Tag Archives: Martin Luther

Viktor Orbán’s government: “The manifestation of God’s grace”

While the Catholic Church celebrates November 1, All Saints’ Day, Protestants this year are remembering October 31, when Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses challenging the Catholic Church to the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints’ Church five hundred years ago. Celebrations of the event abound, not just in Germany but everywhere that Protestantism has sprung up since.

Historical Hungary is the eastern bastion of Protestantism, so remembrances have taken place in Slovakia, Hungary, and the Transylvanian part of Romania. A committee was set up to stage a “national” celebratory gathering to commemorate the event in Budapest. As far as I could ascertain, only the Magyarországi Evangélikus Egyház (Hungarian Lutheran Church) and the Magyarországi Református Egyház (Hungarian Reformed Church) were involved. The Catholic prelates stayed away, unlike in Germany where both Lutheran and Catholic clergy participated in church services and celebrations and vowed to do more for the unity of Christianity, according to the Associated Press.

The event took place in the László Papp Budapest Sports Arena that can seat 12,500 people, but the organizers slightly overestimated the interest. Quite a few seats were empty. Mind you, attendance was not free. It cost 500 forints (about $1.50), though for that one also got a sandwich and an apple. Before Zoltán Balog and Viktor Orbán delivered their speeches, a Lutheran bishop gave an invocation and a Reformed bishop a full-fledged service, called “istentisztelet” (veneration of God) in Hungarian.

But let’s move on quickly to Viktor Orbán’s speech because, let’s face it, most of the people paid the 500 forints to hear him. As far as Orbán speeches go, it was short, but it raised quite a few eyebrows among those who find Orbán’s governing style increasingly intolerable. The sentence that created the greatest stir was the prime minister’s claim that it is no accident but an “expression of God’s mercy” that Hungary currently has a Christian government. Hungary Today, an English language internet news site that is financed through hidden channels by the Hungarian government, reported on the speech in the briefest possible manner, which might have something to do with the fact that there were some truly unacceptable statements in his text.

“Impetus for Renewal” / MTI / Photo: Zoltán Máthé

Orbán defined himself as a Calvinist prime minister and said he was asked by the church leaders to deliver a speech to this crowd solely because of his religion. But surely, at a “national” celebration of the Reformation the prime minister’s religion is irrelevant. He is there as the political leader of the country. Just as Angela Merkel was at the German celebration not as the daughter of a Lutheran minister but as the chancellor of Germany. Orbán continued the Calvinist theme by recalling that “exactly 99 years ago anti-Christian forces killed our pre-eminent Calvinist prime minister, István Tisza [1861-1918].” This statement is untrue. Tisza’s death had nothing to do with his Calvinism. His murderers didn’t kill him for his Christian religion but because they considered him responsible, rightly or wrongly, for four years of brutal war. But such minor details don’t bother Viktor Orbán.

That was just the warm-up. He claimed that “our lives and our work are determined by a higher force and power.” It was God’s decision to place the Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin just as it was God’s ordinance that he is the prime minister of Hungary today. One mustn’t see the existence of a Christian government leading Hungary today as the “caprice of fate” but as “the manifestation of God’s grace.” He doubled down on this theme by saying that “we consider it a privilege that in this renewal [of the country] Providence has used us, our churches, the government and the free community of Hungarian citizens in the whole Carpathian Basin as instruments [of His will].” He added that Hungary will be a country “where all forms of work, from street sweeping to governing the country, serve the glory of God.” What can one say?

The final thought of the speech is perhaps the hardest to interpret. Orbán was talking about the unification of the nation across borders, which is a very difficult undertaking. But “the Biblical force that five hundred years ago received an overwhelming impetus entrusts us with one more task,” which seems to be “the ultimate and great unification of the nation.” What this ultimate and great unification means exactly, it is difficult to say. It might be a spiritual union of Hungarian souls, but I still don’t know what do with “the recognition of truth which frees us,” which is supposedly necessary for the accomplishment of this task. I really wonder whether he himself knows what he is talking about.

