Facing the Past and the Present

2014. március 04., kedd

The individual and the community are determined by their own past. Whether they like and admit it or not, the past is always with them, in them, that is why it is essential to know it, emphasized historian László Tőkéczki, Lay President of the Danubian Reformed Church District. He is the editor of the public television program called Freedom Square '89, which commemorates the events of the political changes. As the day commemorating the victims of communism approaches, we talked to Tőkéczki about the victims taken by the red dictatorship and about the political changes 25 years ago. 

What toll did communism taken on the Reformed Church during its more than four decades?

It demanded various sacrifices from the majority of society. There were people it murdered, and whose existence and career it completely destroyed. The members of the Reformed Church were affected by these too, of course. The first atrocities are in connection to the invasion of the Red Army; it’s enough to think of the abuse of women or the people dragged away for forced labor. But with the Soviets coming, many fled Hungary, and in the following years it only intensified: altogether 250,000 people left Hungary. This was a tremendous loss for the country, suffering already so much after the World War, such as the emigration wave after the defeat of the revolution in '56. After the takeover in '48-49 the dissolution of social organizations started, the lands were taken away from their owners, the schools were brought under state control, the systematical harassment began, for example the ruining of the peasantry, which meant the social base of the Reformed Church. After the victimization of the war of independence, the Kádár system had less victims and less extensive harassment, but even in the late '60s reformed pastors were summoned to court, for example the case of Bálint Kovács. As László Ravasz described the situation in the '70s: the Reformed Church is in the hand of its enemies. This meant that the secret police worked its way into the church and the leadership was completely in service of the authorities. Often the leaders did not have connections with the State Office for Church Affairs, but with Moscow.

Why was Bálint Kovács summoned to court?                                                                

They were engaged in youth work, which caught the attention of the state. The ultimate goal of similar lawsuits was intimidation. Kádár tried to keep these cases a secret from the West, but at home he made sure that every person they wanted to frighten knew about them. This was the system's peculiar operation. That is why it was called a 'soft dictatorship,' but in reality it was really hard: a good example of this is that even by '89, 61 drafts were planned in Budapest, and a large number were actually executed.

Although it was plain to see that the system had come to an end.

One way or the other, the majority of people can be blackmailed. That is why I do not support pursuing the ex-agents, because most of them were unfortunate people left without choice. The heads of the system should have been held responsible while it was possible, and not the middle-men who were intimidated and signed without any better options.

And you were a victim as well...

At least partly. It is an essential question. Did the people who were forced to sign co-operate willingly afterward with the authorities, or did they have any consideration for the people they had to keep track of? From the report we can see: there were eager agents, but at the same time agents as well who were fired because they did no useful work.

In our last interview about the church unveiling its past, you told us that you do not agree with certain aspects, but all in all it is up to the Synod Committee in charge. Since then, five years have passed. Are you satisfied now?

With a hint of cynicism I can say: if we would not like to have something done, set up a committee for it. The similar body of the Catholics has been operating for over 20 years now without results, and the Lutheran one has stopped before it even could have succeeded. A big advantage of Protestantism is that the pastors are allowed to have families, but in such cases it can be a great disadvantage as well. In pastor families, we always find one or two people we could mention, and even if they have already passed away, the descendants are not so willing to make the facts public. Even if we are too late to provide reparation, we owe the historical truth, first of all to ourselves. The human community is determined by its past. Whether we like and admit it or not, it is with us, in us, that is why we have to know it.

In the public television program called Freedom Square '89, commemorating the events of the political changes, which you edited, it was mentioned that the change caught the Hungarian society in a really bad health condition. Although there had been no death penalties since the mid-sixties, hundreds of thousands of people died of heart/blood diseases and of cancer at a young age. Can this be blamed on communism as well?

After the Kádár system was eliminated, the peasantry, which owned land and realized that the system would not be able to operate successfully, allowed for household farming. If somebody wanted to get on a bit better, they could start the second shift after finishing work at the household farm. This self-exploiting lifestyle led to the bad health condition of the Hungarian society. In addition to this came the feeling of hopelessness, which increased the alcoholism and suicide rates. The Kádár system ruined the foundation of society. As a consequence of this, the life expectancy in Hungary is still lower than in Austria or Finland, which were both on the same level of development as us 100 years ago.

