For the mysterious dynamic of history resides in man’s choice of gods. In the service of his god — or gods (they may be legion) — a man expends his energies, commits his sacrifices, devotes his life. And history is made. Understand Communism, then, as a religion; or miss the secret of its power! Grasp the nature of this new faith, and discern in contrast to it the God who alone can oppose its onward march; or misapprehend the character of the contest in which mankind is engaged, and misconceive our own historic task.
Excerpts from remarks delivered at the Acton Institute annual dinner in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Oct. 29, 2009:
Twenty years ago today, a growing tide of men and women in Eastern Europe and northern Asia were shaking off the miasma that had led so many to imagine that central economic planning could work. The socialist regimes of Eastern and Central Europe—accepted as ontological realities whose existence could not be questioned—were, well, being questioned.
On November 4th, 1989, a million anti-Communist demonstrators took to the street in East Berlin. Three days later the entire East German Politburo resigned. In short order — the sort of event that television journalists live for — a hole appeared in the Berlin Wall, a hole big enough for hope to pour through. The East German borders opened and by Christmas, thousands were dancing atop the dead body of the Leviathan wall, that hideous symbol, tearing at it with bare hands, champagne bottles, hammer and sickles—anything that was available.
How could we in the West have tolerated that Wall in Germany for so long? From our perspective today it is obvious that the wall would eventually fall, but remember that in 1987 when Ronald Reagan called upon Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” the international media either ignored his words or criticized them as the simplistic bravado of a Hollywood cowboy. The President’s own advisors were divided, with his National Security Adviser, Colin Powell, objecting to what Reagan planned to say.
It was only after 1989 that President Reagan’s words became iconic. Reagan understood something that many of the Beltway experts had somehow forgotten or never learned — there is, in the human heart, an innate thirst for liberty. I suppose this is so because it is so closely tied to our very nature as creatures fashioned in the image of a free, rational and creative God: We thirst for freedom because we are created for, and called to, freedom and its complement, personal responsibility.
The fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of Soviet Communism, was a great triumph, but the danger has been and remains that this grand victory some 20 years ago will render complacent the free peoples of the West. The threat today is not a physical wall through the heart of Berlin but walls no mason ever dreamed about or touched.
The American founders understood this: They warned that freedom cannot long endure without virtue, without vigilance. Because our choices are those to be made by intelligent beings who were designed by Intelligence, these choices are not the result of mere instincts like those of animals. They are choices, furthermore, that should be appropriate to creatures whose beginning is purposeful and not random, oriented to the truth of all things.
And that is the scandal of the Berlin Wall — and every barrier like it against liberty. Some are great and others are small, some obvious and others discreet — yet all of them seek to wall us off from our own humanity, to alienate us from the very part of ourselves that cannot be slotted into some planner’s tidy equations, or reduced to the arithmetic of animal appetite.
We are blessed not to live behind walls that would force us to swim shark infested waters, or race through border guard crossings to the sound of bullets striking all around us. And yet the planners, those builders of walls, haven’t given up planning, haven’t given up laying brick upon brick upon brick.
I’m not talking about some secret conspiracy. I’m talking about more mundane things — mundane because they have so long been with us, mundane because—at least until recently — they grew so very gradually, the brick upon brick, the little and now not so little walls rising all around us, innocuously labeled “the mixed economy.”
These walls come in the guise of stimulus packages that distort our markets and our knowledge, that steal away a bit of your future and that of your children by inflationary polices and transgenerational tax liabilities; walls that discourage our charitable impulse and restrict entrepreneurial courage, that encourage fiscal irresponsibility and punish thrift; that encourage vice and envy, that sacrifice liberty for security and, in the devil’s bargain, lose them both.
Last year I noted the frustration and bewilderment that many were experiencing, especially those who believe in and have fought to build the free and virtuous society, a frustration and bewilderment at what we were seeing around us. That was a short time before a whole new political atmosphere took hold. Since then we have seen this breathtaking lurch toward greater centralized planning and redistribution turn into what to many of us feels like a runaway locomotive: Government banks, government mortgage companies, government automobile companies, government healthcare, government religious charities. And all of this is just a warm up for an appropriation of the entire energy sector—cap and trade. Cap and smother would come closer to the truth.
We are compelled to confront the danger of the political-economic scales tipping from productivity to dependency, from business to bureaucracy, from energy to envy, from trade to tariffs, and from creativity and courage to corporate-government collusion, collectivism and cowardice—where more people in society live, not off the noble work of their own hands, but out of the largess of the statist trough.
