Western Evangelicals and Eastern Europe

Why do we respond as we do to Marxism?


Editor's note: Bill Yoder is an American Mennonite living in West Germany. A graduate of Eastern Mennonite College in Virginia, he has since 1977 been employed by a North American mission society as Mennonite representative to the churches in East Germany (the GDR). Except for the two-year period from 1978 to 1980, when he and his wife lived in Lodz and Warsaw, Poland, the Yoders have made their home in West Berlin. He spends 70-80 days each year in the Eastern socialist countries, particularly in the GDR. What follows are his reflections as an American Christian on Western perceptions of Eastern Europe.


1. The lure of easy generalizations

Distinguishing correctly between isolated events and the general climate in a given country is of prime importance in formulating valid political opinions. False conclusions can readily be reached by listing all negative civil occurrences in a given area and assuming them to be normative for the entire country. A magazine may enumerate five or fifty infractions of religious freedom somewhere between Berlin and the Bering Strait and conclude that these are an accurate general reflection of life in socialist countries.


By the same methodology, a good case could be made that in the United States Hutterite, Amish, and other conservative Mennonite minorities are being repressed. In their cultural ethnicity and theological fundamentalism, these groups display many similarities with persons active within the Soviet underground. Several thousand of these Mennonites have left the U.S. because of limitations on their freedom to structure their lives according to their own wishes.


The Soviet press pictures the West as ridden with ghettos, unemployment, inflation and gang slayings. Western evangelicals often depict East European Christians as stealing through evening shadows en route to illegal meetings, where they are warmly embraced by courageous Bible smugglers. Though both of these scenarios contain truths, they are nevertheless caricatures.


A generally accurate picture of overall conditions is a great deal harder to obtain, but also, of course, far more helpful. Perhaps only pollsters, statisticians, and historians can be of major help here. We possess too few reasonably neutral barometers for measuring the relative „goodness“ or „badness“ of any given society. Barometers are usually chosen to stress the shortcomings of the political opponent. During the Carter era, the West criticized socialist infringement on individual human rights; the East emphasized capitalist infringement on collective ones.


Valid evaluations of complicated political conditions are essential in separating ethical mountains from molehills. Which issues are truly significant? A GDR church official visiting North America in 1980-81 felt that the concerns of his hosts for the fate of Soviet Christians were woefully disproportionate in view of the oppression experienced by the citizens of Latin­ American dictatorships. Conservative, pro-Western East Germans have repeatedly made similar judgments in my presence: "We in this country do have our problems with human rights, yet these problems in no way compare with those in Argentina or South Africa."


In East European countries no one is disappearing for good, and there are few criminal murders. According to "Amnesty International," five death sentences were carried out in the GDR between 1973 and 1976, and none has been carried out since then. lt is not the most basic human rights (food, shelter, life, work) which can usually be questioned in Eastern Europe. The former bishop of Görlitz in the GDR, Hans-Joachim Fränkel, once stated that „the freedom of movement is not one of the most basic human rights". The issues in socialist countries are more subtle.


Incredible as it must sound to conservative Westerners, I firmly believe that Christians in the GDR today receive a fairer shake than have Communists in Western countries during periods of McCarthyism. They, for example, have readier access to higher education and civil service jobs; they find it easier to adopt children. In these matters we Christians forget much too readily that tolerance is a two-way street.


2. Unbroken trust in Western media

Citizens of „First World“ countries are usually content to perceive their own societies and media as advocates of the „free press“ and the „free flow of ideas“. lt is assumed that in the laissez-faire interplay of differing viewpoints, objective truth will ultimately reign victorious. National media are therefore usually rewarded with the unconditional and uncritical trust of most private citizens.


lt is difficult to overestimate the effects of the „mass believability“ of the Western, multi-national news concerns on those who assume that Western media policy is created by the gods. Yet the press empires of Henry Luce and the Hearst family are classic examples of media programs created with clearly mortal editorial and political objectives. According to David Halberstam, Luce's “Time” magazine had Chiang Kai-Shek's forces beating the Maoists right up until their final defeat in 1949. Because of their mass believability and size, Western media wield supreme power. Note the omnipresence throughout the world of the AP and UPI. The credibility rating of the Soviet media is lower, yet there do remain millions of patriotic Soviets with deep trust in the pronouncements of Mother Russia's government. (Perhaps the patriotic, ethnic Russian bears a certain psychological resemblance to the flag-waving North American.) Outside of the Soviet Union and possibly Bulgaria, the credibility of the Eastern European media among the local populace seems significantly lower.


