Material plenty is always the Marxist promise, yet always deferred.
I have just returned from a sojourn in Eastern Europe. I was shocked by what I discovered there. Intellectually, I had always known that people behind barbed wire and machine guns had a different material and spiritual existence from people in the West. Seeing the conditions in situ, however, is a much different reality.
I began to wonder why many liberation theologians such as John Bennett, Robert McAfee Brown, Richard Schaull and others have a Latin fixation and are all but mute on totalitarianism in Eastern Europe. Could it be that “ethnic is out” and “Latino is in”? That PIIGS (Poles, Italians, Irish, Greeks, Slavs) are passé and Latins are the “children of the promise?” Whatever the reason, the near silence of liberation theology regarding Eastern Europe reveals ethical astigmatism.
A Somber And Dispirited People
I did not find “communism with a human face” as envisioned by those in Christian-Marxist dialogue a decade or so ago. Instead, I received vibrations of depression, resignation, alienation, anger, and suspicion. These feelings had their origins in a Marxist material plenty that is always promised, yet always deferred. “Whenever anything goes wrong,” said a guide, “it is always blamed on the Second World War!”
We have been making sacrifices for years,” groused a teacher in Prague, “but nothing ever gets better.”
“Russia steals us blind,” said another.
The drabness and spiritual ennui of Czechoslovakia called to mind Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory. In this story, set in Mexico, a puritanical Marxist lieutenant tracks down a morally corrupt “whiskey priest” who in martyrdom proves to be a saint. In attempting to cleanse society from corruption and create “the new man,” Green shows how communism creates a forlorn and soul-stultifying atmosphere. The ambiance is in marked contrast to the enjoyment and gaiety of West Germany and Austria. There the beer halls, rathskellers, sidewalk cafes, band concerts, dances in the parks, window shopping, lovers openly necking, and guitar players in the city squares all testify to a basically happy people secure in the proper tension between freedom and order.
I recall a poignant conversation with a young medical school dropout. Academically qualified, he had to leave school because of family responsibility and the lack of funds. He could foresee only being a bellhop the rest of his life. I suggested that his wife get a job and that he put his two children in a state-run nursery.
“My wife and I are firmly against this,” he said, “for our children would be religiously separated from us. Communism doesn’t respect family bonds or our values.” He said 30,000 Czechs leave or escape their country each year. Many feel like trapped animals.
“I have given up hope of becoming a physician,” he said sadly. “Anyway, after eight years of study my salary would not be much more than a common laborer’s. Here they have more regard for ideology than intelligence. You don’t receive according to your merit.”
Economic And Agricultural Problems
In spite of permissive abortion laws and stable population levels, Communist regimes have not solved the chronic housing shortage. The rural-to-urban tide continues so that every city has its gloomy projects of 14- to 16-story high-rise flats. They are human rabbit warrens with space carefully metered out so that a three-member family will be allotted two or three rooms but will probably have to share a kitchen and bathroom with another family or two. At a distance they look impressive; up close, construction ineptitude and “devil-may-care” craftsmanship are evident. Peeling paint, missing tiles, broken cornices, unmowed yards, and cracked cement facing are the rule rather than the exception.
Most liberation theologians assume capitalism pollutes while collectivism conserves the environment. They should check their ideology with the facts of Communist industrialization. The famous Skoda works of Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, was belching fumes without scrubbers the day I was there and was like our Pittsburgh of the 1930s. The cement and bauxite factories along the Danube in Hungary were also fuming and odiferous, and I was dismayed to think of Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube” waltz while gazing into that water! The largest lake in central Europe, Lake Balaton in Hungary, nesting home to hundreds of species of migratory fowl, has been severely polluted. In draining thousands of hectares of marsh to increase arable acreage, engineers destroyed the filtering delta of the Zela River, thus polluting the lake and destroying nesting habitat.
It is incredible that countries so rich in human and physical resources are perennially deficit in food. Yet few liberation theologians who are so enamored of Marxist theory admit to communism’s agrarian debacle in practice. Waiting in line is not quite the national pastime in Czechoslovakia and Hungary that it is in Poland, but I did see people lined up for cabbages, cucumbers, and potatoes. Shop windows display little more than tins of meat, tea, or jam. Poland is the only non—Third World country receiving CARE packages. It must be deeply humiliating to have bountiful free enterprise agriculture display before the world the inefficiency of collectivism.
