- Beth Lantinga
Why I am a political orphan
Updated: Apr 6, 2020
A few weeks ago, a reader challenged me to say what I really think. I had planned to do just that in a long series of posts detailing the history of the communist era and the impact on the people we interviewed for the Psalm Project. Considering the COVID-19 situation, I’ve decided for now to skip the historical, political posts – except for this one. In only this post I will describe, in part, why I’m a political orphan. If you stay with me, in coming posts, you will meet the men and women I helped interview in 2003. Perhaps you will understand.
Why I cannot identify with the right
Here’s why. I am still deeply moved by the plight of the poor and the oppressed. My faith makes it inescapable for me. Because of my Bible study group, verses from Jeremiah came to mind. Here’s what Jeremiah said, “If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land.” Jeremiah 7:5-7.
He was only repeating God’s earliest commands found in Exodus 22 and 23. Here’s just a taste. “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits.” Exodus 23:6. A few verses later you read, “Do not oppress an alien, you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens.” V. 9. And that’s just a sense of the justice theme that flows through the Old Testament and throughout the New. What does this mean for me? I cannot identify with those whose life goal is the accumulation of wealth and power. If you only read Jeremiah, it would be enough to give you a social conscience.
Why I cannot live on the left, or from Russia with love?
While the Bible did give us the injunction to do justice and love mercy, it did not give explicit instructions about how to accomplish it other than, “walk humbly with thy God.” Without living the life of the poor, it’s easy, I think, to prescribe solutions that appear obvious. Solutions that once seemed crucial to me, now appear problematic.
As I suggested in the last post, the stories we heard from Reformed survivors, prompted me to do some historical research and some soul-searching. I have become wary of those who broadcast the virtues of socialism without considering its fallout for those who lived in the Soviet Socialist Republics.
Digging into the history of East Central Europe eventually led to the Soviet Union and the fallout for much of Europe following World War II. I was troubled to learn that Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill ceded Eastern Europe to Joseph Stalin long before the end of the war. I think that when Stalin agreed to democratic elections in his sphere of influence, he must have had his fingers crossed.
By 1945 Soviet troops occupied Hungary to oversee the coming changes. At first the word from Moscow was to present a democratic face. Expecting to win the 1945 election by a landslide, the Communist Party was stunned when they garnered only 17% of the vote. In response, party officials formed a bloc of left-leaning parties. Confident that they could take over the Hungarian government and maintain a veneer of legitimacy, they scheduled an election for the fall of 1947. In this campaign, they made it clear that a socialist future was in store if they won. They assumed that the people shared that dream. The bloc again went down to defeat.
Stalin was impatient with the progress of his plan to replicate the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and demanded more aggressive action. Following orders from Moscow, communist officials in Hungary began quashing dissent until the opposition was effectively neutralized and the election nullified. By 1949, the Hungarian government was firmly in communist hands. As Soviet influence spread throughout Eastern Europe, leaders in the West uttered not a word of protest. Vladimir Tismaneanu, a Romanian historian, described what happened.
“What these countries experienced was not merely institutional import or imperial expansion. They went through what one could label . . . a civilizational transfer that transplanted a secular eschatology (Marxism-Leninism), a radical vision of the world (capitalist encirclement and the touchstone or proletarian internationalism formulated by Stalin in the 1920s), and, ultimately, an alternative idea of modernity (based upon anti-capitalism and state managed collectivism) self-identified as infallibly righteous; in other words, Stalinism.” Stalinism Revisited: The Establishment of Communist Regimes in East-Central Europe p. 3,4
What happened to the people was catastrophic and made me feel ashamed that as a college student I did not want to hear about the suffering in the Soviet Union and its satellites. Alexander Solzhenitsyn forced us to acknowledge the gulag system, but the stories I heard first-hand made it impossible for me to ignore the reality of the suffering. I was also confronted by another disturbing reality – the affirmation of the Soviet system by intellectuals in the West. Lionel Trilling, the literary and social critic, was once a communist sympathizer. By the 1940s he was ready to recognize and expose fault lines in the left-wing American movement. In his novel, The Middle of the Journey, Laskell, the character most like Trilling, described intellectuals like this.
“After all, we’ve been nothing but liberals and perhaps that’s all we’ll ever be. We do have sympathies with the Party, and even, in a way, with its revolutionary aims. But maybe, sympathetic as we are, we prefer not to think about what the realities of such a party are.” P. 144.
Maxim, the converted communist central to the story, described the fearful outcome of utopian thinking.
“Is it not strange,” he said, “do you not find it strange that as we become more sensitive to the sufferings of mankind, we become more and more cruel? The more we think of the human body and the human mind as being able to suffer, and the sorrier we feel for that, and the more we plan to prevent suffering, the more we are drawn to inflict suffering. . . . We have become our brother’s keeper – and we will keep him in fear, we will keep him in concentration camps, we will keep him in straitjackets, we will keep him in the grave.” He continued a few paragraphs down. “And in the most secret heart of every intellectual, where he scarcely knows of it himself, there lies hidden the real hope that these words hide. It is the hope of power, the desire to bring his ideas to reality by imposing them on his fellow man. We are all of us, all of us, the little children of the Grand Inquisitor. The more we talk of welfare, the crueler we become.” P. 219
So, I’ve become skeptical of utopian talk, and cannot find myself on the left, believing that the national government is the primary source of human flourishing. I’m hearing my mother ask whether the Holy Spirit might not be a more effective healer of society’s ills than the government. She lived in the kind of generous joy that carried her through the tragic death of a young son, my father’s terrible illness one year, and the poverty that followed. I think I recognized her spirit in the Reformed Hungarians we met in 2003. Maybe you will too. In the next few posts you will meet Denes Fulop and decide for yourselves.