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How should Christians respond to reform efforts under political regimes where they have no rights, no freedom of religion, speech, press, or assembly? For the most part, prior to the fall of most of Eastern Europe’s Communist governments and the former Soviet Union, Christians behind the iron curtain had little say in the way their nation operated. This was true of nearly all citizens. Christians often were specifically signaled out for persecution.
In the former Soviet Union, for example, Christians were forbidden to “set up benefit societies, cooperatives of industrial societies; to offer material aid to [their] members; to organize children’s and young persons’ groups for prayer and other purposes, or general biblical, literary or handicraft groups for the purpose of work or religious instruction and the like, or to organize groups, circles, or sections; to arrange excursions and kindergartens, open libraries and reading rooms, organize sanatoria or medical aid.” There was little possibility for social reform under such repressive regimes.
Prior to these oppressive conditions, the church could have done something and did not. One might even be able to make the case that the Russian church’s lack of social involvement had a part to play in the 1917 revolution that led to religious and political oppression and the spread of Communism around the world.
It is a sad but irrefutable fact that the Russian Orthodox Church at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution was engaged in a fruitless attempt to preserve its religious treasures (chalices, vestments, paintings, icons, etc.) and was therefore unable to relate meaningfully to the tremendous social upheavals then taking place.
Once the old corrupt government fell and the repressive regime of the Marxists came to power, strategies for reform had to be rethought. In a nation under repressive domination, the most immediate need of the Christian community is the production of Christian literature, family instruction, worship, prayer, and ways to keep their efforts secret, not grand efforts of social reform that have no chance of success. The goal is to wait out the inevitable collapse of the illegitimate political system and be ready to replace it when it falls (2 Tim. 3:7-9).
Once the iron curtain fell, it was learned that Christians were at the forefront of many of the efforts to topple communism and bring about reform from the inside. When they had an opportunity to institute change, Christians took advantage of the window of opportunity in a big way. Rev. Laszlo Tokes, the Hungarian pastor who sparked the Romanian revolution, stated that “Eastern Europe is not just in a political revolution but a religious renaissance.” Instead of being executed, Rev. Tokes believed he was saved through “divine intervention.”
The reports that reached the western news media recounted “references to ‘Jesus,’ the ‘Christian spirit,’ and Czechoslovakia’s role as the `spiritual crossroads of Europe.’” It was not enough for these Christians to be free to worship. They also wanted to participate in every facet of their nation’s life. The church in Czechoslovakia did not take a “hands off” approach to social issues once the iron curtain began to crumble. The Christian leadership saw it as their duty to bring effectual change to the broader culture.
Josef Ton followed a similar path in Romania as early as 1947. Ton told a friend that “Communism is an experiment that has failed. It wasn’t able to fulfill any of its promises and nobody believes in it any more. Because of this, it will one day collapse on its own. . . . When communism collapses, somebody has to be there to rebuild society! I believe our job as Christian teachers is to train leaders so that they will be ready and capable to rebuild our society on a Christian basis.”
Ton started a training program in 1981 for Christian leaders who remained in Romania. The Communist regime eventually fell, and Nicolae Ceusescu and his wife were captured and executed on December 25, 1989. Ton had trained more than a thousand people all over Romania. Today, he tells us, these people are the leaders in churches, evangelical denominations, and key Christian ministries.
Reform efforts can never stop. Christians must be eternally vigilant. On July 1, 2003, Tokes warned the young people of Romania that “‘foreign’ values and mentalities, such as communism, materialism, imperialism and internationalism, imposed on us before 1989, are surviving in Romania, dressed up in a ‘Social Democratic coat.’” His message was the same: “We need to return to the Christian civic system of values.” Christians can do no less in America, especially when we have the freedom to make political changes without fear of persecution. We reject this freedom at our own peril, and when tyranny comes, we’ll blame it on the devil.