Communism in Churches – circa 1960

Bishop Gerald Kennedy (1908-1980) was a pastor and instructor in various colleges and churches in Connecticut, California, and Nebraska. He was the head of the United Methodist Church in southern California for 20 years (1952-1972). In the following sermon, Bishop Kennedy addresses the evils of Communism and how the Bible relates to this issue.

Communism in Churches

Communism in the Churches
Bishop Gerald Kennedy
[c. 1960]

“For the Lord spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of people saying, “ Do not call conspiracy all that this people call conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread”. Isaiah 8:11-12

There has been a good deal of talk in these days about communist infiltration into the churches. I never paid much attention to it because I know the churches and it is obvious that they are the real bulwarks against this evil system. Besides, you will discover this talk has two main sources. First, it comes from religious racketeers who like all racketeers, prey on legitimate enterprises. Second, it comes from men who fear judgment and change and who believe it is 1860 instead of 1960. So I never paid it much mind.

It came to me that a more careful examination should be made and I am sorry to report that there are unmistakable signs of communist doctrines having captured the minds of some churchmen. It is much more subtle and dangerous than we have recognized and I feel it is my duty to speak a warning. For the people who have been making all the fuss about this issue, have missed the point. A friend of mine once remarked about a speech of mine: “The bishop hit the nail right on the head, but it was the wrong nail.” This is the perfect description of the activities of most of the brethren attacking churches.

In the eighth century B.C., Isaiah wrote a good word for us. There were those conspiring against Ahaz the King and there were others urging a conspiracy with Assyria. But, says God, these are not the conspiracies to worry about. He would say that same thing to us and we need to face the real dangers.

In the first place, we have been invaded by the communist doctrine that

Religion Is An Opiate.

Karl Marx in his Introduction to Critique of…Hegel wrote: “Religion…is the opium of the people” and that doctrine became one of the assumptions of the communist creed. It must be confessed that religion as they observed in Russia, gave some reason for this definition.

One of the things that impresses the visitor to Russia, is the number of churches. They are everywhere so that one gets the impression that here is a very religious people. Yet in the days of the revolutionary movement, the church was usually on the side of privilege and power. It raised no clear voice against injustice and poverty and in the minds of many people it was a sedative protecting the status quo.

Now this doctrine has invaded our own life. What is the message of the church in America? Very often it is a message of adjustment. We are supposed to use our religion merely as a technique of getting along with other people and accepting the conditions of our existence without protest. We do not talk very much about being converted to a new life, but rather we urge our people to learn contentment in the midst of boredom. Ours is the psychological path which leads to acceptance rather then rebellion. From many a pulpit the voice of the preacher has become a lullaby accompanied by violins. The sound of the trumpet is strangely silent.

What shall we say about our examples as Christians? Well, we probably hold to a higher moral code on the average, than some others. But nothing much happens because of the great increase in church membership and a man would be hard put to define any sharp, observable differences between Christians and non-Christians. For us as well as for them, Carl Sandburg’s eleventh commandment seems to prevail: Do whatever you want to do to be comfortable.

The goal of our striving seems to be quietness. That this is a part of our Christian witness is true. Contentiousness is not listed as Christian virtue. Paul’s words are: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18) But this is no doctrine of peace at any price and the Apostle’s own example is a stormy one. He was in his own time, and this is a hard word for us to hear, a controversial figure.

The Christian message when it is not contaminated with this communist poison is prophetic and often fierce. The words of the Prophets were strong and bitter as they denounced evil in all the world and in their own societies. The Christian word is to repent and be saved. It is a demand to bring life in harmony with God’s austere demands. It is a word of judgment as well as righteousness. The Christian message is heroic and frightening in its expectations.

Our examples are the apostles and the martyrs rather than well meaning, harmless people whose good intentions have all the toughness of a marshmallow. Negro young people have grown weary of waiting for us to give them the ordinary courtesies of our social life. Repudiating those who council only endurance and waiting, they move gently but unhesitatingly toward claiming the right of service in restaurants. They make it a religious movement and they shame a Christianity which stands by unwilling to give a witness to the simple dignity of all men.

The goal of the church is justice, not ease. If this means stirring us up, then of course that is our duty. It is a sad time when any disinherited member of a society cannot be sure of a champion in the Christian Church. This passion for justice is something we have inherited from the Old Testament. It is lost only when we accept the doctrine that Christians are merely dispensers of an opiate.

There is a story out of South Africa indicating what this communistic doctrine can do for a church. A Negro Zulu was stopped by an official at the door of a church in Capetown. “Don’t you know that this church is for whites only,” he was asked. “I am only going in to sweep the church, sir,” the Negro replied. “Well, all right”, the churchman, said, “But don’t let me catch you praying in there.” I am sure that the South African church would be shocked to learn that this kind of practice is pleasing to communism. It strengthens their thesis and makes it possible for them to proclaim to the world: I told you so.