Media credibility is most quickly shattered when the listener or viewer is able to compare what he is told with personal experience. This occurs most often on the local scene, the sphere in which Western media are most objective. Socialist media in contrast readily impinge on the consumer's personal and local observations with statements such as, „The workers of . . . factory are united in their eagerness to achieve . . . .“ Western media may also exchange reality for the prescribed, but usually when reporting on distant events. Few North Americans are close enough to the citizens in the Soviet Union or EI Salvador to call the claims of the media into question.


Stefan Heym, a GDR novelist and former U.S. citizen, has stated that young people in his country, though normally inactive politically, have an acute political awareness. lt is an interesting phenomenon, in part a symptom of the First World's almost universal economic allure, that citizens in the Second World are much better informed about the First than vice-versa. East Germans are rarely satisfied with the reporting of their own media; many of them follow Western media with an avidness and healthy mistrust quite uncommon in the West.


Persons of Marxist orientation may agree that the Western press is free in the sense that virtually any information (accurate or otherwise) is printable. Yet there is a large difference between the freedom to print and the ability to influence public opinion. The nearly impartial truth as published by a small alternative journal has hardly a chance against the popularized „truths“ of the mass media. As the Marxist would say, only the factory owner is truly free to express his opinion. Is an opinion expressed if very few have really heard?


lt would be unfair to claim that the U.S. media deliberately print falsehoods. Rather, one should research the criteria they use in determining which world events are newsworthy. Selection occurs. No media agency can be comprehensive, printing „all the news that's fit to print".


3. Our inadequate historical perspective

The U.S. is intervening in world affairs on a scale probably least comprehensible by its own private citizens. Its Christians must come to grips with the traumatic fact that they are perched on the peak of the „human heap“. We need to reckon with a bitter harvest. Yet we refuse to believe that the political and theological view from the bottom (or the middle) looking upwards is not the same as the perspective from the top. Matthew 5 seems to demonstrate that Christ is nearest those on the bottom. Is he not therefore farthest from those on the top? Who among us are the true materialistic atheists? I am reminded of the controversial notion propagated at the WCC conference in Melbourne: „The Gospel is good news for the poor, but bad news for the rich."


In a political sense, one cannot help on occasion being envious of the GDR church. The Western church still finds itself approximately in the position of the German Lutheran church before socialism: We are still being feted in the courts of the mighty. The state protects our tax privileges, and we in turn invoke the Lord's blessings on the status quo. Such "stature" forsook the GDR church in 1945. These former state churches enjoy the enviable position of being relatively powerless as institutions, but of being morally robust. Movement in the direction of becoming a free, believer's church is discernible. The Lutheran church in the GDR is clearly the most respected church in all of Germany. Despite its shrinking membership (few privileges come with church membership), its future seems promising. More important than institutional freedoms is a church's reputation in the eyes of its society.


Western Christians anticipate struggle („Kirchenkampf”) between East European churches and their governments. lt is a tragic irony that such conflicts are seldom expected or sanctioned within Western countries.


North Americans are rightly concerned about Soviet policy on Afghanistan. Yet in their righteous indignation they should not forget U.S. forays into Central and South America, Indochina, the Philippines, Iran, and Greece. After World War I, the U.S. sent expeditionary forces into the Soviet Union itself.


Much ado has been made over the number of emigrations from socialist countries, ignoring the economic pull of the West and emphasizing the political push of the home countries. Yet it would seem obvious that human migrations historically have always gravitated towards the centers of economic wealth. The frequently self-justifying political evaluations of the émigré are much more frequently heard than those of the mass majority which remains behind. Consider Cuba and Vietnam during 1980.


4. Emotional animosity and fear

lt seems that the Westerner's irrational, traumatic, and virtually bottomless fear of Soviet-allied communism has settled into our genes. This deep animosity bewilders millions outside the First World and must be overcome if the world's most powerful nation is to deal rationally with its global neighbors.