Hungarian newspaper articles more or less came to the same conclusions I did, except that they didn’t even try to solve the puzzle of “the ultimate and great unification of the nation.” But György Gábor, a philosopher of religion who is always enlightening and often amusing, commented on Orbán’s “laughable ignorance” in matters of religion. Orbán described his government not only as Christian but also as “hitvalló,” literally “professor of faith.” The problem is that in Hungarian “hitvalló” means “confessor,” which originally meant someone venerated as a saint, Christian martyrs, people who were known for their moral perfection or who lived an ascetic life. Gábor added: “So, imagine now for a moment the pure and moral members of the government who are beyond reproach.” And, of course, there is the additional problem that “confessor” is a strictly Catholic title associated with sainthood.

I think it might be instructive to read what Angela Merkel had to say on this day. She stressed the importance of tolerance toward the wide variety of beliefs. “Those who embrace plurality must exercise tolerance—that is the historical experience of our continent,” she said. “Tolerance is the basis for peaceful togetherness in Europe.” This is exactly what Viktor Orbán rejects. Instead, he asks for “assistance in the form of prayers from [his] Protestant and, naturally, Catholic brethren” for his work for a Christian and Hungarian Hungary.

November 1, 2017

The Hungarian Reformed Church and the extreme right

I don’t want to bore readers with a history of Protestantism in Hungary, but I often find that at least in the United States people are surprised to learn that there is a sizable Protestant minority in Hungary. They are convinced that all of East-Central Europe is Catholic.

We have only estimates on religious affiliation of the current Hungarian population, but these estimates indicate that about 20% of Hungarians were at least baptized in a Protestant church. About 17% are Calvinists (Magyar Református Egyház) and 3% are Lutherans (Magyar Evangélikus Egyház).

I’m sure that people will also be surprised to hear that at the end of the sixteenth century 80-90% of the inhabitants of historic Hungary were Protestant. And Hungary was not alone in the region: Poland, now the most Catholic country in the area, was solidly Protestant. Ninety percent of the members of the Polish parliament, the szejm, were Protestants. Such a rapid spread of the teachings of Martin Luther (1483-1564) and John Calvin (1509-1564) in this particular part of Europe was indicative of serious societal and political upheavals and general dissatisfaction with the status quo. The new faith was spread by itinerant preachers, both Calvinists and Lutherans. At the time the two branches of early Protestantism were not separated. It was only in 1567 that the Calvinist and the Lutheran churches went their separate ways.

One could ask how it was possible that while the Counter-Reformation managed to completely eradicate Protestantism in Poland, in Hungary the Catholics were less successful. Despite the efforts of the Catholic Habsburg dynasty, large pockets of Protestantism remained. In fact, the answer is quite simple: during the sixteenth century historic Hungary was divided into three separate entities. A smaller part in the north, an area called Royal Hungary, remained in Habsburg hands while Transylvania became nominally independent, only paying tribute to the Ottoman Empire. The rest, a large chunk of today’s Hungary, was occupied by the Turks who had no interest in converting the population to Islam. It didn’t matter to them whether the infidel was a Catholic or a Protestant.

magyar reformatus egyhazAfter the expulsion of the Turks Vienna tried to reconvert Protestants, and they often used rather brutal methods to make Protestant worship impossible. The Protestant communities were beleaguered and persecuted; Calvinists in particular came to represent the true Hungarian spirit against Catholic dominance in the Habsburg Empire. And that differentiation of Calvinist and Catholic Hungarians didn’t end with the Compromise of 1867. Voters in Calvinist areas were more apt to vote for the Party of Independence. Given this history, one shouldn’t be terribly surprised that today’s Hungarian Reformed Church is even more nationalistic than the Catholic Church.

While I’m not surprised by the Church’s nationalism, I am surprised about their right-wing rhetoric. I gained the impression from my readings and also from personal experience that Protestantism at one time was more enlightened than the official line of the Catholic Church. Less bigoted, more open-minded. What I see now is a shift of Hungarian Calvinist leaders toward the extreme right while the Catholic leaders are just deeply conservative and wholehearted supporters of the current government party.

Perhaps my views are influenced by the prominent political roles played by church leaders as László Tőkés, who gained worldwide fame as a key player in the events that eventually led to the Romanian “revolution” and the removal and execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Nominally he is considered to be a Fidesz man, but in fact his ideology puts him to the very right edge of the Fidesz spectrum where the differences between Fidesz and Jobbik are blurred. The other person who is much more obviously a man of the extreme right, in fact an outright neo-Nazi, is Lóránt Hegedűs. He has been in the limelight for at least fifteen years and his views should be unacceptable to the church by any standards. His own wife is a member of the Jobbik parliamentary delegation. Yet the Reformed Church refuses to expel him from the church. There were attempts but no final resolution.

