Tag: Communism

The Ascension of Jesus, celebrated today as a major feast day in many churches, remains a deep mystery that both amazes and confounds us to this day.

According to the last verses of book of Luke: And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.

I remember a movie portrayal of Jesus beaming down at his disciples as he rises into a clear blue sky. Though I otherwise liked the movie, I thought this bit of celluloid really looked kind of cheesy.

We are left to wonder, what really happened? Was this just a final flourish as Jesus left our plane of existence? Did Jesus really fly up like Superman? Did he perhaps disapparate in a puff of smoke like those “death eater” wizards in Harry Potter movies? Did he shimmer and fade out like a Star Trek character in a transporter beam? Did he go into orbit around earth and then zip on out into space?

The world’s first human in space, Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union, is reported to have announced in 1961 that when he went into space, he looked around, and didn’t see God up there. (More on this in a minute).

I happened to run across a blog post on Patheos, by Butler University’s Chair of New Testament Language and Literature, James McGrath, which showed some hilarious (if irreverent) pictures of Jesus in a space suit. I take his photos and his accompanying article–somewhat derisive in tone– to be a warning against too simplistic and literal a reading of this (or any) passage. The author states:

Ascension day is a perfect day to draw attention to the fact that literalism is not only problematic, but impossible. Even if someone insists on maintaining the literal truth of the claim in Acts that Jesus literally went up into heaven, they cannot maintain the worldview of the first century Christians which provided the context for the affirmation. They knew nothing of light-years, distant galaxies or interstellar space without oxygen. And it is not possible, through some act of either will or faith, to forget absolutely everything that has been learned since then and believe as they did. Even those who willingly choose to disbelieve modern science are making a choice that the first Christians did not have, and thus accept dogmatically what early Christians naively assumed because they knew no better.”

Now, I would presume that most Christians, including those early ones who witnessed this event, understood this occasion to be something different than space travel, or moving from one spot inside the universe to another. It was not translation through space but the exaltation of Christ that was the main point emphasized in the earliest Christian writings. As St. Paul gushed:

Therefore also God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).

Famed author C. S. Lewis wittily rebutted the comment attributed to Gagarin:

Looking for God — or Heaven — by exploring space is like reading or seeing all Shakespeare’s plays in the hope you will find Shakespeare as one of the characters or Stratford as one of the places. Shakespeare is in one sense present at every moment in every play. But he is never present in the same way as Falstaff or Lady Macbeth, nor is he diffused through the play like a gas.
If there were an idiot who thought plays exist on their own, without an author, our belief in Shakespeare would not be much affected by his saying, quite truly, that he had studied all the plays and never found Shakespeare in them.
(“The Seeing Eye”, in C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967).

Tim Keller, the famed pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has further commented on this:

“C. S. Lewis wrote that if there is a God, we certainly don’t relate to him as people on the first floor of a building relate to people on the second floor. We relate to him the way Hamlet relates to Shakespeare. We (characters) might be able to know quite a lot about the playwright, but only to the degree that the author chooses to put information about himself in the play.
“In the Christian view, however, we believe that God did even more than simply give us information. … God, as it were, looked into the world he had made and saw our lostness and had pity on his people. And so he wrote himself into human history as its main character (John 3: 16). The second person in the Trinity, the Son of God, came into the world as a man, Jesus Christ.”
(Tim Keller, online at monergism.com).

Jesus isn’t any longer on the set (this world), nor is he in the rafters of the theater, nor is he next door quaffing a pint in the pub with the other actors. Nor is he anywhere floating around in outer space. He is outside the script, outside the story–outside the universe. He conquered death, took a bow, and exited. He is not a cosmonaut but the very author of the cosmos.

Epilogue:
Back to Yuri Gagarin. His friend Valentin Petrov has been interviewed as saying that Gagarin was in fact a devoted Christian at a time when it was dangerous to be such. The quote referenced above is from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev:

It was most certainly not Gagarin who said this, but Khrushchev! This was connected with a plenary session of the Central Committee addressing the question of anti-religious propaganda. Khrushchev then set the task for all Party and Komsomol [Young Communists] organizations to boost such propaganda. He said: “Why are you clinging to God? Here Gagarin flew into space and didn’t see God.” However, some time later these words began to be portrayed in a different light. They were cited in reference not to Khrushchev, but to Gagarin, who was beloved by the people. Such a phrase spoken by him would be of great significance. Khrushchev wasn’t especially trusted, they said, but Gagarin would certainly be. But nothing was ever said by Gagarin about this, nor could he have uttered such things.

