Christian-Marxist Dialogue: a Memoir

Thanks to Robert Perschmann for bringing attention to this link, sent out as a New Year’s gift by The People’s World, the newspaper of the Communist Party USA.

Robert sent the link as a part of a comment on Views from the Edge’s  post from “Every Valley” from Handel’s “Messiah”. I responded with the following reflection, slightly edited here.:

“Robert, the valleys and mountains, and the rough places a plain, or level place, are so clearly (biblical) metaphors for the coming of economic just. “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” The hearer is transported into a vision and hope that can only be voiced and heard in poetry. It is the day of the lion and the lamb, the end of violence and sorrow, the end of the disparities of the sated and the sorrowful.

Josef Hromadka

Josef Hromadka

“Josef Hromadka, Czech theologian and “father of Christian-Marxist Dialogue” during the Cold War, always said the church’s unfaithfulness to its calling was responsible for the atheism of communism. In Czarist Russia there were, on the one hand, the Czar and the Church, and, on the other, the peasants, the poor, the suffering who were oppressed by the throne and consigned to perpetual poverty by the church that taught them to be patient in their hope for another world. Hromadka called for the church to confess the sin of abandoning it charter and its hope. He saw in communism the re-awakening of the original grand hope for the coming of the Kingdom of God.

“Hromadka was a much-beloved professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary during the 30s and 40s. My father studied with him and remembered him fondly as a great teacher. When Hromadka left his secure teaching position in Princeton in 1947, many of his Western friends and colleagues were deeply disappointed and highly critical. They viewed him as naïve, a communist, or communist-sympathizer. Hromadka returned to create in Czechoslovakia and the wider Eastern bloc a dialogue that would contribute to the hope for a more humane and human society in both the church and the society..

“Thanks for the link. So interesting and rather mind-blowing that the newspaper of the Communist Party USA would choose Beethoven’s 9th as a New Year gift. I’ll listen with new ears.”

Princeton Theological Seminary Professor Charles West’s “Hromadka: Theologian of the Resurrection” offers an in-depth look at Hromadka’s life and witness as seen by a faculty colleague in the West.  Here are some excerpts from the article:

Hromadka rejected both liberalism, with its shallow view (of the human crisis, and conservatism, with its allegiance to old structures which had lost their moral power. “We are living on the ruins of the old world, both morally and politically,” he concluded. “No one single element and norm of our civilization can possibly be taken for granted.”

With this faith which he continually translated into political judgments, Hromadka made the choice to return to Czechoslovakia in 1947, to accept the Communist coup d’etat in 1948, and to work as a Christian within the framework of a Marxist-dominated socialist society.

“I am in no sense a Communist,” he wrote, “but I take part in this revolution from the point of view of my Christian faith which sees the work of the forgiving grace of God in the midst of changes that are coming about.”

Thanks for coming by Views from the Edge. Leave a comment to promote discussion.

“It’s not easy being real”

Last night I listened to President Obama’s speech on contraception and religion institutionso courtesy of Unedited Politics. I then looked to see if there were comments. There was only one:

“This has nothing to do with so called women’s health, it’s Marxism 101.”

With no elaboration as to how or why the President’s speech or position on women’s health care, on the one hand, and religious liberty, on the other, was Marxism 101, the comment accomplished what such comments nearly always do, until they are challenged. It called someone by a name. End of discussion. No need to explain how or why it’s Marxism. “Bad! Boogie Man! Evil in the White House!! The Marxists are out to get us!”? So I wrote my own comment:

Oh, my! Dear friend, whoever you are, you must never have taken Marxism 101. This isn’t Marxism. It’s the work of a democratic republic – messy, balancing values that sometimes conflict with each other, protecting the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority, and guaranteeing equal protection (in this case, health coverage) to all citizens. It’s comments like this – confusing a health care position with Marxism (i.e. communism?) – that divert the discussion and take us back to the darkest time of American history, the Senate Hearings of Sen. Joseph McCarthy that painted decent, patriotic Americans as evil. The President is NOT a Marxist, my friend. Time to rescind the comment for the sake of civil discussion that helps to solve real problems.

The reply came soon after:

Try reading his books and consider the fact that he attended a Marxist church for 20 years.

Again, I replied:

I’ve read Marx. I spent the summer of 1966 in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia as the Chicago Ambassador of the Experiment in International Living. I lived with the Schulz family, all members of the Communist Party. Marxism is more than a figment of my imagination. And the church Obama attended is a CHRISTIAN Church, United Church of Christ, one of America’s historic “mainline” denominations. ABC watched 500 sermon videos and chose to air a one-minute clip from a sermon on one of the Hebrew prophets that led viewers to conclude Jeremiah Wright was a communist. Radical? Yes. Off the wall? Sometimes. But Marxist (i.e. not Christian, not a disciple of the Jesus who turned over the money-changers tables)? No. And to talk about this President as a Marxist is…go back and watch Joe Welsh’s final rebuke to the character assassination campaign of Sen. Joe McCarthy: “Have you no decency, Sir. Have you no decency left?” Please think twice before raising McCarthy’s ghost. It’s ugly.

In 1966 I was certain that my finalist interview with the selection committee of the Chicago Chapter of the Experiment in International Living had disqualified me as a candidate as Chicago Ambassador to Czechoslovakia for the summer of ’66.

“You’re a Christian and a seminarian, asked Paul Harvey. “Why would you want to go to a communist country?”  I responded at some length that I didn’t trust the stereotypical representations of Eastern Bloc countries any more than I would trust their representations of the West. I felt there was propoganda on both sides of the Cold War. I wanted to see for myself.   I also told them that there was a theologian in Czechoslovakia named Josef Hromadka, the father of Christian-Marxist dialogue. I had been reading Hromadka and others and wanted to participate in this discussion. I believed that the Marxist classless society was a rendition of the central biblical message of the Kingdom of God. I came out of the interview and said to another candidate, “Well, I just eliminated myself. Hope you have a great summer.”

To my surprise, they selected me. The generosity of Pan Schultz and Pani Schultzova, their son Vlado and daughter Jana who welcomed me like a member of their own family, conversations with students about Franz Kafka and the existentialists at the university coffee shop, and the ugliness of fellow-American Ambassadors (there were 11 of us) who insisted on ice cubes in their drinks combined to further open the aperture of my camera lens as I look at the world.

I decided long ago not to keep silent when the labels like “Marxism 101” march across the field of my camera. My experience is only mine, but it’s the only experience I have, and God knows how limited it is. But, I decided to to heed Frederich Buechner  counsel – “Listen to your life”, he wrote – and to speak out loud what I see and hear, hoping and praying, as I do every Sunday morning before I dare to preach, that in some inscrutable way, “the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts will be pleasing in Thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.”  I’d love to hear your meditations. Leave comment to share.