In 2007 Gusztáv Bölcskei, the clerical president of the Synod of the Hungarian Reformed Church and the bishop of Debrecen, tried to remove him but failed in an internal legal procedure. Then came the erection of a Horthy statue, but Bölcskei himself was guilty of having too tender feelings toward Hungary’s governor between 1920 and 1944. Bölcskei unveiled a plaque of Horthy in Debrecen. It seems that the Church either can’t or doesn’t want to act.

The latest upheaval in Hegedűs’s church in the heart of Budapest again prompted calls to do something with Hegedűs. It was in early November that Horthy’s bust was unveiled and placed close to the entrance to be seen by all passers-by. This time the church leaders promised real action. A serious investigation of the case was going to take place, they promised. Attila Jakab, who often writes on church affairs, predicted more than a month ago that most likely nothing will happen because if Hegedűs is considered to be guilty of political activities Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, will also have to be investigated. After all, Balog is also in politics. On paper he suspended his religious activities and can’t use his title “minister” (lelkész), a status that allows him to conduct religious services only occasionally and only by special request. But, in fact, Balog regularly holds services in his old church.

Jakab turned out to be right. Nothing will happen to Hegedűs but not because of Balog’s services in his old church but because the Hungarian Calvinist Church doesn’t really want to pursue the case. A few days ago Index reported that György Horváth, who is the legal counsel to the Hungarian Reformed Church, resigned his position in disgust because the diocesan court refused to take up the case, claiming a conflict of interest.

Horváth suggested expelling Hegedűs from the Hungarian Reformed Church. This was not the first time that Horváth recommended such an action, but each time the members of this particular diocesan court refused to hear the case. After his third attempt, Horváth had had enough. He announced that he “will not assist in this opportunistic practice.” He claimed that the church leadership is afraid of Jobbik and that members of the court are worried that their names might appear on kuruc.info, the virulently anti-Semitic neo-Nazi internet site.

This is not the end of the story. The case will be transferred to another diocesan court. But don’t hold your breath. The same thing happened in the earlier investigations as well. Clearly, the Hungarian Reformed Church refuses to deal with the problem and in my opinion not only because they are afraid of Jobbik. Rather, because they sympathize with this clearly neo-Nazi party. This is a sorry end to a church with a glorious past of fighting for freedom of religion and suffering persecution over the centuries. It is a real shame.

The risk of political Christianity: An interview with Tamás Fabiny, Lutheran bishop

Gábor Czene of  Népszabadság conducted an interview with Tamás Fabiny, bishop of the northern district of the Hungarian Lutheran Church. Fabiny was ordained in Erlangen, Germany in 1982. He also studied in the United States. In addition to his church activities he worked for Duna TV. Since 2010 he has been the vice chairman of the Lutheran World Federation.

The Lutheran Church is the smallest of the three most important Hungarian congregations, after the Catholic and the Hungarian Reformed Churches. To my mind the Hungarian Lutherans have the most enlightened views on many issues, including the topics Bishop Fabiny is talking about here.

* * *

– We hear you are an eager fan of the football club Fradi – or at least you were in your childhood. Do you still attend matches?

– Hardly ever. But when the Fradi fell out of the first division, I went to their match as a demonstration. I felt an obligation to be there. I even wrote an article for the Lutheran weekly on the ability to lose. That we don’t always have to win. That a loss also has a lesson to teach.

– As for the state of Hungarian football today, that article will be appropriate for a long time. What do you think of the stadiums being built nowadays? For example, in a small village called Felcsút they are building an arena for 3500 spectators.

–I am astonished. I understand if the Prime Minister likes football and I can even imagine that he wants to prove that a small town can also have big dreams. But I just read that a match at the Puskás Academy was attended by only a hundred people. I support the founding of football academies in the country. With such a luxury investment, it would have been better to show some restraint.

