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  • Beth Lantinga

A Change of Plans

Though life was difficult for Christian churches in Hungary before the 1956 revolution, it became much more so afterwards. Reformed church leaders installed by the regime read the signs well and became ever more eager to affirm, or at least appear to affirm, the government’s goals. To many Reformed folk it seemed that their leaders were so afraid of their overlords that they became servile puppets of the state. It was this posture, this loyalty to the state, that drew the criticism of Daniel Szabo and other students.

Daniel Szabo’s paper on Walther Luthi should have resulted in his expulsion from the seminary. However, he was allowed to write a second paper under the protection of the Janos Peter, the former bishop of Debrecen who had assumed a government position. With Peter’s blessing, Tibor Bartha had stepped into his shoes. Daniel's story continues with the events that led Bishop Bartha to expel him from the seminary.

Under the leadership of Tibor Bartha, the bishop of Debrecen, the development of the political conception of the church started from 1958, which served the existing social system, the Soviet politics, and supported the ideas of socialism without criticism, spreading them by propaganda among the western churches. This ˝serving church theology˝ remained the official theology of the church until the change of the regime.” From Terror Museum in Budapest

The Redemption Invitation

“A bit later I received in written form and orally a request that I write another paper. I think it was suggested by Janos Peter who by this time was out of the church leadership and had flown away into the government as chair of the foreign ministry. In the seminary they really didn’t know what protection I still had from him, so they couldn’t simply destroy me. That invitation surely came from my connection to the Peter family. In the letter, they invited me to write a second paper because they were sure that this second one would show regret for my earlier behavior. And If I showed proper regret, I could walk along the path prepared for me by the 1956 events.

Bishop Janos Peter

As I thought about starting my second paper, I found the theme Professor Torok had suggested for me, the ethics of Janos Arany. I had no work because I had been kicked out of my previous position at the village church. So, I spent time at my father’s house feeding animals each day and working out in the field. And I was working, on my paper. Finally, it became a 300-page thesis, not so very big. I felt during this writing that God really encouraged me and filled me up with an inner joy, because I could give another paper; I could write whatever I wanted. And there were no thoughts in my mind that I would regret anything. Rather I was prepared to be very strong and unhesitant in my writing.

The Second Paper

To be able to achieve an acceptably high academic level, I compared the ethics of Janos Victor with those of Professor Torok. Victor had described ethical circles beginning with the inner circle of conscience and faith. They continued outward to the final circle of the nation. This model provided a good structure for my paper. Following this system, I found that Viktor’s categories were found in Janos Arany’s revolutionary poetry from the mid-1800s. I worked hard to give exact examples from Arany’s works.

I started to set up parallels.

Janos Arany - Poet of the 1848 Revolution

In the introduction I wrote, ‘Janos Arany’s personality is very much needed today as we need a person who is a believer. In our present church circles, we are missing honorable people.’ I wrote that Arany was honorable within the structure where he lived and worked. I looked for connections everywhere. I wrote chapters about the distortions in our church and society. One section referred to our structural life; another referred to our economic values. This was in 1957, the age when the harsh sentences following the 1956 revolution were being carried out.

I talked about the church leadership that protected Arany from persecution. I wrote about how much the church leaders defended him and the values he wrote about. In contrast, the present church leadership was trying to get rid of opposition to the state, putting them into the hands of the police for trial. I talked about the old leadership that defended and surrounded Arany to protect him.

I explained how the values of the communist government became ethical guidelines for those they had put into church leadership positions and how the church then muzzled those who disagreed. I put an example in my thesis about the process that pushed Imre Szabo out of his Budapest church and deported him to a distant village, effectively silencing him. And I talked about a false theology that bore this mess and dirt into the church and made it possible to put good people aside.

I questioned whether the church was acting according to the Word, So, my voice was one of desperation. With all these sins of the church, I could only say that we are full of mud, and like a dog full of dirt, we have the chance to shake ourselves and try to be clean. We must shake from ourselves the dirt poured on the church and its leaders by those who are traitors of the church and the nation. If we don’t, we will all be lost. I think that these sentences could not be misunderstood.

The Resolution

Finally, I decided to submit this paper with a calm smiling face. ‘Here I am with my second thesis.’ Obviously, Professor Varga, a man of the new system, didn’t want to take it in his hands. Imre Janosi, a new professor, didn’t know us and our story well, so he didn’t want to take my thesis. Professor Varga told us that if he didn’t have a letter in hand from the Bishop of Debrecen, he would not accept the thesis. So, I wrote a letter to the Bishop saying that I was not asking anything more, especially not his support, but only that at the seminary they needed a letter from the bishop. ‘I ask you to write in this letter whatever you think is the best, whether supportive or not, but the only way that they will accept my thesis is if they have a letter from you.’

Daniel Szabo Telling This Story

So here I am, having written a thesis about Janos Arany the way I thought the best. Bishop Bartha wrote a letter and enclosed another in it that was sent to Professor Varga. In it he wrote that my thesis will show them that after being suspended for one year, 'This young pastor went through radical changes while he was working on this new thesis, making him capable of understanding the new theology of our work in the church and the constructive efforts the socialist system requires from us. His commitment to this and his view will be clearly stated in this thesis. With a full heart I suggest that you receive his thesis.' He hadn’t even talked with me before, so I was really anxious about him. He was a calm, confident mild man with good will toward me. How could he do this to me? He should have written that I was unrepentant, good-for-nothing, and beyond repair. Do not accept this thesis from him.

The next day I got the message that the Professor Varga also received the bishop’s letter. He came to me with a smiling speech saying, ‘Oh dear Danika, I’m sorry that I had no time to listen to you until now, but of course, bring your thesis. It will be no problem that we had some delay. Everything will be okay. There is only one question. Whom shall I give your thesis to?’ Soon Professor Torok is coming back. Shall we put it in his hands?’ I thought, poor Professor Torok. He will read this thesis and will again give me a good grade, and they will suspend him again. I told Professor Varga that perhaps he should give it to Professor Janosi who would evaluate it and put the thing in its right place. Professor Varga agreed with me in this saying that Janosi really has a new voice in the seminary. So, we gave it to Professor Janosi.”

The seminary officials assumed that Daniel and the other dissident students had been properly chastened, so they were allowed to take their final written exams.

The Expulsion

“We were sitting in the writing part of the exam when a messenger came breathing rapidly and saying that we should put down our pens and stop writing at once. The exam was over and we had to come out. Professor Janosi had read through my thesis and brought it to Bishop Bartha who immediately suspended us. We came came out and Sandor Irlanda came to me. It turned out that his new thesis was also critical from the same points; Gyula Fekete Szucs was also suspended. Then the seminary leaders called together every student from the seminary as a strange kind of celebration.

Debrecen Reformed Seminary

We were made to stand in front of all of the others; and Bartha the bishop said that he and the church leadership had no more patience for us. They did not want to spend any more funds on our education, because they had no hope that we could be sufficiently cured. So once and for, we had to understand that we were closed out forever from any church position and should find different vocations.

We had to pack our things immediately and move out of the seminary and dormitory. We had an hour to leave. There was a dear man, our senior at the seminary, Janos Csikos, who invited us to go and have lunch before we left forever. Professor Ujszaszy came after us and tried to console us. This is how we left and these were the last moments of our seminary life.


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