Ethnicity as a Theological Concept: The Thought of László Tőkés

Although this article was originally published 16 years ago, the issue it addresses, namely, the relationship between religious and national identity remains as relevant as ever in Central and Eastern Europe.  Thus we republish the article here, with permission.

Source: H. David Baer, “Ethnic Identity as a Theological Concept: The Thought of László Tőkés.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 35:3-4 (1998): 471-482.

hunflagHungarian version

erdelykortvelyfajai_reformatus_templomIn Eastern Europe religious and national identity often overlap with one another. Often this is a source of celebration for believers in Eastern European, and a source of discomfort for believers in the West. While Eastern European Christians see in this overlapping a way to reinforce national identities and hence a way to preserve national communities, Western Christians see in this overlapping a way to reinforce national identities and hence a cause of conflict between national communities. Thus, concerning the proper relationship between religious and national identity, an ecumenical disagreement exists.

In this essay I intend to examine the proposition that national identity is something to be affirmed theologically. I will do this by looking in detail at the thought of one prominent East European churchman, László Tőkés, a Bishop of the Reformed Church in Romania. Tőkés has on numerous occasions professed an intrinsic link between his identity as a Christian and his identity as a Hungarian. Thus, he provides us with a concrete and well-reasoned instance of a theological affirmation of ethnicity. Out of respect for László Tőkés’ demonstrated courage and integrity, and out of an ecumenical commitment, I will take the theological propositions Tőkés advances about Hungarian nationality seriously. Accordingly, I have set before myself two goals: First, I want to try to render Tőkés’ theological affirmation of ethnicity intelligible by placing it within a larger East European context. Second, I want to react to what Tőkés says analytically, raising questions and pointing to perceived weakness when appropriate.

1. The cultural context of László Tőkés’ thought

tokes_hazi_orizetIn order to understand both the why and manner of Tőkés’ theological commitment to Hungarian identity one needs to know about who he is and where he comes from. Tőkés’ biography and the important role Tőkés played in the events preceding Romania’s 1989 revolution are well documented in several English language books. However, because I do not assume his biography is known by everyone, I will recount it here briefly.

László Tőkés is a Transylvanian Hungarian. Today Transylvania constitutes the part of Romania extending from the Carpathian Mountains to the country’s western border, although Transylvania itself has a distinct history, including significant periods when it was a part of Hungary. This explains why today 1.6 million ethnic Hungarians live in Transylvania, constituting 21% of the population of Transylvania, and 7% of the population of Romania as a whole. This sizable Hungarian minority has constituted a perennial problem in the twentieth century for the Romanian nation-state. In the communist period, and especially during the years of Ceausescu’s rule, Romanian Hungarians were the victims of special discrimination and persecution.

László Tőkés, also, is a clergyman in the Reformed Church in Romania. The Reformed Church in Romania is comprised 100% of Hungarians, and therefore, on the sociological level, it might be considered a national Hungarian church. In January 1987, László Tőkés became the sole minister of the Hungarian Reformed congregation in Timisoara, a city in the Western corner of Romania near the border of both Yugoslavia and Hungary. In 1987 the Reformed congregation in Timisoara was in deep decay; but over the next two years under Tőkés’ guidance it grew robust. In 1989 Tőkés’ congregation would defend its pastor against the regional bishop and the civil authorities, inadvertently precipitating the downfall of Ceausescu’s regime.

In 1988 Ceausescu unveiled a so-called village systematization program. The plan entailed bulldozing over 8,000 Romanian villages, most of them Hungarian, and relocating the inhabitants to various cities. Had this “systematization” been carried through, it would have eradicated a significant number of homogeneous Transylvanian Hungarian communities. The prospect horrified Pastor Tőkés. He believed the “systematization” plan threatened the very existence of Hungarians in Transylvania. Responding to this fear, Tőkés embarked upon a bold, and in Romania unprecedentedly direct, course of confrontation with Ceausescu’s regime. In September 1988, Tőkés and a friend publicly protested the “systematization” program at a deanery meeting of the Reformed Church. Then in March 1989, Tőkés filmed a secret interview with Canadian reporters, in which he spoke about the persecution of Transylvanian Hungarians, and specifically protested Ceausescu’s plan to “systemize” villages. A video tape of the interview was smuggled out of Romania and broadcast on Hungarian television, bringing international attention to Tőkés and the plight of the Hungarian minority in Romania.

