Acton Institute Powerblog

Re: Embracing the Tormentors

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Time to set the record straight. Some of the comments on my original posting of Faith McDonnell’s article Embracing the Tormentors are representative of the sort of egregious moral relativism, spin doctoring, and outright falsification, that have for so long characterized the “social justice” programs of lefty ecumenical groups like the WCC and NCC. Then, for good measure, let’s have some of these commenters toss in a dollop of hate for Israel and claim that this nation, which faces an existential threat from autocratic Arab regimes frequently and publicly reminding us of their plans to annihilate the Jews or drive them into the sea, is not a democracy. Really? Compared to what? Iran or Syria?

Recall, if you didn’t take time to actually read the article (read the article!), the words of Christian poet and patriot Armando Valladares, who was imprisoned for 22 years in Fidel Castro’s island Gulag. In accepting IRD’s 1983 Religious Freedom Award, he said this:

The honor which you bestow upon me today will have special significance for Cuba’s political prisoners….During those years, with the purpose of forcing us to abandon our religious beliefs and demoralize us, the Cuban communist indoctrinators repeatedly used the statements of support for Castro’s revolution made by some representatives of American Christian churches. Every time that a pamphlet was published in the United States, every time a clergyman would write an article in support of Fidel Castro’s dictatorship, a translation would reach us and that was worse for the Christian political prisoners than the beatings or the hunger.

While we waited for the solidarity embrace from our brothers in Christ, incomprehensively to us, those who were embraced were our tormentors…. the Christians in Cuba’s prisons suffer not only the pain of torture and isolation but also the conviction that they have been deserted by their brothers in faith.

Thanks to commenter Neal Lang for reminding us of the Red Terror in Spain. The Spaniards were only following the program of extermination, the destruction of the faith, that was devised by the Bolsheviks and Stalinists. This article cites a Russian report placing the number of deaths of clergy, religious and lay leaders at 200,000 during the Soviet regime. It started early:

“We must put down all resistance with such brutality that they will not forget it for several decades,” wrote Lenin in March 1918. “The greater the number of representatives of the reactionary clergy and reactionary bourgeoisie we succeed in executing … the better.”

From 1918 to 1922, tens of thousands of priests, bishops, monks and nuns were brutally murdered: Near St. Petersburg, henchmen tied one archpriest to a railway car, which dragged him along until he died. Three priests in the Crimea were crucified. Seven nuns in Voronezh were burned in boiling tar. A bishop from Samara was impaled on a stake. In 1921, Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka, the dreaded secret police of the Bolsheviks, wrote: “The church is falling apart; we should help it fall. … Our stakes are with Communism, not religion, and the Cheka should concentrate on [its] elimination.”

Read my 2007 post on the New Martyrs, who are venerated today at sites in Russia where they were tortured, executed and then dumped in mass graves. By the time the Stalin purges of the 1930s had run their course, the Russian Orthodox Church had been hollowed out, virtually destroyed, and most of the the best and brightest in its hierarchy eliminated. Robert Conquest, in the new edition of The Great Terror, estimates that the death toll from 1929 to 1953 was at least 20 million. This included the holodomor, the Ukrainian peasant terror-famine.

In 1987, Ernest Lefever published “Nairobi to Vancouver,” a critique of the social activism of the World Council of Churches. After showing how the WCC was virtually inert on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he turned to Latin America:

By 1983, the Sandinista Marxist regime in Managua had heavily censored the press, intimidated the political opposition, tortured prisoners, forcibly uprooted the Miskito Indians, publicly insulted Pope John Paul II, and arrested uncooperative Catholic priests and Moravian ministers. Despite this systematic repression the [WCC Vancouver] Assembly found little or no fault with the regime and supported the small, unrepresentative “popular church” that backed the Sandinistas. The Council excused Managua’s forced relocation of Miskito Indians, though in 1982 the WCC Central Committee had condemned the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and the Philippines, but not Nicaragua, for mistreating “indigenous people.”

