America’s Religious Left, having invested decades in dialogue with and advocating accommodation of the Soviet Bloc, was flummoxed and uncelebratory about the momentous collapse of East European Communism in 1989-1990.
The United Methodist Council of Bishops, representing 9 million church members in the U.S. were actually in session when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. They reacted by blandly commending the East Germans for their “openness and growing self- confidence” and by urging a “new trust and compassion throughout the world.” They also warned against the imposition of Eastern or Western value systems, as though the two were morally equal.
East German United Methodist Bishop Rudiger Minor assured his fellow prelates that East Germans would not exchange communism for West German capitalism’s “society of sharp elbows” and would instead prefer a “new democratic socialism.”
“What people [in East Germany] are seeking is not a return to capitalism,” Bishop Minor insisted. “They are looking for something beyond the old dichotomy between capitalism and communism.” Agreeing with the East German bishop was World Council of Churches Central Committee member Janice Love, who was attending the bishops’ gathering. “Because of the events in the USSR and Eastern Europe, there appears to be a new-found triumphalism about capitalism that I find to be uncritical, unwarranted and chauvinistic,” she fretted.
A few months after the bishops’ gathering in the U.S., Bishop Minor was still hoping that Marxism was not dead. “As critics, I think Marxists are still relevant,” he opined. “Marxism has insights into power that we can learn from.” Minor asserted that Marxism’s critique of “competition structures” was still valid.
Mainline Protestant and ecumenical officials as a whole, in the U.S. and throughout the West, were largely silent throughout the 1970s and 1980s about communist repression in East Europe and the old Soviet Union. This silence was accompanied by loud and aggressive human rights activism aimed at rightist dictatorships in Latin America and Asia, as well as apartheid South Africa. This double standard left little rationale for Religious Left celebration when East Bloc communism fell.
After the fall, there were some reluctantly expressed public regrets and defensiveness about the Religious Left’s preference for supposedly “quiet diplomacy” with the old East Bloc regimes, especially by groups like the Swiss-based World Council of Churches (WCC). In 1990, WCC chief Emilio Castro admitted that his group “didn’t speak strongly enough, that is clear. That is the price we thought we needed to pay in order to help the human rights situation inside Romania.”
Romanian protestant Pastor Laszlo Tokes helped spark some of the 1989 protests against Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu that precipitated his overthrow. Barely months after Ceausescu’s fall, Tokes publicly complained “there was a refusal [by Western church groups] to present the true conditions of churches in Romania and a pretension that in our country everything is fine, [that] the churches perform their mission in peace and freedom.” He was mostly targeting the WCC and also the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.
In early 1990, the Romanian Orthodox Church publicly expressed “regret that under the dictatorship some of us may not always have shown the courage of the martyrs, and have not publicly acknowledged the hidden pain and suffering of the Romanian people.” The church statement apologized for “paying the obligatory tribute of artificial praise to the dictator.”
This apology from the Romanian Orthodox Church was more candid than any initial regrets emitted from the WCC. Emilio Castro claimed the WCC refrained from public critique of communism to spare Eastern European Christians from communist reprisals. “What do we need to repent of if we were trying to help the Romanian people?” he rhetorically asked. “Let us confess our wrongness, but let us not go beyond that.” A 1990 WCC Central Committee statement regretted “mistaken judgment in failing to speak adequately” about Romania, but rejected a proposed stronger apology. The WCC’s Assembly in 1991 tersely admitted that, after recent events, “the limits to bureaucratic control have become clearly visible.”
Newly installed National Council of Churches chief Joan Brown Campbell was more candid in 1993. “We did not understand the depth of the suffering of Christians under communism. We failed to ... cry out under the communist oppression.” Many years later, former WCC chief Konrad Raiser similarly confessed that the WCC should have spoken out on behalf of human rights in Eastern Europe.
Silence about communist repression in the East Bloc by Western mainline Protestant and ecumenical groups was possibly motivated partly by concern for reprisals against East Bloc churches by their regimes. This same concern, of course, did not deter Western church groups from condemning rightist regimes. More pervasively, left-leaning Western church groups did not want to critique Marxism, especially during the high tide of liberation theology, which tried to merge Christianity with Marxist class struggle. Nor did they want to disrupt disarmament initiatives or hopes for coexistence with the East Bloc, which the church groups more highly prized than human rights or religious freedom.
When East Bloc communism imploded, these same Western church groups were simply too embarrassed or emotionally incapable of celebrating the downfall of a system to which they had never strongly objected. Over time, some Religious Left clerics reluctantly admitted error, especially as they were confronted by former East Bloc Christians now free to speak candidly. But the Religious Left has learned very little, as it continues to apologize for remaining Marxist regimes in North Korea and Cuba.
Communism’s collapse did further discredit the Religious Left, and the political witness of mainline Protestantism and ecumenical groups like the WCC and NCC has arguably, and thankfully, never quite recovered from the events of 1989-1990.