Such protesting did not pass by unnoticed in Ceausescu’s Romania. Tőkés was informed by the bishop that he was defrocked and that he was being evicted from the parsonage. Police began harassing congregation members. In September 1989, a loyal supporter of Tőkés disappeared on the way home from work, and turned up several days later in a nearby woods, dead. Later in the month the congregation’s presbytery members were brought to Party headquarters and informed that unless they fired Tőkés, the parish would be closed down and every member of the presbytery would be fined one month’s salary. Two weeks later police searched the house of one presbyter and “found” 300 German marks.   After being interrogated, the presbyter suffered a stroke. Early in November, men armed with knifes broke into the Tőkéses’ apartment, cutting Tőkés on the head before leaving. Then, at the end of November, Tőkés was served an official eviction notice, setting the deadline to move out at 15 December 1989.

On the morning of 15 December a small group of congregation members started gathering outside the Tőkéses’ apartment. In the late afternoon the crowd grew by several hundred, and it kept growing into the evening. They held a candlelight vigil through the night, and on the first day nothing happened to the Tőkéses. The next day the crowd reached several thousand. Around noon the mayor of Timisoara came to Tőkés’ apartment. Promising Tőkés no harm would come to him or his wife, he asked Tőkés to disperse the crowd. But the people were not willing to leave. They demanded that the mayor promise in writing that the Tőkéses would not be evicted. Promising to deliver the promise, the mayor departed. An hour later, the crowd received a message that a written assurance could not be delivered. A little later the crowd was told it must disperse by five o’clock that afternoon, or the fire-brigade was going to disperse them forcibly. By now the throng of people reached several blocks. At sunset they started lighting candles; then they were singing patriotic songs; then they were shouting “Down with Ceausescu!” Then they moved away from Tőkés’ apartment, to the center of town and Party headquarters. That night, police and the army stamped out the demonstration, killing hundreds of people.

Around three o’clock in the morning police broke into the parsonage, beating Tőkés, then hauling off him and his pregnant wife in separate cars to the small village of Mineu, in northwestern Transylvania. In Mineu, Tőkés and his wife were placed in the Reformed church building, which was surrounded by barbed wire. They were interrogated daily, apparently in preparation for a show trial. However, the days of the regime were numbered. On 21 December Ceausescu arranged a rally in Bucharest. When the rally began and Ceausescu started to speak, people were booing, then shouting, “Timisoara” and “Down with Ceausescu!” Ceausescu fled the city, but was quickly apprehended by rebels. Then, on December 25 he and his wife were shot and killed after a brief show trial, and communism had ended in Romania. The catalyst of the revolution had been László Tőkés.

2. Cultural context as theological starting point.

The biographical sketch above helps illustrate the way in which Tőkés’ opposition to the Ceausescu regime was rooted in his identity as a Transylvanian Hungarian. Tőkés was motivated by fear for the very existence of the Hungarian community in Transylvania. Importantly, this fear continues to be the driving force behind Tőkés’ thought and actions today. Consider, for example, the quotation below, part of a speech delivered by Tőkés in 1992:

We have come to understand something we did not anticipate, namely that in Europe at the end of the second millennium the haggard Hungarians of the Carpathian Basin living beyond the borders of Hungary are again — and still — engaged in a life or death struggle. My assertion is free from any dramatic, heroic or superfluous romantic accents — because I am telling only the bare truth, Ladies and Gentlemen. Let us look around our region. There are places where blood has already started to flow. There are places where only strangling of the spirit is taking place. If things continue as they are then every chance exists that by the end of the century Hungarian speaking regions will be further wiped out, places where there were once only Hungarians. I do not want to engage in pessimistic prophecy, but we have an obligation to see our situation clearly. We Transylvanians and I personally are frequently accused of being Hungarianizers, (excessive) nationalists. Brethren, this charge is unjust, and even if well intentioned, still no more than slander. Our Hungarianness is not Hungarianizing, our “nationalism” is not politically inspired theoretical-ideological speculation; our national orientation, our Transylvanian Hungarianness is not some sort of obsolete tradition inherited from ancient centuries. The question is much more simple: it is about our remaining. For a good time now to be Hungarian in Transylvania, to call oneself Hungarian, has meant bare survival. (Tőkés 1993, 88)

