Amy Coney Barrett and the Lessons of the Ukrainians

In the midst of everything else that’s going on, next Monday (Lord willing) we’ll start confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett to be the newest justice on the Supreme Court.  In light of the fact that she was and is in a Catholic Charismatic covenant community, I’ve tried to shed some light on what that really means and not be taken off on rabbit trails by our uninformed media.

I didn’t turn down membership in such a community because of what they believed.  I turned it down because I didn’t think their authoritarian structure was, well, a propos.  That separates me from those who somewhere along the way “discovered” what their idea really was.  Part of that idea is certainly wrapped up in the way they looked at the world around them.  To varying degrees, covenant communities were a preparation for a time when Christianity would be very unpopular and even persecuted in our culture.  That time looked imminent in the 1970’s, in the wake of the nervous breakdown we experienced. I really thought that such times were coming.  But I had my doubts as to whether the communities that were forming in the Catholic Charismatic community were an answer to this problem, and those doubts were confirmed in something that happened in the next decade.

In 1988 my church facilitated the resettlement of twenty-four Ukrainian Pentecostal refugees.  For someone who had been regaled with stories of the persecuted church, to have real contact with these people was a chance-in-a-lifetime experience.  The fact that I had made my own first trip to the USSR the previous spring only added to the anticipation.  We struggled with the language barrier but we did learn quite a bit about their life under communism.

The first is that the USSR was as hard on Christians as everyone said it was.  That varied with the generation.  Many of the older people had done hard time in Siberia.  One had been sent to an “orphanage” because her parents had been shipped to Siberia and couldn’t raise their child.  The younger ones had it better; under Brezhnev, things lightened up.  The biggest problem was that you couldn’t go on to higher education unless you were in the Young Pioneers, which meant that you had to be a communist, in outward form at least.  This was unacceptable to them, although they had relatives who had backslid along the way.

The second is that their churches did have organization but it was informal in that there were no paid clergy.  (Some of the reason for that is here.)  They were house churches, organized around the families that came.  (There were more formal Evangelical churches with buildings, my wife and I visited one two years later.)  Their leadership tended to be strong (it still is in Slavic churches over here) but more than just the pastor was allowed to speak during their meetings, something I also saw in covenant communities (I think the latter kept a tighter rein on what got said.)

The third is that they had no problem participating in the underground economy (or «marché noir» as my African contacts called it.)  Although it’s easy to understand why one would disrespect a government which was trying to eradicate your religion, the Ukrainians lacked the punctilious obsession American Christians have with abiding by every law and regulation the government comes up with.  (Within the church they were capable of serious legalism, something people in the Church of God could relate to.)

The fourth is that they were a lot of fun.  They had a good sense of humour and knew how to enjoy life.  If I had to make the greatest contrast between them and covenant community people, it was that, I always felt that the latter were too serious.  Beyond that, covenant communities were a synthetic response to coming persecution; what the Ukrainians experienced was real.

Lastly, the Ukrainians had the advantage of not having to deal with an “over church” like the covenant communities did with the RCC.  They were a real, autocephalous (to use the fancy ecclesiastical term) group.  That complicated relationship came back to haunt the covenant community movement; I am surprised the People of Praise have stuck it out as long as they have.

For me, having experienced both of these groups, the reason why it’s important to put Amy Coney Barrett on SCOTUS is to avoid (or at least try to avoid) getting ourselves into the same situation that our Ukrainian Pentecostal friends found themselves in and from which they’ve tried to escape.  But the irony that we’ve nominated someone who is a product of a community that was formed, in part, to weather the storms of the “laid, high or drunk” crowd is one of those ironies that makes us say “you just can’t make this stuff up.”

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