The Christian’s dilemma in Eastern Europe

“Where in the world is there a Christian government that is founded on spiritual foundations?” Russian Orthodox philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev once asked. The answer is, “Nowhere.”

Yet militantly atheistic governments exist. In the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, many Christians are seeking to define the place of the church in an atheistic society. In all Eastern European countries, the ascendency of Marxism-Leninism has been accompanied by some curtailment of religious liberties.

In some socialist countries, such as Yugoslavia, East Germany, Poland, and Hungary, Christian churches, although restricted, remain socially and politically active. The Protestant and Catholic churches of East Germany, for example, operate hospitals and homes for the mentally handicapped, elderly, and infirm.

In other Marxist-Leninist countries, such as Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Soviet Union, churches are severely restricted and sometimes brutally repressed—a situation that has shown no signs of abating since the accession of Yuri Andropov.

In the Soviet Union, religious societies are forbidden to carry on cultural-social activity outside their places of worship. According to Article 19 of the 1929 Soviet Law on Religious Associations, “the activities of the clergy, preachers, presbyters, and the like shall be restricted to the area in which the members of the religious association reside and in the same area where the prayer building or premises are situated.”

Some East European churches nevertheless perceive God’s providence in the communist disestablishment of churches because it forces the church to refocus its mission on the spiritual.

But can the church confine its word and witness only or primarily to the spiritual? Despite opposition, Soviet and East European churches have not been silent—even about political issues. East German Lutheran churches particularly have refused to confine the church to a purely spiritual role. Former Bishop Frankel of East Germany asserted, “The church cannot limit itself to the care of the past and of pure worship, and allow itself to be confined in its public witness to the agreeable part of the truth.”

The public witness of other East European and Soviet churches has, however, been muted. The Russian Orthodox Church has vigorously denounced injustices—such as racial discrimination—but only when they exist outside communistic societies. It has actively organized conferences and issued statements promulgating world peace—but only from a Soviet perspective. Patriarch Pimen noted in a telegram to the chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers, “The consistent peace-loving foreign and domestic policies of our state are unreservedly supported by the believers of our church.…”

Such partisan utterances, many East European Christians would argue, are necessary to insure the survival of the church under Marxist regimes, and are preferable to no prophetic voice at all.

Increasingly, however, such assumptions are being challenged—especially by Christian youth. In East Germany and Hungary, peace movements have emerged among young Christians critical of the Soviet Union (as well as the United States). Even while the Russian Orthodox-sponsored conference on “Protecting Life from Nuclear Catastrophe” was being held in Moscow in May 1982 under the aegis of the Soviet government, the East German Communist government was harassing Christians who persisted in wearing a sword and plowshare patch, the symbol of the independent peace movement.

Lutheran church hierarchs have defended the peace movement and its numerous young supporters. At a ten-day conference on peace held in November 1982 by the Federation of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in East Germany, Bishop Horst Gienke, one of the sponsors, insisted that the matter of peace could not be left to “politicians and generals.”

From Poland the muffled voice of Solidarity continues to speak. “To us the human rights movement represented by Solidarity is a holy war,” a Polish Catholic patriot recently stated. “Our Christianity compels us to resist political and social injustice.”

Many Czech Christians are resisting totalitarian pressures and calling for political and social change in their society. Catholic philosopher Vaclav Benda argued before his latest imprisonment in May 1979 that “political activity” is required of a Christian in a totalitarian society. According to Benda, “Political evil today is primarily an all-enveloping heaviness that every citizen carries on his shoulders and within himself. The only way to overcome it is to throw it off, wrench oneself free from its power, and set out on the road to truth.… The Truth, which at a definite place and time became flesh and dwelt among men and consented to suffer for their sake, cannot be regarded as a place in which the believer can rest.”

Such a courageous summons to political and social action can be answered only at considerable cost in Czechoslovakia’s Marxist-Leninist society. But despite risk, ranks of Christians in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe are determined to speak and live prophetically for Christ.

PETER AND ANITA DEYNEKAPeter Deyneka, Jr., is general director of the Slavic Gospel Association, Wheaton, Illinois. Anita, his wife, is an instructor in SGA’s Institute of Slavic Studies.

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