Saturday, February 18, 2012

Resisting the Communists

In yesterday's post, I talked about Nathan Englander and his description of a family game (except they were deadly serious about it) that his family played: "Anyway, we really were raised with this idea of a looming second Holocaust and we would play this game. You know, that threat is always in the air. You know what I'm saying? People were comfortable in Berlin. It could happen at any time. And we would play this game, you know, wondering who would hide us. And this is - this story I've been carrying in my head from 20 years ago. It must have been 20 years ago, but I remember what my sister said about a couple we knew. She said, he would hide us and she would turn us in."

Later yesterday, I was talking to some friends about this nugget, and I said, "In my family, it was Communists we were afraid of."

My friends looked at me as if I'd lost my mind.  I reminded them that it was the 1970's and 80's, and my dad was in the Air Force so my family had a different perspective to begin with.  But I think many of us have quickly forgotten about life during the Cold War, when many people did expect a looming conflict with the Communists.

To hear my parents talk, you’d have thought that at any moment, we might all be taken away and not allowed access to our Bibles or our churches. To hear them, you’d think that they survived some horrible event involving camps, like the Holocaust or Stalin’s Russia. But they were American citizens, born just before World War II. Still, as a child, any time I protested any aspect of my religious upbringing, their response was always, “Some day, you might not have access to your Bible or the church, and then you’ll appreciate this.”

I often sat in church services and amused myself with apocalyptic visions during boring sermons. What would I say if asked to deny my faith? What would I choose if forced to make the choice between my life and Jesus? Which would I renounce? My parents made it sound like this could happen at any moment.
Of course, anyone who paid attention to world events of the twentieth century couldn’t be unaware of the possibility of cataclysm. My father, with his Air Force and CIA background was haunted by the threat of Communism. In later years, my teenage rebellion was to read, and to read publicly, Marx’s The Communist Manifesto. While my peers partook of ill-advised drugs and sex, my father and I butted heads over Central American policy.

As a child, however, I filled my head with tales of older doom. Most children first hear about the Holocaust when they read Anne Frank’s diary. I read the works of Corrie Ten Boom in elementary school. Tales of concentration camps both terrified me and lured me. I wondered how I would survive. During the early 1970’s, I augmented these stories with ones told by returning POWs, many of whom rediscovered their faith in ghastly circumstances. I remember the book, In the Presence of Mine Enemies, where the captived officer talked about trying to remember Bible verses and hymns to help him keep his sanity. I wore a POW bracelet for much of my childhood, a circle of metal that had the name of a man held by the Viet Cong, which I intended to wear until his release. It reminded me of what might happen to me, even though I was a U.S. citizen with first Amendment rights. Twentieth century history provided me no comfort, as I learned about various human rights horrors visited upon people who had been living in well-established, civilized societies until unforeseen political movements marched forward. I fully expected to be taken away at some point, and so applied myself to memorizing Bible verses.

Of course, what I failed to realize as a child, is that I didn’t need to memorize extra verses. By going to church each and every week, my parents assured me of that inner resource. Even during my twenties, when I refused to go to church, feeling that I had spent far too much time in church for a lifetime, lines from hymns or Bible verses often floated through my brain at the oddest times. I was always aware of the liturgical season, even though I didn’t participate in a church.

My parents prepared me to stand up for my faith against Communists or Nazis or whoever might force the issue. What I’m not sure they anticipated was the collapse of mainstream religious faiths and the implications that would have for a good Lutheran girl. Standing up to fascists might be easier than what we face now in this strange mix of fundamentalist and secular times.

This new millennium is not a non-religious time. The fastest growing faiths are fundamentalist versions of Islam and Protestantism. Some non-fundamentalist religious folks profess bafflement at the appeal of these religious traditions, but I understand. As a teenager, I thought of switching religions, and the ones that held the most appeal were Catholics or Conservative Jews. They both both appealed to me for the same reason: rigid rules. I liked the idea of having individual confession and penance to do. I liked the idea of strict dietary and dress codes. When I read about the Amish, I was ready to join. Likewise, the world seems hungry for a religion that requires more of them than just showing up on Sunday and mumbling their way through the liturgy.

Many churches that we would label "mainstream" are dying.  Many "mainstream" churches have a weekly attendance of 50 or less.  That situation is simply not sustainable. 

What I find even more frustrating is to be put in the same camp as the science-denying right wing religious folks.  Most people I know have never met a Christian who is capable of believing in both God and evolution.  How did we get to this state?  In my Christian circles, most people I meet haven't done much with theological education; many of them have never read a spiritual book beyond the Bible.  If we're not going to a church that has a good adult Christian ed program or a pastor who creates sermons with intellectual heft, we're simply out of luck.  Most people do not want to supplement their weekly church attendance with books of theology.  I'm often the only person I know who reads writers like N. T. Wright or the desert fathers/mothers or modern monastics or Kathleen Norris, much to my sadness.

My parents prepared me for this lonely position, although I’m sure they didn’t foresee these cultural developments. Now, instead of being put away in camps, religious people are just ignored--unless they’re murderous terrorists, in which case they get a lot of attention and are put away in camps. My training prepared me to be the lone Christian standing up for my faith.  I just expected to be shot by Communists, not ignored because I'm a Christian who can read and think.

I look forward to reading Englander's latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.  It will be interesting to see what other connections I discover between my life as a Protestant and the lives of the Jewish characters in the book.


Father Anonymous said...

I live in a country that was dominated by Communism in those days, and the actual role of religious communities was widely mixed. One was crushed outright by the Communist government, all of them were spied upon ruthlessly, and all -- especially the biggest -- had plenty of collaborators.

But on the other hand, the only effective resistance -- including the movement that eventually sparked the revolution -- was organized by churches and their pastors. In a sense, the sort of preparation your parents gave you worked here, albeit slowly. and imperfectly

What is interesting now is that, although this country appears at first glance to be extremely "religious," things are changing quickly. On one hand, 85% of the population are on the rolls of the majority church and 99% say they believe in God. On the other hand, church attendance among the young is extremely low, and when asked what they mean by "God," a lot of the 99% come up with answers that are unrelated to anything that any church teaches. Western-style "spiritual but not religious"-ism is gaining ground fast.

All of which leaves me wondering what resources they will have when and if the next cataclysm comes.

Kristin said...

Thank you so much for commenting, and for sharing what life was like for religious people in a Communist country.

I share your concern about the next generation and the next cataclysm. History teaches us that the next cataclysm always comes, just not usually in the form we expected.

Again, thanks for your thoughtful response!

Anonymous said...

As a trained philosopher and political policy analyst, I have considered as many possible angles (economic, sexual, salvationist, spiritual,and a wide host of other reasons) as I can and still can't imagine why you choose to continue to share your life with me. God Bless You and Thank You.