– During the former socialist government, you said you could hardly wait to be the critic of a conservative government. With that, you not only expressed your demand for political change but also preserved the right of criticism. At a conference last spring you already warned about the risks of “political” Christianity.

Bishop Tamás Fabiny

Bishop Tamás Fabiny

– The conference was organized by young Christian Democrats and I had the feeling that they didn’t expect such an attitude from me. No problem. If I would always say what is expected of me, I would lose my credibility. Political Christianity refers to a situation in which those in power try to exploit the churches in a paternalistic way. When they want to use the churches as a tool for reaching their own goals. I cannot accept from any party, not even from a mayor to treat us as their natural partners and demand political support from the churches. We have to cooperate with everyone to create a common set of values but we are not “natural partners” of anyone. The churches suffered enough during the dictatorship when they were expected to support the state without criticism. Luckily, even at that time there were some people who resisted. We mustn’t forget that the churches also experienced a lot of humiliation and unjust exclusion during the governance of the present opposition parties. On the other hand, we cannot deny that the churches themselves try to flirt with the powers-to-be from time to time. If there were a healthy financing system of churches in Hungary – which is not the case now – they wouldn’t be forced to have constant financial negotiations with the government. I am thinking of a transparent and reliable financing system which would remain unaffected by political changes. Not what some people are saying, namely that the believers should keep up the churches. That is ridiculous. Just as if someone said that the Hungarian State Opera should be financed from the ticket income of the friends of the opera. Churches are not only carrying out tasks in education and the social sphere but also their spiritual work could have a healing effect on the society.

– How deeply are the parties immersed in political Christianity?

– All parties show some signs of the phenomenon, but Jobbik is the most outstanding example. The vocabulary and the ideas of Jobbik and the way they are using the most important Christian symbol, the cross, for political purposes is clearly blasphemous. But I am just as unhappy about the cross appearing in the party image of the Christian Democratic Party. I also do not rejoice when Prime Minister Viktor Orbán starts his speeches with “dear congregation” and ends them with “Soli Deo Gloria”. It is good if he thinks like that as a private person, but it shouldn’t be brought to a government level. The late Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) had an infamous slogan: “My kingdom come!” I criticized them just as I criticized a poster of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) at the time of the first free elections in 1990. This one said: “Thy kingdom come!” In my opinion, MDF was the more blasphemous of the two. The liberal party at least uncovered itself, showing how egocentric they are. But the other example, taking the biblical phrase in its original form, mixed up Hungary with the kingdom of God. But no more about political parties. I didn’t leave anyone out, did I?

– Yes, you did. The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP).

– Speaking of that crew, I could – maybe a bit unjustly – refer to the whole era of communism…

– Let’s not go into that. We should just speak about the MSZP today.

– Let me just mention the Democratic Coalition (DK), whose leader is only generating sympathy for political Christianity with his radical anti-clericalism. As I see it, he doesn’t understand a word of what I call public Christianity and which I hold as an undeniable right. Coming back to the socialists, their signing of the treaty with the Vatican didn’t lack political intentions either. I admit that they were also driven by righteous purposes but basically it was a deal. It was a way for the socialists to win over the Catholic Church.

– Your thoughts that were broadcast on the radio were published a few days ago as a book. At the presentation, before reading a piece called “The homeless Jesus” you referred to the newest regulations about the homeless as “painful and unjust”. I cannot recall though the churches having protested very actively against the criminalization of homelessness.

– We are not hypocrites: everyone knows that this is a complex issue. No one is happy—including me–when he steps out of his house only to see that someone has urinated again in front of the door. Yet, we try to help. My family and I take blankets or food to the homeless finding shelter at the bus stop near us. We are in the middle of preparing a Lutheran statement which basically says that prohibiting the homeless from dwelling in public places is not a solution. The institutional background needs to be developed. As long as there is no sufficient financing and infrastructure, it is meaningless for the mayor of Budapest or others in Parliament to say that there are attractive shelters in the city. Because there are not. It shouldn’t be possible to – or should I say, it is a sin to – criminalize the homeless, especially before we have provided them with sufficient provisions. But your question was why didn’t we protest more loudly. There were some interviews though, in which I and my colleagues working closely with the homeless expressed their opinion. I am proud of our pastor Márta Román Bolba who has spoken at several demonstrations. Together with the members of the group City for Everyone and with the homeless she participated in the civil disobedience action at the meeting of the Council of Budapest.  She did everything she possibly could. It is important to underline that she is not just a “tolerated” person in the Evangelical–Lutheran Church. On the contrary: she is fully supported by the leaders of our church. I wish there were more people like her. At the time of Advent, we have to specially emphasize this service of the church. It is not only deeds of charity but a testimony about Jesus: in his birth, God humiliated and lowered himself to the very deep. I would very much like this insensitive society to hear this radical theological message.

