A Witness Against Wokeness: What Modern Christians Can Learn from an Ex-Communist
In recent years, interest in socialism has risen and conversations about Marxism, especially cultural Marxism, have permeated public discourse. From the Gallup Poll in 2019 which reported that four in ten Americans saw socialism as a good thing to the rise of Black Lives Matter whose founders openly identify themselves as “trained Marxists,” we are living at a time when Christians in America need to re-learn what past generations knew, and what Christians living in Cuba, China, and Czechoslovakia know, all too well: Communism, and its younger sibling Socialism, are godless ideologies that harm the masses.
As The Black Book of Communism (Harvard University Press) reports, nearly 100 million people died during the twentieth century under Communist regimes. And hence, it was both right and responsible for evangelicals during the Cold War to stand opposed to ideas of Karl Marx and his Communist Manifesto. As Grant Wacker reports in his biography of Billy Graham (America’s Pastor), the late evangelist often included a message against communism in his revivals. And more strategically, many Christians, evangelicals and otherwise, participated in the conservative project known as fusionism, in large part, to stem the tide of communism.
Today, however, with a generation of Americans untouched and untaught about Communism, the ghost of Karl Marx has risen again. In his book, Live Not by Lies, Rod Dreher addresses this very concern, when he begins by highlighting the concerns many from Eastern Bloc countries have had with modern America. He writes,
What unnerves those who lived under Soviet communism is this similarity: Elites and elite institutions are abandoning old-fashioned liberalism, based in defending the rights of the individual, and replacing it with a progressive creed that regards justice in terms of groups. It encourages people to identify with groups ethnic, sexual, and otherwise and to think of Good and Evil as a matter of power dynamics among the groups. A utopian vision drives these progressives, one that compels them to seek to rewrite history and reinvent language to reflect their ideals of social justice. (6)
What made these men and women flee Europe is now rising in America. The same thing is happening in Canada. Ivan, a trucker from Ukraine, put it like this when asked why he was joining the freedom convoy: “We came to Canada to be free—not slaves,” he said. “We lived under communism, and, in Canada, we’re now fighting for our freedom” (What the Truckers Want).
Importantly, this rise in elite-controlled social justice, woke racism, and identity politics is not something that stands outside the church either. Wokeness is making inroads within the church, too. From calls for social justice (largely undefined) to cries that Christian Nationalism (also undefined) are threatening our country, those in the church are missing something that previous generations did not and could not miss—namely, the evil that comes from a man-centered, God-denying, government-enforced attempt to build back better.
Indeed, while Critical Race Theory has gotten the most attention, one of its underlying promises, a vision of more fair and just society matches up well with Christians who want to do more than talk. In other words, advocates of social justice gain adherents by calling for a better world. And because some of the religious language maps onto Christian concerns, the result is an unholy fusion of Christ and cultural Marxism.
At the same time, some scholars have defined and denounced evangelicals, especially white conservatives who made a compact with the Republican party during the 1950s and 60s. One example of this is Kristin Kobe Du Mez in her book, Jesus and John Wayne. Expressing concern with the way patriarchal, white males championed the military and stood in the way of civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights, she excoriates evangelicals for using their positions of power to prop themselves up and push others down.
Leaving a full evaluation of her book for someone else, I will simply say that she does not adequately consider the role Communism played in the 1950s and 60s. As Proverbs 18:17 reminds us, she who speaks first seems right, until someone else comes and questions her. And while she mentions Communism in her book, she does not consider the way Communist spies were infiltrating the halls of power throughout our country (see more below).
Like most of my generation, Du Mez has forgotten, or not cared to consider, how wicked communism was and is, and because she and others do not share the perspective that our Czechoslovakian neighbors do (see Live Not by Lies), they cannot appreciate the ways that evangelical leaders and conservative politicians worked together during the middle of the twentieth century. Nor, can she appreciate the fact that all the liberating works of the 1960s were suffused with communist ideas (see Roger Kimball, The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America). Even as civil rights were extended, and racial prejudice became illegal and unconscionable, there remained a set of rules for radicals that derived their origins from Cultural Marxists.
