The Plight Of Poland: News Behind The News

Pulling all the pieces toward some conclusions.

From time to time, and more frequently than we deserve, God raises up a person or a people who draw to themselves the admiration of all who love liberty and justice. The people of Poland have won such a role in our day. We in the West are alternately intrigued by their valiant stand for freedom and grateful to God for them.

Poland is by far the largest and most populous of Russia’s European satellites. Among the latter it is also the least pliable and the most religious, with more than 90 percent of its population Roman Catholic and about 1 percent Protestant. It is said that Poland has a higher percentage of people in church on any given Sunday than any other country in the world.

Poland’s Communist overlords, pragmatic about the existence of more religion than they cared to see, had been uneasily aware since the summer of 1980 of a new independent spirit in the country’s legislature. Not unconnected with the strides made toward a free trade union, this was also boosted psychologically by an expatriate Pope in Rome who could never quite forget his Polish origins.

A Jewish Scapegoat

The other Warsaw Pact countries, three of which form Poland’s land frontiers, were aghast at the danger signals. They reduced essential supplies to their wayward ally, already the victim of economic mismanagement, in the hope of starving it into submission. To explain this dismal state of affairs, Radio Warsaw dredged up for a new generation an old crudity: the Jews were to blame. They were wrecking the economy by hoarding goods, stirring up unrest in universities, and “collaborating with international Zionism.” Never mind that supporting evidence was totally lacking; it had the makings of a useful diversion, designed to rekindle ancient antipathies between Roman Catholics and Jews. Divide et impera has been a useful weapon through the centuries in the tyrannical armory.

Add An American Scapegoat

Moscow chipped in with a complementary version, attributing Polish problems to American support of dissident groups and Solidarity extremists. It was unthinkable, of course, that the workers should seek salvation through any source other than the Communist party. Was not the good of the working classes the party’s overriding concern, and its very raison d’être? Writing history books for the Communist young would become a nightmare! How could you explain the revolt of ten million workers against a government of the workers, by the workers, and for the workers?

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Happily for the establishment, Solidarity became the victim of its own momentum. Instead of strategically pacing itself, it presented a head-on challenge to the Communist machine. On December 13, then, the tanks rolled—as they did on that other day of infamy 25 years earlier in Hungary, when they crushed another people’s inalienable right. Solidarity should perhaps have realized, as President Reagan put it two Sundays later, “that they were asking one thing that a Communist government cannot allow.” Marshal Viktor Kulikov, commander of the Warsaw Pact forces, had been on hand in Warsaw. Reports are that he gave General Jaruzelski the ultimatum, “Either you go in, or we do.” Jaruzelski did, and the oncoming winter exacerbated the suffering, misery, and depression that ensued.

Western Reaction And President Reagan’S Response

Ten weeks passed. It is not the first time Western Europe has been frustrated and divided in its reaction to brute force and intimidation. As always, there is no lack of excellent reasons for doing nothing; ironically, the most dramatic response came from Polish ambassadors in two major world capitals, who sought political asylum.

President Reagan’s imposition of sanctions has received wholehearted support nowhere among his European allies. Many Americans became exasperated at what they regarded as Europe’s pussyfooting. This, they held, was no time for self-interest. Was not the plight of the Poles more important than the financing of a pipeline from Siberia? For their part, Europeans pointed out that if we Americans were a few thousand miles farther east our outlook would be different. In any case, in his refusal to reimpose an embargo on grain exports to the Soviet Union, Mr. Reagan’s motives were domestic politics rather than international justice.

Moreover, on prominent display in the Free University of Amsterdam during last November’s World Council of Churches meeting was a quotation attributed to an American admiral and taken seriously by Dutch peace lovers: “We fought World War I in Europe. We fought World War II in Europe. And if you dummies will let us, we will fight World War III in Europe.” We agree with the incensed Hollanders. Any American admiral who said that should be court-martialed.

A Detour Around Calamity?

Many of the details of the present Polish situation are still not known: the plight and prospects of the many thousands who are detained; the extent of the ongoing Soviet involvement; the future of Solidarity; the nature and duration of military rule. And what of the indomitable Lech Walesa? We recall his rousing words at an outdoor rally in the fall of 1980: “We cannot surrender, for those who will follow us will say, ‘They were so close, and they failed.’ History would not absolve us then.” Thank God for Walesa. When the story of the decline and fall of the Russian empire comes to be written, Solidarity’s valiant part will not be forgotten.

