Romania Thirty Years after the Fall of Communism: Retrospect and Prospect
As a Journal, we are seeking to promote international scholarship and discussion on global Christianity. Our publication has frequently focused on non-western nations where the church has enthusiasm, but less information is put in print. Sometimes these articles present an appreciation for the interpretation of Scripture from a non-western viewpoint. Other times, they may refer to what God is doing in the world in different cultures.
One set of articles found in this Journal has surfaced history and perspective from a nation’s past which may never have been heard. In the past number of issues, for example, we have published several articles that surface history that would be left forgotten in many places in global Christendom, such as an article about the legacy of a Vietnamese pastor, Pastor Le Van Thai and also one about the legacy of Jia Yu-Ming, a Chinese Keswick theologian. Christian history from the perspective of the global south and east is less frequently written. We would all be enriched if we knew their stories better and then were encouraged to think about the future of Evangelicalism from their perspective.
In that spirit, this editorial is going to focus on Romania. Evangelicals in this country lived through the fall of the brutal communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu just over thirty years ago. Evangelicals, as well as many others, had endured great suffering from his administration. Ceaușescu was the second and final ruler of the Communist party in Romania. His fall became a landmark event in Romanian history.
This editorial will provide a synopsis of Ceaușescu’s fall. It will then provide a perspective as to how Evangelical Romanians are now evaluating their Christian community thirty years after the fall of communism. It is a hope that those of us interested in global Christianity would gain perspective from a country from Eastern Europe that is recovering from a major event in their history. Furthermore, it is hoped that their story and perspective will encourage others to tell significant events in their histories in future Journals.
1. Thirty Years Ago
Some will recall the Romanian revolution which began in Timișoara, Romania and then spread throughout the country in December 2019. In 1989, the world watched as communist regimes in Eastern Europe fell in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. Only in Romania did the events turn violent.
At that time, Romania was ruled by Nicolae Ceaușescu. He had created a pervasive personality cult from his time as General Secretary (1965-1989), and had given himself titles such as “Conducător” (meaning “Leader”) and “Geniul din Carpați” (“The Genius of the Carpathians”). His policies led to the desolation of Romanian society. While Romania’s soil is known to have been one of the most fertile in Eastern Europe, his government starved its people. He shipped most of Romania’s food abroad while Romanians waited in long lines to buy bread laced with sawdust. Meat, butter, sugar, oil and flour were strictly rationed. Vegetables were scarce, and citrus fruits were virtually nonexistent.
During his time of leadership, Ceaușescu introduced ambitious plans to make Romania a significant oil refining nation. His goal was to make the country into the top oil refining country within Eastern Europe, and then make it a place where Middle Eastern oil could be refined as well. These plans originated from the Arab oil embargo against the west from 1973-74. Unfortunately, his plans were too grandiose. He borrowed heavily from western countries to do this and was unable to pay off these debts. This initiated austerity policies which resulted in a major financial crisis for the country.
Besides the ways that he handled food and the economy, Nicolae Ceaușescu’s policies were harsh on his people. For example, he banned contraceptives and encouraged population growth. The result of these policies let to a number of unwanted children and eventually led to the rise of orphans in society. He eliminated small villages and relocated people to the cities.
While communism stressed equality throughout society, Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena lived in luxurious conditions. They governed the country from a large Versailles-style palace in Bucharest, one of the largest administrative buildings in the world. They also lived in an opulent house which included a private pool, saunas, and even a bathroom that was gold plated. Tourists can still view this house today and witness the great discrepancy between his family’s lifestyle and that of the Romanian people during his rule.
His government also persecuted Christians. Many in the west will know of Christian persecution through people such as Richard Wurmbrand and his testimony in Tortured for Christ. He was imprisoned and tortured for fourteen years. He has been called by Christian leaders at various times, “The Voice of the Underground Church” and “The Iron Curtain Paul.” There were however, many others who were oppressed because they were Christians and placed in gulags such as: Vasile Oisescu, Simion Cure, Moise Urs, Alexandru Honciuc, Constantin Caraman, Eugen Bodor, Victor Răscal. Some were killed by Romanian’s Securitate such as: Ion Jiloveanu, Radu Cruceru, Ioan Clipa, Sabin Teodosiu, Nicolae, Traian Bogdan, and Vasile Gehrman. Many of these were killed by cars or assassinated but the causes of their deaths were declared by the state “to be accidents.” Churches were demolished and Christians were sent into exile.
Ceaușescu’s regime also aimed to reeducate the people. Rather than letting western thought have a voice, his regime regulated what was communicated over the airways and committed to teaching atheism. Christians were unable to worship together without being observed. Houses of worship were threatened. Christian radio was minimized. Ideas that would introduce Christianity were prevented from entering the country.