Today, the radicals of the 1960s have become our presidents and leading politicians. And in the church, the demands for egalitarianism, social justice, and gay rights are simply leftovers from the 1960s. Likewise, the progressive ideals of Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and those who follow them, have shaped the way evangelicals—progressive and conservative—have approached culture. Indeed, thawed by the heat of Twitter, these old ideas are hatching new consequences. And because so many do not see or care to see the evils of Communism (consider NBC’s reporting of the Olympics) or the moral injustices of socialism, many of the radical ideas are facing little to no opposition. And that matters, because when the ideological offspring of Marx are given space to procreate, death not life results.
So with that long introduction out of the way, let me bring a witness to the stand, a man by the name of Whittaker Chambers.
An Old Witness to a New Wokeness
If you lived in American in the 1950s the name Whittaker Chambers would have been ubiquitous. For not only did he hold a prominent editorial office at Time Magazine, but between 1949–51, Chambers bore witness in a federal court to the Communist activity lodged deep within Washington D.C. Revealing his own participation in Soviet espionage and his commitment to the Communist party, Chambers went to trial against many of his close friends.
This is how he came to national prominence. And in 1952 he published his personal memoir, a book entitled Witness, whose title bore the double entendre of being a witness in the courts and a witness for the sake of God’s truth. Even more, it was a testimony to the fact that he was first a witness for the Communists before he was a witness of the truth. Putting it in religious terms, he wrote, “It was my fate to be in turn a witness to each of the two great faiths in our time”—Communism and Christianity.
Indeed, Witness is an exhilarating story of how Chambers entered the Communist Party, escaped that same party with skills acquired as a spy, and then risked his life to bear testimony before congress and the watching world. Yet, Witness is more than a good story. In this memoir, Chambers reveals the inner thoughts of a man who went from rejecting the idea of God (a Communist prerequisite) to a man who was moved by his personal faith to expose the secret agents in Washington D.C. In all, Witness is a powerful narrative, beautifully written, that tells how a man who risked his life to oppose his country could turn around and risk his life to stand against the evils of Communism—a religious commitment that once enthralled him.
For, anyone looking for a good biography, this book is it. And I would wholeheartedly encourage reading the full book. Yet, it is what Chambers says in the opening about Communism that I cite extensively below. To those who have not seen, heard, or known about the inner-workings of Communism, let Chambers timeless words be a warning.
Whittaker Chambers on Communism
In a letter to his children, we find the testimony of a man who knew the evil of Communism existentially, not just academically. Thus, to a generation who is inclined towards socialism and unmoved by the evils of Communism, we—especially, those in the church—need to hear Whittaker Chambers.
Here is how he begins to describe his faith and the faith of Communism.
A man may also be an involuntary witness. I do not know any way to explain why God’s grace touches a man who seems unworthy of it. But neither do I know any other way to explain how a man like myself tarnished by life, unprepossessing, not brave–could prevail so far against the powers of the world arrayed almost solidly against him, to destroy him and defeat his truth. In this sense, I am an involuntary witness to God’s grace and to the fortifying of power of faith.
It was my fate to be in turn a witness to each of the two great faiths of our time. And so we come to the terrible word, Communism. My very dear children, nothing in all these pages will be written so much for you, though it is so unlike anything you would want to read. In nothing shall I be so much a witness, in no way am I so much called upon to fulfill my task, as in trying to make clear to you (and to the world) the true nature of Communism and the source of its power, which was the cause of my ordeal as a man, and remains the historic ordeal of the world in the twentieth century. For in this century, within the next decades, will be decided for generations whether all mankind is to become Communist, whether the whole world is to become free, or whether, in the struggle, civilization as we know it is to be completely destroyed or completely changed. It is our fate to live upon that turning point in history. The world has reached that turning point by the steep stages of a crisis. (xxxvi-xxxvii)
After introducing the weight of Communism, Chambers outlines a brief history of the world events since World War II. In this, he introduces the idea of an existential crisis of “universal desperation” that comes from a world stripped of peace, prosperity, and protection (xxxvi). Addressing this crisis, stood two super powers—the Soviet Union and the United States. After World War II, these two nations stood tall in the world and in them stood two contrasting ways of life—Communism on one side, denying God and offering human improvement through centralized planning, and Liberty on the other, denying absolute government control and offering liberty through personal freedom. (For the record, I am not conflating Christianity and Americana; I am noting the way Christianity influenced America and the way America, for a time, provided a safe haven for churches to flourish. More on that another day).
