From beneath the rubble of crumbling Marxist tyrannies come voices long silenced. They are voices of rejoicing in new found freedoms, voices of confusion about what to do next, and, as might have been expected, voices of inquiry and accusation. About the most massive and sustained despotism in human history people want to know why it happened and who is responsible.
Accusations put us off. While some may rush to judgment, others shrink from it altogether. They tell us, invoking authority that dare not be denied, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” It is good to know that the final judgment is not ours. Yet that same authority cautions us always to be alert, to be discerning the spirits, to live in the awareness that penultimate actions have ultimate consequences. There are many reckonings on the way to the final reckoning. The end of the cold war is such a time of reckoning along the way. The purpose is not recrimination but to establish a more honest record, to hold one another accountable, and to understand the errors and betrayals of the past in the hope that they will not be repeated in the future.
Of course it is not only the churches that are being called to account. For instance, from beneath the rubble comes a remarkable article by M. Zlobina in Novi Mir, the official organ of the Soviet Writers Union. Reflecting on Arthur Koestler’s classic Darkness at Noon, the author notes that some Russian intellectuals believe that, during what she calls the Dark Years, there was a conspiracy by the leftist intelligentsia of the West to hide the horror of Communist oppression. She does not accept that conspiracy theory, but she understands why many do, for the roll of western dishonor is depressingly long. Since 1917, some of the most celebrated writers, artists, and journalists of the West have served as apologists for oppression. “What darkness at noon blinded them?” Zlobina asks. Her question is echoed by a multitude of victims who are now finding their voice.
Zlobina’s hypothesis is that the putatively secular intelligentsia of the West was blinded by a need to believe. Admittedly, the suggestion is not original. Paul Hollander has written about the “political pilgrims” who, alienated from their own world, are forever discovering Utopia in a world elsewhere. Joseph Brodsky, who speaks with authority about the death camps of the Soviet gulag, puts it this way: “On the mental horizon of every millenarian movement there is always a version of a New Jerusalem. The idea of God’s city being within reach is in direct proportion to the religious fervor in which the entire journey originates. The variations on this theme include also a version of an apocalypse, ideas of a change of the entire world order. . . . Naturally, transgressions committed in the name of getting to a New Jerusalem fast are justified by the beauty of the destination.”
But surely, one may think, it is different with the churches. After all, the churches presumably have a religion and therefore have no need for the ersatz religion of political utopianism. Presumably. The record indicates that, with some churches and many Christians, that cannot be taken for granted.
Sorting things out is not easy, although there are precedents. There have been other times of reckoning after the passing of some great horror. Following the defeat of National Socialism, for instance, there were the Nuremberg trials. In French public life, the wounds of charges and countercharges, of revenges and reprisals, over collaboration with the Vichy regime have not entirely healed to this day. The time of reckoning after the passing of what was aptly called Communism’s evil empire will no doubt be different in important respects. It will be different because there has not been, in the way that there was in 1945, military defeat or unconditional surrender.
It will be different, also, because the goal is not the trial and punishment of those who perpetrated crimes against humanity but a peaceful transition from tyranny to free and democratic government. But the time of reckoning at the end of Marxist-Leninism is like the time of reckoning at the end of National Socialism in other respects. Both ideologies—the one of race and tribe, the other of revolutionary class struggle—produced rivers of blood and corpses beyond numbering. Because it lasted so much longer, the Communist toll is much the higher, claiming the lives of a hundred million victims or more. But precise count was lost a long time ago. Among the sobering thoughts about this bloody century none is more sobering than that it is the century in which we give or take a million or two, or ten or twenty, in estimating the victims of political madness.
Although their victims were equally dead, or maimed by torture, or desolated by oppression, the two great political madnesses of this century did not provoke equal revulsion in the West. In the past fifty years no decent person hesitated to declare himself an anti-Nazi, but in the past twenty-five years many decent people declared it indecent to be an anti- Communist. That does not mean, to be sure, that such people favored Communism, although many of them professed to admire its “ideals.” While differing in their views of Communism, however, such people did agree on the need to be anti-anti-Communist. For the Communists and those who supported their purposes, it was sufficient that most of the elite culture of the West had become firmly anti-anti-Communist.
The postures of the different churches during the cold war depended in large part on their connection to that elite culture. Only the leadership of those churches that some still call mainline had aspirations to belong to that elite. Almost all evangelicals were and are more likely to suspect than to emulate attitudes associated with the elite culture. The Orthodox churches were and are culturally marginal and, given their roots in the East, needed no reminding of the evils of Communism. As for Roman Catholicism, in the last quarter-century its “Americanized” intelligentsia took satisfaction in becoming indistinguishable from the intellectual class of the culture, although the formal leadership of the bishops tended to be more cautious. Ties with the Vatican and with fellow religionists in the captive nations, as they were called, underscored for thoughtful Catholics the conflict between Christianity and Communism. So in this time of reckoning the question of the American churches and the cold war is chiefly, although not exclusively, a question of those churches once called mainline.