Teaching of Christian thought was also “supervised” by the Department of Culture. To execute a massive redevelopment project during his rule, Ceaușescu’s government conducted extensive demolition of churches and many other historic structures in Romania. According to Alexandru Budistenu, former chief architect of Bucharest, “The sight of a church bothered Ceaușescu. It didn't matter if they demolished or moved it, as long as it was no longer in sight.” Churches that were once in prominent spots became hidden by other architecture and some destroyed.
On 16 December 1989, things began to change in western Romania in the city of Timișoara. On that date, the Hungarian minority held a public protest for the release of a Hungarian Reformed Church pastor named László Tőkés who had spoken out against regime policies. This led to massive protests and a crackdown by the military. A few days later on 21 December, Nicolae Ceaușescu delivered a speech at Palace (now Revolution) Square in București. In the crowd were people had been bussed in to show support for the communist leader. Instead of providing support, many began openly booing him and chanting “Timișoara!” Eventually riots broke out in the streets of the capital that then spread to other cities in the nation.
Rank-and-file members of the military switched, almost unanimously, from supporting the dictator to backing the protesting population. The rioting forced Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena to flee the next day. They were quickly captured, tried, and then executed on Christmas Day 1989. The death penalty was then quickly abolished by the new government after both Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were killed. Over 1,000 Romanians died in the fighting.
The National Salvation Front, led by Ion Ilescu, quickly took power and were elected in a landslide the following May. The new government then implemented a series of economic and democratic reforms. Romania became a member of NATO and the European Union in 2004 and 2007, respectively.
2. Looking to the Future
It is now just over thirty years since the fall of Communism in Romania. How are Evangelicals evaluating their current situation? Whereas the Orthodox Church continues to build churches such as Catedrala Mantuirii Neamului Românesc (Cathedral of the Salvation of the Romanian People), and the Catholic Church is urging Romanian Catholics to find a future amid religious and ethnic divides, Evangelicals are more diverse in their approach.
Several have published ideas about this recently. Evangelicals in Romania have come together to publish a book that speaks about the past, present, and future of the Evangelical church. Omul evanghelic: O exploroare a comunităților protestante românești is a collection of eighteen essays published in 2018 and provides significant guidance for Evangelicals in the past and present. Most contributors are from Baptist, Pentecostal, and Brethren backgrounds specifically and are generally out of the Radical Reformation. They represent many different centers of Romanian Evangelical thought within Romania such as Bucareșt, Cluj-Napoca, Arad, Iași, Oradea, as well as places outside of Romania.
Several of the articles within this book take time to speak of the defining features of Romanian Evangelicalism. Several of the authors made use of the four points of the Bebbington quadrilateral that many find defines Evangelicalism in general. These four points include the following.
Conversion. This is the belief that individuals are born into a state of being an enemy with God. Each individual needs to make a personal decision to give his or her life to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
Activism. This is the passion that Evangelicals display for mission and personal responsibility to proclaim the gospel as being urgent.
Biblicism. This tenet identifies Evangelicals as having respect for the Bible as being the inspired word of God and being inerrant.
Crucicentrism. This point places the emphasis of the Christian faith on the value of the cross of Christ as the central point for the redemption from sin.
Several points, however, could be added to explain who Evangelicals are in Romania today. What these are may differ according to the perspective of the author.
According to Dănuț Mănăstireanu, Anglican Romanian theologian who has taught at Emanuel University in Oradea as well as other places, several other issues are important for Romanian Evangelicals today. These include the relationship that current Evangelicals will have with the Radical Reformation tradition from which Evangelicals emerge. He advocates for a redefinition of sacred text with that of a hermeneutic of Bible and theology. He encourages a new vision of ecclesiology, rethinking what spirituality is like in Romanian Evangelicalism, and a clearer vision of the gospel and culture.
Dănuț-Vasile Jemna, Professor at the Faculty of Business and Economics at University of Iaşi in Romania, provides a different perspective on the future of Evangelicalism in Romania. In his article discussing the crisis of the identity of the Romanian Evangelical, he points to several aspects that inform the current character of Romanian Evangelicalism. He speaks about crises with the community, the world, and other religious communities and the spiritual sector. He mentions difficulties with a lack of historical continuity and the rising individualism with its suspicions of authority. These will all need to be addressed from his perspective.