Addressing the crisis of humanity and desire for peace, Chambers suggests that the crisis is all-encompassing; it is “religious, moral, intellectual, social, political, [and] economic” (xxxvi). And facing this existential crisis of humanity—something he describes later in his own attraction to Communism—he explains how Communism, with its religious adherence to modern technology offers a solution to the problems of the world (xxxvii). It is at this point that Chambers weighs in on the evils of Communism and it is also here where modern Christians need to listen to most.
I see in Communism the focus of the concentrated evil of our time. You will ask: Why, then, do men become Communists? How did it happen that you, our gentle and loved father, were once a Communist? Were you simply stupid? No, I was not stupid. Were you morally depraved? No, I was not morally depraved. Indeed, educated men become Communists chiefly for moral reasons. Did you not know that the crimes and horrors of Communism are inherent in Communism? Yes, I knew that fact. Then why did you become a Communist? It would help more to ask: How did it happen that this movement, once a mere muttering of political outcasts, became this immense force that now contests the mastery of mankind? Even when all the chances and mistakes of history are allowed for, the answer must be: Communism makes some profound appeal to the human mind. You will not find out what it is by calling Communism names. That will not help much to explain why Communism whose horrors, on a scale unparalleled in history, are now public knowledge, still recruits its thousands and holds its millions-among them some of the best minds alive. Look at Klaus Fuchs, standing in the London dock, quiet, doomed, destroyed, and say whether it is possible to answer in that way the simple question: Why?
First, let me try to say what Communism is not. It is not simply a vicious plot hatched by wicked men in a sub-cellar. It is not just the writings of Marx and Lenin, dialectical materialism, the Politburo, the labor theory of value, the theory of the general strike, the Red Army, secret police, labor camps, underground conspiracy, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the technique of the coup d’état. It is not even those chanting, bannered millions that stream periodically, like disorganized armies, through the heart of the world’s capitals: Moscow, New York, Tokyo, Paris, Rome. These are expressions of Communism, but they are not what Communism is about.
In the Hiss trials, where Communism was a haunting specter, but which did little or nothing to explain Communism, Communists were assumed to be criminals, pariahs, clandestine men who lead double lives under false names, travel on false passports, deny traditional religion, morality, the sanctity of oaths, preach violence and practice treason. These things are true about Communists, but they are not what Communism is about.
The revolutionary heart of Communism is not the theatrical appeal: “Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to gain.” It is a simple statement of Karl Marx, further simplified for handy use: “Philosophers have explained the world; it is necessary to change the world.” Communists are bound together by no secret oath. The tie that binds them across the frontiers of nations, across barriers of language and differences of class and education, in defiance of religion, morality, truth, law, honor, the weaknesses of the body and the irresolutions of the mind, even unto death, is a simple conviction: It is necessary to change the world. Their power, whose nature baffles the rest of the world, because in large measure the rest of the world has lost that power, is the power to hold convictions and to act on them. It is the same power that moves mountains; it is also an unfailing power to move men. Communists are that part of mankind which has recovered the power to live or die–to bear witness for its faith. And it is a simple, rational faith that inspires men to live or die for it. (xxxviii–xxxix)
In these words, Chambers identifies the religious nature of Communism and the inherent-but-distorted human drive to subdue and rule the world. Changing the world is what God intended man to do (Gen. 1:28; Psalm 8), but Communism twists this vocation by leading man to trust in himself with no fear of the Lord. Thus, Communism denies man’s fallenness (Genesis 3) and pretends that unfettered man can manufacture a world without God. And lest you think I am adding biblical imagery to flesh out Chambers vision. Listen to what he says next about man’s faith in himself.