The preoccupation with national extinction that Tőkés expresses here is not, I think, a differentiating concern of Western European nations, nor is it the kind of issue to receive sustained attention in American theological and ethical discourse. Whereas in the United States, for example, many people would identify the great social evils of our time as things like poverty, racism, slavery or sexism, the great evil for Tőkés, the thing that he fears, is the extinction of Transylvanian Hungarians.

In fact, preoccupation with national extinction is a characteristic fear of East European national groups. As a deeply rooted existential fear, it has exerted in the past, and continues to exert in the present, a profound influence on the history and politics of that region. One Hungarian political philosopher, István Bibó, has described the central place of this fear in Eastern Europe as follows:

All nationalities of Eastern Europe] have experienced what it means to know that the sacred places of one’s national history are in danger, and to lose them; or to know that they have fallen into the hands of a foreign, enemy power and that all or part of one’s people have fallen under the oppression of a foreign power. For all [Eastern European nationalities] there are geographical regions for which they are rightly anxious, or on which they have justified claims; and there is not one among them who has not stood near to partial or complete annihilation. For a Western European it is an empty phrase when the statesman of some small East European state speaks about the “death of the nation” or the “annihilation of a nation.” The Western European can imagine extermination, subjugation, or slow assimilation. But whereas complete political annihilation occurring from one day to the next is for him only a bombastic picture, for East European nations it is a palpable reality. Here it is not necessary to liquidate or expel a nation, here it is perhaps only necessary that a nation feel threatened by a large enough force or violence to call its existence into question. (Bibó 1968, 216-217)

Bibó, in the rest of his essay, describes how the fear of extinction produces distortions in East European politics that bring with them destructive consequences. Certainly one could argue that fear of this sort plays a role in the destructive politics that shapes part of Eastern Europe today; in the manipulative appeals to Serbia’s “historic rights” in Kosovo by Slobodan Milosevic, for example; or the adolescent posturing and manipulation of national sentiment by Slovakia’s Vladimir Meciar.

In any event, I have cited Bibó here in order to highlight how central to Eastern Europe is the fear of national extinction. It is certainly a central fear for László Tőkés. However, Tőkés’ response is distinct among the broad range of responses to this fear which appear in Eastern Europe. His answer is theological. Indeed, Tőkés’ entire thought should be understood as theological response to this fear.

3. The place of national identity in László Tőkés’ thought

Tőkés draws heavily upon his faith and the Biblical witness in responding to the fear of extinction. The religious answer to this fear, Tőkés believes, is that faith creates a community which survives. Often Tőkés draws parallels between the world of the Old Testament and that of Transylvanian Hungarians. The story of Israel’s continued survival through centuries of adversity points the way for Hungarians in Transylvania. According to Tőkés, the Biblical witness reveals the following:

The one thing that accompanied the people of God on their long, distant journeys — that was faith. In the beginning, as nomads, they did not even have property. What they had they could pack up from one day to the next and carry off with them….What else could they have taken with them other than the saving faith of their ancestors?…We, also, need to be aware that our faith, and God in our faith, will never and in no place leave us….Thus, we ought not only to praise the faith of our ancestors guarded unto death, but also to think of the faith to be preserved for our descendants. Here stands an only son….He hears about the faith of his father. His father received the faith of Transylvanian Hungarian Calvinists as an inheritance. But here stands a congregation descended from Transylvanian Hungarians. The confession heard in the Scripture is the inheritance of us all….Let this holy faith be with us! Let this be our consolation! (Tőkés 1991, 64-65)

Faith is the one permanent possession of the community. This is true not only for the people of the Old Testament, but for Hungarians in Transylvania as well. This one sure possession is also the guarantee of the community’s survival, because God does not abandon the community of faith. By preserving and nurturing the legacy of faith, each generation passes its inheritance on to the next, and thus bound together in the custody of faith, the community remains over time.

