Religion & Liberty Online

Fear and the Feeble Foundations of Ideology

Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic, right, receives a standing ovation from Jeremy Knowles, dean of faculty of arts and a sciences, and alumni before presenting the keynote address at Harvard University's 344 commencement, Thursday, June 8, 1995. (Image credit: Associated Press)

Whether in the spiritual or the political realm, lies, fear, and a lust for power threaten human dignity and flourishing. But the light of truth shines in the darkness still.

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I recently read the monumental essay “The Power of the Powerless” (1978) by Soviet dissident Václav Havel and immediately began to draw parallels between how he describes socialist oppression and what I understand of diabolical oppression. As a veteran Marine Corps infantry officer and 20-year catechist in the Greek Catholic Church, I have long made a study of spiritual warfare from the perspective of the Greek Fathers.

Havel’s essay marked a pivotal moment in 20th century history. His words garnered support for the anti-Soviet “Charter 77” and stimulated a wave of political dissidence that contributed to the eventual fall of communism in Eastern Europe 10 years later. Havel was a Czech atheist and denied any literal diabolical influence on the Soviet regime, but his observations of its inner workings reminded me of the way demons are believed to operate, and I thought it worthwhile to note at least three interesting similarities: (1) lies, (2) lust for power, (3) and fear.

Havel’s essay begins by explaining to his fellow oppressed citizens that the Soviet Union is not a dictatorship in the traditional sense of the word. We normally think of a single dictator with absolute power over a body politic—similar to a monarch. The dictatorship of the Soviets was rather the dictatorship of an ideology. The wielders of power came and went within the regime, but the ideology held sway for most of the century. Havel goes so far as to characterize this highly elaborate ideology as a secularized religion:

It offers a ready answer to any question whatsoever; it can scarcely be accepted only in part, and accepting it has profound implications for human life. In an era when metaphysical and existential certainties are in a state of crisis, when people are being uprooted and alienated and are losing their sense of what this world means, this ideology inevitably has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humankind, it offers an immediately available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety, and loneliness vanish. Of course, one pays dearly for this low-rent home: the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience, and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority. The principle involved here is that the center of power is identical with the center of truth.

There is a fascinating parallel here with the offer of a false “truth” and early Christian tradition’s characterization of the demonic enemy as “the father of lies” (John 8:44). In Greek Christian thought, demonic power is limited by God and can be used only against humans if it serves God’s ultimate purpose of sanctifying fallen creation through “resistance training” (Greek: ascesis). The power of the enemy is therefore generally limited to the power of persuasion. “Anything but God” is the diabolical motto, and the enemy’s most common tactic is to deploy his demonic servants to pester humans with what the Greek Fathers called logismoi—“thoughts.” As the enemy does not have direct access to our intellect or reason (and is limited to the realm of our imagination), his most effective tactic is to stir up images in our memory and place them before our imagination. Aided by the natural inclinations of our own concupiscence, these images have the potential to lead us into sin if left unchecked. Our primary weapon against a constant bombardment of such “thoughts” is prayerful vigilance (Gr: nepsis). Effective vigilance, however, presupposes a proper intellectual foundation in catechesis. Greek Christian tradition holds that the uncatechized Christian will easily be led astray by the lies of the enemy who is far more intelligent than we are and knows the truth with superior clarity.

The second parallel I noticed between Havel’s observations of Soviet power and Greek Christianity’s understanding of demonic power is that both have an unsatiable desire to control others. Their base desires for power vigorously trample the principles of freedom, charity, justice, and human flourishing. In the Soviet Union, state ownership of institutions and central direction of the means of production was the mechanism that allowed the Soviets to manipulate and control the entire population. It took the USSR 60 years to build this intricate structure, and by 1978 it was very difficult to believe the system could ever be unraveled.

Similarly, in the early Christian tradition, to traffic in the occult was forbidden, as it was an attempt to exercise power over nature (Gr: philarchias) and to control others for selfish gain (Gr: periergia; see “The Prayer of Saint Ephrem”). In contrast, Christian tradition encourages its followers to deny one’s base passions and work for the common good. And to borrow from the Latin Christian tradition, Thomas Aquinas reminds us that the most effective way to respect the “universal destination of goods” and ensure true social justice is through the establishment of a rule of law that protects private property (Summa Theologica II, II, 66), not a totalitarian system of state-owned capital. The universal destination of goods is the beginning (creation), private property is the means, and justice is the end. (See chapters 2, 3, and 6 of my book, Catholic Money, for a further explanation of how private property law protects families from injustice and to explore the important difference between commutative justice, distributive justice, and legal justice.)

Now what of the third parallel, fear? In his essay, Havel gives the example of a 1970s Czech grocery store manager placing a sign in his window that says, “Workers of the world, unite!” Havel explains that the reason the grocer puts up the sign is not out of a conviction but simply out of fear: he felt the pressure to conform. There may be consequences if he refuses. Thus, in reality, the sign does not mean anything to him and it might as well more accurately state “I am compliant; don’t bother me.”

Havel continues his illustration:

Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.

Havel then confirms what those under the Soviet thumb fear: the grocer will not get away with this act of rebellion. He will be persecuted, his family will starve, he may even be shipped off to a death camp. His own “friends” may be the means of this persecution. Why? Because it is required of them. If you want to stay out of trouble, you must play the game, even if it means persecuting your neighbor. The stakes are too high for the regime to tolerate any disruption of the system. The intricate system is built on a foundation of illusion. If one lie is exposed, the whole system is suddenly unveiled for what it is: a web of deceit. And because this insight of Havel was true and began to spread, the ideology that was the foundation of the Soviet Union unraveled, and the USSR finally dismantled in 1989.

The Greek Fathers say that discernment (Gr: diakrisis) is the gift of the Holy Spirit that enables us to distinguish between truth and falsehood. It is the voice of our conscience rooted in Sacred Scripture, Christian teaching, and prayer that illuminates the soul. Lies cannot live in the light of truth. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). The enemy’s power is limited and resistible. His time is soon up. The sinner stumbling in darkness will see a great light (Isa. 9:2). I think of Frodo holding up Galadriel’s vial in Shelob’s lair. The light of truth always prevails over the seemingly impenetrable darkness of error. The Greek Fathers tell us that, in dark times, we must speak the truth fearlessly—openly speaking against the lies of the enemy. They call this “counter-speaking” (Gr: antirrhesis), which is rebuking bad “thoughts” and inviting the Holy Spirit to enlighten us with truth. This counter-speaking is powerful in both the spiritual and the political realms.

By way of a conclusion, I leave you with the words of an epitaph, inscribed on the tomb of my father, David B. Warner, who dedicated his entire life to searching for that “pearl of great price”—truth (Matt. 13:46). No matter what spiritual or political state you may find yourself in at present, may your life be a successful journey “ex umbra in lucem; out of the shadows into the light.”

Christopher B. Warner

Christopher B. Warner has a bachelor’s degree in theology and history from Franciscan University, a three-year graduate certificate in patristics from the Antiochian House of Studies, and a master’s degree in marriage and family studies from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Christopher is foundation relations specialist for the Acton Institute and an adult catechist at St. Michael’s Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Grand Rapids. His book, Catholic Money: A Father Teaches His Son About Family Finances, was published in 2022. Christopher lives with his wife and son on a small farm in West Michigan.