We might be weary of the struggle, fatigued and discouraged—amazed that people around us just don’t seem to “get it.”
And we would have cause for such pessimism.
Then I remember the years leading up to 1989. The people who brought that victory about were not defeatist or compliant.
A former Hollywood actor, undaunted by ridicule and the compromising lethargy of his own party; a Soviet prisoner, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, reaching from the frozen tundra of the Gulags of the Soviet Empire and wounding the omnivorous bear with a simple pen; an iron lady in England, Margaret Thatcher, who didn’t get the memo about the demise of capitalism and the rise of the Marxist dialectic; a rough and crude Polish shipyard worker, Lech Walesa, who led a workers’ revolt against the Worker’s Paradise, encouraged by another Pole, John Paul II, who on his appearance on the world stage bade the world to throw open the doors to Christ and who, without tanks or military resources, stood face to face with Soviet puppets who literally trembled at his calm articulation of the Truth.
It is a remarkable testament to the human thirst for freedom under such hardship and against such odds—in the midst of deprivation and with guns pointed at them—all they were able to achieve, these mothers and fathers of freedom. Their example calls us not to acquiesce to the softer, more insidious and seductive tyranny of our own time, but to redouble our efforts.
Their example also calls us to remember what too many of us today have forgotten: We are beings with a destiny both in and beyond this world—a destiny which can only be worked out in human freedom.
Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Acton adjunct scholar and sometime PowerBlog contributor Eric Schansberg links to a bit of background to Ronald Reagan’s remarks at the Brandenburg Gate provided by Anthony Dolan, Reagan’s head speechwriter, in today’s WSJ.
Peter Robinson is credited with the famous utterance, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” In his remarks at this year’s Acton Institute Annual Dinner, Rev. Robert A. Sirico recalled that President Reagan’s challenge was derided by the world’s media at the time. As Dolan writes, in this speech it was thought that Reagan “would embarrass himself and the country by asking Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, which was going to be there for decades.” It wasn’t until the Wall fell a mere two years later that the prescience of Reagan’s challenge was validated.
For more on presidential speechwriters, check out the Podium Pundits blog, which “brings together former presidential speechwriters, from both Democratic and Republican administrations, to analyze and comment on major speeches, messaging strategy, and the business of communications.” Also be sure to check out Ray Nothstine’s reflections on this same anniversary from two years ago, in which he relates the views of another Acton Annual Dinner speaker, former Estonian prime minister Mart Laar.
My commentary on Western Europe’s fascination with Marxist symbolism was published today on the Web site of the Acton Institute. Excerpt:
Marxism, we’re often told, is dead. While Communism as a system of authoritarian power still exists in countries like China, Marxism’s contemporary hold over people’s minds, many claim, is nothing compared to its glory days between the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in October 1917 and the Berlin Wall’s fall twenty years ago.
In many respects, such observations are true. But in other senses, they are not. We need only look at Western Europe—the place where Marxist thought first emerged and took root. One trivial, albeit disturbing sign is many young West Europeans’ willingness to wear t-shirts emblazoned with the Communist hammer and sickle or Che Guevara images. If you want confirmation of this, just take a stroll through downtown Amsterdam, Stockholm, or Rome.
No doubt, in many cases the t-shirt images are simply reflections of youthful rebelliousness. But it’s difficult to refrain from asking wearers of such clothing whether they also possess a t-shirt inscribed with the Nazi swastika. They would surely be deeply offended at such a suggestion. But their willingness to parade the hammer and sickle reflects either historical ignorance or a failure to accept that it is as much a symbol of terroristic criminal regimes as the swastika: just ask any survivors of Stalin’s Gulag, Vietnam’s “re-education” camps, or the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields.
Then there is the persistent grip of Marxist-inspired mythology on Western Europe’s historical imagination. A good example is Karl Marx’s presentation of nineteenth-century capitalism as a period in which a small group became wealthy and millions were impoverished. This remains an article of faith for the European left and some on the European right.
Read “Marxism’s Last (and First) Stronghold,” on the main Acton Institute Web site.
When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, that event visibly marked the collapse of a Communist ideology that had oppressed, tortured and killed millions for decades. But now, 20 years later, Communist authorities are once again taking aim at an old target — the Christian Church. Samuel Gregg looks at the alarming persecution of Roman Catholics in Vietnam in his commentary, “Corruption, Communism, and Catholicism in Vietnam.”