As he looks to the future of Romanian Evangelicalism, he believes that the movement is in a transitional period. He sees Romanian Evangelicalism like that of the Hebrew nation in the Exodus from the Old Testament. He views Romanian Evangelicalism leaving Egypt, their communist past, and possessing a community that is between crisis and transition that is marked with a series of sociopolitical and religious changes. This time following the Romanian Revolution of 1989 can be viewed as a period of transition as he sees it. He encourages Romanian Evangelicals to reflect, analyze the past, and define how they would like their future to be. He calls for a time to dialogue and not be isolated and to leave behind the problems of its communist past. He also believes that it is the time to rediscover patristics and models of the church from its past, as well as ideas from the church worldwide. His article also encourages the importance of developing new leaders who are less dependent upon western ideas.
While other articles within Omul evanghelic are less directed to the future of the church, several state aspects that are important about current Romanian Evangelicalism. For example, several strongly affirm the ongoing value of the Bible in Romanian Evangelical life as people of the Book. Others express a wish that Romanian Evangelicals will have a greater difference within society. Several look for more political involvement of the church within culture. Others see the challenges of culture and Romanian Evangelicals, particularly with regard to music. The aspirations for the future are diverse.
In another volume that has been produced within the past two years, two leaders from Institul Baptist Teologic București, Daniel Mariș who is Rector and Otniel Bunaciu who is Președinte Senat provide their perspective on the future for Romanian Evangelicalism. Both speak about the identity of Romanian Evangelicals as living in the post-Communist times but then focus on other issues that are confronting this movement.
In his article entitled “Revitalizarea bisericilor baptiste din România în contextul unei societăți post comuniste, cu tendenție de secularizare,” Daniel Mariș sees the issue of secularism as the key opponent for Romanian Evangelicals to address in the future. He views current Romanian society as dominated by technology and information as well as being post-communist. He advocates for a more authentic preaching of the Bible which is more effective and based on discipleship and will intersect with the Romanian world today.
Otniel Bunaciu also sees the Romanian Evangelical community as living in a post-communist world. His article, however, directs attention to different areas. He points to the effects of Romania’s Communist past, particularly as it restricted freedoms. The Romanian church as well as society are reacting to new found freedoms. Between access to the west and the residue of Communist economy, many Romanians are leaving their country and emigrating to places where they are able to make a better living. This needs further attention. Bunaciu also sees the ongoing influence of Orthodoxy playing a significant role. While Free Churches form 2-3% of the country, approximately 85% of the country is Orthodox. He urges Evangelical churches to address these issues and cooperate with each other more fully.
These articles display a diversity of opinion within Romanian Evangelicalism as it looks to the future. While leaders fit in line with traditional emphases within the Evangelical movement at large (conversionism, activism, biblicism, crucicentrism), they are diverse in what they believe that the movement needs (i.e., further cultural analysis, attention to secularism, more political focus, rethinking Radical Reformation ideas, its patristic heritage, its place in the worldwide church). One aspect that seems to be found through many of the articles is a more consistent approach to Orthodoxy within Romania currently.
The recent history and perspective of Romanian Evangelicalism is an example of one of many places within global Christianity that receives less of a hearing in the global church. The immediate history of Romania and the perspective of Romanian Evangelicals may not be heard due to a variety of factors such as language (as many of these articles were in Romanian), a predominant western bias from within the global church, or simply interest in other matters. Romanian Evangelicalism, however, is a vibrant Christian community with over 5% of the population of nearly 20 million people in a country where 96% claim Christian allegiance. Several with high levels of training have provided a review of recent history and projections for the future. As the worldwide Christian movement continues to grow in the global south and east, the broader Christian community needs to hear voices such as these. They will provide perspective on how God has been at work and prospects for how he may be at work in the future.
When Christian history is told from countries like Romania, we hear stirring testimonies. Romanian Evangelicalism emerged from one of the most oppressive communist regimes and is an illustration that the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ and his church (Matt 16:18). Ceaușescu’s reign threatened the existence of the church, but it led to significant testimonies of divine strength in the time of persecution. Many of these testimonies continue to inspire Christians around the world today.
As Romanian Evangelicals look to the future, they are grappling with several factors that will also be considered by some Evangelicals such as: post-communism, relating to Orthodoxy, and the rising tide of secularism. Romanian Evangelicals are continuing to support historic Evangelical values such as the importance of conversion, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. They have also rightly pointed to several factors for their future that are generally non-western. While a western viewpoint may provide some help, the perspectives of other nations dealing particularly with post-communist thought and Orthodoxy will provide a more significant overlap.
Those from other places around the globe may be able to provide perspective to faithful Christians in Romania living thirty years following the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. It is hoped that Christians from countries in the global south and east might write their perspectives for this Journal so that others worldwide, whether from Romania or elsewhere, might benefit from them.
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