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A Letter Concerning Toleration

May 21, 2007

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Virgil Vaduva grew up in Communist Romainia. I appreciate his prespective and share the following as a little food for thought!

At exactly 2:20 we both quietly stood up and walked to the small hallway in the back of the train. I opened the side door of the train car, and although I was wearing my favorite black jeans and black turtleneck, the cold October air hit me full-blast and shocked me back to reality. The freezing blast surprised me, and made me realize that the train was traveling much faster than expected. In the eerie dim moonlight I could see the telegraph poles flying by; I counted them…one every three seconds…that’s fifty meters every three seconds. The communist math classes came in handy; an instant mental calculation prompted me to think “That’s about sixty kilometers per hour! This is suicide!

Four days earlier, after just turning 18 and after saving money for several months with my friend Virgil (yes, his name was also Virgil) I left home for a once in a lifetime adventure: my friend Virgil and I were to run away from home and illegally cross the border with Hungary during the night and escape the communist regime of Ceausescu for which we both had nothing but seething disdain and discontent. I was 18. He was 20. We both thought we were invincible.

During my high school years in Romania I learned a lot about the implications of government intervention in people’s lives. The twenty-so years spent in Romania seem now to be more of a dream than a reality; I often wonder how humans can treat each other the way communists treated their countrymen and as Christians we were even more likely to suffer abuse at the hands of the secret police. Regular search raids on Christian’s homes were designed to constantly keep us under harassment, keep Bibles out of our hands and always remind us who’s really in charge. Communists did not have any tolerance for Christianity. At the time, being just a high school kid, I did not care much about theology, eschatology and social issues, but I do remember the many conversations with other Christians revolving around “how bad things are” and always being wrapped up with “but don’t worry, Jesus will come back and wipe out Communism.”

There was a great sense of complacency on the part of the Romanian people, especially on the part of the evangelical Christians. Most if not all of them settled for the fact that there was no way out of the terrible situation, and many even suggested that our sin caused the suffering we were experiencing at the hands of the abusive government; that’s right, it was our fault that a handful of power-hungry bureaucrats were sucking the life out of our country and people. Especially in the Church, the sense of guilt was disturbing. Gathering on cold Sunday evenings without any heat in the church building was a continuous reminder of the misery of living in sin, and the fact the world was “fallen” and turned away from God.

Of course in my teenage rebellion I did not fall for that. I was always convinced that I could make a difference. The two years leading to 1989 and the fall of Ceausescu are a blur to me consisting of nightly adventures in firebombing communist newspaper distribution centers, defacement of propaganda statues and buildings and distribution of hand-made posters and flyers. The days would be spent sleeping and “writing” flyers out of individually-cut letters from books and newspapers to make them virtually untraceable. It was always thrilling to throw these “manifestos” into a crowd of people from the roof of a ten-story building. Every single one would be picked up and would disappear in the safety of someone’s pocket for a reading at home away from the prying eyes of the state police. It is a wonder that I didn’t get killed, but again I did not really care; I was convinced that freedom was something worth dying for.

At the time I was puzzled and angry about the complacency of the general population, but after living in the United States for more than 12 years, I now understand how it all works. The Communists in Romania also understood that taking over does not happen overnight, but a little bit at a time. At first there is a reaction from the population but with time it all subsides. This happened early last century here with the institution of the mandatory federal income tax under the excuse of paying for the war. How can anyone argue against helping to pay fight a war? Several decades later we are told that private property is fair game as long as it is for the good of the commune and of course, the income tax was never rolled back at the end of the war.

The problem is that Christians should not be playing this game. I see many conservatives here in the United States promoting some of the same things that Communists were promoting in Romania. To sum it up, their solution is to pass laws to stop everything we don’t agree with or everything that is immoral. Marijuana is a problem? Make it illegal! Cohabitation is a problem? Ban it! Just as the Communist oppression only dealt with the manifestation of the freedom in people’s hearts and it failed, so would the laws proposed by the extreme conservatives in the United States. Communist ideology which was forced on me throughout the school years never affected my thinking and I was always able to mechanically override it with personal convictions. In fact, disagreeing and disparaging the Communist ideology was becoming a joke amongst the young generation. We all lived a lie, at work, in schools and on television; we were playing a game and those who were better at playing it would be elevated in the eyes of the society. In the same manner, forcing a Christian agenda on the population here would backfire and turn the population against the Church; it would in fact have the opposite effect.

