Christians in the Czech Republic: Overcoming
the Legacy of Oppression
Stephen Edward Olsen
An End to Captivity
As the Czech Republic continues its transition from its Communist past to its post-Communist future, changes are taking place at an incredible rate. Thankful for the removal of fear and the entrance of freedom, many, especially the elderly, are struggling to find their place in the emerging nation. As a tiger born into captivity, Czechs had adapted to life in a Communist cage. They lacked freedom, but they could count on basic sustenance. The caretaker (the state) fed them and their lives were ordered and predictable. One day the Czechs’ cage door was broken down and they ran out into the jungle, only to find they did not know how to live in freedom. Some desired to return to the familiarity of the cage - but the caretaker was gone. They had to learn to live in the jungle. New fears replaced old ones. Nevertheless, amidst dramatic changes, the Czechs’ indomitable character and the constancy of their social organization remained largely intact.
Surviving an eleven-hundred-year history of oppression and servitude testifies to Czech endurance and adaptability. The combined effect of repeated regeneration and long-term perseverance has produced in Czechs a sense of self-reliance and an instinct for survival. However, such protest and regeneration comes with a price: exhaustion and resentment. The birth and re-birth of the nation has been hard on everyone. Not only must oppressors be overcome, but a new way of living must be built. Change is taxing. When it occurs on a national scale in political, economic, religious, and social spheres, as is the case today, exhaustion becomes the norm. Resentment against both oppressors and change easily follows. Pain and resentment run deep in the Czech experience, complicated by the fact that in order to survive, Czech soften have resorted to burying their pain.
How Czechs Have Coped
Czechs have the ability to detect error and “examine everything carefully” (I Thessalonians 5:21). Unfortunately, many Czechs have an inclination to remain at this point, dwelling on the negatives and not moving beyond them. Fatalism is prevalent. The attitude is “Yes, it’s bad; but what can I do about it? “As a result, many Czechs resign themselves to sarcasm, irony, and criticism. Czechs divide social space between a private sphere(inside the house, inside the fence, inside the car) and public sphere. This dualism of space has led Czechs to give great care to their personal possessions. This mentality encourages thrift. As a corollary, Czechs carefully guard their personal space and personal belongings, giving them strong sense of security on the inside.
Unfortunately, these values of care, thrift, and security often transmute into neglect, parsimony, and suspicion outside the private domain. Among Christians, this may be seen in the neglect of church property, which leads non-Christians to conclude that Christians are no different from non-Christians. If, however, church property is well cared for, nonbelievers will know something is positively different about Christians. It will reflect well upon Christ and His church. Secondly, tithing generally is not practiced, or even discussed, which limits mission efforts as well as church upkeep. Furthermore, suspicion often causes strangers to feel unwelcome in church. After an initial socially polite greeting, visitors often feel neglected.
Taking Responsibility and Taking the
Initiative in Witness
A healthy commitment to stewardship can transform the Czechs’ truncated understanding of responsibility. Christian modeling of stewardship includes efforts to improve church facilities, both financially and physically, and to welcome non-Christians (usually considered outsiders) into homeland church fellowship. It also entails using one’s money for others; willingness to risk loaning property; and taking the risk of welcoming so-called undesirable children into home and church. Czech believers need to see that everything in their possession belongs to God and can be generously used for His purposes. The researcher’s home has been opened to non-Christian babysitters, housekeepers, and party guests. In each instance, Czechs have shared verbal cautions about such behavior. However, after a period of time, the warnings have ceased. Instead, strangers have actually been accepted among Christians, even to the point that non-Christians, once thought untrustworthy, have been welcomed into Christians ‘homes. Negative Czech attitudes towards non-Christian visitors can even change to the point that outsiders may be invited into homes for evangelistic purposes.
Typical patterns in Czech social relationships perpetuate mistrust and control. Concerted efforts are needed to overcome these barriers. Change agents must model trusting relationships over time, with frequent interaction, and a willingness to take risks. By building trusting relationships within a system that works against it, Christian change agents will do much to equip Czechs with the necessary skills and experience to do the same. This researcher has seen that this transformation can take place. Sometimes individuals within a small group may be asked to introduce themselves; the next week they are asked to bring a picture of themselves when they were young; the newel they are asked to talk about their favorite hobby. Progressively, on the basis of graduated risk, time, and an increasing level of comfort with the group, people take courage to share at a deeper level and begin to build trusting relationships.