Consideration of that question is helped by a timely new study by K. L. Billingsley, From Mainline to Sideline: The Social Witness of the National Council of Churches (Ethics and Public Policy Center). The book is the first comprehensive record of National Council of Churches (NCC) policy statements, resolutions, pronouncements, and publications on domestic and international issues from the founding of the organization in 1950 through 1987. The member churches of the NCC represent about one-fourth of the Christians in America, and the Council itself is dominated by the “brand name” denominations, such as Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, and United Church of Christ.
In its beginnings, the NCC, along with all the major voices of American liberalism, was unapologetically anti-Communist. In 1951 it affirmed “national defense and protection of the free world from aggression,” while condemning the “communistic social system” that is “grounded on avowed atheism” and is “an unprecedented threat, especially since it claims to serve ethical purposes such as justice.” A 1954 statement is equally unequivocal: “Our way of life has been challenged by totalitarian philosophies and practices, especially Communism... From the Christian standpoint free democratic institutions are clearly superior to any form of totalitarianism.”
By the latter half of the 1960s—again following the pattern of establishment liberalism and in accord with the views of its major member churches—the NCC was more equivocal about the relative merits of democracy and its alternatives. In 1968 the NCC declared that the dichotomy between “the free world” and “the Communist world” had “lost validity” and should be rejected. In the following years the contest of the cold war was routinely deplored by the NCC as a distraction from the real division of the world, which is between North and South, rich and poor, exploiter and exploited, the forces of oppression and the forces of liberation.
The East-West conflict was increasingly depicted in terms of what came to be called “moral equivalence.” A 1969 resolution criticizing the Soviets’ brutal repression of Czechoslovakia’s 1968 bid for freedom noted “the continued, oppressive situation” in Czechoslovakia, but quickly added that “our country itself has been guilty of oppression.” In the NCC’s blizzard of pronouncements in the years following, Soviet oppression in eastern Europe was almost entirely neglected, although in late 1977 the churches were urged “to pray and act... for all prisoners of conscience in the USSR and other countries under Soviet domination.” Typically, however, Communist behavior was viewed in a more benign light. In China’s Cultural Revolution, according to official Chinese estimates, 100 million people were subjected to political persecution, and human rights experts estimate that 400,000 were killed. At the time, an official publication of the NCC compared the Cultural Revolution with the Protestant Reformation “in its drive to restore the vigor and purity of revolutionary goals and practices.” The NCC issued no subsequent resolution or policy statement on that tragic period.
The language of moral equivalence between the democracies and totalitarianism was intended to fend off the temptation to self-righteousness, the temptation to think that “we” were the good guys and “they” were the bad guys. In the 1930s Reinhold Niebuhr encountered the same phenomenon in trying to get the churches to face up to the threat of Hitlerism. His critics claimed that he was distracting attention from the problems in American life, and that he was encouraging feelings of moral superiority in the democracies. Niebuhr, who had a keen appreciation of America’s own problems, responded that democracy is morally superior to totalitarianism, which is not to say that we as individuals are morally superior to those who are forced to live under totalitarian rule. If we ourselves must be perfect before we challenge great evil, Niebuhr argued, great evil will go unchallenged.
“The historic situation in western nations,” he wrote in 1936, did not offer the possibility of breaking through to the “new society” that he and others desired. “It offers only the immediate possibility of defending democratic institutions, however corrupted, against the peril of fascism.” Over the last quarter-century of the cold war, the oldline churches of America abandoned a Niebuhrian understanding of historical possibilities and imperatives, of the need to choose among lesser evils and relative goods. The result of that abandonment is a shameful record of silence, ambivalence, duplicity, and, yes, complicity.
At times, the doctrine of moral equivalence was set aside in favor of giving a distinct moral edge to Communist regimes. The forces of capitalism and alleged militarism, led by the U.S., were regularly and “prophetically” blamed for the host of evils in the world. At the same time, curious views of the Soviet Union were promulgated. For instance, a 1984 publication praised the great economic successes of the Soviet Union and scolded westerners who held a different view. “The Soviet economic achievement is often denigrated—readily labeled a failure. The ideological and psychological advantage of this is of course obvious. We thereby prove our system right, theirs wrong! The result is more self-congratulation than illumination.” The reality is, we were told, that the USSR is the “second most productive country in the world.” And this, the reader may be forgiven for remembering, at a time when the catastrophic failure of the Soviet economic system, and the human costs exacted by that system, were evident to all but the willfully obtuse.