Sin is therefore a manifestation of the heart, not something that can be resolved with laws and dictums that only address these issues superficially. It is clear to me that the founders of this country understood this. John Locke’s philosophy of natural law had a major impact the principles on which this country is founded. The three basic natural tenets being life, freedom, and property had a major impact on the development of philosophy behind the creation of the United States. Locke’s 1689 “Letter on Toleration” made it clear that individual needs will always override one’s religious convictions “for everyone is orthodox to himself.”

Some may say that Locke was ahead of his time. I would say that it was the RIGHT time for him to influence the world of philosophy and politics with his writings. Locke understood that force never brings fruition, be it for religious or secular reasons. Locke wrote

“The business of true religion is quite another thing. It is not instituted in order to the erecting of an external pomp, nor to the obtaining of ecclesiastical dominion, nor to the exercising of compulsive force, but to the regulating of men’s lives, according to the rules of virtue and piety. Whosoever will list himself under the banner of Christ, must, in the first place and above all things, make war upon his own lusts and vices. (A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689)”

If Locke was alive today, the conservatives in this country would crucify him. It is therefore no surprise to me that the hypocritical politicians who proudly wear a conservative label despise the idea of personal freedom, which of course implies freedom from them and from their controlling legalism. No force on this planet will ever be able to control my mind and my desire to sin or to follow God, to take or to save life, to steal or to give, and at last to hate or to love. Locke wisely argued against the Church having a controlling stake in the affairs of the government. Just as in our times, there were Christians in his time wishing to use the police and legal power of the government to inflict punishment on others for living in sin. Responding to these critics, Locke wrote:

“If the Gospel and the apostles may be credited, no man can be a Christian without charity and without that faith which works, not by force, but by love. Now, I appeal to the consciences of those that persecute, torment, destroy, and kill other men upon pretence of religion, whether they do it out of friendship and kindness towards them or no? And I shall then indeed, and not until then, believe they do so, when I shall see those fiery zealots correcting, in the same manner, their friends and familiar acquaintance for the manifest sins they commit against the precepts of the Gospel; when I shall see them persecute with fire and sword the members of their own communion that are tainted with enormous vices and without amendment are in danger of eternal perdition; and when I shall see them thus express their love and desire of the salvation of their souls by the infliction of torments and exercise of all manner of cruelties. (A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689)”

Is there a more clear and a better understanding of “Let those without sin cast the first stone?” Hardly so; oh yes, those who wish to advance their legalistic agenda will deny Locke’s arguments at any cost. How dare we imply that the foundational philosophy of the United States of America would suggest anything OTHER than evangelical rule and authority? Could anyone even conceive that Locke would argue in favor of tolerating Muslims, Catholics and even aghh…Atheists! And as if that is not enough, could anyone conceive that Locke was actually arguing in favor of separating the Church and the State? He writes:

“But this being not a proper place to inquire into the marks of the true church, I will only mind those that contend so earnestly for the decrees of their own society, and that cry out continually, “The Church! the Church!” with as much noise, and perhaps upon the same principle, as the Ephesian silversmiths did for their Diana; this, I say, I desire to mind them of, that the Gospel frequently declares that the true disciples of Christ must suffer persecution; but that the Church of Christ should persecute others, and force others by fire and sword to embrace her faith and doctrine, I could never yet find in any of the books of the New Testament. (A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689)

But enough of Locke now; my personal experience is enough to show why laws never solve problems of the heart. My friend Virgil and I never made it to Hungary. The speeding train that came within one mile of the border, out of which we wanted to jump, was going much faster that expected. At least, in our zeal, we had enough sense to not kill ourselves by jumping out of a speeding train, and it was a good decision in the end anyways. Later we learned that the border was heavily patrolled by guards armed with AK-47s and equipped with nigh-vision goggles under orders to shoot anything that moves. Two months later, the people of Romania revolted and ripped Communism out of power. This is one instance when it was good not to finish something I started, but I still feel my father’s stinging words greeting me when I went back home: “If you went all the way there, why didn’t you try to go ahead and cross?

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One comment

  1. Virgil,
    Thanks for a heartfelt and inspiring story. My heart continues to break for those who have suffered under brutal regimes, communist or otherwise, and those who continue to do so.
    I also have a genuine appreciation for your observations regarding the current state of affairs here in the U.S. I tend to concur with you.
    Christ is Ascended in Glory!
    Don



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