The Vancouver Assembly found “promising signs of life” in Marxist Nicaragua, but not in El Salvador, where in a 1982 national election 70 percent of the voters turned out despite guerrilla harrassment. Its Central American resolution repeatedly portrayed the United States as the only external aggressive, militaristic, and repressive force in the region. U.S. “military, economic, financial, and political initiatives” were “designed to destabilize the Nicaraguan government, renew international support for Guatemala’s violent military regimes, resist the forces of historic change in El Salvador, and militarize Honduras in order to contain the aspirations of the Central American peoples” and to prevent the “export of revolution.”

The resolution praised the “life-affirming achievements of the Nicaraguan people and its leadership” since the Sandinistas came to power in 1979. There was no mention of Cuba or the Soviet Union, both of whom maintained a massive military and intelligence presence in Nicaragua, nor of Managua’s insistence on pursuing a Marxist “revolution without borders.”

Against this we have the “injustices” of the West and … Jesse Helms? Elsewhere, we’re told that “God can not overlook one murder, any more than he can 100 million.” What utter nonsense. (btw, the Nazis were not “leftists.”)

The IRD’s Mark Tooley showed recently that the WCC apologists for Liberation Theology (The Gospel of Karl Marx the Liberator) are still at it. They’ve learned nothing, actually. He cites recent statements from Walter Altmann, president of the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession, and a member of the WCC’s Central Committee:

Looking for a new breeze to reanimate imploded Liberation Theology, Altmann claimed that the “recent international financial crisis, produced by unrestrained capitalist forces governed by greed and private and corporate interests, has increased the number of the poor – or rather, the impoverished – in the world by hundreds of millions.” This is only a partial truth, as free market growth economic growth of the last 25 years, concurrent with communism’s collapse, has actually raised hundreds of millions globally from chronic poverty into the middle class or near to it.

Altmann celebrated that Liberation Theology had strongly influenced the ecumenical movement and the WCC during the 1970’s and 1980’s. He failed to admit that the Western-led ecumenical movement’s international decline also parallels this influence, as Global South Christianity surged under Evangelical Protestantism, especially Pentecostalism, and orthodox Roman Catholicism. Instead, he hailed the movement’s struggles against old Latin American dictatorships and South African apartheid. He preferred not to acknowledge that the collapse of rightist authoritarians in South America, with the old racist regime in South Africa, were concurrent with the Soviet Union’s collapse and the expansion of democracy in its wake, facilitated partly by reawakened U.S. influence and confidence.

In 2005, we had to endure the spectacle of former WCC General Secretary Samuel Kobia in Portland, Oregon, lecturing us about how the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily like the idea of an American superpower (he didn’t say who he preferred). As usual, there is the WCC class-struggle critique of the market economy — or more like a quick backhanded slap from the “educated people” like … Samuel Kobia:

The US is seen as the bulwark of economic globalization that forces poorer nations to live according to the dictates of wealthy corporate interests and financial institutions controlled by those interests. In recent years, we have seen a gathering backlash to these policies in Latin America – but this is not the only region in which the United States has suffered a loss of respect and support. Resistance by the US to meeting the Millennium Development Goals or the aid requests of Prime Minister Blair prior to the G-8 conference have done nothing to improve matters. Among educated people, the US is resented for its willful disregard of global warming as a threat to the future of our planet …

And I couldn’t let this comment pass:

… the WCC has actually become much more conservative and critical of the left through the growing prominence of Orthodox voices, both Oriental and Greek and Russian who are both more conservative theologically and politically as many represent churches that have been on the receiving end of leftist inspired violence. This does not translate, however, to the mindless support of the Israeli occupation. In fact, just the opposite, as the Oriental Orthodox are strongly opposed to the occupation as people in their churches are suffering much because of it.

