How did the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren cope with the change of its position after the Revolution of 1989 in terms of “reconciliation and forgiveness”, taking into account also the wider framework given by Martin Luther’s teachings, proclaimed five hundred years ago?
Martin Luther was, without a doubt, a conscious member of the Catholic, i.e. universal church. The existence of the universal church was perceived as a given fact also by John Hus. What the church found unacceptable was Luther’s realization that the church was neither the owner nor the mediator of salvation. One may not buy penitence or forgiveness, let alone a fulfilled life. We should keep in mind what Luther said: that we are, or may hope to be, part of the invisible Church, the one church that belongs to God. Why, then, do we fear so much for our Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren?
The church during totalitarian times
In what ways did the situation of the churches in Czechoslovakia between 1948 and 1989 differ from the times of the Reformation? As opposed to the middle ages, the churches during the communist era were defined and restricted through legislative regulations imposed by the state: they were not autonomous in their own affairs and decisions.
Seeking an easier co-existence among other democratic states, the Czechoslovak government signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This was used as an argument by critics of the communist regime, including church members, claiming they would help the government in fulfilling the Declaration. Those who held power were thus prepared to present our country to the international community in a very different light from the government’s menacing behaviour towards critics.
The church was facing two forms of pressure. For one thing, it was clear that the conditions set by the Declaration were very difficult to respect, often even against the law. The second type of pressure was based on the fact that there were also such critics among church members who were striving for a general improvement and whose activities were reaching beyond the scope of the church. We may ask whether their case was not similar to the actions of the Reformers who worked to “reform all human matters” in the spirit of Jan Amos Komenský.
Citizens and church members facing pressure
Let me try to recall some of the ways people reacted to the pressure they were facing:
- Internal emigration, focusing on private, family life, activities with friends, in various communities or the church. This is something we can still relate to today.
- Perceiving the church as something that is completely non-secular and only seeking the coming of the Kingdom of God. “Don’t draw the attention of state authorities to your activities” – this was a common attitude justifying people’s unwillingness to express their real thoughts.
- Behaving and speaking in evasive ways in order to “prevent the worst”.
- Interrogations and oaths of silence, “cooperation” offers. Sometimes it seemed that even close colleagues were considering options that would enable them to be on good terms with both the church and the Communist party. My question is: How does one measure human weakness? Is it up to us to judge?
- An involved attitude (resistance?). Sometimes, this was an emergency decision, other times well-considered, sometimes this was an approach clearly resulting from one’s principles and values. Whatever the case, my personal experience is that such a decision puts an end to irrational anxieties and fears about how I would manage, and, surprisingly, also opens doors to a new community, a new fellowship of people who support each other on their journey.
After the Revolution
The long-lasting situation in which so many of us were struggling with fear, anxiety, doubt, losing face, was suddenly changed. Was this a trial for those who believe in our Lord, Jesus Christ? Could it be put this way? Did we withstand the trial? Do we stand up to today’s tests?
A step towards freedom
Some people admit their weaknesses and failures, at least to themselves. Some even publically proclaim them and apologise. There are others, however, who refuse to admit they may have made any mistakes.
A few years ago, at a training course for pastors, Jan Šimsa gave the participants – anybody who might be burdened with feelings of remorse – the opportunity to come to confession; whether during the training, or before the board of the pastor association, before individuals, or in any other way they preferred. I asked him: “Are you sure somebody will be interested?” “Yes, I’m sure, I know a number of people,” he replied. Nobody came, as far as I remember. After a few years, it turned out that Jan Šimsa, who had always been very firm and categorical in matters concerning the truth, had become the pastor of those he had had in mind back at the training course.
To conclude, let me repeat an audacious statement: As far as breaking the unity of the church community is concerned, the communist regime was successful. The privilege of Christ’s church should be living united in diversity, while being able to debate freely, agree or disagree while being able to breathe freely: “that all of them may be one…” (John 17:21)