In what condition has the political change reached the Reformed Church? How did the communities and leaders receive the events?

By this time the Church was on the edge of existence. It still had a spark of life in it because the generations were still alive, which passed the fate on to the young members of the family. The real question was what the church could do with the new situation, with the sudden freedom it got, similar to the rest of society, unexpectedly, from the grace of God, and did not have to fight for. The leadership was rather waiting, and applied the policy of consensus. The radicals against them, expressing their opinion loudly, were outnumbered. They thought the people did not attend the service only because it is forbidden. When the prohibition was lifted, the churches still remained empty. While in the political and economic life radical changes were affecting the whole society, nothing happened in the Church. No one could provide a suitable answer for the new situation. The interests of the great western powers were enforced, and as the consequence of the communist elite gaining economic profit, over the course of a few years 1.5 million workplaces were shut down. The society still suffers from this even today.

What could have been the right attitude from the Church at that time?

The social changes caused by the political-economic transition should have been examined besides the new opportunities it could provide for the Church. In the '80s a few church aids had been established, the drug mission and the handicapped care worked well, but it would have been really important that the church not only support the marginalized groups but that it have a message for the majority as well. There would have been a crucial need for a communal service too, but the movements considered preaching the Gospel their main task only, which is of course right but not sufficient. Most of the liberal movements lost their credibility because of the co-operation with communism, so only a few congregations could build up its community life again.

On the 25-year anniversary, many ask the question: if the political change had been successful… What is your opinion on this regarding the Reformed Church? 

The result of the 2001 census was a pleasant surprise, although I find the data of 2011 more worrying: 1,700,000 more people refused to declare their denomination. This shows that we could not reach the masses. It is not about offending my Transtibiscan brothers as a Danubian lay president, but everyone can feel the significance of the fact that in the Calvinist Rome with a population of 200,000, 10 years ago 83,000 people declared themselves reformed, and now this number has decreased to 52,000. Unfortunately the sociological-sociographic survey of the reformed society and communities, and the analysis of the existing data, still has not happened. It would be necessary to see: besides the emigration and demographic tendencies, why are certain communities thriving while others are dying? I am most certain that besides preaching the Gospel the reformed churches should spread culture and help maintain the relations and development of communities, otherwise the congregations will cease to exist and they will not be able to share the values considered the most important with the wider classes of society.

The Church Revision Committee, in its report submitted to the autumn session of the Synod, made statements of strategic importance. The booklet called "Touch," gave us information on the congregations' larger environment. 

The committee has made really important statements, but not many congregations used the possibility provided in the workbook. The majority of them – especially the ones where the pastor is overly-pious – have not realize even now, that they should step outside the walls of the church and ask the people around them how they see the congregation, what do they think about them, which of their values are appreciated and which are criticized. At several places some usual Christian self-complacency came out of the survey, and many other congregations only noted what they think about themselves. We could learn and benefit a lot from the first case, but hardly from the second.

Exaggerated piousness... Are you not afraid that at the autumn church elections the movements that think this expression applies to them will withdraw their support?

I do not think they would vote for me anyway.

But still, what is the problem with them?

This exaggeration of piety in my experience always goes hand in hand with conceit, lack of love and prejudice, and it leads to shutting everyone out. How could we become salt and yeast in the world and fulfill the commandment of mission without stepping out of this seclusion?



Interview by Sándor Kiss; translated by Anita Polgári

photo: Krisztián Sereg

Originally published by Reformátusok Lapja 2014/8

Contact us

Click here if you are interested in twinning.


Reformed Church in Hungary

Address: H-1146 Budapest, Abonyi utca 21.   

PO Box: 1140 Budapest 70, Pf. 5

Phone/Fax: + 36 1 460 0708 

Email: oikumene@reformatus.hu

Our church through American eyes

We encourage you to read our  former GM intern Kearstin Bailey's blog about her time, spent in Hungary.