Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Donwhill Morning

Book Notes: The Final Revolution - The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism by George Weigel

The Collapse of the Eastern Bloc, "The Revolution of 1989", was the most momentous event of my teenage years. The Cold-War had been the framework through which we had grown up viewing the world. Every May Day, on the evening news we looked in fear at Brezhnev and the other grandees of the CPSU as they inspected goose-stepping troops, missiles and Marx and Lenin icons parading in front of their stony gazes, atop the Lenin Mausoleum. These people, we were taught, we were not only unspeakably evil, but intent on the suppression of their own peoples and the annihilation of ours.

Then within a few dramatic months, they were gone. Ceaucescu, Honecker, Jaruzelski, Husak, the Stb, The Stasi - were all swept away in a sea-change that was so profound that one over-enthusiastic commentator announced "the end of History!" 

George Weigel's book, "The Final Revolution" is about the collapse of the Marxist-Leninist system in Eastern and Central Europe in 1989, a system which he refers to as the "Yalta Imperial System". He uses this terminology throughout the book to remind the reader that the Communist parties of the region ruled, not by popular mandate, but thanks to the way in which the victorious Allies had carved the continent up between themselves, from the rubble of The Third Reich. The Soviet-led invasion of Hungary (1956), and Czechoslovakia (1968), demonstrated that behind the propaganda of the workers-state, lay the harsh realities of Stalin's Empire.

There are several standard accounts of the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, and Weigel's differs from all of them in that it places the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the centre of the drama. The usual accounts stress the role of Gorbachev's Perestroika and dismantling of the Brezhnev Doctrine, or the impossibility of continued competition in the arms race, or the failure of the planned economies to deliver rising living standards and consumer goods to the populace. More cultural approaches suggest that Marxism-Leninism was an idea which had expired, and progress swept it aside.

Weigel, in contrast, argues that Christian resistance, thought, and activity was at the centre of the drama of the revolutions on 1989. His perspective is that the large, attention-grabbing matters such as Reagan's Star Wars programme, have been over-estimated in the literature; and that in contrast the revolution-from-below, inspired by Christianity in general, Catholicism in particular, and Pope John Paul II personally; has been underestimated. There is something of a bizarre parallel here with G.Scott Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" - in that he famously narrated that the revolution of the rise of African American consciousness was located in Black minds, not on the big media narratives. So it is with Weigel's view of the revolutions of 1989, which he locates primarily in the spiritual lives of Eastern European Catholics.

There is much to appreciate in Weigel's thesis. He provides a fascinating narrative of the dissent of the Catholic Christians to the state-enforced atheism of the Soviet bloc, especially in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Fascinating too is his account of the unfolding negotiating positions of various Popes from WWII until the late 1980s, culminating in John Paul II's great assault on the system, notably in his native Poland. The book does an admirable job of telling an element of the story of 1989, which has indeed been neglected. However, the problem with the book is that rather than telling enough of the story of resistance Catholicism to balance the story -Weigel's account attributes too-much causality to the influence of the Catholic Church. While he is right to say that this aspect is often underplayed, and that other accounts therefore lack balance, he falls into the same trap, leaving the overall picture just as unbalanced, merely in a different direction. At times he goes as far as crediting the revolution in certain countries to the timely veneration of suitable Catholic 'saints', suggesting that his personal commitment to Catholic dogma is in tension with his commitment to observable research. Perhaps some reflections on the revolutions in less Catholic contexts (such as East Germany) might have helped balance the picture, as would some commentary on other religious groups under communism, such as Romania's Evangelicals, or Russia's Orthodox Church or Baptists.

The book begins with a rather neat politico-theological introduction which is a lively and astute discussion of utopianism, hope and notions with which Christians will identify as The Kingdom of God. Weigel's intriguing thesis is that the core problem of Marxism-Leninism, is that in seeking to construct a utopia through absolute power, it condemns itself both to terror and folly, as it places itself in the role of God. His view then, is that communism is finally not merely a bad political idea, but a heresy. Quite brilliant too, is Weigel's description of life in the Eastern bloc as a fraud and a deceit, which required participation in its unfolding artifice. From production targets to personal statements of belief in party orthodoxy, Weigel holds the system up as being a vast deceit, which coiled its stultifying tentacles around all aspects of culture. Tellingly he writes, "the final revolution is not the end of history. It is the restoration of history to human dimensions". For so many Eastern Europeans, progress in life had stalled in the numbing bureaucracy of states which knew no boundaries and routinely intruded into Civil Society. Many years ago, when I was a First Year politics student in Dundee we were all taught about the difference between a liberal and a totalitarian society. There was something of a smugness in the classroom as we considered ourselves to have arrived in a rather advanced political culture. How strange it is then to realise that the Scottish Government's "Named Person" scheme (although well-intentioned), violates this basic definition of a Liberal not Totalitarian society by enabling the state to massively over-reach itself into the private lives of citizens. But I digress...

Another aspect of Weigel's analysis which is very good indeed are his suggestions about what the experience of the persecuted church in the Eastern Bloc has to say to Christians in the Democratic 'West'. He has two warnings in this regard. The first is a stinging rebuke to the apathy of Western Christians who were frequently more concerned with arms control than with the vicious persecution of their Eastern brothers and sisters in the faith. Although written back in the 1990s, this is a timely reminder for us today in the West who continue to live in freedom while persecution against Christians around the globe reaches epidemic proportions. The second lesson Weigel notes for the Western church is a challenge to conformity to our 'host-culture'. Quoting Wolfhart Pannenberg, who says that Western Christianity's 'accommodation to secularism has been self-defeating', he says; "It is self-defeating because the strategy of accommodation reflects a lack of Christian confidence in what is most distinctive about the Christian message". It was, he argues, a strong, confident faith which unashamedly declared the life, death and resurrection of Jesus which crippled communism - while the accommodationist state-churches were an utter irrelevance. He then urges the Eastern Churches to maintain their distinctiveness in the post-Communist era and not dissolve into culture as has happened in the West.

The Final Revolution is a stimulating and engrossing read, providing a much-overlooked perspective on critical events of recent years. In terms of research, sources and bringing together the story of underground believers, State churches, and Papal negotiations; it is a brilliant book - even if at times the interpretation of that data depends on accepting very distinctive Catholic dogmatic emphases. There is also one rather amusing misquote - where (p155), Weigel likens Poland's Martial-Law-Imposing General Jaruzelski to "The Sheriff of Nottingham Forest"!! I have heard of the "Sheriff of Nottingham" (who lived near Sherwood Forest), and of "Nottingham Forest Football Club". I now have this unhappy picture in my mind of Poland being lead into martial law by Brian Clough, and that is far too silly an image to be left with at then end of a very profound and important read. 

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