The Orthodox Christian churches, which have been in the Holy Land since the time of the Apostles, are theologically orthodox, conservative on moral and social questions, and all over the map politically. On economics, the Orthodox Churches are decidedly not stumping for capitalism or economic globalization, which they view as a threat to social cohesion. I believe that is a mistaken view, especially from church leaders who lead flocks in former Communist states. But that’s a side issue. What is decidedly not the case is that the Orthodox are steering the WCC to a more conservative view of things. That is simply absurd.

Lastly, in the Middle East, it is true that there is an intense animus among many Orthodox Christians who have been displaced by the Israelis and whose lives have been made miserable by the construction of the wall or barrier designed to thwart terror attacks. That, combined with the growing Islamization of their communities, has compelled many, especially those with education to leave. This is happening all over the Middle East, especially in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. But what’s the solution? More press releases from WCC headquarters in Geneva? What, exactly, has the WCC brain trust figured out that will advance the “peace process”? What has it figured out that hasn’t been tried at a dozen superpower summits in recent years?

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Adam

    Let me see if I understand your logic.

    I commented that the article was poorly written and that its argument was poorly made. Therefore, I hate Israel and don’t think it’s a democracy.

    (and on that point, how is facing “an existential threat from autocratic Arab regimes frequently and publicly reminding us of their plans to annihilate the Jews or drive them into the sea,” a qualifier for being a democracy or not?)

    Nobody commenting argued with the fact that liberal denominations criticize the west more often than other cultures or that they’ve often been guilty of hypocrisy.

    What we did argue with is the way that the article engaged in cherry-picking and used the imperfection of those who pointed out the evil done by the US and its allies and the evil does by the US’s enemies to deflect any discussion about the US’s own sins.

    It’d be like if every time my pastor gave a sermon about the importance of tithing (which I fall short on), I stood up and asked him why he never gives sermons about Stalin.

  • No, you don’t get it.

  • Adam

    No, I don’t. Perhaps you can find an article that explains your point more clearly.

  • The entire issue is confused, of course, by the use of the term “Capitalism” by its critics. When US corporations enjoy the unjust protection of its government and military, beyond protection of property and enforcement of contract, then the actions of those corporations are imperialist.
    We cannot gloss over this point, and classical liberals have been too quick to defend corporations while not critical enough of the public choice influences which have contributed to their size and power.
    As a consequence, our progressive friends conflate Capitalism with Mercantilism, which is what we have in many cases, as a consequence of regulatory agencies (read: cartel protection) and too much patent protection, among other mechanisms. Are they to blame? No one has explained in sufficient detail directly to this audience how these forces work. Maybe they wouldn’t listen anyway.
    Their identification of injustice is correct. Their understanding of its origins is confused. Their prescription for remedy is completely wrong-headed, and leads to the disastrous consequences you have chronicled above.
    When we deny the injustice we rob ourselves the opportunity to begin educating others on these mechanisms. When we fail to confess the origins of the injustice, and our sometimes complicity with them, we invalidate all future argument and appear the hypocrite. When we merely point to the consequences we appear to have no understanding.
    On the issue of Israel: of course Christians are wrong headed in their support of a Palestinian state. We are wrong headed in support of any state. We ought to support constitutional constraints on statism altogether, no matter where that state might be, no matter whom might be its citizens. That includes Israel, which has often enough overstepped this line as well; and our own government.

  • A slight correction:

    You refer to Ernest W. Lefever’s book as “Nairobi to Kenya.” I think this is a typo, and you mean “Nairobi to Vancouver: The World Council of Churches and the World, 1975-87,” which was published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center in 1987. It was the sequel to “Amsterdam to Nairobi: The World Council of Churches and the Third World,” published in 1979 by EPPC.

    The city names in the titles of these books refer to the sites of WCC assemblies in 1948, 1975, and 1983, respectively.

  • Mr Couretas. Thank you for responding. You made many points. I apologise if my response is a little long but I feel this is necessary to answer you adequately.

