An interfaith journal: 1-19-12
A book worthy of Sendler: 1-21/22-12

The anti-religion instinct: 1-20-12

This may or may not have been the exact date in 1918 (various sources differ) when the folks who brought the world the Bolshevik Revolution decided to ban all religious instruction inside the new Soviet Union.

No-religionWhether today is the day or not, what strikes me nearly a century later is the utter foolishness of trying to shut down religion. Oh, I quite agree that in the U.S. today the public schools should teach about religion but not teach any particular religion.

But efforts to crush the human impulse toward finding religious answers can succeed only temporarily.

I ran across an example of this temporary insanity in Poland a few years ago when I was there doing interviews for They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

So today, in contempt of people who think they can destroy religion, I offer a reprint of my column about that Polish experience. It first appeared in The Kansas City Star on Sept. 1, 2007.

Where the streets have new names
 NOWA HUTA, Poland — This planned community just outside Krakow was meant to be
a Soviet communist dream town for steelworkers.
So in 1949, having evicted a longstanding Cistercian monastery and church, the
Soviets, who dominated Poland then, began construction.
They created four main residential sectors, named — with all the efficiency and
imagination the bureaucracy could muster — A, B, C and D.

Those sectors in turn were divided into districts of prefab, soulless housing.
They built libraries and movie theaters, sports venues and social clubs. And, for sure,
schools: 16 primary, 17 nursery, two secondary, four adult primary, four vocational, plus
a music school and a university extension center.
What was missing? Exactly what you’d expect these utopian lunkheads to leave out — 
houses of worship. They purposefully built no churches. Not a single one for the
people of this mostly Catholic nation.
They believed that somehow they could short-circuit the spiritual wants and needs of
thousands of people by promoting an atheistic society and refusing to include
churches in the social fabric they were weaving.
It was idiocy and the Poles knew it. So when most of the town was completed, some of
the residents simply put up a big cross near a prominent intersection and began to
gather there for encouragement and worship. It drove the Soviet masters crazy, but it
took time for them to do anything about it.
Finally, in the spring of 1960, the bureaucracy ordered the cross destroyed. The
authorities had put up with this ridiculous symbol of religious superstition long enough.
That’s when the mothers showed up. Holding their babies, they surrounded the cross
and dared officials to attack them. These were women who understood that any society
worthy of the name must make room for expressions of faith, even if not everyone in
that society agrees on all matters religious. The mothers were willing to face down the
foolish rulers who apparently had never read history — or who chose to interpret what
history they knew in dimwitted fashion. And the mothers won.
Today Nowa Huta stands as a redeemed monument to all that foolishness. Thousands
of people still live here, but it’s different now.
Streets that used to be named Lenin, Marx and Engels now bears such names as
Solidarity and John Paul II. And the street where the famous cross stood — replaced
now by a newer model next to an active church — is called Obroncow Krzyza, or
Defenders of the Cross.
I spoke with the vicar of that church, Kazimierz Klimczak, who told me that the
congregation keeps the memory of the cross defenders alive in many ways. There’s an
annual commemoration of the 1960 event, for instance. And there’s a book about it for
sale at the church. It’s also mentioned frequently in sermons.
The Soviets oppressed Poland from the end of World War II in 1945 until, with a big
push from the Solidarity labor movement (which was encouraged by a Polish pope),
they finally gave up in late 1989 as communism collapsed across Eastern Europe.
In Nowa Huta on Dec. 10 of that watershed year, a huge statue of Lenin in the main
public square came tumbling down. Today flowers grow in that space. And nearby is an
exhibit of photos showing life in the village of Mogila, which used to be where Nowa
Huta is today. Other photos show the construction of Nowa Huta and the resistance to
martial law there prior to Poland achieving liberation from the Soviet noose.
And here and there in Nowa Huta you can find what it always needed — houses of
worship. As I walked along a sidewalk toward the cross defense site, in fact, a man
tried to give me a pamphlet promoting the views of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
He was free to offer it. I was free to turn it down.
And I thought, “Take that, you clueless communists, who knew nothing of human
spiritual needs.”

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My friends over at Religion News Service say this CNN piece about a South Carolina evangelical powerbroker is the best read of the campaign so far. Indeed, it's pretty engaging as it describes the religion-politics relationship in South Carolina and elsewhere. 

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P.S.: Today is the 70th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference at which top Nazi leaders made (or at least were informed of) a final and firm commitment to the plan to murder all the Jews of Europe. My co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, describes the meaning of this dreadful day and decision in No. 6 of his excellent YouTube series, "Jewish Tidbits." To view that, click here.


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