Gregg articulates the horrifying reasons for the continued persecution that Catholics in Vietnam are subject to:
Some of the reasons for this treatment of Vietnam’s Catholic Church are historical. Vietnam’s rulers are acutely aware that Catholics were among the most committed anti-Communist Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. Many Vietnamese also identified Catholicism with French colonial rule.
This background, however, is of marginal significance in explaining the violent crackdown presently being experienced by Catholics throughout Vietnam. Put simply, it’s about government corruption.
Catholic clergy and lay Catholics are not the only target, but the property of the Catholic Church is also emerging as another target for the government:
In late 2008, for example, Vinh Long provincial officials announced their intention to “appropriate” the land of a convent of nuns which also functioned as an orphanage in order to build a hotel. More recently, land in Hanoi that the government itself acknowledges has been owned by a Catholic monastery since 1928 was simply given over by the state for residential construction.
In an era where religious tolerance is becoming more widely accepted it is disheartening to see corrupt governments still persecuting the faithful.
The Bible Answer Man is in the middle of an extended, two day interview of Jay Richards, about Jay’s new book, Money, Greed and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem. It’s the most in-depth discussion of the book I’ve encountered on the internet, and Hank Hanegraaff’s introduction alone makes it worth a listen. Yesterday’s interview is here. Today’s interview will stream here.
Evidently, the Obama campaign’s success has attracted imitators. From the People’s Weekly World:
CHICAGO — The Communist Party USA has established a new Religion Commission to strengthen its work among religious people and organizations. In its leadership are activists representing various religious traditions from around the country. Tim Yeager, a Chicago trade unionist and a member of the Episcopal Church, serves as its chair.
“We want to reach out to religious people and communities, to find ways of improving our coalition work with them, and to welcome people of faith into the party,” Yeager said.
I hesitate to say that “reaching out to religious people” is ever a bad thing, but… if this means a renewed effort to demonstrate some kind of compatibility between Marxism and Christianity, then we’ve seen this movie before. It was called liberation theology and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith pretty well settled the question back in 1984 and 1986 (at least as far as Catholics are concerned) in documents promulgated by the man who is now Pope Benedict XVI. The CDF carefully distinguished genuinely Christian forms of ‘liberation theology’ from objectionable versions, but it explained clearly that and why the categories of Marxist analysis and Christian theology are fundamentally incompatible.
The CPUSA recognizes the delicacy of the situation: “Yeager acknowledged that relations between some Marxist parties and religious institutions in other parts of the world have been marked by conflict.” Yes, such as Russia, Hungary, Albania, Lithuania, Cuba, China, Korea, and Vietnam, for starters. Although “marked by conflict” doesn’t seem quite to capture the phenomenon of churches and religious believers systematically targeted for annihilation by totalitarian states informed by an atheist ideology that views faith in Jesus Christ as delusional and a dangerous obstacle to progress.
Vladimir Berezansky, Jr., a U.S. lawyer with experience in Russia and former Soviet republics, recalls an interview with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II in 1991. Like many Russians at the time, the Patriarch was coping with a “disorienting change” following the fall of the Soviet Emprie, Berezansky writes.
At the time, he seemed overcome by the changes taking place around him, and he did not know where to begin.
“For our entire lives, we [clerics] were pariahs, and now we are being called on to do everything: chaplains for the military, ministries to hospitals, orphanages, prisons,” he said.
He even voiced regret about taking the time to travel to the United States. But he had gambled — correctly, as it turned out — that he could do more for his flock by seeking foreign assistance than by staying home to manage the Russian Orthodox Church’s destitution. His plate was full and overflowing, and he seemed keenly aware of the ironies of his situation. The Russian state was returning desecrated, gutted, largely useless ecclesiastical structures to the Orthodox church — a gesture at once desperate, empty and to some degree remorseful.
Berezansky then points to the Patriarch’s rapid rise through the Church hierarchy:
During and after the chaos of World War II, he probably could have emigrated and been numbered among the millions of so-called “Second Wave” exiles from Soviet Russia. But he chose to remain and to serve his church and people in circumstances that could not fail to compromise his own reputation.
“Our choices were cooperation or annihilation,” he told me in 1991.
