Christmas of course is preeminently about remembering Christ's birth. Some sourpusses like to grouch, understandably, about the holiday's commercialization. But the globalization of Christmas, for all its kitschy faults, overall seems good for humanity. Even in its most vulgar forms, Christmas retains at least an echo of good cheer and generosity. The most despotic tyrannies typically do not like Christmas. Today, unsurprisingly, North Korea and Saudi Arabia actively suppress Christmas. But much of the rest of the world seems to have at least secular versions of the holiday. Although still officially communist, Chinese cities are more and more decorated with holiday trees and lights, partly reflecting the country's growing economic integration with the West, partly reflecting the growing Christian population. Much of the world's Christmas ornaments are now manufactured in China.
The old Soviet Union tried to displace Christmas by highlighting New Year's Day as the alternative Winter holiday. (In the Eastern Orthodox calendar, Christmas follows New Year's.) Of course, Christmas outlasted Soviet communism. East European communism collapsed in 1989 in time for Christmas. Romania's brutal tyrant Nicolae Ceauşescu and his equally brutish wife were tried and executed by the "people" on Christmas Day. Two years later, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day, providentially ending the Soviet Union.
Less than two decades later, how easy to forget that the last century was dominated by totalitarian monster regimes like the Soviet Union. Soviet communism, Chinese communism, and German National Socialism together murdered more millions than all that century's wars combined. The Nazis usurped Christmas by emphasizing its supposed pre-Christian pagan origins. This Christmas, we can celebrate, among so much else, despite the world's current travails, that the great totalitarian murder machines are, for the most part, gone. It's a sad recollection that the Western democracies, at times, had to align with some of these tyrannies in struggles for preservation against the others, with Stalin against Hitler, with Mao against the Soviets. Better that the Devil's followers should be divided against each other, but the moral compromises were often horrendous.
It's also a sad recollection that many in Christ's Church, through naiveté or betrayal of their faith, openly praised some of those monster regimes, despite their horrendous persecution of Christ's flock and countless other political undesirables, not to mention the suppression of Christmas. One brief but scandalous example comes from 1923 in the Soviet Union, when Lenin still lived, and before Stalin reigned. Despite the brutal Bolshevik police state, streams of useful dupes streamed in from the West. Among them was American Methodist Bishop Edgar Blake, who outrageously attended a 1923 Soviet church conference when the Bolsheviks were tormenting the official Russian Orthodox Patriarch and creating their own puppet "Living Church." The Methodist bishop gushed to his Soviet audience: "For the first time in human history a great nation is dedicating itself to do good for the masses of humanity and is striving to attain everything God-given for man."
Bishop Blake had proceeded to Moscow despite the Soviets having recently executed a Roman Catholic archbishop. A Methodist cohort of the bishop explained away the martyred bishop as a Polish "spy." Blake himself did not seem to see the big deal, later readily admitting the Soviets had already murdered 1,200 Orthodox bishops and priests. Blake's outrageous comments, globally reported in newspapers, prompted the Methodist bishops back home to panic into damage control, recalling Blake, and disavowing this unauthorized "personal opinion."
Heading home, Blake stopped in Paris, unhelpfully commenting about Bolshevik anti-church atrocities: "If the Soviet government dealt harshly with certain ecclesiastics it justified itself on the ground that it was fighting for its life." He chirped that Moscow probably had less crime than Chicago. While insisting he opposed dictatorship, Blake still declared: "With their social aims in so far as they seek to improve and uplift the masses who have for centuries been exploited and oppressed for the benefit of the few I am in accord as I believe every man who accepts the teachings of Jesus Christ must be."
The Washington Post editorialized against Bishop Blake's absurdities and against "other religious apologists for the Soviets," citing the Bolsheviks' "murder and terrorism." Prominent Methodist minister Frederick Harris, future pastor of Foundry Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. and future U.S. Senate chaplain, denounced Blake, saying Methodism is "no more in league with the seven devils who now occupy the Russian house than it was with the devil that has been cast out."
Once appearing before his fellow bishops, Blake was unapologetic: "I am not a Bolshevist and I am not a reactionary, thank God! I am a little of both." He urged Methodist support for the new Soviet-created "Living Church" that supposedly would displace traditional Orthodoxy. He told the assembled bishops, meeting in Brooklyn, that the new communist sanctioned church, to which he promised $50,000 from U.S. Methodism, was closer to Methodism by discouraging relics, hierarchy, and celibate clergy. In other words, the Soviets were simply Methodizing the Orthodox.
"I think we ought to sacrifice our denominationalism to save religion in Russia," Blake implored. "Methodism holds the destiny of Russia in its hands." He also claimed: "I think personal property is more secure in Moscow than in Brooklyn." One fellow left-wing bishop responded: "I take my stand at the side of the brother who saw 150 million people in need and struck out in their direction." The whole Board of Bishops more carefully avoided endorsing any support for the Soviet-backed church, instead politely commending Blake for "fidelity and devotion" in carrying out "a delicate mission."
Blake's travel colleague to Moscow, a prominent Methodist editor, was even more provocative than the bishop, hailing the attempted new Soviet puppet church as a "great religious reformation" comparable to Martin Luther's, "destined" to "revolutionize Christian thought" and "extend its beneficent influence to the uttermost parts of the earth." In fact, the attempted "Living Church" eventually collapsed, despite the infusion of Western money. The Soviets contented themselves instead to tightly control the existing Russian Orthodox Church, which managed to persevere.
Over the next 70 years there would be many more Bishop Blakes from many denominations in the West, identifying God's Kingdom among the Soviets, among the Maoists, in Castro's Cuba, in Sandinista Nicaragua, even in the killing fields of Southeast Asia. Their spiritually blind utterances discredited parts of the church, but never the faith itself, which continued to sustain persecuted millions.
Christmas is now celebrated, however imperfectly, in most lands where the worst tyrants tried to eradicate it and its celebrants. May the Christmas spirit spread and grow, sweeping away the despots and malevolent cranks who resent its good will and promise of transcendent hope.
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