The greatest tragedy, however, is communism’s disruption of man’s time-honored relationship with the soil. Before collectivization, small plots of wheat, barley, corn, sugar beets, and alfalfa were cultivated individually and intensively. Farmers developed a mystical, primordial, “I-Thou” relationship with the soil. Soil and soul belong together. The former was the only protection one had against an omnicompetent state. Marx, a city dweller his entire life, could not understand this; he wanted to free mankind from “the imbecility of rural life.” Later, Stalin would kill millions of kulaks in order to destroy peasant individualism and enforce collectivization.
Now the small plots of lovingly cultivated soil are gone, and antiquarian-looking combines that Iowa farmers would have junked long ago creep slowly across mile-square fields of grain. Soil and peasant have been conformed to industrial plant and worker. Hammer and sickle are joined, but the latter conforms to the paradigm of the former. The economics of scarcity in Eastern Europe is due to Marxist fundamentalism and not early frost, grain fungus, or CIA machinations. Short rations will be the lot of millions there until events force a change of agricultural dogma.
Christianity And State Religion
While most churches are physically intact, it is obvious the Spirit is in the catacombs in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Our Czech guide dutifully recounted name, date, and style of each village Catholic church we passed, but most were closed, with grass and weeds two feet high, windows broken, and roof tiles missing. The regime allows a trickle of priests and pastors to exit the few seminaries each year. And while they can speak out on rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s, the dangers of loose living, and the importance of respecting those in authority, nothing can be said about Afghanistan, economic policy, or the state’s surveillance of people’s lives.
The regimes make sure Christianity is identified with oppression and all that is antiquated. The few open churches are supervised by septuagenarian, shuffling, blue-smocked women whose duty it is to guard the remaining miserable church fabric. To a young person potentially interested in the Christian faith, the environment exudes an odor of decay.
Yet no society can dispense with a faith or cult that enshrines hope, unity, and mission. In Austria, the beautiful field shrines are graced with fresh flowers and give evidence of deep, pastoral faith. In Czechoslovakia, they have been replaced by the village Communist shrine. These are in the village center, display a portrait of Marx or Lenin, are red in color, always have a slogan if not a flag, and are surrounded by flowers and neatly trimmed grass. Their care is entrusted to adolescent aspirants of party membership, the Young Pioneers.
Their slogans tend toward hyperbole and the tautological: COMMUNISM FIGHTS FOR PEACE; COMMUNISM IS THE HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE OF MANKIND; VOTE FOR THE FUTURE OF OUR CHILDREN; VOTE FOR PEACE. My favorite reveals that communism, in spite of official atheism, still needs the Puritan work ethic: WORK, SAVE, DO NOT WASTE—THIS WILL ENSURE THE COMMUNIST FUTURE.”
Religious and historical symbols of Czechoslovakian independence are downplayed. The city tour of Prague does not permit buses to come closer than a half-mile to the statue of Saint Wenceslaus, first king and patron saint of Bohemia, even though the boulevard is the widest in the city. The “Morningstar of the Reformation,” John Hus, is barely mentioned in tourist information, and so his statue is seldom noticed in the Old Town Square as visitors look the other way to catch the chiming of a famous fifteenth-century clock. Our hotel was devoid of memorabilia of Wenceslaus, Hus, or any other pre-Communist patriot or saint. The bust of an outsider, Nikolai Lenin, reigned supreme across the registration desk.
Suggestions For Liberation Theology
1. Liberation theology should lose its Latin myopia. There is bondage elsewhere than south of the border. There is a genuine proletarian revolution gaining momentum in Eastern Europe: it has occurred against and within regimes that for 35 years have claimed to rule in the name of the worker. Liberationists should be more ecumenical in their humanistic sympathy. Too often, victims of Soviet oppression and their Eastern satraps, Boat People, Afghan rebels, the Kurds and Bahaists of Iran, Cuban political prisoners and exiles, and black victims of black dictators in Africa are ignored because the choice of underdog is selective and rooted in ideological criteria. Some liberation theologians are prone to the Jane Fonda syndrome and cannot admit injustice or oppression in Vietnam because, by definition, socialist countries cannot oppress.
