THE MOST VIOLENT CENTURY IN HISTORY
At the high meridian of the 'Enlightenment', the hope of many was that a world freed from the burden of 'superstition' and 'priestcraft' would evolve into a rational society, capable of ordering itself peacefully, harmoniously and wisely. Even in the 19th century, when unbelief was often prompted by a somewhat darker view of human nature, the 'progressive' view was still that a secular society, purged of the pernicious influences of religion by the cleansing gales of scientific reason, would by its nature prove to be more just, peaceful and humane than the 'Age of Faith' had been.
And yet, by the end of the 20th century, wars had been waged on a scale never before imagined, and a number of Utopian, strictly secularist ideologies — each in its own way the inheritor both of the Enlightenment project to remake society on a more rational model and of the late 19th-century project to 'correct' human nature through the mechanisms of a provident state - had together managed to kill perhaps 150 million persons. Over three centuries, the worst abuse of ecclesial authority in Christian history - the Spanish Crown's Inquisitions — caused the deaths of maybe 30,000, and even then only after a legal process that produced far more acquittals than convictions; the Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China, by contrast, often killed that many of its own citizens in three days, without any trial at all. By century's end, all certainties had been shattered: the power of 'organized religion' in the West had been largely subdued, but organized irreligion had proved a far more despotic, capricious and murderous historical force.
The People's Revolution
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[A call to arms from post-revolutionary Russia; a recruitment poster dating from 1911 urges: 'Still not a member of the Co-operative — sign up immediately!]
Russia's pre-eminence among Orthodox countries after the 15th century had been a consequence principally of its freedom from foreign rule; among Orthodox peoples, only the Slavs were not subjects of non-Christian nations, and among the Slavic nations, Russia was the largest and most powerful. But, by the last decades of the 19th century, several radically atheist political movements had spread through Russia, many of them inspired by the ideals of 'scientific socialism' and committed to the overthrow of such 'bourgeois' institutions as the monarchy and the Church. By the 1870s, to prescient observers of the Russian scene, the question was not whether the revolution would come, but when.
After the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917, the new Soviet government instituted a systematic persecution of the Church, which consisted not only in the seizure of ecclesiastical properties, but in the imprisonment, torture and murder of a great many bishops, priests and religious - a pattern that would be imitated, with greater or lesser ferocity, by other Eastern European 'revolutionary' regimes later in the century. In 1927, the revered and learned Metropolitan Sergius (1867-1944), who would later become patriarch of Moscow (the patriarchate having been restored a few months before the Bolshevik coup), attempted to purchase some relief for his Church by publicly professing loyalty to the Soviet government; but only in 1943 did a period of greater toleration begin, lasting until about 1959, when Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) reinstituted persecutions. Only in the late 1980s, when the Soviet system itself was on the verge of collapse, did the repressive measures abate.
One of the most famous of Orthodox priests to be murdered during the early decades of the Soviet regime was the extraordinary Pavel Florensky (1882-1937) who, as well as being a theologian and philosopher (and writer of considerable skill), was an electrical engineer and mathematician. He was an admirer of Vladimir Solovyov, whose 'sophiology' he adopted and developed, and whose social ideas he had attempted in his youth to make the principles of a Christian revolutionary movement. In 1924, he published his magnum opus, The Pillar and Ground of Truth, a long treatise on the Christian metaphysics of love. Had it not been for his expertise in electrodynamic theory and electric engineering, he probably would have been executed not long after the revolution. As it was, the new government had need of his services in the grand project of the 'electrification of Russia'. Florensky served, but refused to abandon the traditional cassock, uncropped hair and beard of an Orthodox priest.
In 1933, he was sentenced to ten years' hard labour in a gulag, and in 1937 was
sentenced to death by a secret tribunal and killed some time soon thereafter.
Blood, Soil and Destiny
The sort of 'internationalist' socialism favoured by the communists of eastern Europe, though, was as a rule concerned with class rather than with race, and with the reorganization of society rather than with the refinement of the species. When it killed, it was generally in the name of a social, political or economic principle. But the other stream of 'progressive' socialist thought - race theory, eugenics, euthanasia of 'defectives' and forced sterilization — was taken up by the 'nationalist' socialists of Germany in the 1930s, where it was combined with native racial and social 'philosophies' to produce the genocidal policies of the Third Reich. The six million or so Jews murdered by the Nazis - as well as the millions from other communities and nations - were the victims principally of an ideology of racial and
[A poster issued in 1933, the year of Hitler's appointment as chancellor of Germany, shows a podium flanked by a First World War soldier and a Brownshirt storm-trooper, and reads: 'To the New Germany']
national destiny that claimed for itself both the mystical authority of a kind of Germanic neo-paganism and the pedigree of'scientific'socialism.