(photo credit: Fabrice de Nola, 1996. Yuri Gagarin, oil on canvas, cm 40 x 40).

I have felt compelled to highlight a bright spot amid the darkness of Revolutionary Cuba, namely the witness of countless ordinary people who stayed true to their beliefs, and to their Christian faith, in the face of intimidation, imprisonment, and bullets.  Many shouted “Vivo Cristo Rey!” (or “long live Christ the King!”) as they were being executed by Fidel Castro and his henchmen.  One of those who heard these shouts was dissident Armando Valladares, imprisoned by Fidel Castro. Mr. Valladares is himself a remarkable witness who stated:

I am not an extraordinary man, and I am quite ordinary. But God chose me for something quite extraordinary.

Armando Valladares is a poet who in 1960 was jailed as a political prisoner. After his release he later wrote Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag (Encounter Books, 1985). He also has served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

Initially supportive of the Revolution, he had been appointed to a low level position in the new government. Over time he began to have reservations about the human rights abuses of the new regime. He was arrested, for refusing to display a sign on his desk that said, “I’m with Fidel”. He was convicted of terrorism and sentenced to 30 years imprisonment (of which he served 22):

“For me, it meant 8,000 days of hunger, of systematic beatings, of hard labor, of solitary confinement and solitude, 8,000 days of struggling to prove that I was a human being, 8,000 days of proving that my spirit could triumph over exhaustion and pain, 8,000 days of testing my religious convictions, my faith, of fighting the hate my atheist jailers were trying to instill in me with each bayonet thrust, fighting so that hate would not flourish in my heart, 8,000 days of struggling so that I would not become like them.” (Quoted in Richmond Times Dispatch).

With God’s help succeeded, as he later stated: “Even though my body was in prison and being tortured,” Valladares said, “my soul was free, and it flourished. My jailers took everything away from me, but they could not take away my conscience or my faith.” (National Review).

Regarding the executions, Valladares recalled in a Washington Post editorial:

Antagonizing believers is a particular specialty of the Castro regime. To them, faith is especially dangerous, because it kindles the conscience and keeps it burning when enemies advance. “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” were the last words of so many of my friends who were dragged to the shooting wall. Eventually, the government realized this was a battle cry for freedom, one that came from the deepest part of the men they were killing, and one that was only inspiring more men to die faithful to their consciences and to something greater than Fidel Castro. Their executioners realized that an expression of faith was more powerful than the explosion of a gun. So eventually, they gagged them.

The following video is of Mr. Valladares reading a poem that he wrote in prison, using his own blood as ink.  The video is produced by the Becket Fund for Religious Freedom, which conferred its “Canterbury Award” upon Mr. Valladares in 2016:

Unsurprisingly, progressive church leaders were as taken with “el Commandante” as were progressive political leaders:

On 28 Feb 2006 Episcopal Church of the USA Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold met Fidel Castro in Havana. Episcopal News Service reported on that glorious occassion, with what can best be described as a tin-ear to the human rights abuses and pervasive atmosphere of fear that pervades Cuban life.

Episcopal News Service reported on the meeting:

…The two-and-a-half-hour conversation — conducted across a long conference table with one delegation on each side — began as Griswold spoke of being a senior at Harvard in 1959 when Castro visited the campus. “You approached in a boat on the Charles River,” Griswold recalled. “I was among a group of students who waved to you from a bridge.”
Recalling the campus setting, Castro asked: “Has anyone blockaded you for 47 years? Has anyone blockaded your thoughts? Lies are an attempt to block people’s minds.
“No one has all the truth,” Castro continued.
“Truth is larger than any one perspective,” Griswold concurred. “The truth is always unfolding.”

Read more at Anglican Ink blog.

Recently, Canadian leader Justin Trudeau, and to a lesser extent U.S. President Obama, were soundly criticized for statements that seemed to lionize the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.   Trudeau stated:

“It is with deep sorrow that I learned today of the death of Cuba’s longest serving President. Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation. While a controversial figure, both Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for “el Comandante”.  (You can read the entire statement here).

