I woke up this morning to read “Pope calls for ‘justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation’ in Cuba. He was greeted by Cuban President Raul Castro, who promised religious freedom in his Communist nation.” What follows is my reflection on this piece in light of three weeks in Cuba in 1979..
Curious. The headline and the story are curious.
Pope Benedict arrives in Santiago, Cuba. In Mexico he has just criticized Cuba’s Marxist model as obsolete and has called for a future of “justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation” in Cuba.
The President of Cuba, Raul Castro, welcomes the pontiff to Cuban soil.
The media focuses on the Pope’s call for change in Cuba, on the one hand, and Mr. Castro’s promise of religious freedom in Cuba, as though the latter were a new development.
In 1979, on the heels of the Catholic Bishops Conference in Puebla, Mexico, I spent three weeks in Cuba, one of 75 churchmen and theologians invited by the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Matanzas, Cuba and the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba.
Most of the guests were from Central and South America. Others were from France, East and West Germany, Rumania, the Soviet Union, Mozambique, Angola, South Africa, Zimbabwe. There were four of us from the U.S: Professors Harvey Cox, , Robert McAfee Brown and a tag-along practicing pastor and college chaplain from Wooster, Ohio.
What do I remember most about that trip? Five memories:
1) Approaching Cuba from the air, looking down at this island 90 miles from the coast of Florida, asking how this little David had managed to slay Goliath at the Bay of Pigs, and wondering what was so threatening to us that the U.S. government continued to punish it with an economic embargo. I felt like a bully. Guilty. Ashamed. Humble.
2) Getting sick on a collective farm, sitting under a tree after drinking a complementary glass of banana juice. I was quickly tended to by Cuba’s medical and pharmaceutical system. They continued to check on me until all was well. Everyone gets health care.
3) The Cuban pastors’ response to a long breast-beating speech by Robert McAfee Brown, one of the foremost theologians in the U.S. Brown spent 45 minutes in a biblically based sermon apologizing to the Cubans, a kind of cathartic confession in full public view. I was with him all the way. The Cuban response? Stop that. You didn’t do this. The American people haven’t done this to us. Your government has. Wallowing in guilt won’t help you and it won’t help us. We all need to find ways to promote justice and peace in our own contexts. We are all here as friends, brothers and sisters in Christ.
4) Walking through the streets of Matanzas in the evening. Children playing freely in the streets. Windows and doors wide open. Neighbors talking and laughing with next-door neighbors. This could not be staged. This was the real Cuba. As Harvey Cox, the charming professor from Harvard Divinity School who is fluent in Spanish, led the three of us through the streets, children followed him like the Pied Piper. Harvey would laugh with them and they with him. We would sing and walk. It was playful, like nothing that was happening back home.
5) A conversation with Communists on the veranda of the home of the President of the seminary. Raul Castro was among them. They were there to welcome us to Cuba. They also wanted to talk theology and society. They wanted to know what we really believed about God, about the Kingdom of God, and about social justice and economic equality. I don’t remember his name now, but I do remember the long one-on-one conversation during that cocktail hour with a member of the Communist Party. He had grown up Roman Catholic but was no longer a believer. The Church, he said, had kept the people in their place before the revolution. The Party had raised them up to believe in themselves. The Church had given them a wafer; the Party gave them bread, real food, real nutrition. The Church proclaimed the Kingdom of God after you die; the Party proclaimed a society of justice and peace that could be achieved in this world.
He asked what I thought. I told him that the version of Christian faith that he had described was not my faith. It was something else, but it was a very popular distortion of the life and teaching of Jesus. I told him that I shared his hope, that what he called “the classless society” I called the Kingdom of God, and that, to the extent that we were each working for the elimination of poverty, the end of starvation, and the health and joy of all God’s children, we were working toward the same goal under different names. I rehearsed my history of Christian-Marxist dialogue dating back to seminary and the summer of 1966 living in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia as the Experiment in International Living Chicago Ambassador to Czechoslovakia. I told him of Josef Hromadka, the Czech theologian who had begun this dialogue because, said Hromadka, there was only one reason that the Bolshevik Revolution was atheistic: the sin of the Church. Its failure to align with the poor rather than the rich. The Church and the Czar had become of one cloth, just as he had been describing. The Church was giving people nothing but a wafer; the bread would come only after death. Lenin and Trotsky were insisting that to be genuinely human was to eliminate the economic structures that produce poverty and despair and that delay the distribution of real bread until an afterlife. Like Marx, they saw religion as the opiate of the people, the ideological blanket that blinded people to their earthly reality. But the biblical Kingdom is not about the Church, it’s about the new society in which the love of God reigns everywhere. It’s the NEW city, the new Jerusalem, and, in that new city, there is no longer any temple. There is no longer any need for the church because the Kingdom has come.”
The man from the Party’s eyes were wide.
I asked the man on the veranda where he thought his hope for such a society came from. “I don’t know,” he said, “I think it’s just part of being human.” “Yes,” I said, “but why? How’s that hope get there? Why should we hope unless there is something in being itself, something in the deepest part of us, that holds out the promise of its fulfillment, an inner sense that beckons us beyond the present conditions? The name for me is God. None of us has ever seen God, yet I see God in Jesus of Nazareth, a worker, a carpenter, preacher of the Kingdom of God. I hear in your visions an echo of the Sermon on the Mount. I get the clearest sense of it when we share the meal at the Lord’s Table, the sign of the Kingdom. The Kingdom will not come by Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. We have to work for it, but we also ‘wait for it with patience.’”
“Thank you, I’ll have to think more about that. You sound like Jose.” There’s a long pause. “Well…We’ll have to wait and see. I guess only time will tell who’s right,” he said. Like Harvey and the kids on the street that evening, we shared a good laugh, shook hands, and moved on to another conversation.
It’s now 33 years later and I’m reading about Raul Castro’s “promise” of religious freedom, the very same Raul Castro who was on the veranda at the seminary, who graciously welcomed the guy with the wafers to Cuban soil, except for kissing his ring. Priests and lay people from throughout Cuba throng to the site. None of them is hungry for bread.
Curious…for a country with no religious freedom. Don’t you think?