Moderator finds much to learn on Hungary visit

Rt Rev John Chalmers addresses the Synod of the Reformed Church in Hungary

Most of us do not know enough history. We live our lives on impressions of the past and this saves us having to deal with the shame of our silent compliance or worse still the shame of our collaboration with forces that we should have resisted.

A visit to the Reformed Church in Hungary is a wake-up call and a challenge to our intellectual laziness and spiritual poverty. For the people of Hungary the 20th century was one of one tragedy after another. Squeezed into that corridor which separates east from west, Hungary not only endured the terror of two world wars it also suffered the pain of two extreme forms of totalitarian rule. As the Second World War reached its peak on the eastern front the conditions were right for the Arrow Cross Party to be reinstated and under its short rule, some fifteen thousand people (many of whom were Jews) were murdered outright, and 80,000 people were deported from Hungary to their deaths in Auschwitz. Those who know about the Scottish Missionary, Jane Haining will know that it was a member of the Arrow Cross Party who betrayed her to the Nazis and this led to her elimination in the death camp at Auschwitz.

Post Second World War no one could have predicted that victory on the Russian front would lead to another form of totalitarian rule which would hold Hungary in the grip of the Secret Police (Államvédelmi Hatósóg) for what became one of the most brutal decades in Hungarian history. Even when the grip of the ÁVH weakened a more subtle oppression continued under Communist rule until perestroika and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. A thousand years of progress had been swept aside in the course of a few short decades.

But freedom isn't free.

A people who have spent 50 years looking over their shoulder and who do not know which side their neighbour is on, is not in any position to open the book on a new chapter. Instead such a people have a tortuous history to deal with. Some may be fixed on revenge, some may be fearful that their dark secrets will come out; others are open to blackmail, while others may be contemplating blackmail.

Budapest's Terror Háza (House of Terror) is a salutary place to visit. It is housed in the building that served as headquarters, first to the Arrow Cross Party (The Hungarian Nazis) and then after the war, to the Secret Police (The ÁVH). Here a nation lays bare the past that its people are ashamed of; here, in the place where it is said that "officers serving at 60 Andrássy Boulevard were masters of life and death", a nation is trying to explore its past and heal its memories.

Why am I telling you this? Well, this is not a review for Trip Advisor.

I am explaining this because I have just come back from the Synod of the Reformed Church in Hungary and all that I have said above about the suspicions and fears of a nation penetrated the life of our partner Church. In the course of the 20th Century the Hungarian Church had to exist or coexist within a society which was oppressed, manipulated and brainwashed and church ministers and members were not immune to the predominant culture. Following the collapse of Communist control, a Pandora's Box spilled open and the Christian church could not simply close the lid and move on as if nothing had happened.

Some ministers and members had been collaborators – fabricating ideology and theology to gain position and material advantage from the regime. Others gained promotion and power by living a double life, while others resisted and paid the price.

Without going into any further analysis of the post-communist era, the Reformed Church in Hungary has bravely faced up to its history and tried to give itself a way of remembering, forgiving, healing and reconciling the past.

When I consider the level of separation that is involved in this kind of history and the nature of the sin that has so deeply divided a people, I am left in awe of the way the Reformed Church in Hungary has tried to face the truth of the past and in the grace of God make way for healing and new life. We could learn from the theological work that the Reformed Church in Hungary has done and we could apply it to some of the divisions that exist in our own Church as well as use it to repent of some of the sins of Empire, prejudice and discrimination that scar our own history.

I go back to where this reflection started and I challenge myself and each one who reads this article not to think about the compliance or collaboration of other people that have damaged the moral welfare of our society, but instead to look at our own tendency to espouse high ideals and then settle for a way of life that makes no difference to the poor, the oppressed and the marginalised.

I've seen why it is necessary to deal frankly and honestly with the past, but I say to my friends in Hungary: there will come a time when the best way to leave the past behind is to focus on the present and on the future. The role that you have to find for your Church now is to be positioned so that you can speak truth to power, because the threat of the past repeating itself is a clear and present danger. The evil you have to address is not the person who was weak and sinful in the past (God can forgive them) the evil you have to address is the system that tries to turn human beings into cleaning rags. Watch out for those who would do it again.

I've seen why it is necessary to deal frankly and honestly with the past and I say to myself and my Church: get a grip of what is really important – speaking truth to power, speaking for the voiceless and living a Gospel that speaks to the public good as well as the individual soul.