– In your book, you also write about a “sick church.” How serious is this illness and what is its nature?

– It is an illness in itself that we are divided by schisms although God created the church to be one. There are many symptoms. The church often appears to be lame: it moves with difficulty and is slow in its reactions. With Pope Francis, maybe even the big Catholic church will change in this regard. Another symptom is self-importance: the church thinks it always has a solution for every question. Luther makes a clear differentiation between the theology of the glory and the theology of the cross. Smaller neo-Protestant groups often think that success is a blessing from God and that the extent of success shows our proximity to God. Therefore they cling to power as if the place of the church would be on the glorious side. However, Luther teaches that the church has to stand beside the suffering, those on the periphery, the underprivileged and the outcasts. The church is also ill because it has many unsettled issues. One of those is the secret agent issue.

– Unlike the Catholic and the Reformed Church, the Lutheran Church started to reveal its past with a great intensity. Then the process seems to have stopped.

– We haven’t stopped at all. Seemingly there was a break of two years, but during this time exhaustive background work was accomplished. The synod of our church decided that the past of the church leadership has to be explored first. In a few weeks, a sizable book will present full documentation about the lives of two Lutheran bishops, Zoltán Káldy and Ernő Ottlyk.

– Were both of them secret agents?

– Yes. But it is an interesting comparison as it will be visible what a difference there is between one agent and another. You can even compare how they reported about the same event. Zoltán Káldy used the code name Pécsi, Ernő Ottlyk was Szamosi. But it wouldn’t be proper to say more about the details before the book is published. I don’t want to excuse either of the two. But it is true that Zoltán Káldy – helped by signing an agent’s mandate – tried to implement his own ideas about church leadership. Ernő Ottlyk was seeking his own benefit in a distasteful manner, causing real injury to others. As for my personal involvement: I was ordained by Bishop Káldy. In 1983, before travelling to Canada on official business they tried to recruit me. I called my father in a perplexed state. Bishop Káldy was the only other person whom I told what happened. To my great astonishment and joy, he also found it natural that I shouldn’t cooperate. If they approach me once more, I should say I don’t want to work with them and this is also Bishop Káldy’s message, he said. And so I did. They stopped coming to me and there were no unpleasant consequences.

– I was quite shocked to hear a Lutheran professor give a lecture on Luther’s anti-Semitism at a recent conference. How can you accept the fact that the “initiator of Reformation” had anti-Semitic views?

– It is not a pleasant topic to face but it would be even worse to hide it. We have to speak straight.

– Doesn’t it affect one’s faith?

– No. I don’t believe in Luther but in God. On the other hand, I cannot follow his example in this question but in other respects I still do. The Lutheran politician Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky also expressed anti-Semitic views in a difficult phase of his life. The great difference is that he was a racist in his youth and later became an anti-fascist. Unfortunately Luther followed a reverse order. Someone said once that it would have been better for poor Luther if God had called him out of this world three years earlier. It was only in the last three years of his life that he expressed anti-Semitic thoughts, not earlier. Of course he had some really unacceptable sentences.

– Even if they weren’t his own invention. He mostly drew on the texts of an earlier author.

– Although the context of the sixteenth century was different from today, a sentence like “set fire to synagogues” should not be written down at any time. In his earlier works, Luther speaks positively of the Jews. His later anti-Semitism casts a shadow over his life work but does not cover it as a whole. His unacceptable statements can only be quoted by the Lutheran church as a negative example. 2013 was the year of tolerance in our church. We organized a series of exhibitions, conferences and cultural events. At a meeting for Lutheran school principals and teachers, we emphasized that in a Lutheran school there is no place for expressing anti-Roma, anti-gay, or anti-Semite views. In this church, there is simply no space for any extremism.