The Hungarian Religious Resistance: a Mirror & a Beacon to Our Own

A report in The Guardian on December 28 compellingly describes the small, marginalized religious resistance to the self-described ”Christian” authoritarianism of the current Hungarian regime. In this sketch there is much to learn and reflect on for those Americans who feel called to a similar path.

The anti-democratic drive of the Viktor Orban government to undermine Hungary’s independent courts, media and other democratic processes is well-known. So is its unremitting hostility to the homeless poor, refugees, immigrants & LGBT persons, and incitement of anti-semitism.

What was less known, at least to me, is how much this burgeoning tyranny has been wrapped and sanctified in religious terms, as an expression of “Christian liberty,” intended to protect a version of “Christian culture.”  Also new to me is how similar its rationale is to reactionary evangelical/fundamentalist movements in other countries.

The Advent Statement logo.

Early in December a band of Hungarian religious dissenters responded by issuing what they call “The Advent Statement.” As I read it I noted that, if one replaced “Hungary” with the “US administration” & its cronies, much or most of its text could be an “American Advent Statement.” See if you agree:

We are calling,” it says, “for resistance to an arrogance of power that makes the concept of “Christian Liberty” a slogan for exclusionary, hate-filled and corrosive policy; a power that destroys the social fabric and eliminates useful social institutions; a power that systematically threatens democracy and the rule of law. We are concerned about the arrogance of power that mixes the language of national identity with the language of Christian identity in a manipulative way. We cannot let our freedom, given to us by grace in baptism, be taken away.

We are concerned by the narrow political usage of the concept of “Christian Liberty”. Our goal is to restore the dignity of this biblical and theological concept. Christian liberty includes freedom from causing harm to the other person and to ourselves, freedom from abuse, exploitation, ignorance and freedom for protecting the other person’s dignity and rights, as well as our own. In this light, we cannot be indifferent to the current state of affairs we experience in Hungarian society. . . .”

Their bill of particulars should also sound familiar to American ears:

Orban & the flag.

The authoritarian exercise of power is spreading around the world but especially before our eyes in Hungary. We are witnessing manipulation of electoral law and the use oflegislative and executive power in order to provide legislative protection for the corruption inspired by the state. This is a strategy of power that deliberately eliminates political differences of opinion through the eradication of independent media, spreading fake news, discrediting and character assassination, and harassment by authorities.
Because of this, in the name of Christian liberty we would like to be prepared to speak up and act unambiguously. . . . ”

One major difference between the two countries is that in Hungary (as in some other European nations), many churches are subsidized by the government, through allocations from taxes. These payments become an ongoing form of hush money:

Alexander Faludy, a vicar who spent years in forced exile during the time of Communist rule, acknowledges that “The state funding is important of course, acting as both a carrot and a stick” . . . . [Something like that is happening here too, see: “How Mike Pence’s Office Meddled in Foreign Aid to Reroute Money to Favored Christian Groups,”  For that matter, both Barack Obama and George W. Bush pushed through increases in federal aid to churches.]

But as a beleaguered Job noted in the Bible, “the Lord giveth & the Lord taketh away” (Job 1:21). He wasn’t talking about government funding, but the sentiment applies: the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, whose President, Pastor Gábor Iványi was instrumental in drafting The Advent Statement, saw its state funding withdrawn after the Orban regime consolidated its power. And maybe that’s why the larger Protestant groups in Hungary have not signed on to it.

Beyond direct funding, Vicar Faludy added, “there has also been a  comprehensive instrumentalisation of the churches [by Orban] through the power of prestige. The idea of participation in public life, for people who grew up under communism, when churches were systematically placed at a civil disadvantage, was very tempting. I think that in 2010 [when Orbán was re-elected prime minister] there was a sense of hope in the churches. Church leaders thought: ‘This government may be far from perfect but it’s a way of getting things done, for example of making sure there’s a Christian ethos in the schools.’ From speaking to people in the churches, I think they thought they could ride the tiger.”

Pastor Ivanyi speaks out in Hungary.

After 10 years in which Orbán’s grip on civil society has been relentlessly strengthened, Faludy says: “At best, the churches have chosen quietism rather than prophetic vocation.”

Of course, In the U. S., many prominent evangelical leaders are definitely not “quietist.” Rather, they clearly ARE “riding the tiger,” galloping, they believe, straight toward a promised land where their kind of “religious liberty” will be exercised to ban abortion, roll back LGBT rights, gain government support for their “Christian” schools & much more, so (with the rare exception of, say, editors of Christianity Today magazine), they show no inclination to get off.

Similarly, there’s as yet been no stampede among Hungarian churchgoers to join the Advent Declaration’s public dissent. And this should be no surprise to its authors:

“[Orban] is turning the Christian message on its head,” says Iványi. “Is there any other Christian country in the world where it is written in the constitution that you can be jailed for being homeless? Is it a Christian country where asylum seekers are not given the basic resources they need to survive? Is it Christian to use power to abolish media freedoms, the independence of judges and academic autonomy?

“In ancient Israel, the prophets spoke out against corruption and wickedness. We are now compelled to speak out. We might not be Isaiahs or Jeremiahs. But we take courage from their example.”

Yes, courage. Iványi and his cohorts will need it. The prophets they cite may now loom large in the Bible and the gospels. But in life, theirs was a lonely and frequently fatal career path.

It was also the path Jesus took, frequently denouncing the tiger-riding religious bigwigs of his day as the spawn of those who killed the prophets. And you see where that message got him.

I salute Pastor Iványi and The Advent Statement. And beyond courage, I wish them (& their American counterparts) stamina and determination:  the stories of the prophets also show that it took time, often lifetimes, of endurance, protest and lamentation for their prophecies of greater justice even to begin to come to pass.

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