It is not uncommon for conservative evangelicals to condemn Marxists solely for lacking Christian faith. „Atheist“ is used as a derogatory term, an inquisitorial curse. But this attitude is diametrically opposed to the example of Christ; it can only breed similar contempt in the opposite party. Ronald Reagan has claimed that Marxists are immoral and that because of their atheism they will stoop to any conceivable means to achieve their ends. This incredible supposition by sanctioners of the Indochinese war, that their own consciences are somehow more finely honed, has been offensive in Eastern Europe. Communists do display strong moral convictions about economic and sexual exploitation, commercialism, and racism. Granted, their ethics do not encompass all sins objectively present outside the will of God, but neither does any single Christian theology. In fathoming the breadth and depth of evil, all of us see through a glass darkly.


lt is unfortunately impossible to get to know a socialist society strictly through its own press; its media frequently instil undue fear in the hearts of Western readers or listeners. “Propaganda” has positive connotations in Marxist ideology, its role roughly comparable to that of Western advertising. Both present the ideal as reality. The Westerner may transfer his innate trust of local media onto a socialist periodical and accept its „advertisements“ at face value, concluding that socialist countries are somehow laden with militant, revolutionary masses. In Eastern Europe, this is conceivable only in tiny Albania.


The militant and polemical language in which socialist governments couch their proclamations is more likely a symptom of insecurity than of warlike intentions. Only those who carry a big stick can afford to speak softly. Soft-currency socialist economies cannot remain afloat when confronted with open borders to and from Western countries. Primary examples include the GDR up until 1961, and Poland twenty years later. Like it or not, the Berlin Wall was necessary for the economic stabilization of the GDR. (Few governments or governmental systems will not attempt all steps necessary to keep themselves in power.)


Perhaps only personal dialogue with Marxists can convince us that Soviet-oriented communism is in any case no longer a monolithic giant intent on or capable of destroying religion and all that which is precious to the Western mind. Yes, the patriarchs of Marxist ideology proclaimed the ultimate victory of socialism, but it is doubtful whether East European Marxists are any more rigidly committed to their historical tenets than are Christians. We are all mere human beings and struggle against the same flesh.


5. The power of ideology

According to Marxist theory, ideology is a vital instrument for deciphering social phenomena and pre­scribing pertinent remedies. But no single ideology is capable of sensing and eliminating all forms of institutional evil. The ideology of conservative capitalism assumes that nations which try to free themselves from a dependence on America will do so only because of „communist subversion“. This dogma has no room for peoples who because of economic and cultural oppression might wish to break their ties with the capitalist bloc. Revolutions such as those in Nicaragua and EI Salvador could therefore, on this view, only have been artificially incurred by outside agitators. „Appeasement“ and „neutralism” are terms with lethal ideological connotations. When expedient, Western capitalism will hold „free, democratic elections“ to be a proven panacea for any given society. Yet post-Sadat Egypt is one of many non-expedient situations.


The evangelical right readily labels communism as fascism and does not shrink back from drawing the most invidious parallels. A recent editorial in a West German evangelical periodical applauded Reagan's promised arms build-up, comparing the West's present military situation with that of Czechoslovakia in 1938. The gravity of such mistaken historical parallels can hardly be overestimated. The histories of East European countries since 1956 have amply demonstrated that these countries are not fascist.


Or take the case of the anti-communist Brüsewitz Center. Oskar Brüsewitz was a Lutheran pastor who in August 1976, immolated himself in Zeitz, GDR. Brüsewitz' widow as well as the East and West German Lutheran churches asked that the center not be named after him. The requests were rejected: the assumption was that both the widow and the GDR church were protesting under pressure from the state. Yet in those frequent instances where GDR church protests coincide with conservative ideology, Western observers do not falter in assuming the Easterners' credibility.


Socialist governments on the other hand may assume that cultural imperialism on their part is by definition impossible. They will also claim that alienation between the worker and the product of his labors cannot occur within their system.


Those Westerners who relish clear-cut issues and fronts need to be reminded that the political animosities between Hungary and Rumania are clearly stronger than those between Hungary and Austria. Hungary and Austria (though not Czechoslovakia and Austria) appear on the best of terms. Presently, the Polish people, including many of its political representatives, are deeply at odds with their immediate neighbors. Their relations with the West seem blissful in contrast. The "fellowship of socialist brother countries," to quote Soviet phraseology, hardly exists. The countries "behind the Iran Curtain" (which direction is "behind"?) are no more a monolithic bloc than are West Germany, Italy, and Turkey, all three of which find themselves in NATO.


In general, Poles take their Marxist ideology much less seriously than their East German neighbors, who have a reputation for „Prussian thoroughness”. On occasion, I cannot help being amused. Twice I have been approached by Polish police officials asking my opinion of the new Polish pope. Each time I responded that he is not without fault: Latin-American Catholics and ecumenically-minded Protestants have their differences with him. Both of these supposedly „genuine, militant communists“ evidently felt I was attacking their Polishness and defended their pope vociferously.


