the experience of the Gulag era, especially the theological significance of a powerful image of popular religious art in Lithuania, I develop some insights into a post-Gulag interpretation of the mystery of Christ. Finally, I explore the challenges that, in my view, Eastern European theology and Christology are facing, and ways to move toward new life-giving possibilities. In doing so, 1 follow the aspiration of Vatican II to engage theology in local contexts and cultures so they can "contribute to ... the revelation of the Savior's grace" (2) (Ad gentes no. 22).

The Gulag and Post-Gulag Contexts

In this article, the notion of "Gulag" is a pinnacle of and represents the unjust and often radical suffering experienced not only by the subjects of the Soviet system but also, in various forms, by people throughout Eastern Europe. Though the era of the Gulags suppressed christological discourse, it nevertheless shaped a christological consciousness that needs further articulation in the post-Gulag situation of Eastern Europe. "Gulag" is a problematic term, but before I describe the Gulag and post-Gulag contexts from the Lithuanian perspective, let me briefly clarify what is meant here by "Eastern Europe."

For convenience, I usually refer to Eastern and Central European countries as "Eastern Europe," a definition created during the Cold War and used synonymously with the term "Eastern Bloc," by which was meant the rest of Europe to the East of the territories of "traditional" Western countries. Since this definition represents a Western perspective, I retain the distinction "Eastern" and "Central" Europe when referring to the works of authors who refuse to be defined by dominant Western culture, thus honoring their right to claim who they are--the right that was for decades denied by the Communist regime.

Abuse of human rights stood at the center of the Gulag experience. As Anne Applebaum points out, "Gulag" represented not only the system of Soviet slave labor, where people often were worked to death; it "has come to mean the Soviet repressive system itself, the set of procedures that prisoners once called the 'meatgrinder': the arrests, the interrogations, the transport in unheated cattle cars, the forced labor, the destruction of families, the years spent in exile, the early and unnecessary deaths." (3) Even though forced labor camps were officially abolished in 1960, their modified "offspring" were in operation until 1987 when head of state Mikhail Gorbachev began to dissolve the Soviet Union's political camps altogether. Thus, the Gulag era coincides with the whole period of Communist repression in Eastern Europe.

Throughout this period, the scale of Communist repression in Lithuania, my home country, amounted to genocide. About 800,000 Lithuanians, almost one quarter of the population, were lost to Communist persecution--deportations, executions, incarceration, the murder of the political opposition, forced emigration, and so on. (4) The rest of the population, predominantly Catholic, was deprived of freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and freedom of thought and speech; even remembering their origins and identities was deracinated: history was falsified, and memories were replaced by effigies of propaganda. …

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