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  • Beth Lantinga

Living in a Materialist World

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

The new year is upon us with all its complications, hopes, and fears. I want to wish all my readers many blessed moments of daily goodness and joy in the coming months.

In preparation for this post, I re-read a small book that explained the crisis facing the Hungarian Reformed Church following World War II. It seems to me that the Christian church in America is now facing a similar situation: the onslaught of a materialist, anti-Christian ideology that threatens to destroy traditional Christian institutions. The response of Reformed Christians in Hungary to the ideology imposed by the Soviet Union provided food for thought for me. I hope the background information introducing this segment of Jozsef Berenyi’s story will prove the same for you.

(1945) Crimean Conference--Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Marshal Joseph Stalin at the palace in Yalta, where the Big Three met / U.S. Signal Corps photo. Ukraine I︠a︡lta, 1945. February. [Photograph retrieved from the Library of Congress]

The Yalta Affair

As the second war in Europe was obviously coming to a close, most of the Allies were a bit uneasy about their Soviet partner. Russia’s bloody revolution was hard for capitalist democracies to forget. So, with the imminent collapse of the German war effort, the Allies began meeting to plan for the shape of the coming world. An early meeting was held in Yalta in February of 1945. At its conclusion, the agreement was hailed as a sign of hope for future cooperation. President Roosevelt returned to the U.S. apparently confident of future Allied cooperation, referring to Stalin as Uncle Joe. It was seen as an especially good sign that Stalin agreed to install democracies in Eastern Europe. At the same time, the Allies agreed that the countries on its borders should be friendly to the Soviet Union.

By the time that the Potsdam conference ended in August of 1945, Soviet goals were becoming clearer. “Friendly” meant controlled by Soviet troops who had become a fixture in Hungary as well as other territories under Soviet control. Hungarian historian Ignac Romsics described Stalin’s aim. “Whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it its own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise.” When the war ended, it became clear to Hungary and its neighbors that Soviet troops were there to stay. Though lip service was given to the lofty ideals expressed in the treaty agreements, Soviet power loomed.

After two failed attempts to control Hungary’s government through elections, the communist party took off the gloves and seized power backed by Soviet troops. The new regime soon began to exert control of the church. It did not employ the bloody tactics used in Russia, but worked insidiously with assuring words that hid the inexorable move to destroy Christianity and its cultural influence. Given the circumstances, it became clear that the churches had few options.

What Happened to the Reformed Church?

By the time of the Soviet takeover, the Hungarian Reformed church was in the midst of its own struggles. Reformers were urging the traditional church to return to its powerful religious roots and turn from the bureaucratic atrophy that had affected much of Western Christendom. However, another left-leaning influence entered the conversation. Younger pastors, influenced by Karl Barth, judged the HRC by social justice standards and found it wanting. According to Gyula Gombos in his book, The Lean Years, many among this group found inspiration in a literary movement which advocated radical social reforms. Others were deeply grieved by the Nazi persecution of the Jews, and their passionate emotions swept them leftward. There was one more group operating in the HRC. This group astutely watched the church “weather” and gauged their actions based on projected winners. These were the ambitious ones hoping for power and prestige. When it became apparent that communism had won the day, this group lurched left.

To help understand the position of the HRC, at this juncture, I am relying on Gyula Gombos. “Confronted by an anti-religious ideology without parallel in the course of Christianity, any church that fully accepts domination signs her own death warrant. Bolshevism being no mere political system but in a sense a religion too is not content with outward obeisance; it claims men’s souls as well. Thus, in any given society, bolshevism and Christianity are mutually exclusive.”

According to Gombos, in the face of this materialist ideology, the HRC leaders had three choices. The first was to resist, a choice that would likely include martyrdom. The second choice Gymbos called self-mutilation. The church would be, “. . . banned by worldly power from all access to society, forbidden to teach and never mingling with the powers that be. Ensconced within its four walls as both ghetto and sanctuary, the church would preserve her purity.” Its ability to influence the outside world would thus be curtailed.

The third choice Gombos called total surrender. By the early 1950s, the communist government had installed sympathizers into leadership roles of the HRC. So, it came as no surprise that the leaders totally surrendered, but there was resistance. According to Gombos, “Only the mute, passive resistance of the rural clergy and of the great mass of Calvinists was able to block its complete realization.”

Pressure From Church Leadership

Jozsef Berenyi in the 1950s

“Toward the end of the revival movement, even the Bishop Janos Peter himself was present at a large Mester Street Church meeting. Because of the tense atmosphere in Hungary in the autumn of 1956, he needed to make an appearance among the renewal people for political reasons. When he asked if he could come, at first, we said no. However, it was impudent, rude, and unwise to say no to a bishop, so I went back to him and agreed to have him come. What is more, we even asked him to do the opening sermon. Bishop Peter preached a very lively sermon, he who later became the Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the communist regime. As far as I know he also became a member of the regime’s Central Committee.

When he was young, Peter was a spiritual man. That is why he tolerated my presence in Debrecen. By that time most of my friends and fellow ministers had been removed from even the smaller churches in the district. Those taking part in the revival movement had been driven out from the bigger places and moved to the periphery. Before long, I was also placed under police control. Bishop Peter’s attempts to threaten and intimidate me were unsuccessful. He tried to remove me, but could not. They were not able to find a legitimate reason for removing me, although they searched through all the church account books and examined my personal life looking for a moral slip. They also tried threats, but I knew I had nothing to fear. In 1955 Bishop Peter asked me to voluntarily take a “study holiday,” an offer I refused to accept. As a result of this decision, the security police tightened their control.

Then I was sent for again and again by Tibor Bartha, the deputy bishop. He wanted me to publicly repent before the other ministers. I refused. I told them, if they wanted repentance, it was fine with me, but we should do it together. In the meantime, the official church leadership tried to coerce the elders, the presbytery, of our congregation to dismiss me, but they refused. Next the legitimate presbytery was dismissed, and a more compliant group was installed. Then, without judicial proceedings, they passed a resolution that took immediate effect. They suspended me for half a year from my position for causing a public scandal. Not a word was ever written detailing that public scandal. After the six months, I was reinstated.

Later, Tibor Bartha invited me for a private conversation. He began, “My dear Juzsi, you know how much we love you, but you cannot remain in Debrecen. You must leave within three weeks, otherwise you and your family will be interned. He gave me three days to think. After three days I returned, and my answer was, “No.” At that time Tibor Bartha was poised to succeed Peter, who already resigned as bishop. Bartha scolded me and rudely demanded that I comply. He even called me the murderer of my family and asked whether I knew how mad I was. And, of course, he tried to blame the whole thing on the regime, that they had demanded this. There is no doubt that he was also in their hands.”

Both Janos Peter and Tibor Bartha were Reformed church leaders who rationalized their collaboration with the communist authorities by claiming it was God's will. Both Daniel Szabo and Jozsef Berenyi were among those whose lives of service within the Reformed church were truncated by the actions of Bartha and Peter.


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