Discussing Poland, Dr. Günther Berndt, a West German, criticized in a book review the phrase "despite thirty years of communism”. „Poland has not 'been communist' for thirty years,“ he wrote; „rather, it has been governed by a party which claims to take the tenets of Marxism-Leninism seriously.” Governments are not all-pervasive; they are simply one of many important factors in society.


The open political alliances tolerated by socialist governments can be surprising. During the summer of 1980 in the U.S., I chanced upon the Rumanian Baptist Josef Ton extending greetings on Jerry Falwell's television program. He concluded by inviting Falwell to Rumania for a round of speaking engagements.


Latin Christians should be thanked for sowing healthy confusion among the ideologically hardened. In contemporary Latin America, it is not uncommon for Christian Marxists to be struggling against atheistic capitalists. First-World evangelicals have envisioned political spectacles of „atheistic communists destroying the Christian faith“, whereby it has been assumed that Christians are „destroying” in the inverse direction. Yet, in the GDR there have been no specific campaigns to destroy Christian belief (à la the Soviet model) since the 1950's. In this context the GDR party has spoken of „a process of learning“. Today, most East European parties seem much more concerned about winning the loyalty of Christians for their own political programs. This in fact is the only discussion of the church in the GDR press. Almost daily, GDR media cite examples of cooperative activities between Christians and Marxists „for the good, high calling of socialism“. The party trend is clearly towards seeing belief or non-belief as a private matter. In 1980, I heard a Yugoslav party official claim that his party is completely neutral on metaphysical issues. In Poland, practicing Christians may now become members of the communist party. In the GDR, Martin Luther is being massively rehabilitated just in time for his 500th birthday.


lt is claimed that the struggle of Marx and Engels was directed against clericalism and the church's traditional alliance with the monarchy and factory owner, not against faith per sè. I believe that contemporary East European practice largely supports this interpretation. lt is not belief in God which has enraged the Marxist, but rather the blasphemous history of the Constantinian church. During World War II, Croatian Catholics executed hundreds of Serbian Orthodox children immediately after forcefully rebaptizing them. Any discussion of Marxism by Christians which lacks a healthy dose of self-criticism for past sins committed in the name of Christ is indeed stilted and impoverished. Undoubtedly, more Christians have perished under "Christian" swords than under communist ones.


How can we improve the situation?

1. De-emphasize foreign bogeymen

lt is a common political tactic to stabilize one's own ranks by pointing an accusing finger at foreign bogeymen, who are ideally suited for the purpose: they are usually distant, anonymous, and defenseless. lt is not difficult to fear and hate the unknown. The church may of course also use foreign bogeymen. The red bogeyman has much less defense and is far less embarrassing than enemies closer at hand, such as the interpersonal tensions and minor scandals present in most every assemblage of the Lord's sinful people.


I propose, then, that bogeymen be restricted primarily to our own military bloc, nation, or group; and above all, to our own hearts. Change can be made most effectively at home. Ilsegret Fink, a GDR-theologian, states that we Christians are our own worst enemies. „Marxists can only make good or bad [atheistic] propaganda,“ she observes. „We possess the fatal capability of destroying Christ's credibility in the eyes of the world.”


"We should restrict ourselves to fair and precise criticisms of Marxist-oriented governments. The GDR church has often stressed the importance of beginning by "sweeping in front of our own doors", an exercise which no government relishes. This applies of course to Eastern as well as Western Christians.


2. Strive for greater political sensitivity and fairness

lncreased discussion of the deep differences between the North and South is playing a healthy role in breaking the commonly accepted global battle lines between East and West. Too often we accept propagandistic terminology at face value, or create absolutes from relatives. Westerners label their own bloc the „Free World”, yet adjectives such as „free“, „totalitarian“ and „democratic“ can be understood only relatively and quantitatively. An institution can be only more or less free, more or less democratic; a written article can be only more or less objective. Terms like „oppressive“ are meaningful only if comparative: a government is oppressive in comparison to what? Freedom implies freedom from something. Different political systems free from differing oppressions.


Again, Reagan's claims of needing to regain the lead in the arms race sound no less threatening to socialist countries than Dulles' "rollback" theories during the 1950's. One bloc's „military security“ is interpreted by its foe as "aggressive intentions”.


