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Maggie PhillipsFebruary 22, 2024
A portrait of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and flowers are pictured as people gather near to Russian embassy to France, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024 in Paris. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

When Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s death in an Arctic gulag was announced in the media on Feb. 16, none of the public eulogies, outside a few religious outlets, included Mr. Navalny’s conversion from atheism to Christianity. He had spoken explicitly—although infrequently—about how his religious faith influenced his activism. He acknowledged it might earn him mockery from his opposition compatriots. A similar embarrassment may be behind the omission of his beliefs in the retrospectives on his life’s work.

But we risk missing the lessons of Mr. Navalny’s death for his principles if we ignore his very Christian understanding of suffering. His passing threw into sharp relief the key difference between real-life heroism and the ethos of the contemporary keyboard warriors and clout chasers cluttering our social media feeds. Ironically, Mr. Navalny died the same weekend that a graphic shared on social media encouraged a “striking week” for Palestine between Feb. 18 and 24. The nameless strike organizers asked ceasefire supporters to call in sick from work and school, and essentially disengage from society. “Reschedule your appointments,” “Stay home as much as possible” and “Don’t use social media for anything except Palestine,” were some suggestions. “Something is better than nothing.” (The graphic was also snarkily passed around and criticized by some users on X, formerly Twitter.)

But this phenomenon is not new or exclusive to any particular cause or ideological camp. A 2010 UNAIDS report recorded the frustration of activists trying to translate their half-a-million-strong Facebook membership into signing a petition against a Ugandan anti-homsexuality bill. Only 7,000 ultimately signed. “Slacktivism,” the report said, “posits that people who support a cause by performing simple measures are not truly engaged or devoted to making a change.” The bill passed in 2013, making homosexuality punishable by life in prison.

We risk missing the lessons of Alexei Navalny’s death for his principles if we ignore his very Christian understanding of suffering. 

It was a sort of reductio ad absurdum of much of modern activism on both the left of the right: Without genuine sacrifice and a sense of the bigger picture, the pursuit of justice, rather than uniting people in the name of a cause, deteriorates into solipsism. It is appropriate to contemplate these examples of “slacktivism” as we journey through Lent. For the faithful, they should make clear that secular versions of prayer, fasting and almsgiving tend to lack the traditional sense of participation in the transcendent, which those same practices usually embody in their religious context. By contrast, Alexei Navalny’s protracted, involuntary solitary confinement in the Arctic Circle—with limited access to hot water and no visits or phone calls—inspired people all over the world. The example of his suffering united his admirers and fortified their shared commitment to freedom and human rights.

His letters from prison to the former Soviet prisoner of conscience Natan Sharansky are peppered with biblical, religious and spiritual allusions. “Where else to spend Holy Week,” Mr. Navalny wrote to Mr. Sharansky, “if not in [solitary confinement]!” Mr. Navalny cites Ecclesiastes at one point, and signs off another letter to the Jewish Sharansky, “L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim,” Next year in Jerusalem,” a traditional Passover greeting. By leaving out his faith in a creed that believes in redemptive suffering, media coverage summing up his life’s work misses a key part of what made his opposition to Vladimir Putin so powerful.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece for Tablet Magazine about how the Black church inspired the civil rights movement. Most of what we read and watch about that heroic struggle today tends to leave out the theology that drove Martin Luther King Jr. Because of Dr. King’s vision of justice, inspired by his Christian faith, the early civil rights movement had a telos, and therefore, coherence—something which is distinctly lacking in activism on both the left and right today. Donald J. Trump, for example, could only relate Mr. Navalny’s death to his own largely self-imposed legal woes.

A successful social movement does not need an explicitly religious bent: Mr. Navalny’s activism had both telos and coherence without him constantly invoking his Christianity, and it managed to resonate with many across the spectrum of belief. But as the historian Tom Holland puts forward in his book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, much of today’s progressive activism is either in denial or unaware of its religious origins. For example, where do ideas about human rights and helping the marginalized come from in the first place? Many of these values owe their provenance to Western religious thought, particularly natural law theory. Mr. Navalny recognized that. Indeed, having the moral guidance of religious faith, he said in the closing statement at his 2021 trial, made it “easier for me, probably, than for many others, to engage in politics.”

Too often, activism today is driven by the fierce urgency of now. That is understandable: There are too many crimes today that cry out to heaven for justice. But Mr. Navalny understood that justice is not always swift in the eyes of the world. Rather than settling for skipping lunch or calling in sick from work, Mr. Navalny was prepared to lay down his life for something he believed in, even if, by his own admission, all he might gain from it in this world is “the consolation of having led an honest life.”

The Gospel mandate, handed down through Catholic tradition, makes it clear that we are required to work for justice. Even as we serve Jesus who said his kingdom was not of this world, the death of Alexei Navalny can serve as a powerful reminder this Lent. We hunger and thirst for justice, but our consolation may not appear in the way we might imagine, at least on this side of heaven.

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