And like so many other religious and cultural leaders of his generation, he repeatedly expressed regret and remorse for having accepted that Faustian bargain. Even today we continue to learn of the choices of conscience made by the famous names of that generation, including Nobel-winning German writer Günter Grass and Czech novelist Milan Kundera.
Patriarch Alexy’s legacy will undoubtedly include two elements that have been assessed negatively, and one major — indeed, overarching — achievement. In inter-church relations, his refusal to meet Pope John Paul II or his successor, Benedict XVI, was seen as churlish. Whether welcome or not, the patriarch’s position was that specific issues of contention between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches needed to be ameliorated before any “photo op” could take place. But he consistently referred to Roman Catholicism as a “sister” church.
Read “A Transitional Patriarch” on the Moscow Times site.
Cross-posted from The Observer.
The Moscow Times reports on the funeral of Russian Patriarch Alexy II:
Candles flickered and white-robed elders chanted prayers as the country bade farewell Tuesday to Patriarch Alexy II, who guided the country’s dominant Russian Orthodox Church through its remarkable recovery after decades of Communist-era repression.
Nuns, believers and government officials looked on as prayers filled the soaring Christ the Savior Cathedral at a six-hour funeral service for Alexy, who died Friday at age 79. He was buried later Tuesday at the Epiphany Cathedral across town in a ceremony closed to the public and media, the church said …
“We are burying a great man, a great son of our nation, a beautiful holy fruit grown by our Russian church,” Reverend Dmitry Smirnov, a Moscow archpriest, said in an address at the funeral, which was broadcast live on state-run television. “Our whole nation has been orphaned.”
The BBC has a clip from the very moving funeral service here.
I published an Acton commentary today on the Russian Church:
With the death last week of Patriarch Alexy II, Russian Orthodox Christians lost their first “post-Soviet” leader. The patriarch presided over the resurrection of the world’s largest Orthodox Church, a faith community that had been targeted for annihilation by communist regimes that would brook no rival to their own promises of salvation through “world revolution.”
While Alexy led the Church out of the rubble of the Soviet Union, his own history has been clouded with allegations that he worked with the secret police — was even decorated by them. In this, his career reflects the recent history of the Church, which after the first vicious period of persecution was openly criticized by many Russians for being too pliable, too accommodationist with its old adversaries in the Kremlin. In some cases, critics said, the Church had even assisted the authorities in the suppression of believers and their communities.
When its Holy Synod meets next month to choose a new patriarch, the Russian Church will have an opportunity to come to grips with this past, and with other questions: nationalism, the status of minority ethnic and religious groups, secularization and consumerist materialism. Will the new patriarch lead the Church into a future of growth and spiritual renewal, or will he strike another “Faustian bargain” with autocratic leaders?
Russian Orthodox Christians are holding memorial services and preparing for the Tuesday funeral of Patriarch Alexy II, the man who led the world’s largest Orthodox Church out of the Soviet era and into a period of remarkable rebirth and growth following decades of persecution and genocidal martyrdom at the hands of atheistic communist regimes.
Carrying mourning bouquets, thousands of people queued in cold drizzle across several blocks of central Moscow to Christ the Saviour Cathedral, where Alexy II will lie in state until his funeral on Tuesday.
“I feel like a bit of my heart has been torn out,” said tearful pensioner Maria Mindova, who had traveled from Ukraine. “No words can express the pain of this loss.”
The Zenit News Service published this touching account of the Patriarch’s passing by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Vienna and Austria, representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to European Organizations:
In my memory Patriarch Alexy will remain first of all as a loving father, who was always ready to listen, who was supportive and gentle.
Almost half of the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church, including myself, were ordained into episcopate by Patriarch Alexy. We are all deeply indebted to him.
The years of his patriarchate constituted an entire epoch in the life of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was precisely in this time that the resurrection of the Russian Church took place, which continues to this day.
May his memory be eternal.
The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia said Patriarch Alexy’s leadership formed and strengthened cooperation between the country’s Orthodox world and Jewish community, with the Muslim community, and with representatives of other faiths on the questions of social ministry.
“The great man has died and the whole epoch has passed away with him. Patriarch Alexy II’s death is a great loss for the Russian Orthodox Church and for the entire religious community,” FJCR President Alexander Boroda said in his address handed over to Interfax-Religion.
“Jewish tradition says that people who led righteous life don’t die as their deeds go on living. Today Alexy II is not with us anymore. But his outstanding deeds have stayed with us as well as the blessed memory of a person who did so much good for Russia,” he added. (more…)