Another Communist belief is that

Religion Is An Extra.

That is to say it is not part of the essential curriculum of life, but one of those courses offered for people who have extra time or a special interest.

I have a friend who teaches at a girls’ college. Because of the modern strenuous life, they have a course called Rest. For an hour twice a week, a girl can get a small credit for simply taking a nap under supervision, and for those who think they might enjoy it, perhaps it should be allowed.

I was looking at the great Volga dam outside Stalingrad one day, and listened to a young man describe its wonders. It is a magnificent sight and will produce tremendous electrical power. He was proud of it and his eyes shown. “Look at it,” he said. “Why do we need God?”

Now that same spirit has entered into us. We put great emphasis on the beauty of our cathedrals and the beauty of our services. We talk about worship as if it were only relaxation and aesthetic enjoyment. Our appeal is often made on the basis of the value of a change of a pace and the satisfaction of sitting in a restful environment for an hour. Indeed, not too long ago, a man wrote a book recommending church attendance primarily because it was good to do something that took a little effort.

There are some issues a man must be concerned with if he is to survive. He must learn to read, he must learn to write, he must learn elementary arithmetic. But there are so-called “enrichment” courses which he is free to take or leave. Communists believe that religion is not vital for modern men because it is a hang over from a superstitious and ignorant past. If the Pope has no battalions, Stalin said he is not to be taken seriously. Since Christ has not armor, communistic materialism says he can be ignored. You simply do not bring religion into the practical, important concerns of living in Russia and this has invaded the churches of America.

Now this is the subversion of our faith. One of those dedicated, passionate atheists was arguing with a minister one time, who, growing weary of the man’s intensity, said, “If God does not exist, it cannot be as important as you are making it.” And the atheist answered him fiercely, “Can’t you see it is terribly important! There is nothing more important.” In that word we have a judgment on our yielding to communism’s propaganda that religion is just an extra.

Can we not see that if God does not exist it is of ultimate significance? But if God does exist, I must forget all else and come to terms with that truth. The committed atheist is more religious than the uncommitted Christian. For it is blasphemy to say that I believe in God and than behave as if God does not matter. There is no affirmation I can make that compared with the shattering importance of saying, “I believe in God the Father Almighty.”

If God is, than His law is of the utmost consequence to me and to every man. I need to know how He operates and what He demands. I had better learn of the framework within which I must live my life. What is more important than coming to terms with the way things are? Whatever I may want to say about God and His laws, let me not be so foolish as to say they are extras in the business of living.

All of this is of the utmost concern for any man facing the real questions of his existence. If my life has meaning, it depends on religious assumptions. If I am an eternal creature, every immediate situation is affected. Whether or not I get a raise next year is not so important a question as what God is. Whether I fail or succeed in my ambition will not affect me nearly as much as what I decide about God. Let us have done with this communist doctrine that God is something we can take or leave. Let the churches recover the seriousness of their message and give no more comfort to the enemy by assuming that they are merely teachers of another philosophy.

Florence Nightingale was a strong-minded young woman of good family. Not content to live uselessly, she became a nurse. When the Crimean War broke out, she learned that more men were dying in the hospitals than on the battlefield. At the request of Sidney Herbert, secretary at war, she went to Scutari with thirty-eight nurses and began the organization of the hospital service. Sometimes she became impatient and critical, even of God, and she wrote one time, “I must remember that God is not my private secretary.” God is not our employee nor is He the creature of our convenience.

Another sign of communistic infiltration is an assumption that

Propaganda Is More Important Than Truth.

That this is communist doctrine I need not argue. It has been stated in their official documents that anything is good that puts their cause forward and anything is bad that holds it back. If the lie will help the cause, than tell the lie and since there is no divine la to worry about, the communists are committed to the doctrine that the end justified the means. We have watched Russia march forward over broken promises and disregarded treaties. At the root of much of our trouble is the distrust which springs out of disillusioning experiences with men who make propaganda more important than truth.

I do not think any of us are so naïve as not to know that our government uses espionage. But the inept and bungling way the U-2 incident was handled, fills some of us with despair. What a defense we made! We confessed that maybe we do spy, but so do they. Maybe we did lie, but so do they! And the world looks on and sees very little to choose between two powerful goliaths. When we lose our moral leadership, we lose our most effective weapon. If we cannot say to the world that we do hold higher moral standards than Russia, we are in a bad way. People need to believe that America speaks truth.

