by David Baer
The ideal of “Christian politics” holds appeal for many. Politics concerns the common good and implicates issues of justice and truth. Why wouldn’t Christians come together to advance their concerns through organized political action? Indeed, Christian Democratic parties exist throughout Europe, and in Hungary some parties even include a cross on their official logos. At the same time, however, the ideal of “Christian politics” makes some believers uncomfortable. Christianity, they believe, should stay above politics. The church, while in the world, is not of the world; and the truths the church speaks, because they address the deepest aspirations of the human spirit, transcend politics. The danger with Christian political action is that it confuses the truths of the gospel with the relative, worldly affairs of politics. Political questions often do not admit of unequivocal answers. When Christians claim to give the answer to such questions, they ascribe a false ultimacy to temporal affairs and misconstrue political debates as implicating a person’s standing before God. If that happens, the church ceases to speak to the world, but instead becomes part of the world, representing one agenda among others in the game of politics.
For Christians, therefore, to find the right form political action represents an on-going challenge. They must avoid, on the one hand, the danger of absolutizing relative political claims, and, on the other hand, the danger of growing indifferent to politics. No single solution to the dilemma exists; rather Christians must continually search out solutions best suited to their time and place. In doing this, they will certainly attend to the character of the societies in which they live; but they will also look to great confessors from the past, persons who with their lives modeled faithful Christian engagement with politics. In this regard, Hungarians are fortunate to have had such a confessor in their recent past, Bishop Lajos Ordass. Bishop Ordass was guided in his public actions by the ideal of fidelity, and his great fidelity teaches us about the nature of authentic Christian political witness.
Installed as a Lutheran bishop in 1945, Ordass vigorously defended his church against communist intrusions, for which he was imprisoned and removed from office. Although in his own day Ordass was portrayed as a political “reactionary” bent on restoring Hungary’s authoritarian Horthyite past, the truth is that he was concerned exclusively with the ministry of the church. His actions had political dimensions, but these were never more than the unavoidable consequence of his commitment to the church. Ordass became a political figure by accident, because in the world in which he lived to confess the gospel was a political event.
As I have argued elsewhere, Ordass’ moral convictions grew out of an unfaltering commitment to his duties as bishop (Baer 2006, 77). In all his public actions, Ordass sought to be faithful to the church. He refused to consent to the nationalization of parochial schools, because to do so would be to betray the church’s congregations, and hence to betray his duties as bishop. He refused to resign his bishopric when threatened, because to do so would be to flee his office in the face of danger, and hence to betray his duties as a pastor. As bishop, Ordass believed he had a duty to protect the church and its ministry. To compromise on that duty, even to avoid personal suffering, would have been unfaithful.
The nature of fidelity is such that it manifests itself most clearly in times of crisis. When all is going well, to remain faithful is easy. But when things take a turn for the worst, one discovers whether a person will stay true. Think only of the Biblical Ruth, who renounced all hope for her future in order to stay with her mother-in-law. Ruth’s fidelity would have been unremarkable had her husband not died. But because she had no husband, her choice to remain stands out. The faithful person acts against her interests. She stands firm when changing course would make life easier.
Many people break faith when the going gets tough, and the fact that people are willing to break faith, it turns out, was essential to the survival of socialism in Eastern Europe. All political regimes, even tyrannies, need to secure a level of consent from their populations in order to survive. Force and threats of force alone cannot procure that consent. Additional mechanisms must be found. One way communist regimes coerced consent was by placing persons in morally difficult situations, situations in which the prospects of personal advancement were linked to unpalatable compromises. People needed to strike bargains with the regime in order to get along in life, and the bargains they struck tended to corrupt their character. Persons compromised by the regime were also less likely to resist it, for fear their own complicity would be exposed. They also tended to be distrustful and wary of others, and thus unable to band together to resist. A people whose character has been corrupted grows passive, such that even a tyranny can rule over them without employing force.