Of course in Tőkés’ particular setting, the community of faith is also a community of Hungarians. Consequently, via his affirmation of the Christian community, Tőkés has theologically affirmed the Hungarian community. Because the Christian community survives, Tőkés reasons, the Hungarian community will survive, too. In affirming his community this way, Tőkés makes no real separation between what is Christian and what is Hungarian. The community he addresses is both Christian and Hungarian, and the faith they preserve is the faith of Transylvanian Hungarian Christians.

On many occasions, Tőkés has explicitly asserted an inseparable connection between his Christian and Hungarian identity. Consider the following statement:

One of the distinctive characteristics of the Romanian Reformed Church is that its members are all Hungarian. According to our law books…the official language of the Reformed Church is the Hungarian language. For this reason our religion is called in everyday speech the “Hungarian religion.” Consequently, our faith and our nationality have become completely intertwined through the course of time, and when we represent and defend our people, this applies equally and inseparably to our Reformedness and our Hungarianness. (Tőkés 1993, 50)

Here, albeit in a sketchy and incomplete form, lies a serious theological proposition. Tőkés begins with the observation of a sociological reality; namely, that the composition of the Romanian Reformed Church is 100% Hungarian; and immediately moves to the assertion of an intrinsic theological link between Reformedness and Hungarianness. He appears to be saying that for Hungarian Calvinists, being Christian and being Hungarian are two categories of equal significance.

But what does such a claim mean? An outsider, reacting to what Tőkés has said, might think his affirmation of Hungarian identity implies theological exclusivity toward other national groups. If Christian and Hungarian are equal categories, does this not imply that God relates to the Hungarian qua Hungarian, and therefore outside the relation of faith? And if God relates to Hungarians outside the relation of faith, does this not imply that God has a preferential relationship to the Hungarian nation vis-a-vis other national groups?

For Tőkés the answer to these questions is no. This becomes clear if one listens to him closely. In his autobiography, for example, Tőkés’ recalls how his grandfather had been a pastor in a small Hungarian village. Under the impact of Ceausescu’s assimilation programs, people had stopped speaking in Hungarian and started to forget Hungarian customs. After arriving in the village, Tőkés’ grandfather initiated various measures to counteract the pressures to assimilate, and managed to affect a small renaissance of Hungarian culture in the village. Reflecting on his grandfather’s ministry, Tőkés says:

He distributed Hungarian books and set up a village library, and by these and other methods did much to raise the cultural level of the village. And at the same time, he raised the spiritual level. Protestant Christianity and Hungarian culture were one and the same in that village….There was no artificial distinction between religion and secular. The two were intertwined, just as they were in Israel, and in calling the people to be conscious of their national identity and customs, my grandfather was urging them to take heed for their souls. (Tőkés 1991, 24-25)

According to Tőkés, the spiritual care of the village was inseparable from helping people to preserve their cultural identity. Here, the link between Christianity and nationality is grounded in a claim about what it means to integrate faith with one’s whole life. The claim is that God relates to Hungarian Christians as they are, that is as both Christians and Hungarians, and to try to separate these two would be to create an artificial division in the person.

On these terms, therefore, God’s relationship to Hungarianness does not lie outside the relation of faith. God relates to the believer through faith and in faith; but the believer God relates to is a person with a particular historically embodied identity. God does not want to destroy this identity, but rather to affirm it. In the case of a fully integrated Christian Hungarian, the Hungarianness has been fused with, and transformed by, the Christian faith so that the two are inseparable. Tőkés is advocating a broad affirmation of human identity, of which the affirmation of national identity is an integral part. Clearly a theological affirmation of nationality in this form does not entail chauvinistic nationalism. It could apply equally to Hungarian Christians, Romanian Christians, Serbian Christians, and so on.

Nevertheless, Tőkés has done more here than simply affirm the identity of Christians who happen to be Hungarian. He has elevated their nationality to a level of theological significance. He has claimed that Hungarian nationality is a good thing, something which God approves of, and has a special interest in. The implication is that Hungarian culture and nationality per se are theologically significant. However, an outsider might ask whether simply pointing to one’s mother-tongue and the land of one’s birth is enough to generate this kind of affirmation. An outsider might object that Tőkés, by affirming his nationality religiously, has attributed theological significance to a pattern of human relationships in a way for which there is no sanction in the Bible, and for which there is little warrant in the Christian tradition. Does not Tőkés need a more explicit theological justification for his proposition concerning nationality?

