Baptists talk communism, religious persecution

By Phoebe Suy | Staff Writer

It’s not expected that the world’s largest Baptist university would be reexamining communism, but that’s what happened when members of the Baylor community organized “Revisiting Red October,” an event commemorating the the centennial of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

“Revisiting Red October” was sponsored in part by Baylor’s Keston Center for Religion, Politics and Society which exists “to preserve the resources and promote research on religion under Communism and totalitarian societies,” associate professor and Keston Center director Kathy Hillman said.

The idea of commemorating the Bolshevik Revolution –– the dismantling of the Russian Imperial rule which gave rise to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was proposed by Dr. Michael Long, professor and interim chair of the department of modern languages and cultures.

Long has studied Russian language for over 40 years and was an exchange student in the Soviet Union in 1981. Long said the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 formed a large part of his life experience.

“It was a major event that impacted the 20th century, almost the entirety of the 20th century,” Long said. “The ramifications of those events are still at play. This year is the 100th anniversary of that event and I felt that it was basically our duty as scholars … to somehow mark that occasion on campus.”

Long said he believes remembering the Bolshevik Revolution is important because students today did not live in a time when the Soviet Union had a major impact on geopolitics and war politics. He said the idea of “Revisiting Red October” was not to celebrate those events, but to reevaluate them and their impact on today’s world.

Long said he believes events like the Bolshevik Revolution still have a hand in current politics, in modern Russian society and culture as well as the relationship between Russia and the United States.

“The [totalitarian] system as it developed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was very brutal. Although the ideal that they started off with I believe had some merits, improving people’s lives, etc.,” Long said. “In order to achieve those goals, a lot of people suffered. There was a lack of freedom and people were imprisoned and people died because of their thoughts. Not necessarily because of their deeds but because of their thoughts.”

Because students don’t have the experience of visiting a country with that type of totalitarian system, Long said he believes there is a possibility of it resurfacing.

“I don’t think we should ever just simply close the history book and forget about these things,” Long said. “It’s always dangerous. If we don’t talk about it, if students don’t hear about it from us, where are they going to hear about it?”

When Long studied in the city of Leningrad, known today as St. Petersburg, he said his study abroad group of 32 American students was often targeted by local Soviet citizens who were unhappy with the system.

Long said Jews in particular, the only group allowed to immigrate from the Soviet Union, would seek their assistance in immigrating. For example, Long said when the students got back to the states, they might have been asked to post a letter to a relative that was already in Israel or in the United States.

Kathy Hillman, associate professor and director of the Keston Center for Religion, Politics and Society, echoed Long’s sentiments, saying she believes the Bolshevik Revolution was a watershed event that enabled the rise of communism and power that Russia still maintains.

Baylor’s Keston Center was established following the work of Michael Bordeaux, a British exchange student to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) who witnessed religious persecution. Bordeaux began the Keston Institute “to make known the needs of all religious believers and to uphold religious freedom in every case.”

The Keston Center houses samizdat, a collection of materials published illegally without government sanction. Hillman said the samizdat contains anything from periodicals, editorials, art, copies of Scripture, teaching materials and banned books from authors like C.S. Lewis.

Today the mission of the Keston Center for Religion, Politics and Society is to provide for research, preserve and disseminate information in the hopes of documenting and combating religious persecution, Hillman said. She noted religious persecution occurs in countries such as North Korea, Cuba, Afghanistan and China, but the collection primarily contains items from the USSR and former Soviet satellites.

“My Baptist background gave me a passion for the religious aspect and heart of [the Keston] collection and combatting religious persecution,” Hillman said.

Hillman previously served as president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which Baylor is affiliated with, as well as the President of Woman’s Missionary Union of Texas.

The persecution of Baptists in particular differs from other faith traditions because Baptists are not hierarchical, Hillman said. For example, Hillman said in other hierarchical religions, to neutralize the pastor would in turn serve to neutralize the group.

For Baptists, “everybody is a leader, everybody is a priest, everybody is responsible,” Hillman said.

According to Hilllman, Baptists were some of the most active in combatting religious persecution, in creating samizdat and getting the word out about their suffering.

Hillman said she believes documenting and continuing programs like Red October serve to remind people of what has happened and what could happen.

Butte Falls, OR. senior Micah Furlong attended some of the “Revisiting Red October” events and said one of his greatest takeaways was the “resilience of the human spirit to hold on to what they believe.”

Furlong is leading an effort to bring the Wilberforce Initiative to Baylor campus. As religious freedom advocates, The Wilberforce Initiative works to “mobilize and equip partners, including Christians, activists and people of other faiths, to promote global protections and reforms through Advocacy, Capacity building and Technical innovations (ACT).”

“Persecution is happening to all faiths. If we don’t stand for all religious freedom for everyone, then we’re not standing up for religious freedom for anyone,” Furlong said.

Furlong said he believes Christians in particular should give thought to what would happen if Christianity were the minority. How would we want to be treated? Furlong asked. He said he believes everyone and all faiths deserve religious freedom.

In hopes of preventing future persecution, Hillman said she believes people of faith need to be knowledgeable and vigilant. Christians in particular should be involved in a church and do what they can, Hillman said. She said things like writing letters, providing funds and supporting refugees of religious persecution are steps Christians can take.

“Revisiting Red October” was not welcomed by all. In fact, a Reddit thread contains 485 comments discussing the controversy. While some defended Baylor’s academic and religious pursuits, others denigrated the university for what they perceived to be celebrating communism.

Hillman said she received one phone call from a combative individual who berated her and did not give her an opportunity to speak. The caller said he believed the event’s poster celebrated communism. Hillman refuted, saying the poster’s imagery was about the workers, not the communists.

The caller said he would not allow his daughter to attend Baylor anymore, Hillman said. Even more, he said the blood of his great grandmother and grandmother were on her hands, Hillman said.

Another caller, a prospective Baylor mom, said hearing of the “Revisiting Red October” event caused her to reconsider whether she should send her son to Baylor. Hillman said the woman was very gracious and after examining the event’s webpage came to realize it was actually anti-communist.

“We would not celebrate communism,” Hillman said. “That’s not who Baylor is.”

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