It is not new. It is, in fact, man’s second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: “Ye shall be as gods.” It is the great alternative faith of mankind. Like all great faiths, its force derives from: simple vision. Other ages have had great visions. They have always been different versions of the same vision: the vision of God and man’s relationship to God. The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God.
It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world. It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in His image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals. Copernicus and his successors displaced man as the central fact of the universe by proving that the earth was not the central star of the universe. Communism restores man to his sovereignty by the simple method of denying God.
The vision is a challenge and implies a threat. It challenges man to prove by his acts that he is the masterwork of the Creation by making thought and act one. It challenges him to prove it by using the force of his rational mind to end the bloody meaninglessness of man’s history—by giving it purpose and a plan. It challenges him to prove it by reducing the meaningless chaos of nature, by imposing on it his rational will to order, abundance, security, peace. It is the vision of materialism. But it threatens, if man’s mind is unequal to the problems of man’s progress, that he will sink back into savagery (the A and the H bombs have raised the issue in explosive forms), until nature replaces him with a more intelligent form of life. (xxxix)
Man separated from God doesn’t mean he loses his mission to subdue and rule. It simply means he becomes a savage. In service to himself and his ideals, he rules the world with his mind, his actions, his power, and all his political machinations. This is what stands at the heart of Communism. It is Cain writ large. Babel swollen to the size of a modern nation-state.
In our day, the specter of Communism has not disappeared, it has just gone digital. Under terms like stakeholder capitalism and democratic socialism and by means of the media, education, and government intervention, the seeds of communism have been sown to such a degree that America, who once stood against such evil, is now posturing itself to follow the Communism of countries like China. And what do Christians do? Many would say that combatting Communism is deviation from the gospel and a capitulation to the Republican party. Yet, such high-sounding rhetoric will only clear the ground from the evils of Communism to come.
Sadly, too many Christians look back at the Red Scare and scoff (or yawn!), not recognizing why America, and the Christians therein, once stood against Communism. But if we listen to Whittaker Chambers, we begin to learn something from history. If we fail to appreciate the evil of Communism and the ways it slipped in unnoticed into American institutions of higher education, labor unions, and community organizing, we will miss it again. And actually, it may be too late. But this is why we need to hear the warning of Whittaker Chambers and see the evils of Communism.
A Witness Against Wokeness
Today, ignorance of the past is a badge of honor. And when it comes to those who would seek to destroy a faith in God with a faith in humanity, we need to see the modern connections to the past. The Communism that radicalized many Christians in the 1960s is repeating itself with Christians who are imbibing the nostrums of Critical Theory, Critical Race Theory, and every other form of egalitarianism. Instead of recognizing the way Cultural Marxism has metastasized and spread through culture and the body of Christ, Christians are defending the use of analytic tools that were formed by men and women who deny God. Instead of seeing, as Whittaker Chambers did, the great divide between two faiths—the way of Christ and the way of Babel—many Christians are welcoming and even crafting horses filled with trojans.
As Christians living in this world, we need to know the ideas and ideologies that are threatening the church, and we need by God’s grace to expose their darkness and point people to the light.
Thankfully, not everyone is smitten with idolatrous visions of social justice, Intersectionality, and corporate wokeness. But these watchman on the wall are the ones derided by large swaths of evangelicals as extreme Christian nationalists. Yet, with the testimony of Chambers in hand, I would argue that those who raise concerns about godless ideologies and the impact of wokeness are the only ones worth listening to today. Of course, the watchman on the wall seems out of his mind, screaming about the dangers outside (and inside) the city, but if he is warning the city of real threats (a la Ezekiel 3 and 34), he cannot use his indoor voice.