We might approach this set of questions by considering Tőkés’ affirmation of Hungarian nationality within the context of more conventional Protestant “natural law” thinking found in connection with concepts like the “orders of creation.” In both the Lutheran and Calvinist traditions one often finds an affirmation of what are called “natural orders,” things such as the state, the family, economic activity, and so on. The argument is that these orders exhibit a rationality embedded in nature, which is directed toward the good of humanity, and which, therefore, is a manifestation of God’s providential will. Tőkés, although not explicitly, appears to be affirming nationality as a kind of positive order found in nature. Just as a respectable portion of the Christian tradition has historically affirmed certain orders as a positive manifestation of God’s will in nature, so Tőkés appears to be affirming ethnicity as one of God’s positive constructions for human society.

Of course, these sorts of affirmations of “rational nature” have always been coupled with certain problematics. Because human nature is corrupted by sin, the orders in nature must also be corrupted and imperfect. Their rationality cannot simply be read out of nature, but must also be qualified by a Christian understanding of the way things would be if there were no sin. Thus, while affirming orders of creation on the one hand, Protestant theologians have attempted, also, to qualify those affirmations, on the other. This problematic, inherent to the natural law framework, means that the rationality in the orders has not only to be read out of nature, but also read into it.

If one approaches Tőkés’ affirmation of nationality through this framework, then one can see the same sort of problematic reasserting itself. To say that nationality constitutes an integral part of a person’s self-understanding, and moreover that it constitutes a positive pattern of human relationships, may be fine up to a point. It would be dubious, however, if God’s affirmation of Hungarian identity were unqualified. As with the rationality discerned in the orders of creation, the rationality discerned in national communities must also be tainted by sin, and therefore in need of correction. For Tőkés to avoid an unqualified theological affirmation of Hungarian ethnicity there must be some point, at least in principle, where his Christian and Hungarian identity are not inseparable, but where faith stands over against Hungarianness. It may be that Tőkés has never drawn this line explicitly, and that for the sake of ecumenical understanding he ought to. However, the problematic inherent to his affirmation of nationality is not conceptually different from the problematic inherent to more conventional Christian affirmations of government, family, economy, and so forth.

Nevertheless, once all this is said, a question still remains as to how Tőkés’ divinely affirmed Hungarian nation will go about relating to other ethnic groups. An outsider might protest that by investing Hungarian ethnicity with theological significance, Tőkés is providing religious reinforcement to nationalism. In this way he lends ideological justification to chauvinistic or irredentist politics, and also helps to inflame historic antagonisms between Hungarians and their neighbors. Once again, however, Tőkés, provides an answer to this set of concerns. That answer can be found in what Tőkés calls a “Theology for the Minority.”

Tőkés’ “Theology for the Minority” focuses not only on Transylvanian Hungarians, but on the weak and defenseless everywhere. Nevertheless, its central concern remains the fear of extinction and the problem of survival. It begins with the observation that conflict between the weak and the strong, between small people and the big powers is a paradigmatic situation in the Bible; Moses leads Israel out of Pharaoh’s Egypt, David slays Goliath, Esther saves her people from destruction. The Biblical history reveals how God stands on the side of the minority, and through their weakness reaps victory. The full revelation of God’s identification with the weak is the person of Christ, who through his crucifixion embodies perfectly the abandoned condition of the minority, but also embodies the minority’s final victory.

Thus for Tőkés, the answer to the problem of survival is not only that faith creates a community which endures, but also that faith empowers the believer to speak out on behalf of the community when it is threatened. For Tőkés, the disciple of Christ is defined by the fact that he is willing to take up the fight for justice. Of course, this is a battle with powers visibly much stronger than the community of believers; however, the courage and confidence to act rest in the knowledge that Christ stands on the side of the weak, and that, in the words of one of Tőkés’ favorite Biblical passage, God’s “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 1:9).