His warm words have sparked parodies on Social Media, mockingly praising Hitler and Osama Bin Ladin. For example, “Osama Bin Laden was certainly a controversial figure, but his contribution to airport security is unparalleled”, and “Today we mourn the death of Jeffrey Dahmer, who opened his home to the LGBTQ community and pushed culinary boundaries.” One of my favorites is “We mourn the passing of Henry VIII: A man who always kept his head, while all around were losing theirs”.

In slight contrast, President Obama’s words were more measured, but still a far cry from a realistic appraisal of the monstrosity of Castro’s communist dictatorship:

“We know that this moment fills Cubans – in Cuba and in the United States – with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation. History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.”

In Miami, home to much of the Cuban population in exile, those “powerful emotions” were joy and celebration:

It did not matter that it was the middle of the night, or that it began to drizzle. When this city’s Cuban-American residents heard the news, they sprinted to Little Havana. They banged pots and pans. They sang the Cuban national anthem and waved the Cuban flag. They danced and hugged, laughed and cried, shouted and rejoiced. (Read more at New York Times).

These Cubans recall “el Commandante” with a bit less than fondness, after all.  It is estimated by historian Thomas Skidmore that 550 people were summarily executed in the first 6 months of Castro’s reign. Over the years spanning 1959 – 2012, at least 3615 people are documented to have died in firing squads, and 1253 in “extrajudicial killings”, according to Cuba Archive. The Black Book of Communism (available in its entirety at Archive.org) estimates the number of political killings at 15,000-17,000. Between 1950 and 1980 over a million Cubans fled the island, mostly to the United States.  In 1964, Castro admitted holding over 15,000 political prisoners.

A Washington Post opinion piece summarizes some of the disaster brought upon Cuba by this “legendary revolutionary”:

It began with mass summary executions of Batista officials and soon progressed to internment of thousands of gay men and lesbians; systematic, block-by-block surveillance of the entire citizenry; repeated purges, complete with show trials and executions, of the ruling party; and punishment for dissident artists, writers and journalists. Mr. Castro’s regime learned from the totalitarian patron he chose to offset the U.S. adversary — the Soviet Union, whose offensive nuclear missiles he welcomed, bringing the world to the brink of armageddon. Mr. Castro sponsored violent subversive movements in half a dozen Latin American countries and even in his dotage helped steer Venezuela to economic and political catastrophe through his patronage of Hugo Chávez.

Castro should also be remembered as a relentless persecutor of Christianity.  Cuba is officially an atheist state. When he seized power, almost immediately he shut down 400 Roman Catholic schools for teaching “dangerous beliefs.”  Christians were initially denied membership in the Communist Party.  Due to restrictions in building churches, many people met in homes.  Christians were, of course, among the purged. The dissident Armando Valladares, who was locked in a pitch-dark Cuban prison cell for eight years while stripped naked, has recently given his recollections in a Washington Post editorial:

Antagonizing believers is a particular specialty of the Castro regime. To them, faith is especially dangerous, because it kindles the conscience and keeps it burning when enemies advance. “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” were the last words of so many of my friends who were dragged to the shooting wall. Eventually, the government realized this was a battle cry for freedom, one that came from the deepest part of the men they were killing, and one that was only inspiring more men to die faithful to their consciences and to something greater than Fidel Castro. Their executioners realized that an expression of faith was more powerful than the explosion of a gun. So eventually, they gagged them.

Although the Castro regime eventually moderated its stance toward Christianity, and sought the favor of the Pope, still, as recently as 2015 more than 2300 incidents of persecution–arrests, beatings, demolition of churches, and the like–were reported. (Newsweek)

The Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan had a “eulogy” for Castro that should have been a model for Trudeau and Obama:

“Although the death of a human being is rarely cause for celebration, it is the symbolic death of the destructive ideologies that he espoused that, I believe, is filling the Cuban exile community with renewed hope and a relief that has been long in coming. And although the grip of Castro’s regime will not loosen overnight, the demise of a leader that oversaw the annihilation of those with an opposing view, the indiscriminate jailing of innocents, the separation of families, the censure of his people’s freedom to speak, state sanctioned terrorism and the economic destruction of a once thriving & successful country, can only lead to positive change for the Cuban people and our world. May freedom continue to ring in the United States, my beautiful adopted country, and may the hope for freedom be inspired and renewed in the heart of every Cuban in my homeland and throughout the world.”