Ordass’ fidelity was so great, however, that he never betrayed his ministry even to avoid harm to himself. Ordass could be made to suffer, but he could not be compromised; and the truthfulness of his character, more than any political position he took, threatened the regime. His truthfulness also depended on his faith. To stay true at the cost of great personal suffering makes sense only if one believes in the reality of God’s providence. It makes sense only if one believes that ultimately God will vindicate his faithful servant. Ordass’ tremendous fidelity thus testifies to the greatness of his faith, and we rightly consider him a confessor.
Ordass’ fidelity was such that, in a paradoxical way, he was forced to renounce responsibility for the future of the church. By refusing to compromise the church’s ministry, Ordass also rejected the communists’ limited offer of protection, thereby exposing his church to persecution. To expose the church to persecution, however, especially in a totalitarian regime, meant exposing it to the risk of extinction. Ordass could accept this risk only because he believed the future of the church was in God’s hand. To relinquish responsibility for the church’s survival was itself an act of faith. Jesus promises his disciples that, “I will be with you until the end of the age.” To believe these words is to believe the church will survive without human assistance. Like Abraham, who believed in God’s promise even when told to sacrifice his son, Ordass trusted God to provide for the church regardless of what earthly princes should conspire. He believed what the psalmist had written, “The rulers take counsel against the Lord, but he that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh and hold them in derision” (Psalm 2:4).
In his readiness to renounce responsibility for the church’s future, Ordass differed from most of his fellow travelers through socialism. Like everyone in society, people in the church also compromised with the regime; but in the church they justified those compromises as necessary to save the church. Since the communists wanted to destroy religion, the argument went, people in the church needed to find a way to save what was savable. They could do this by striking bargains with the regime. The bargains were unpleasant, of course, yet without them the church might not survive.
But thinking like this has been confounded by the witness of Bishop Ordass. Ordass teaches us that faithfulness holds order of privilege over effectiveness. Since the church belongs to Christ, and indeed is his body, the members need not protect the body with strategic maneuvers and clever compromises. They need not ensure that the body, broken once already on a cross, will somehow manage to survive. Rather, the members must remain true to the head. This is not to say pragmatic calculations and worldly wisdom have no place in the church, but only that pragmatic thinking is limited by the call to discipleship. Those who follow Jesus serve him best when they witness to his truth through their words and deeds. Such acts of faith, through the power faith, strengthen and preserve the church better than even the shrewdest compromise.
But if faithfulness supersedes effectiveness within the church, it should enjoy that same order of privilege when the church enters the world. The primary task of Christians in the world is to witness to the truth. Certainly, witnessing to the truth also means advocating for it, and thus Christians will inevitably take positions on certain controverted questions of the day. Christians, also, can and should oppose any political order that constitutes an offense to faith, something Dietrich Bonhoeffer once pointed out (Bonhoeffer 1995, 355). But political engagement of this sort has an occasional character. It addresses the moment; it responds to the occasion, rather than presenting itself as comprehensive program.
To advance a comprehensive “Christian” political program is to enter directly into the fray of politics, and even worse, to reduce the church to the world. Politics is a game of claim and counterclaim between competing interests, each advancing its cause through the exercise of power. To pursue a political program is to seek to advance one set of interests at the expense of others through the acquisition and application of power. Moreover, to acquire power one must bargain with power, and having once acquired it, one must bargain again with countervailing powers. This means that advancing perceived Christian interests through a developed political program politicizes Christianity. Political Christianity distorts and obscures the Christian message, alienating along the way those in society who mistake the message for the messenger.
Politics by its nature belongs to the world, and the church, while in the world, is not of the world. Called into being by the Word which the world knows not, the task of church is to make the Word real in the world through its faithful witness. But to witness is not the same as to politicize. Nor will the world be saved by politics. Rather shall the church, revealed through its confessors, overcome the world by the power of the Word. “Behold, I am coming soon,” say the Lord. Every authentic confession brings him closer.
Baer, H. David. 2006. The Struggle of Hungarian Lutherans under Communism. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1955. Ethics. Translated by Neville Horton Smith. Touchstone Edition. New York: Simon & Schuster.