Karl Marx believed religion is the intellectual sedative used by the bourgeoisie to control the masses. Yet in the Communist-Marxist utopia (or dystopia for liberty-lovers), Joseph Stalin utilized religion to further his nationalist/jingoist agenda. In 1986, Philip Walters published an academic article examining Stalin’s unlikely alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Prior to World War II, Stalin, under the tutelage of Lenin, afflicted the church indiscriminately. In his abstract, he notes, “The Constitution of the USSR guarantees religious freedom, but the ruling Communist Party actively encourages the disappearance of religion” (135). He continues,
“The Decree on Separation of Church from State of 23 January 1918 declared all churches separated both from the state and from the educational system, and it deprived the churches of the right to hold property and of legal entity” (136-37).
In a declassified letter archived by the US Library of Congress, Lenin advises his pupil to severely strike the church with brute force, writing,
“Now and only now, when people are being eaten in famine-stricken areas, and hundreds, if not thousands, of corpses lie on the roads, we can (and therefore must) pursue the removal of church property with the most frenzied and ruthless energy and not hesitate to put down the least opposition.”
He continues to explain the manner in which the Black Hundreds clergy should be effectually eliminated,
“[This] should be carried out in the utmost haste and should end not other than with the shooting of the very largest number of the most influential and dangerous of the Black Hundreds in Shuia, and, if possible, not only in this city but even in Moscow and several other ecclesiastical centers.”
A shift, however, in domestic policy concerning the practice of Christianity, particularly Russian Orthodoxy, occurred after Hitler’s attempted invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.
“The outbreak of World War II saw a major reorientation of the Soviet government’s attitude toward the Orthodox and other churches as institutions in Soviet society” (139).
This policy favoring the pro-Soviet churches while persecuting minority sects lasted until 1959 when Nikita Khrushchev outlawed the practice of religion, thus reestablishing the original order.
These Cold War attitudes, however, still persist within the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), a small unrecognized, self-segregated state in southeastern Ukraine. In a Vice News piece from 2015, Simon Ostrovsky interviews DPR militants and underground Protestant attendants for both perspectives. The DPR, funded by Russia, fights for an autonomous Soviet-style state. The DPR’s constitution declares the Russian Orthodoxy the official religion, thus ostracizing every religious minority, calling for their expulsion and, for many, execution.
In his polemic against John Calvin’s bigoted advocation for the prosecution and execution of Michael Servetus—16th century mathematician, physician, theologian, and philosopher who influenced thinkers of the Enlightenment (e.g. John Locke, Thomas Jefferson)—Sebastian Castellio, publishing under various pseudonyms, quotes numerous church fathers condemning church-state governance—Martin Luther, Johannes Brenz, Erasmus, and St. Augustine—and even uses John Calvin’s own writings against him:
“Although ecclesiastical discipline does not permit familiarity and intimacy with the excommunicate, nevertheless we should try by every means, whether by exhortation and teaching, clemency and mildness, or by our prayers to God, to bring them to a better mind that they may return to the society and unity of the Church. Not only are they to be treated in this fashion, but even the Turks and the Saracens and other enemies of the true religion” (31).
In Castellio’s compendium against Calvin’s erroneous and bigoted efforts to silence his theological dissidents, he frequently reverts to the authority of Scripture and precedented commentary. Below is a brief list of sayings delineating between civil and church polity.
“Civil government has laws which extend only to bodies and goods on earth. God, who alone has jurisdiction…and authority over the soul will not suffer it to be subject to mundane laws. When civil government undertakes to legislate for souls, then it encroaches upon the province of God and merely perverts and corrupts souls. I wish to make this clear as day that our bishops and princes may see what fools, not to say scoundrels, they are when they seek to coerce men by laws and commandments to believe this or that” (13).
“We were not baptized into kings, princes, and the multitude, but into Christ and God himself. We are called Christians from Christ and are not named after these. No one ought or can command the soul unless he is able to show it the way to heaven, but no man can do that, only God” (13)
“No man can kill the soul or make it alive, lead it to heaven or to hell…Hence it is both futile and presumptuous to command or to try to compel anyone to believe this or that. Force achieves nothing” (14).
“Every man should be allowed to believe as he will and can, and no one should be constrained. Nothing should be so free as faith and religion to which no one can be driven. Since this is a divine work in [the Holy] Spirit, human force is of no avail. Hence the common saying which Augustine also uses, “no one can or ought to be constrained to believe” (14).
“If, then, with the civil sword we attempt to punish unbelief and mere heresy, we simply entrench the devil and drive things from bad to worse” (20).
“Torture but hardens their obstinacy to their own corruption and the readier seduction of those who see their steadfastness. For this reason the best way is to let the Gospel and the Holy Scripture only fight with heresy that by their revelation it may be exposed and denuded of its fair display” (21).