3. Foster interpersonal and inter-church relationships

Prejudice is more effectively dissipated through personal contact. I have heard an East German party official describe his visit to a dairy farm in Wisconsin. As he told it, his hosts were genuinely surprised that he did not appear in uniform, brandishing a machine gun. Western news commentaries on the East including evangelical assessments are of mixed quality. Neither can one genuinely get to know a socialist society through that society's official press. There is, in short, no real alternative to visiting and being visited by East Europeans.


lt is a deep tragedy that we rarely see Marxists as persons; they are of course as diverse and human as Christians. Like Christians, Marxists also have their fundamentalists and liberals, their prophets and heretics, their devout and nominal members. Poles have claimed that many communists of long standing are going through emotional traumas as they view the „demise“ of their many years of labor. Are Christians being their brother's keeper?


Except for certain smaller sects and the church in Albania, there are no „silent“ churches in Eastern Europe. This implies that they must be allowed to speak for themselves. If we are genuinely willing to listen, we will recognize that the intra- and inter-church tensions in Eastern Europe are remarkably similar to our own.


We should strive to attain durable, long-term relationships with East European churches, which would make honest dialogue and mutual discipling possible.


East European evangelicals, most of whom find themselves in subcultural surroundings, have tended to adulate the West and accept somewhat uncritically the gifts offered them by their Western counterparts. In January 1981, five Rumanian Baptists were sentenced to imprisonment for attempting to smuggle Bibles and cassettes into the Soviet Union. They had also been in possession of Western currencies valued at $75,000. In Rumania, it is illegal for local citizens to own hard currencies. Should not more appropriate, indigenous means of expressing solidarity with our Soviet neighbors be developed? An East European's cooperation with an anti-communist East mission may, in the eyes of his government, be seen as comparable to a Western Christian's cooperation with the Soviet KGB. Incidentally, West Germany's weekly “Der Spiegel” claims that "Underground Evangelism" officials have admitted long-standing ties to the CIA.


I greatly doubt whether Christians have the spiritual liberty to infringe massively on the currency regulations of socialist countries. In certain small evangelical churches in Poland and Yugoslavia, virtually all pastors receive their salaries legally from Western sources. This obviously encourages unhealthy dependencies. lt would seem most constructive if, when possible, East European churches would keep open financial records regarding Western contributions. But here the Westerners should be setting a precedent among themselves.


According to a Canadian specialist on Soviet church affairs, Soviet evangelicals are exhibiting the questionable fruits of the many foreign radio broadcasts stressing pre-millennial eschatology; a fatalistic world-view and sectarianism appear on the increase there. Sectarianism and a mutual fortress mentality have long hindered meaningful dialogue between Soviet Protestants and their government. lt is mystifying that ecumenical and mainline church organizations are expending so little effort to propagate their understanding of the Gospel in the air waves over the Soviet Union.


Latin Americans have progressed further in developing an indigenous evangelical faith. I hope that our East European sisters and brothers can become more aware of the need to confront us with our undue cultural, economic and even theological oppression. We on the other hand must strive for such relationships as make it possible to question their unhealthy patterns of leadership and occasional theological dogmatism. Of course, we can achieve more significant dialogue only through mutual reorientation. A number of East European Marxists and in particular mainline Protestants could aid us in radically rethinking our own Western strategies and missiologies.


Bill Yoder

Berlin-West, 30 October 1981


Appeared in this form in the April 1983 issue of “The Reformed Journal” in Grand Rapids/Michigan, 4.005 words


Notes from June 2022:

Günter Berndt (sometimes “Günther”) was born in 1932. He was long active in the West German Evangelical Academy movement as well as the “Aktion Sühnezeichen” peace initiative.

Jerry Falwell Sr. (1933-2007) was a prominent fundamentalist Baptist televangelist. He founded “Liberty University” in Lynchburg/Virgina in 1971 and helped co-found the “Moral Majority” eight years later.

Ilsegret Fink was the spouse of the well-known, East Berlin theology professor Heinrich Fink (1935-2020). She is apparently still residing in Berlin-Karlshorst (East Berlin). Her statement was published in 1967.

Hans-Joachim Fränkel (1909-1996) was the Lutheran bishop in the Görlitz region of the GDR from 1964 to 1979. He moved to West Germany after his retirement in 1979.

David Halberstam (1934–2007) was an American writer, journalist, and historian especially known for his work on the Vietnam war and civil rights issues.

The political novelist Stefan Heym (1913-2001), an ethnic Jew, resided in the USA from 1935 to 1952. He, along with important cultural figures such as Charlie Chaplin, Hanns Eisler, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann, fled the USA during the McCarthy era.

The Baptist educator Josef Ton (born 1934) – pronounced “Tson” - emigrated to Wheaton/Illinois in 1981 but spent a number of years back in Rumania after 1990. He is now retired and apparently living in the USA.