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There are two major factors on the Polish scene. One of these is the enigmatic Wojciech Jaruzelski. Has the general who in 1970 was arrested for refusing to order his troops to fire on striking workers, and who was again in trouble in 1976 for similar reasons, had a radical change of mind? Is he merely the dupe of Soviet tyranny, as many Russians believe? Or are the Europeans and large sections of the Polish citizenry right? Could he not rather have aimed to draw the teeth of the Russians and deprive them of a pretense for invasion because of the very effectiveness of his December 13 action? As one commentator put it, “A successful military autocracy might prove a far more deadly thorn in Russia’s side than a free trade union. Its dangers are much less obvious, but in the end, they are more devastating to Communist expansion. Military rule stemming from the Communist party’s inability to cope is itself a standing rebuke of the Kremlin.”

The Pope Is Right

The other prime factor in this situation is the position of the church. Both the dominant Roman Catholic body and the Protestant and evangelical churches of Poland are requesting help. They are, after all, without food and suffering from hunger. Moreover, they desperately fear any move that would bring a Russian military invasion closer. Minor relaxations of the Polish army’s harsh grip were widely advertised within a month, but a price was being paid—as Pope John Paul II was quick to point out. In order to keep their jobs, Poles were being forced to sign loyalty statements that conflicted with their consciences. “Violation of conscience,” the pontiff told a crowd of 30,000 in Saint Peter’s Square, “is a grave act against man. It is the most painful blow inflicted on human dignity, and in a certain sense it is worse than inflicting physical death.”

The Wcc: Double Standards?

It would be heartening to find this ringing appeal for liberty and human rights endorsed unequivocally by that sizable segment of Protestantism represented by the World Council of Churches. In the words of one leading British Socialist: “Those so justly vociferous about the denial of freedom in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have over the years been uncharacteristically reticent about repression in Eastern Europe. Now they must speak out or be condemned as hypocrites. Silence for them in this situation is a form of complicity.”

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But they won’t speak; they do not really prize human liberty. The goal of the World Council is not primarily freedom and justice, but change in the social, and especially the economic, structure of society.

An Evangelical Response

Political decisions are not within our competence. Is Walesa simply moving too fast? Is General Jaruzelski a Soviet minion, or is he a patriot driving a hard bargain while choosing the lesser of two evils?

If the U.S. and Western European nations were to impose sanctions, would this drive the Russians to an immediate invasion of Poland? Or would they back away from their hard line to permit more freedom?

In the long run, is it better to push Russia so that it shows to all the world how utterly destructive to freedom communism really is? Or would it be better not to force that nation’s hand?

If we work to create a more secure world for the Russians, would this encourage them to remove the barriers to freedom throughout Poland and even the entire Communist empire? Or would such action merely unleash capability for further spread of Soviet repression to new quarters?

We must leave these decisions to the President and his advisers. We trust that God, in his good providence, will overrule their mistakes and guide them to work for the good of the Polish people and of all the peoples of the world.

But there are some things we can do.

We can begin by taking seriously our own obligation as American citizens. We live in a free democracy—imperfect, to be sure—yet still a democracy, and relatively free. For that reason we must assume some responsibility for the decisions of our own rulers. When things go wrong, we cannot simply blame Carter, or Reagan, or anonymous “politicians.” We are responsible for the politicians we elect. It is our duty to vote for good leaders—leaders of intelligence and vision and moral convictions and courage. But voting is not enough. Some of us must heed God’s call into politics, and all of us must participate actively in the political process to the degree that we can as private citizens.

At this point, evangelicals are most remiss. We usually leave that work to the local ward heeler because we are too busy to be bothered; but then we complain about the dirty game of politics. In a democracy like ours, we are to blame if politics is dirty. The freedoms won for us at such high cost over a thousand years can be lost overnight: all we evangelicals need to do is nothing.

