Saturday, February 19, 2011

Eastern Christianity and the Cold War, 1945-91

Edited by Lucian N. Leustean, Routledge, 363 pages.

The collection of writers show that while much of the effort of the Catholic and Orthodox churches was heroic and faithful, the oppressive environment forced church leaders into sometimes very uncomfortable dealings with the communists.

In order to safeguard the long, beautiful Christian heritage of these lands, members of the hierarchies allowed themselves to be used, as when they traveled abroad to pastor to their country's diaspora and also reported back to their governments on the situation in the West.

One curiosity was that the Orthodox churches behind the Iron Curtain did not push Western governments or organizations into loudly condemning the religious persecution they and their fellow Christians were suffering under. They feared that this would lead to even more oppression.

The various authors of this book fail to depict the deep fear under which many Christians and their leaders lived, a fear which would have compromised their judgment about how close to work with the Communist governments. From our perspective, some of their work, such as with their country's secret police, may seem traitorous to the churches, but church leaders were fighting for every favor and right they could get for the faithful.

Each of the major countries involved are discussed in some detail. As a general rule, the churches in Russia, the Ukraine, and elsewhere under the yoke of communism suffered greatly until the clash between the USSR and Nazi Germany, at which point Stalin decided to use every resource he had.

The communists from that point on, generally until the end of the Cold War, tended to favor the national Orthodox churches as a way to control and organize the people and to give them a national identity. This worked well for the Soviet Union in WWII, and would be used after the War, especially in Romania, Russia, the Ukraine (with the Orthodox Church under the Moscow patriarchate), and Bulgaria.

The Romanian Church experienced relatively strong support from the government, especially from the late 1960s onward under the Ceausescu regime. The church was allowed to print books and even to translate new theology from the West, which could have been explosive in its emphasis on human rights and individualism. Monasteries, closely controlled and sometimes oppressed, were at times allowed to flourish, and mystical movements tied to them were a vital source of Orthodox life.

The interesting chapter on the Serbian national church discusses many of the issues from WWII left unresolved by Tito for decades. The Serbian church was muzzled, as the government tried to build a federalist country and reduce Serbian nationalism.

Isolated from Russia because of the squabble between Yugolav and Soviet communists, the Serbian church was starved from its roots. Like the Bulgarian church, it was traditionally deeply influenced by Russian spirituality, and without this connection it was not as strong as the Catholic Church was in Croatia. The Catholics received much help from other Catholic countries and enjoyed strong ties with Rome.

A fascinating read of a time that seems farther from today than it really is, Eastern Christianity and the Cold War reminds us of how awful the twentieth-century was for Christians in many countries.

No comments:

Post a Comment