Revisiting the Church in Socialism

Article excerpt

A RECENT VISIT to the heavily guarded border between South and North Korea reminded me of going through Checkpoint Charlie at the Wall between East and West Berlin in the 1970s and '80s. The stiff efficiency of soldiers working the gates, the hard eyes of security people, the sound of heavy boots on stone roads, the guard's sudden disappearance with one's passport, the zigzag traffic around tank traps--all this came back to me. I remembered the blaring martial music, red flags, banners emblazoned with slogans, and heroic proletarian statuary that greeted me as I entered East Berlin. Only a few places still mark the divide between pluralistic societies and those forms of socialism that seek to liberate humanity through a state monopoly of ideology, politics and economics.

Countries that have been divided the way Germany and Korea have are of special interest to political analysts, since such key factors as religion, cultural history, geography, ethnicity and technological capacity are relatively constant in both regimes. The issues that arise with the reunification of such countries are equally revealing. Hong Kong has been reabsorbed into the People's Republic of China, but tensions between the raw forms of capitalism of the one and the raw forms of socialist statism of the other suggest that many issues remain unsettled. Taiwan is among the countries watching closely.

North and South Vietnam were united by a victorious socialist state, but they are now divided between factions reluctantly adopting the capitalism they had defeated and those exploiting what they now control. North and South Yemen tried to join and have split again. North Korea seems to be collapsing, while South Korea undergoes readjustments brought on by the wider East Asian crisis.

Only the experience of East and West Germany provides a useful model of reunification, though it is fraught with ambiguities. The Wall is gone and the massive cleanup of ecological and social damage in the East is under way, but many of the older generation are still wandering in the wilderness, with little taste for manna or hope of glimpsing any promised land. Many in the East are nostalgic about the socialist days when they willingly made sacrifices for the promised new society. No one easily forgets causes for which a great price has been paid.

Many "Ossies" (former East Germans) resent the "Wessies" for thinking that they know better about everything, and many East German youth are contemptuous of their elders for supporting or tolerating the old system and not preparing them for the new. People sneer at the former communist "true believers" who have now become capitalist managers, and they make snide comments about "foreigners" who migrate from Eastern Europe and are willing to work for less money than Germans are. A certain cynicism makes people unwilling to trust any program, institution or belief system. Marxist anti-idealism and atheism succeeded too well.

The German case is significant not only for Asians who face the problems of reunification but for Christians everywhere. In East Germany, the Protestant church had a chance to be the "church in socialism." Though few church leaders and public intellectuals would still argue that Stalinism, Leninism or Maoism is the way of the future, a belief in socialist values and a Marxist understanding of capitalism remain pervasive.

JOHN P. BURGESS, recently on the staff of the Presbyterian Church (U. S .A.) and now professor of theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, has artfully woven together a series of essays on East Germany written between 1984 and 1996. He begins with an account of the limits imposed on the church by the state, the difficulty of a serious dialogue between the church and the Communist Party, and the church's decision nevertheless to become the "church in socialism." In some ways, this was the only option for the East German church. It would have lost its identity entirely if it had simply been "for" socialism. …