    Firstly, you insinuate I am either an apologist for the crimes of the revolutionary left or an outright denier of them. This would be despicable if it were true. But it is not. The revolutionary left has murdered Christians on a colossal scale. If you read my words, you can be in no doubt that I realise that. Indeed, I could not have been more explicit about it. Your refusal to recognise what I said is depressing, but that is no fault of mine.

    Jesse Helms: according to you, I think Helm’s amity with the man behind Oscar Romero’s murder is equal in horror to all the leftist crimes of the last century. This deliberately misrepresents the previous thread. It did not begin as an argument about who has killed whom. It took its cue from the article you quoted about people’s refusal to face unpleasant truths when these conflict with their ideology. My point was simple – it is not only the Left that is guilty of this. Almost everyone employs double standards at some point, and that includes classical liberals and conservatives. However, God does not use them. Jesus was just as tough, if not tougher, on his fellow Jews as he was on Gentiles. Ignoring somebody’s misdeeds just because it is politically convenient may be a very human thing to do. But don’t imagine it is Christian. It never can be, irrespective of who does it – believer or athiest, conservative, socialist, or liberal. I find the failure to accept such a basic point about Christian ethics deeply dismaying.

    I mentioned Helms BEFORE Mr Lang, if may say, tried to shock me into silence by introducing the subject of deathtolls. I know the depravity visited on clergy in republican Spain. I never denied the scale of depth of these evils. But I also know that Franco was quite happy to see the Germans rain havoc on the Basques, who were about as sincere Catholics as it is possible to find. They wanted autonomy. Franco gave them the Luftwaffe. In wars, few participants emerge with clean hands, and rarely is conflict an utterly clear choice between good and evil.

    You ridiculed my contention that Nazism was, in essence, of the left. I think you are wrong. In their utter scorn for Christian faith and ethics, and their willingness to use massive state power and science to realise their dreadful vision for mankind, the Nazis could not be further from the mental world of Burke and de Maistre, the founders of modern conservatism. It becomes risible to term the Nazis ‘conservative’, for there was precious little they wanted to conserve. In trying to erase traditional loyalites to family, church and community and subordinate everything to the ‘Fatherland’, they resembled nothing so much as race-obsessed Jacobins.

    I have answered the charges made by you. Now let me say what I think. The tone of your original article was wrong. It was wrong because it clearly implied that Christians who have reservations about US foreign policy, relentless globalisation and mankind’s behaviour to the environment are degenerate masochists. You imply that a believer who does voice objections is a heretic or an apostate. I don’t want to preach, but I feel I must say this is a very dangerous attitude for any Christian to hold. The United States and free markets are clearly not evil incarnate – it is ridiculous to imply that either I or the other critics of the article believe that. Nonetheless, economic systems and nation states are human, not divine. They are just as infected with sin as any other part of our existence. Once you silence your conscience to suit them, your are on the road to idolatry. Leftist and liberal Christians are often wrong-headed, but chiefly in their conclusions and recommendations, not in their desire for justice.

    The truth of this is borne out when you term it ‘nonsense’ for me say that God can not overlook one murder any more than he can 100 million. Tell me, do you not recognise the blasphemous implications of what you are saying? Do you think God only takes notice when the death toll goes above a certain level? Have you forgotten that most basic of Christian beliefs about humanity, that we are all made in his image, with all the dignity that implies?

  • Rick: Thank you. I’ve made the correction.

  • MaryAnn

    “Social justice” has become nothing more than another way of saying and practicing socialism- it simply sounds better, and what a successful marketing ploy it has turned out to be!
    Mankind’s problems do not arise from America, free-markets or capitalism- much to the chagrin of Leftists everywhere, and they know it well.
    Greed,lack of integrity,egoism and raw lust for power exist in the hearts of man and there are no political solutions for them.
    Perhaps if all churches spent more time teaching their flocks about the necessity of “rendering unto God what is God’s” and what that actually means, and less time indoctrinating them concerning economics and “social justice” the world could begin to heal itself with God’s help.