The Gorbachev years have brought, as we know, the breakup of radical Marxism in Eastern Europe. The Berlin Wall, the symbol of unfreedom, has been smashed. All across Eastern Europe new political, economic, social, and religious freedom has been granted. This has triggered a new surge of optimism in both East and West.
Politically, this optimism appears justified. The break-up of radical Marxism makes the expression “cold war” obsolete. NATO and the Warsaw Pact, happily, need to re-define themselves. There is new progress in disarmament and many more nuclear and conventional weapons will now rust in peace.
What about the religious repercussions? Does the breakdown of radical Marxism signal a new resurrection for the churches in these countries? Will there be, after more than 40 years of persecution, a burst of new Christian life?
There is a lot of naïve optimism that this will be the case. Fundamentalist preachers are licking their chops and preparing crusades which, in their own words, “will bring forth the biggest harvest of souls since the first Pentecost.” The mainline churches are more cautiously optimistic but also view the situation with a certain joyful expectation. They, unlike the fundamentalists, are less sure as to what that expectation is.
What’s to be said about this? Will there be a new burst of Christian life and spirit in Eastern Europe?
It is never easy to read the signs of the times. However, some factors are already indicating that there is perhaps less reason for optimism than both the fundamentalists and the mainline churches will admit.
First, regarding the fundamentalists’ belief that Eastern Europe is now this ripe field of faith, awaiting harvest (their harvest): One wonders how someone can have any sense of the history of Christianity in these countries, of their martyrs both present and past, of their struggles and their resistance, and still believe that we, coming from an affluent and pampered culture, will bring them the good news! That’s more than naivete and blindness to history. It’s also a blindness to the Gospel.
A second factor might also be mentioned here: If one were to count heads attending church on a given Sunday, one would make this interesting discovery: In the so-called free world about 21 per cent of the population attends church on a Sunday. In the Soviet block roughly the same amount, 21 per cent, also attend. Given that, I am not so sure that the labels: ”Godless Communism” and “God-fearing democracy” mean much, Ronald Reagan, American rhetoric, and fundamentalism notwithstanding.
Looking at Eastern Europe, one fears whether, like in the West, present goods will soon lead to absent gods.
I was struck by the scenes shown on television when the Berlin Wall first came down. East Germans rushed in joy to the West. There were shouts and songs of freedom and celebrations of reunion with equally joyful West Germans. Hearts around the world warmed as we witnessed the joy. But there were other scenes which warmed the heart less. East Germans flooded to the West not just to celebrate with relatives and neighbors, but to ogle at Western consumer goods, motorbikes, VCRs, colored television sets, stereos, and other things which we once were naive enough to believe constitute the good life.
We have long since lost that naivete. Granted, these things have brought us comfort materially, but comfort and meaning are not exactly synonymous. Watching this scene, a cynic might well have commented: “Welcome to Western emptiness!”
My fear is that the new freedom that has opened up in Eastern Europe will not produce a new Pentecost (or, “harvest of souls,” as some would call it). At least not in the short run. Rather it will bring about a very old and worn infatuation with the good life as it is understood in terms of buying power, consumer items, opportunity for travel, and the like. When you are poor, you are born to be saved. When you are affluent, you are born to be pleased. When you are poor, you are more interested in God, when you are rich you are more interested in the sweetening of life.
This is not to say that it is better to be poor than to be rich, though Jesus did say something very similar. Poverty, in the end, is something to be eliminated, not idealized. Likewise it is not better to be oppressed than to be free, though, again, the Beatitudes hint at some funny paradoxes here. The Gospel is about freedom, not oppression. Hence, all Christians should rightfully celebrate the new freedom in Eastern Europe.
However, before any naive rhetoric regarding resurrections, Pentecosts, and harvests of souls be tossed around, one might profitably re-read the Beatitudes…and then re-watch film footage of East Germans looking at Western VCRs, motorbikes, and stereos. A gnawing fear appears suggesting that absent goods may have something to do with present gods. Given that, one fears that there may be some major disappointments for the poised harvesters of souls among both the fundamentalists and the mainline churches.