7 Lessons from a Post-Communist Landscape
Note: While my posts are usually shorter, this journey merited extended reflection. I’m interested in your responses.
As much as I have read about communism, its legacy was not visceral until my recent 10 days in Romania and Poland (Iasi, Bucharest, Wroclaw, Auschwitz, and Krakow). I was surprised by these seven lessons – by what they expose about Christianity in our time, and how they speak to our own life in America.
Lesson 1: The unfinished business of “post-communism”
I didn’t know how bad communism was. This was first plunge into the 45-year trauma of white-on-white oppression which Soviet-dominated communism was in this Central/Eastern European region. “You smell of Communism,” said our Romanian host. “It’s not something you rub off from your coat. It’s on the radio, at your job, in your school. It’s the air you breathe. To say you’re immune is silly.” There was a difference between grittier Romania and more prosperous Poland. “Romanians are survivors,” said our Romanian host. “Poles resisted, with dignity.” It is hard for Americans to imagine Poland’s resilience amidst three deep traumas on its soil: Nazism, Communism, and much of the Holocaust killing (during a sober and chilling visit to Auschwitz the guide kept saying “the killing was very organized”). Anywhere I go I find that reconciliation is very popular until you find the raw nerve. The first raw nerve in Romania and Poland was redemption around “collaborationism” and the church. Many church leaders cooperated with communist authorities and informed on their colleagues; in Romania, some former communist leaders are now elected officials. One Romanian evangelical said “I still feel very communist” and talked of a journey of “de-communization.” “Post-conflict” is a deceptive term. Post-segregation America is still racialized. Post-apartheid South Africa is still divided between haves and have-nots. The unfinished business in “post-conflict” societies poses a significant challenge to faithfulness. The church’s integrity is at stake in leading this process, through its own repentance.
Lesson 2: Redemption must touch Russia
My biggest surprise was Russia emerging as the second raw nerve. When Russia entered any conversation, the temperature rose – whether concerning past, present, or future. “The further east you go the worse things get,” claimed one Romanian speaking about the residues of communism. She said the heart of darkness is Moscow. The moving “Angel of Death” sculpturewe saw in a Wroclaw park memorializes the Stalin-ordered Soviet massacre of 22,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia in 1941. It is not a vision of redemption but a kind of Psalm 137 eye-for-an-eye lament. All roads to reconciliation in the region must ultimately touch the heart of Russia.
Lesson 3: Intergenerational conflict and secularization
While Orthodoxy is dominant in Romania and Catholicism in Poland, their influence is rapidly decreasing among internet-age youth who did not grow up under Communism and are very open to an intensifying secularization and materialism. Some leaders see this is as a much-needed pruning of Christian authenticity, beyond formalism, ritualism, and civil religion. One remarkable encounter in Romania was lunch with an Orthodox priest who is pioneering a major initiative to adapt the Alpha program for an Orthodox audience (bearded Orthodox priests do the teaching videos versus clean-cut Nicky Gumbel).
Lesson 4: Screwtape is alive and well
Another compelling encounter was dinner in Bucharest with a Pentecostal pastor who spent three years researching a searing 400-page account of the communist persecution of Pentecostals. He said his digging into once-secret archives was like reading the Screwtape Letters of C.S. Lewis, where a senior devil instructs a junior devil on how to make Christians irrelevant and harmless. The approach was systematic, gradual, and covert, the objective to cause Christians to turn minor things into major things, and to think they were holier by doing so (such as whether women should wear pants to church, and gradually dissecting songs of triumph from their hymn book, leaving only songs of lament). “It’s a devilish thing to divide people when they don’t even realize what they’re doing to you,” commented our host.
Lesson 5: Mirror to American Christianity
Eventually I began to wonder how Screwtape was subtly messing with America, including my own life. A saintly 85-year old Wroclaw woman who went through both Nazism and communism welcomed us into her home. An evangelical, no leftist, and fond of U.S.-based ministries like Campus Crusade and the Navigators, I was shocked when she said, “After communism we looked to the west with such hope. But this capitalist does not have such a nice face. As with medicine, you should read the label more carefully.” She spoke of America’s “unjust society” where financial combinations make some multi-millionaires while others are deprived of their homes no matter how hard they work. A pattern of critique became America’s unbridled consumption and corporate greed, eroding trust that our system is best. This growing distrust extended somewhat to American mission groups which swept in after communism with quick-fix approaches and comfortable lifestyles. Earlier in Romania I felt a chill when our Romanian host Danut Manastireanu said “Every church has its challenge. Our challenge was persecution. Your challenge [in the U.S.] is materialism. You need to teach us how to handle materialism. But capitalism is a more civilized god than communism.” To say we are immune from materialism is to deny it has become the air that we breathe. That is exactly the Screwtapian tactic. Yet others smell what we have become accustomed to. Developing a theology and life of “enough” is a critical test of American Christianity’s witness in the world now.
From another angle of the mirror, my colleague Gann Herman from Duke (who shared the journey with me) was struck by the extent to which the persecuted church in Eastern Europe hoped for and was disappointed by the non-response of left-leaning Western Christians to their situation. Soft on communism, they were unwilling to look directly enough to see its dirty undercoat—and those leftists were in the church. “I looked only at communism as a theory, read Marx, and did not look at the reality of communist rule,” reflects Gann. “I thought of the Bible smugglers and virulent anti-communist rhetoric of the fundamentalists as skewed. But now I wonder, and feel guilty, and also grateful that Christians like Danut are willing to still reach out to us, to forgive us.”
Lesson 6: The witness of the church is alive
I didn’t know the depth of Christian resistance in the region’s trauma. A prominent sculpture is dedicated to the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Wroclaw, his birthplace. At Auschwitz we saw the cell of Franciscan priest Maximilian Kolbe, who exchanged his life for a Jewish inmate. Poland’s non-violent Solidarity movement courageously opposed Communism. There is the quality of leaders like Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II, and a Pentecostal pastor who organized underground Romanian churches in spite of torture. A Muslim imam in Wroclaw showed us their place of prayer and discussed reconciliation over Turkish coffee. A Lutheran bishop introduced us to the “Mutual Respect District” where Lutheran, Catholic, and Orthodox churches and a Jewish synagogue work together. A Romanian senator hosted us in the opulent Parliament building dictator Nicolae Coucescou built during communism, and told of his parents living and serving among the marginalized Gypsy or “Roma” people. Two Youth With a Mission women are documenting oral histories of communism as steps toward redeeming memories. Not to mention our hosts Danut of World Vision and Wojciech Szczerba and his colleagues at the Evangelical School of Theology in Wroclaw. This dynamic mix of Pentecostal, Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, and evangelical are signs of the hope and new possibilities that the Holy Spirit is always planting in places of deep pain.
Lesson 7: Fertile ground for renewal of the church
Christians we met in Romania and Poland testified that the intense challenges of de-communization, collaborationism, secularization, growing materialism, and the broken relationship with Russia pose an opportunity. As I have said of race in America, it is not so much that the church is called to solve the problem, but that this is difficult ground which God is using to heal and even renew the church, to learn the repentance which opens up a new way of life.
About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School. He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. He writes at the blog Reconcilers.
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