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Certainly we must also pray for the Polish people. Many are convinced that a showdown will come soon—probably as the warm days of spring approach. A staff member of the Slavic Gospel Association, who recently spent a great deal of time in Poland, warns: “Solidarity went underground right now. They are waiting for warm weather. In the springtime there will be trouble in the whole country.” He added, “Evangelical Christians say that the worst is yet to come. Right now they are using up their reserves.” In answer to a direct question from SGA director Peter Deyneka, he replied: “They need food badly, for in the market there is nothing available. Some food is sold in rations, but it is in very small quantities. Because of their poor health, Christians [in the evangelical churches of Poland] are most grateful for anything we can provide so they can live and carry on. But it is a very great need. Even at the hospital, the general director said to me, ‘If you could deliver some rice and sugar to our hospital, we would be very happy.’ If people in such positions are begging for food, then you can see that it is a crisis.”

The suffering people of Poland need our prayers. And we evangelicals believe in a God who answers prayer. We must faithfully keep this suffering people before the throne of God’s grace through the long and dangerous spring that lies ahead of them.

We can also thank God for their courageous love of freedom and their willingness to sacrifice to gain their liberty. We gain strength from their courage as they have fought so valiantly for the measure of freedom they have won.

To Fight Or Fold?

Evangelicals of North America will disagree as have evangelicals in Poland over the right of a Christian to seek to attain goals by violent means. Some evangelicals reject violence altogether. They believe obedience to government (see Rom. 13:1–7) binds them to obedience to even the most repressive communism. They point out that evangelical groups have received greater freedom from the Communist government to propagate their faith because they have rendered complete political cooperation.

Other evangelicals side wholly with the Solidarity movement. They have not condoned senseless violence against civilians, but only force against armed representatives of a government they conceive to be imposed upon their nation from the outside.

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For our part, we believe it is right, when all else fails, to use force to defend the basic freedoms of a people. Physical suffering and even death are not the worst things that can befall mankind. But be that as it may, we can surely thank God for a people who value freedom and are willing to sacrifice for it. In moments of despair we sometimes wonder if our fellow Americans believe in anything deeply enough to sacrifice for it. We can take strength and courage from the Polish people. Some things are worth more than life itself.

Evangelicals, too, can thank God for leaders who have been willing to stand firmly for what they are convinced is right. It is so easy to convince ourselves of a position that will keep us out of prison. But in Poland we have seen what a few dedicated people can accomplish. Poland is now reaping freedom from the long years of wise leadership the nation received from Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, primate of Poland from 1949 until his death in 1981. Throughout those years he was engaged in a constant battle with Poland’s Communist rulers, and for years it seemed almost certain he would lose that battle. He was confined for three years to house imprisonment and forbidden to carry out his duties. But times changed, and he later won significant concessions from the Communist hierarchy. In the end he proved that the church was stronger than the Communist party. Archbishop Glemp bids well to carry on in the same tradition as his late predecessor.

Of course, many other factors entered the picture, but the stories of Walesa, Cardinal Wyszynski, and Archbishop Glemp show that determined people with strong convictions and complete dedication can make a difference.

As evangelicals, we often hear that we have a crisis of leadership. But the difficulty is not a lack of ability, or of intelligence. Primarily it is timidity that inhibits—it is the fear of sticking out one’s neck lest it get chopped off. The truth is, it will. But this is the risk a leader must take. It is only if we are willing to take serious risks that we dare to assume the role of leadership.

The fact is, every value we treasure was once a despised cause. Someone had to sacrifice possessions, prestige, the honor of his peers, even life itself, that we might gain some value. We might never have experienced the Protestant Reformation had not Luther had the courage of his conviction. The dispute with Zwingli over the Lord’s Supper tested his leadership, and as a famous Lutheran historian points out, his stand against Zwingli was not smart. Luther had everything to lose and nothing to gain. In fact, some of us would say he was wrong. But all of us are better Christians because Martin Luther had the courage to stand by what he believed. Only the Martin Luther who was willing to stand with his conscience against Zwingli was the kind of leader who could stand before the rulers of the world and defend his faith: Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.

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To Those Who Thirst

Finally, the Polish situation has brought Western Christians face to face with a very practical dilemma: Shall we withhold food and supplies from hungry, suffering people in order to punish a repressive government? The position of the American government is equivocal. There will be no official support or provision of supplies, but the government will not forbid private groups from meeting these human needs.