Economic and political propaganda is one thing, but human rights, especially religious rights, would seem to be closer to the heart of Christian concern. Yet, again in 1984, the NCC conducted a large “peace exchange” with the Soviets. At a Moscow worship service honoring 266 delegates from the U.S., two Russian women unfurled banners pleading in English, “Pray for the persecuted church.” An NCC leader helped the authorities to keep the women, who wanted to tell their story, away from the American delegates. He explained that talking with the women would have been “impolite to the Soviet hosts.” A second leader opined that such a situation would not have been handled much differently in the U.S. After reporting in depressing detail many similar statements and actions, Billingsley concludes: “In summary, the National Council of Churches has virtually ignored the massive evidence of widespread religious repression and other human rights violations in the East European countries.”
Asserting that prophetic criticism should begin at home, the NCC was seldom reticent in doing what it saw to be its prophetic duty. Upon assuming the post of NCC general secretary. Dr. Arie Brouwer offered his view of what was troubling the world. “No longer secure in the ideals of freedom and justice, our nation has permitted itself to think that the world could be made free by force. It has propped up tyrants and helped to crush the aspirations and hopes of people struggling for peace and justice. Increasingly our nation has placed its trust in total power, and we therefore live in fear of total destruction, increasingly isolated from the world community.” Brouwer was simply echoing a view that was pervasive in NCC programs and pronouncements since the mid-sixties: On balance, and considering the alternatives, the U.S. is a force for evil in the world. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, was frequently depicted as reacting defensively to the political, economic, and military aggressiveness of the United States and its allies.
Not surprisingly, the NCC and its member churches were accused of employing a “double standard” in judging the behavior of nations. On human-rights violations the charge of duplicity hit home and was regularly, often vehemently, denied. Sometimes, however, a greater candor prevailed. In 1977, for example, a delegation of church officials visited Cuba. Under the dictatorship of Fidel Castro, Cuba probably had more political prisoners per capita than any country in the world. In their report the American religious leaders, including a Methodist bishop who would soon become president of the NCC, declared themselves “challenged and inspired” by the revolution in Cuba. They flatly denied that Cuban Christians were persecuted, and repeated the NCC call for an end to U.S. embargoes of Cuba. With respect to political prisoners, the church leaders offered this telling distinction: “There is a significant difference between situations where people are imprisoned for opposing regimes designed to perpetuate inequities (as in Chile and Brazil, for example) and situations where people are imprisoned for opposing regimes designed to remove inequities (as in Cuba).” In other words, a double standard was nothing to be ashamed of.
Perhaps the most searingly poignant indictment of that pattern of duplicity was offered by Armando Valladares, who described his more than twenty years as a political prisoner of Fidel Castro in Against All Hope:
During those years, with the purpose of forcing us to abandon our religious beliefs and to demoralize us, the Cuban Communist indoctrinators repeatedly used the statements of support for Castro’s revolution made by some representatives of American Christian churches. . . . That was worse for the Christian political prisoners than the beatings or the hunger. Incomprehensibly to us, while we waited for the embrace of solidarity from our brothers in Christ, those who were embraced were our tormentors.
It was incomprehensible to Armando Valladares and his fellow prisoners in Cuba, as it has over the years been incomprehensible to those who have been persecuted, tortured, imprisoned, and killed for the faith in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Vietnam, China, and wherever Marxist regimes imposed their brutal control. Toward the end of Mainline to Sideline, Billingsley observes: “The extensive research for this study turned up no evidence that the NCC had ever, in any council document, publicly acknowledged or apologized for factual error, poor judgment, or political bias.” Abandoning their 1950s clarity about the difference between democracy and totalitarianism, between religious freedom and repression, the NCC and its chief member churches have for more than twenty years been on a reckless binge of no-fault prophecy.
No responsibility is accepted for having variously ignored, denied, belittled, and excused the most massive and systematic persecution of religious believers, Christian and non-Christian alike, in human history. No fault is acknowledged for having cloaked with the moral patina of “idealism” the demonic ideas that, in historical application, produced among other atrocities the Soviet gulag, the famine in the Ukraine, the Cultural Revolution, the killing fields of Cambodia, the reeducation camps of Vietnam, the slaughter of Tiananmen Square, and the mass graves still being unearthed from Rumania to Kiev. While such crimes against humanity were occasionally deplored in the statements of the oldline churches, the conventional message was that we must respect the right of other people “to choose their own form of government,” that we should welcome efforts to build “socialist alternatives” to the inadequacies of capitalism, and that, in any case, we Americans lacked moral standing to criticize “people struggling for peace and justice.”
For such religious leaders, the great imperative was to strike the prophetic posture, to cut through the ambiguities and contradictions in order to demonstrate that they were, as it was said, “on the right side of history.” Now that history is turning out in a way very different from what they expected, it is perhaps not so important that they be reproached by fellow- Christians in this country. From beneath the rubble of crumbling tyrannies the survivors are finding their voice. Those in the West who served so long as apologists for their oppression will no doubt have accusers enough. Were one looking for the authentically prophetic word pertinent to the sad story of the NCC and the religious left in America, it would be perhaps the word of I Peter 4: “For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God.”