What is happening today is the rise of evil at the level of governmental tyranny. And where in the past such tyranny sprung up in the East, in Nazi Germany, and Castro’s Cuba, now it is in the West. And for those who care about good and evil, human flourishing, and the peace by which the church can live, move, and have her faith (1 Tim. 2:1–4), cannot be indifferent, silent, or passive when it comes to issues of Church and State.
As Christians living in this world, therefore, we need to know the ideas and ideologies that are threatening the church, and we need by God’s grace to expose their darkness and point people to the light. In the 1940s and 50s, Communism was prominent and Chambers testimony exposed its darkness. In the 1960s, the radical ideas of Cultural Marxism permeated college campuses, and the likes of Francis Schaeffer stood in the gap. Today, we are still facing the same threat, and thus, we would do well to learn from someone like Whittaker Chambers. His boldness and his unshakable commitment to truth are characteristics more Christians need. And thus, we should let his witness continue to speak.
A Final Word of Warning
With that in mind, hear his final warning about visions of man-made grandeur that lead men astray by promising a solution to the crisis of living of our Genesis 3 world.
The Communist vision has a mighty agitator and a mighty propagandist. They are the crisis. The agitator needs no soap box. It speaks insistently to the human mind at the point where desperation lurks. The propagandist writes no Communist gibberish. It speaks insistently to the human mind at the point where man’s hope and man’s energy fuse to fierceness.
The vision inspires. The crisis impels. The workingman is chiefly moved by the crisis. The educated man is chiefly moved by the vision. The workingman, living upon a mean margin of life, can afford few visions—even practical visions. An educated man, peering from the Harvard Yard, or any college world in chaos, finds in the vision the two certainties for campus, upon a
which the mind of man tirelessly seeks: a reason to live and a reason to die.
No other faith of our time presents them with the same practical intensity. That is why Communism is the central experience of the first half of the 20th century, and may be its final experience will be, unless the free world, in the agony of its struggle with Communism, overcomes its crisis by discovering, in suffering and pain, a power of faith which will provide man’s mind, at the same intensity, with the same two certainties: a reason to live and a reason to die. If it fails, this will be the century of the great social wars. If it succeeds, this will be the century of the great wars of faith. (xli)
Prophetically, Chambers has sized up the situation. We do live in a century of “great social wars.” And lest we think that any government and its priests will be our saviors, we who know Christ must return to him, plant our faith in his soil, and stand our ground to proclaim his grace and truth. With that identification secure, along with the promise of resurrection life, we must strike out as witnesses to declare the Lord reigns and that his judgment comes. Therefore, fear God and live.
Today, too many churches have sought to befriend the world in order to win the world. Yet, the gospel is a message of judgment upon those who trust in themselves. And our witness must be just that—unless you repent and believe on Christ, the true king of glory will strike you down. Your nation, your people, your group, your ideas, your social justice, they will all be struck down. Why? Because the human vision of glorified humanity cannot come by way of man and his meta-verse. God alone can produce peace, prosperity, security, and eternity, and in a world full of sinners, such peace only comes through the cross of Christ. And lasting dominion can only be continued by the man who died and rose on high.
The sooner we realize that this cosmic crisis is rooted in the historic fall of Adam and that the most important divide in humanity stands between two faiths—i.e., the way of Cain (faith in self) vs. the way of Abel (faith in God)—the sooner we will be ready to stand in this fallen world. Reading Witness is a wake up call to anyone who thinks that the ideas, tools, and actions that come down from Marx are indifferent in Christianity. History proves otherwise. And in the testimony of Whittaker Chambers, we discover why. Communism, socialism, cultural marxism, Critical Theory, etc.—all of these ideologies replace God with man and invite man to make himself like God. In other words, they are inspired by that ancient serpent, the devil.
Such is the way of sin, death, and destruction, and those who know the truth need to confront the ideologies of Marx with the gospel of salvation and judgment; we must not confuse the utopian visions of Marx with the eschatological promises of the gospel. To that end, let us continue to bear witness to the truth, and following the boldness of Whittaker Chambers and all martyrs (witnesses) of the faith, let us speak the truth of God. out loud, in public, and without shame. So help us God!
Soli Deo Gloria.