We believe this is wrong. We do not argue over the political nuances of whether or not this will in some indirect way aid the Communist regime. As a matter of fact, we believe a good case can be made that it will not. A committed Polish evangelical, who is also a devout supporter of Solidarity, explains the viewpoint of his people. In spite of constant government propaganda against the American position, they understand why it is being done; but they are hungry, and their children are hungry. They think it is a mistake. They and the whole world have witnessed a breakdown in the Communist government because of a revolt of the workers. Now only Western food can keep from hunger a land that has long been one of the breadbaskets of Central Europe.

And the evidence seems to support the view that Jaruzelski is at heart a Pole who bends as little as he can, but as much as he must, in order to prevent a blood bath of Poles at the hands of ruthless foreign troops. By sending food and supplies, America simply shows all too clearly that communism simply is not worth it.

But all this is really quite irrelevant to a larger issue that should be decisive for evangelicals. Innocent people—men, women, and children—are without food, and they are suffering; we have food to spare. Russia is not going to fight us over this food. Nor are the Poles going to turn to communism and do battle against us because we have supplied them with food. They are quite simply a people in need, and our Lord does not raise an issue of “Are you communist or capitalist, Roman or Jew?” when he bids us offer a drink of cold water. Rather, he declares: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me drink.” Love, like justice, must at times be blind.

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Evangelicals, moreover, do not have the excuse that food sent may really fall into the wrong hands or not get to the hungry humans for whom it was intended. The Polish government permits the import of food, and eyewitnesses vouch for the fact that it is delivered to the churches. One evangelical relates how he personally drove trucks to the churches, where he was met by eager evangelical pastors who unloaded the trucks and distributed the food in 20-pound packages to other churches in the area. A similar story comes from French Roman Catholics who have given liberally to supply their fellow churchmen in Poland with food.

We are without excuse. From our comfortable homes we say to the Poles in need: “God bless you, be warmed and fed,” and do nothing. But there is a God in heaven. Someday we shall have to stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give account of ourselves and our careless indifference to the needs of others. We must be sure that we do not stand among those to whom he will say in that day, “Depart from me, I never knew you; for as much as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.”

But with the apostle, we believe better things of evangelicals who have tasted of the grace of Christ and been the recipients of so many benefits of his lovingkindness. We see the need, and by God’s grace we shall respond.

Others Say

Sometimes It’s a Practical Matter

Like the weather, Bible study is something we discuss but do little about. Most ministers have an arsenal of sermons by which they hope to encourage, threaten, or coerce their auditors to engage in Bible study. Next to involvement in evangelism, there is perhaps nothing a preacher desires more for his congregation than meaningful Bible study.

A student minister had just completed a blistering denunciation of the brethren in a small rural church for not spending more time in Bible study. Most of the congregation looked rather sheepish as they filed out that day. The preacher felt rather smug. Those shape-up-or-ship-out sermons always seem to give young preachers a great deal of personal satisfaction.

One sweet, little old lady spoiled it all: “Preacher,” she said with a smile on her face, “we know what we ought to be doing. Please show us how to do it.” Many young preachers (and perhaps some not so young) stand convicted before God of browbeating their people to study the Word while offering them very little in the way of practical help in this vital area of Christian growth.

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Dr. Smith is dean of Central Florida Bible College in Orlando.

A Moral Lingo that “Leads” Nowhere

Values clarification” is education lingo for a technique sometimes used in public schools to help students understand how they make moral choices. But a little clarification of the values at work behind the new teaching technique is needed.

The proponents of values clarification say the approach treats all viewpoints alike and does not promote any particular system of values. However, the technique is not as value-free as it purports to be; in the new system, modern goals such as “self-actualization” and “rich experience” replace the more traditional “justice,” “courage,” and “truth.”

If the systematic teaching of morals within the bounds of the First Amendment requires systematic exclusion of a whole realm of meta-ethics underlying moral thinking in our society, isn’t this in itself a distortion of ethical discourse in the intellectual sense, and injustice in the social?

Adapted from The Public Interest (Spring 1981), reprinted in the Chronicle of Higher Education (May 26, 1981).

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