CEEBC – Legacy of Communism

Here is the third text I have written for the CEEBC


Marxism, the ideological basis of communism, attempts to turn the Christian gospel on its head. It presents a specific version of anthropology (the study of human experience), soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) and eschatology (the study of the end things) and claims to provide salvation for a world in crisis. This utopian vision turned into a dystopian reality and made over one hundred million victims.
When communism collapsed as a political system, the liberated people expected things to change overnight, just like the Israelites did after they left Egypt (Exodus 16:1-3). But they soon realised that even if they had been taken out of communism, communism had not been taken out of them. The Berlin Wall fell in the summer of 1989, but a wall remained in people’s minds and hearts. The ongoing legacy of communism is displayed in specific ways in Central and Eastern European societies and churches. Here are some of its basic traits.
Under communism, authoritarianism was the dominant leadership style and it penetrated the churches too. It created a paradoxical combination of distrust and dependence on authority. To the surprise of many, this model continued unabated in the churches in the region even after the fall of the old system. Its proponents were often those who had been active in leading resistance against communism in earlier times.
Communist regimes used secret police units to keep the churches under control, with the help of collaborators recruited among church members and leaders and through the use of threats or enticements. This created an atmosphere of suspicion, as it was impossible to discern who the agents of the regime were. The churches in our region have been largely unable to deal with the presence of former collaborators in their midst and have not known how to implement confession, forgiveness and restoration. Some have tried to play the phenomenon down, while others have engaged in harsh exposure campaigns. Neither approach has solved the problem. As a result, our churches still have to deal with a lack of trust between their members.
People who had to live under communist politics and economics functioned on a daily basis according to the ethics of survival. They played by the rules in order to survive as best they could. The same was true of church leaders, who tried to keep their congregations going even if it meant accepting compromises. However, when freedom came and such dubious ethical games were no longer necessary, it seemed that old habits died hard. The ethics of freedom meant making conscious choices rather than reverting to the path of least resistance. External conditions changed but automatic mechanisms were harder to eliminate.
When many Christians had their backs pushed to the wall by a regime which vowed to eradicate religion for good, the “Christ against culture” approach (to use Richard Niebuhr’s terminology) was widely adopted. When democratic pluralism arrived, Christians found themselves unprepared and incapable of mature responses. After decades of oppression, they were finally given the opportunity to engage prophetically and transform their cultures through the power of the gospel. In this watershed moment, many churches either prolonged their isolationist stance or opted for a sort of nostalgia, looking back to times long gone, when the church used to impose its principles on the world without opposition. The rules of the game proved to be quite different in post-communist societies and Christians needed to learn how to function in a Christ-like way in a new world full of competing voices and ideologies.
Christians who have grown up under freedom have a desperate need for models to follow. Yet most of the previous generation’s leaders, who survived communism but became entrenched in their actions or mindsets, have been unable to teach the younger generation how to live as free human beings. This is where the experience and input of Christians in the West has been a lifeline for the churches in our region. In the early 1990s we needed a great deal of help and support to compensate for the decades lost under communism – years when we were unable to train pastors or theologians, write or publish Christian literature, distribute Bibles, evangelise our own people, develop Christian education for children and adults, or practise care and hospitality for the poorest, the marginalised and the excluded in our societies.
The lives of Christians under communism were rather similar to lives of the Israelites living as slaves in Egypt. Their liberation under Moses did not automatically make them act like free, responsible people. The same is true of the church living in the post-communist era in our region. We too may need forty years in the desert of transition before we are able to live as people of freedom. It is for freedom that God has set us free (Gal 5:1) but we need to beware of the risk of falling back into old habits.
Danut Manastireanu


Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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