The generally invertebrate and even subservient response of many of the churches in Germany to the rise of the Nazis, however, was in part the result of centuries of European anti-Semitism, and in even larger part the result of cowardice. The National Socialist Workers' Party was clearly a post-Christian political movement, intent ultimately on superseding the Gospel's 'Jewish corruption' of 'Aryan' culture and racial consciousness; but it also seemed quite content to leave most established institutions intact as it undertook its project of national transformation. In 1933, though, as part of the Reich's policy of Gleichschaltung ('enforced uniformity'), all Protestant congregations in Germany were amalgamated into a single 'Protestant Reich Church', committed to purifying Christianity of its Jewish alloys (such as the Old Testament).
The Reich Church quickly proved a failure, but it did give rise in 1934 to the Christian resistance movement called the 'Confessing Church', led by a number of prominent Lutheran pastors and theologians, and organized around the 'Barmen Declaration', a document written chiefly by the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). As an
['When the Nazis came for the Communists, I remained silent because I wasn't a Communist. When they locked up the Social Democrats, I remained silent because I wasn't a Social Democrat. When they came for the trade unionists, I didn't speak out, because I wasn't a trade unionist. When they came for me, there, was no one left to speak out.']
Martin Niemoller, Lutheran Theologian imprisoned by the Nazis.
underground organization, the Confessing Church had very little effect on the culture at large, and those among its numbers who spoke out publicly on behalf of the Jews were often moved to lament the movement's frequent timidity. That said, bolder members of the Confessing Church did engage in subversive activities, including hiding jews, and certain of the more prominent leaders of the movement paid dearly for their involvement.
Among these, a particularly honored place belongs to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45), a Lutheran theologian and pastor who was one of the founders of the Confessing Church. His vociferous opposition to the new regime in the early and middle 1930s, both in Germany and abroad, and his constant calls for Christian solidarity with the Jews against the Nazis, soon made him an object of Gestapo attention, and he was forbidden to teach, preach or speak in public.Though a firm believer in the Christian's duty to practise peace, he also believed that there were evils against which the Christian conscience demands struggle by any means necessary; and in 1939 he joined a conspiracy — which included his brother and his two brothers-in-law, as well as a number of high-ranking military officers - to assassinate Hitler. In April 1943, though, before the attempt had been made, he was discovered to have supplied money to aid Jews in escaping to Switzerland and was imprisoned.
When the attempt to kill Hitler was finally made, in July 1944, and failed, the investigation soon uncovered the names of the conspirators, and all were executed. Bonhoeffer was hanged at dawn on 9 April 1945, at the concentration camp in Flossenbiirg, three weeks before the city was captured by the Allies.
A THEOLOGY OF LIBERATION
Perhaps it was as a result of the general decline in the political power of the Church that the 20th century was a period so rich in 'political theologies'. Among the most controversial of these was the Latin American movement called 'Liberation Theology', usually thought to have begun in 1968 at a convocation of the Council of Latin American Bishops in Medellin, Colombia. The assembled bishops crafted a statement protesting those policies of rich nations that they believed perpetuated poverty in the developing world, and calling for a new commitment by the Church and governments to justice for the poor.
Liberation Theology, however, soon evolved a more distinct set of general principles. In its developed form, the movement revolved around reading the Bible in light of God's special 'preference' for the poor. According to proponents of Liberation Theology, fidelity to the Gospel demands that Christians lend themselves to the social and political struggles of the oppressed, even (many would say) when this might involve forms of revolutionary action. God's saving activity towards humanity, they say, is not merely 'spiritual' - or, rather, spiritual redemption cannot be separated from the prophetic law of justice and mercy proclaimed by Christ, the prophets and the apostles.
It is not in the power of humans to bring about the Kingdom of God, according to this theology: but one cannot serve Christ unless one seeks to live towards the Kingdom, which inevitably must , involve the attempt to create conditions that manifest in concrete social, political and economic forms the justice of God's reign.The evils that God condemns on the cross include not only personal moral faults, but those 'structural evils' that alienate human societies from God.
The controversial aspect of Liberation Theology was obviously not its advocacy for the poor, or the communidades - local Bible study and social assistance associations - it encouraged, but the tendency of many of its proponents to adopt Marxist analyses of economic and social history, and occasionally to associate themselves with Marxist revolutionary organizations. This led the Vatican in the 1980s to rein the movement in, principally through the appointment of bishops unsympathetic to its more suspect elements. In the nations of Latin America, however, it remains an extremely popular theological movement.
ONE FINAL CHAPTER TO COME