Walter Lippmann wrote:

    “In a situation like ours the damage to our prestige would be irreparable if we all rallied around the President and pretend to think that there was nothing seriously wrong. For that would prove to the world that the blunders will not be corrected but will be continued and that our whole people are satisfied with bad government. It is the dissenters and the critics and the opposition who can restore the world’s respect for American competence.” (May 19 Column)

Is truth something to use when convenient? It is a pity that Jeremiah could not have adopted that philosophy, for it would have saved him bitter criticism and deep suffering. But the religious man who believes in God, knows that truth is either an absolute which has to be respected at all times, or there is no use in telling the truth at any time. We must tell the truth about our enemies always or nobody will believe us if only on occasion we state the facts. A Christian stands for truth even when it hurts the most, for only then does he have any authority or any lasting influence.

The church is not always guiltless. A church conference can try to justify its reluctance to right a wrong by placing its action under the cloak of God’s will. I herd a delegate say the he had a vision from God which made it clear that segregation, at least for the present, was all right. And nothing did more to sicken honest Christian than such errant nonsense and hypocrisy.

A man died in Los Angeles a little while ago, who according to his lights, was a pretty decent fellow. He was a bartender and helped many a friend wit a small loan and even fed men who were hungry. As a result, they started calling him Honest Joe but Joe Sims objected. He said this put too much strain on him and he did not want to be under the necessity of living up to the name. He said he was only fairly honest, and they give him the name of Fairly Honest Joe.

When a man is only fairly honest, he is not honest at all. Who knows when the honest runs out? Shall we be called “fairly honest America?” Are we satisfied to be “fairly honest Christians?” We must destroy this communist doctrine that propaganda is above the truth and that to be fairly honest will be enough. As George Washington said at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, we must raise a standard to which wise and honest man can repair. “The event is in the hands of God.”

Finally, there has crept into our thinking the evil doctrine that

The Church Should Mind Its Own Business.

To see this idea in action is one of the most distressing sights in Russia for an American. The churches are often full of people and there are many churches. But the religious concerns have to be limited to the other-worldly, and nothing very sharp dares to be said about that subject. It is a religion that is irrelevant to this present world and must “mind its own business.” Strangely enough, this shocks Americans who are not churchmen, for freedom of religion is an accepted part of our life. Its loss changes the very nature of a society.

Now there are always those who want a church kept under close surveillance by some self-appointed guardian or organization. But today there has been a number of especially loud voices insisting that the church has no business in great areas of life. They speak about the church being religious or spiritual and they express shock that religion should go beyond such boundaries. It is the line direct from Moscow and it is a point of view entirely in harmony with the Kremlin.

The National Council of Churches is attacked because it dares study issues connected with the international and economic orders. Some of the critics are heads of large American corporations and they would be upset to learn that this kind of talk is communistic. But it is! In nearly every church there is at least one layman who protests when the church says anything that has to do with the world and the men in it. The old refrain is heard so often that we have grown insensitive to is subversive nature. Nothing pleases atheism more and nothing so undermines the Christian foundations of the nation.

Let us take a clear look at the nature of life. Can you divide it into compartments and be Christian in one but not in others? You might as well say that if a man is sick in one organ only, there is no need to worry about it. What nonsense! The body is either sick or healthy. When a man has a sick finger, he is sick all over. No man is so foolish as to limit healing to one part of the body. Life is a whole and the Gospel either speaks to all of it or it has no significant word for any of it.

If a plague should break out in East Los Angeles, the people in Beverly Hills might say it is none of their business. They might say it if they were crazy. We know that sick neighborhood is a threat to all of the city and it is everybody’s business to make sure that everybody is healthy.

The Gospel deals with all of life, because it comes to heal the whole man. The Bible knows nothing about partial religion or a church that is supposed to mind its own business. It brings all the orders of life together under the rule of God and its goal is a kingdom which includes all men in all their conditions. Let us root out this communistic doctrine that religion is limited to one day or one part of life. Let the church be allowed – no let it be commanded, to bring the witness of its Lord and the judgment of its prophets into each man’s heart and world.

A few years ago I was in Wiesbaden, Germany on a preaching mission for he Air Force and I called on Martin Niemoeller. It was a great hour for me as I remembered this man’s heroic witness. He was a U-Boat commander in the First World War and after the war he became pastor of a great church in Berlin. Finally unable to keep silent in the face of Nazi evil, he spoke out and was put in a concentration camp. Martin’s father was speaking to a friend about the experience, and said:

    “When you go back to America, do not let anyone pity the father and mother of Martin Niemoeller. Only pity any follower of Christ who does not know the joy that is set before those who endure the cross despising the shame. Yes, it is a terrible thing to have a son in a concentration camp. Paula her and I know that. But there would be something more terrible for us: if God had needed a faithful martyr, and our Martin had been unwilling.”

Today the Christian Church faces a crucial and terrifying moment in history. It may have to suffer and show a courage that has not been characteristic of it in past years. But if God calls on us for a witness, and we are not willing, that is our final failure. We must root out thee subversive doctrines – that religion is an opiate, that religion is an extra, that propaganda is more important than truth, that religion must mind it sown business. It is time for the church to purify itself and proclaim the Gospel.

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