2. Liberation theology should critique all revolutions, especially those that promise so much and look so romantic in the short run. Ernesto Cardenal, formerly a Trappist monk and now minister of education in the Nicaraguan government, has given recent events there a messianic perspective. He claims the revolution reveals a mutation in the evolution of the human species, that sinful structures have been overthrown by works of love, that a “new type of man” is in the making.
The first blush of a revolutionary regime is always beatific, especially for those who have a stake in it. Perspective, however, is gained by reviewing Christian anthropology from Saint Augustine to Reinhold Niebuhr. Liberationists should be especially interested in finding out what revolutions and/or Marxism do to intellectuals by reading Richard Wright, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Graham Greene, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Andrei Sakharov.
3. Liberation theology should give up the penchant to believe the worst about the United States. It is a mystery to me why some liberationists who prize an autonomous lifestyle are so enamored by masses of people in motion in closed societies, whether the staged parades in Havana, demonstrations in Tehran, or snow sweeping in Peking.
The world would not return to innocence with the sudden removal of the United States. Today we help feed two-thirds of the world and are still, since the founding of the republic, the central hope of the world’s oppressed and poor. Eric Hoffer is right: “The common man has had a love affair with America.”
Until liberation theology overcomes its anti-American animus, it will have little effect upon those who have been a party to that love affair and thus know American virtues as well as vices.
4. Liberation theologians should beware of irrational guilt. Robert McAfee Brown’s presentation before the World Council of Churches in Nairobi in 1975 was an example of undeserved flagellation. He testified that as a white male bourgeois American he embodied “racism, sexism, classism, and imperialism.” As a sign of penitence, he switched from the “linguistic imperialism” of his native tongue to Spanish, thus forcing his listeners to put on their headsets and return his Spanish to English! Later he apologized for not making Jesus “political enough” because of the fatal impediments of his bourgeois upbringing.
Liberationists might rethink the thesis of Julien Benda in The Treason of the Intellectuals. This French essayist held that the European intellectual establishment felt guilty about its nonworldly involvement and its disinterested intellectual activity in the late nineteenth century. Thus it left the transcendental for the political; the universal for the parochial. Benda charged that by providing class, race, and national passions with a network of doctrines, giving them moral, intellectual, and even mystical authority, the intellectuals stirred up hatred and strife and, in fact, became the promoters of the First World War. Can such a charge be levied against certain liberationists today?
Make no mistake: I am not a knee-jerk apologist for capitalism. It is not the Christian economic system—as if any economic system could be. Like all systems, it forges its own unique chains of enslavement. But the enduring values of free enterprise should not be overlooked: that profit is necessary for economic motivation, and private ownership is requisite for the full development of personality. It often lifts people out of poverty even without egalitarian redistribution. Moreover, Western capitalism keeps political and economic power divided. To whom or what does one repair when all political and economic power is coalesced in the state? When all jobs are dispensed by the state, the dissenter is highly vulnerable. Michael Novak’s observation rings true: capitalism works better than its circumspect ideology; socialism far worse than its romantic hopes.
I for one do not feel any sense of self-reproach for my heritage or my travels. Instead, I am grateful for the opportunity to extend my vision, and to put deed and thought together. I wish more theologians could experience what communism does to human beings. I rejoice that Roman Catholicism is vibrant and strong in Poland and even clinging to life in other countries in spite of persecution. I am saddened that naïve decisions and inappropriate map drawing at Yalta forced American troop withdrawals in Europe, thereby consigning millions to a future with little hope.
I will always remember the comment of a member of our travel group, a retired Hispanic postal employee from Los Angeles. Upon leaving Hungary and the Iron Curtain for the last time, he declared: “I don’t ever want to go back. I felt watched all the time.… Besides, those people don’t have it so good. Thank God I’m an American.”
Walter W. Benjamin is professor and chairman of the Department of Religion at Hamline University, Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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