This knowledge provides even more than courage, however. It shows the minority the way to enter into battle with greater powers. Tőkés describes the Christian battle as follows:

The battle of faith — disregarding the “religious wars” of another age — means something fundamentally different from a military campaign in the usual sense….The behavior of Christ our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemene serves as a model. When one of his hot-headed disciples struck with a sword a servant of the high priest accompanying Judas, the Master said, “Put your sword in its place, because those who seize weapons will be defeated by weapons.” God’s weapons are not of the flesh. He confronts raw power “according to the Spirit;” He sets his justice and innocence against murderous weapons, his sacrificial cross against his crucifiers….To give us a complete picture the Apostle Paul draws a parallel between actual and spiritual weapons in the letter to the Ephesians. We should understand this literally. What the girding, the breast plate, the sandal, the helmet, the sword is for the soldier — honesty, justice, the gospel of peace, faith, the Word is for the Christian. We need to imagine a completely armed Roman soldier — and opposed to him an unarmed Christian, but one empowered with divine strength….We have need for strong weapons “because our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world judgers of the darkness of life, against the spirits of evil in the high places (Eph. 6:12). Against these, that is, against every badness and darkness existing in the hearts of men, in society, and in the world…against these the only effective weapons are in God’s hands. (Tőkés 1991, 34-35)

The spiritual weapons employed by the Christian are distinctive in that they appear to be non-violent. This non-violent element in Tőkés’ thought is somewhat underdeveloped, but still important. Tőkés has never made a public, principled commitment to non-violence. However, the consistent thrust of his arguments is clearly toward endorsing non-violent resistance

In Tőkés thought on the whole, non-violence appears to be subordinate to a more central moral norm, namely tolerance. Indeed, sometimes it seems as if Tőkés equates non-violence with tolerance. For example, he writes in one essay:

Christ’s command to place the sword back in the scabbard and his voluntary sacrifice announces tolerance….Love your enemies, bless those you curse you….Only thus can our weakness become strength….Sobriety, humility, peacefulness, gentleness is itself tolerance serving the good of everyone. Weakness which is not weakness. Patience which is not self-denial. Even the suffering of violence, which is not a retreating cowardice. The power of the powerless given to God through faith is to change their situation and their fate. (Tőkés 1993, 14-15)

The love with which the Christian struggles against injustice, even to the point of suffering violence, means, in practical moral terms, tolerance. However, tolerance and the non-violent resistance that accompanies it, does not mean renunciation by the minority of its rights or just claims. Rather, tolerance is always coupled with a readiness to take up the just cause. Thus, it is a kind of warring tolerance, although the ways in which one can wage the war have definite limits.

The centrality Tőkés gives to tolerance clearly reflects, and is also directed to, the Romanian social setting. Tolerance is an essential prerequisite for the reconciliation of historic animosities between Hungarians and Romanians in Transylvania. Its centrality also illustrates that Tőkés has a stated commitment to the peaceful mutual existence of Hungarians and Romanians in Transylvania. His theological affirmation of Hungarian nationality, therefore, is not coupled with a chauvinistic or militant nationalism.

In conclusion, László Tőkés overall response to the fear of extinction is creative, constructive, and serious. Tőkés avoids the destructive forms of nationalism that are often offered as answers to this fear in Eastern Europe. At the same time, he has articulated a forceful theological commitment to his nationality that, I believe, is alien to many in the West. I have tried to treat this theological proposition seriously. Moreover, I have tried to argue that it is a coherent position capable of withstanding critical scrutiny. I did not do this because I necessarily accept every argument Tőkés makes, but because I want to take him seriously. My hope is that I have been able not only to identify appropriately the soft spots in Tőkés’ own thought, but to present his position in such a way that it might challenge Western theological presuppositions as well.

Works Cited:

István Bibó, Válogatott tanulmányok 2.kötet (Selected writings, vol. 2) (Budapest, 1986)

László Tőkés, Ahol az Úrnak Lelke, ott a szabadság (Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom) (Budapest, 1991)

László Tőkés, Istennel a népért (With God for the people) (Budapest, 1991)

László Tőkés, Ideje van a szólásnak (Time to speak up) (Nagyvárad, 1993)

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