“If unbelievers and heretics are put to death they are deprived not only of their bodies here, but also of their souls hereafter, because they might have turned from unbelief and error to the true faith, from which they have been prevented by the tyranny of the magistrate” (21).
“The householder, that is, God, does not desire that the false prophets and heretics be rooted out, but that they be tolerated, if perchance they may repent and from tares be turned into wheat” (25).
“Quite irrelevantly [Noël Beda] appeals to the decree in Deuteronomy…on putting the prophet to death, as if the Church now wielded both swords. The Gospel says, ‘Tell it unto the Church, but if he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican,’ as if there were any mention here of burning at the stake. The disciples were commanded to avoid, not to burn. Again the Apostle says, ‘After the first and second ad- monition, reject’ [Titus 3:10]. Is to reject the same as to cast into the fire? Again he says, ‘Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person” [1 Cor. 5:13]. Does ‘put away’ mean to kill? If this had been done he would not in the Second Epistle to these same Corinthians have commended the man who was corrected” (27).
“[W]hen I reflect with what mercy Christ planted, nourished, advanced, and established his Church throughout the centuries, I scarcely see how I can approve of the example of those who today, on account of scholastic opinions” (28).
“Up to the time of Augustine, that is, more than four hundred years after the birth of Christ, we never read that the orthodox bishops besought the aid of the emperors against the heretics, although the heretics themselves frequently did so” (28).
“St. Jerome interpreted the rooting up of the tares as the separation of the heretics from the Church: ‘Lest,’ he says, ‘in pulling up the tares you root out the grain at the same time. Give room for repentance, and let us be advised not to cut off a brother hastily, for it may come about that he who today is depraved by noxious…doctrine may turn tomorrow and begin to defend the truth'” (30).
St. Augustine of Hippo
“But I beg that the death penalty be not inflicted upon them, for the sake of both your conscience and Catholic clemency, no matter how great the crimes which they have confessed” (32).
“We have read what the Apostle says to you that you bear not the sword in vain and that you are a minister of God to punish those who do ill. But there is a difference between the civil and the ecclesiastical sphere; the one cultivates severity, the other mercy” (32).
The pervading theme is grace and reservation, understanding the Lord—and only he—bears full authority and judgment. The Apostle Paul, writes, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord'” (Rom. 12:19 [ref. Deut. 32:35; Heb. 10:30; Ps. 94:1; 1 Thess. 4:6]). And in Jude 9, the author writes, “But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you.'” Concerning grace, Paul writes, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4). And again, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10).
On many occasions, the late Christopher Hitchens railed against the atrocities littering Christian history. Condemning the Crusades and the very nature of an incompetent, immature, juvenile God, ordering the genocide of the Canaanites without discrepancy, he equates heaven to a celestial North Korea, judging people from on high for thought crime. In his seemingly voluminous compilation of atheistic canon, so to speak, The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, Hitchens pens in the opening pages,
“There are, after all, atheists who say that they wish the fable were true but are unable to suspend the requisite belief, or have relinquished belief only with regret. To this I reply: who wishes that there was a permanent, unalterable celestial despotism that subjected us to continual surveillance and could convict us of thought-crime, and who regarded us as its private property even after we died? How happy we ought to be, at the reflection that there exists not a shred of respectable evidence to support such a horrible hypothesis” (pp. xxii).
Humankind is puzzling. We despise authority; so we choose kings. Reflecting upon the ills of monarchical systems, in Common Sense Thomas Paine writes,
“As the exalting one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature, so neither can it be defended on the authority of scripture; for the will of the Almighty as declared by Gideon, and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by kings” (104).
In other words, God gave the people up to a reprobate mind, granting them their wish to be forcefully subjugated to a whimsical king (Rom. 1:28; 1 Sam. 8). This is true of those setting their faith—albeit ironically propagated as anti-faith—in an individual or party promising utopic harmony. Yet these are the most despotic and depraved of all.
Overall, the human condition is a perpetual paradox. Searching for perfection, we find ourselves depredatory and vile. As aforementioned, Marxism propagates—and rightly so—religion as the opium of the people, used by the government to sedate. People choose religion to self-medicate; to escape reality into the arms of an all-loving deity, person, and/or party. It’s the ultimate Inception scenario. Furthermore, the actions of the church ante and post-Reformation promulgated the eventual virulent and vehement disdain reflected by the philosophers and skeptics of the Enlightenment period. Nevertheless, in light of these atrocities, one mustn’t dismiss religion, or faith, as anti-truth simply for the unfortunate execution of such preachments. Rather, the tenets and “totems,” as Salman Rushdie calls them, must be examined and, if so, rejected on philosophical grounds. In an era of amnesic nostalgia reminiscing over the “good old days” that never were, it is incumbent upon the faithful and unfaithful alike to look through the lenses of honest scrupulosity, hoping not for an abandonment of mores or religio-national identity but, instead, for a higher appetite, craving genuineness and truth.