The Power of the Margins
August 5, 2020

David Martin (1929-2019) was a secularization skeptic. He acknowledged that modern societies typically undergo a process of "differentiation," in which various sectors of social and political life free themselves from the oversight of religious authority. He acknowledged that in many modern societies religious institutions and values are "marginalized."

But he rejected the notion that differentiation and marginalization necessarily render religion impotent or private. What's at the cultural margin "can affect the so-called centre" (Forbidden Revolutions, 16). When Christianity is stripped of its historical political role, "religion gains certain freedoms and loses certain constraints." Marginalization doesn't mean "privatization and hence inconsequentuality." Marginalization doesn't reduce religion "to the domain of mere marginalia" (16-17).

He develops this point by looking in detail at two "forbidden revolutions," two areas of the world where "conservative" religion had radical revolutionary effects. The two foci are: Pentecostalism in Latin America and Catholicism in Eastern Europe during the crucial period of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Communism certainly marginalized or suppressed Christianity in Eastern Europe, but the unintended effect was to cause the church and the radicals to switch places. Communism became the establishment, and so became "conservative." It forced the church to the margins, so that the smallest religious act became a radical anti-establishment gesture. Communism thus "handed over to Christianity the advantages of the margin" (23).

Martin writes: "the banishment of religion to the private sphere . . . reversed roles between religion and secular ideology. Instead of religion being part of the establishes facade, and being implicated in the fragmentation of the inclusive frame, ideology took its place and suffered the same fate. Communism, by its unabashed and confident occupation of the commanding heights of public symbolism, offered itself to the corrosions of the center" (68-9).

Communist regimes thus "offered to religion the happy burden of truthfulness, of martyrdom, of opposition, of alternative ways of being and seeing, of symbolizing things that 'were not' - and, above all, of combining past and future against an oppressive and lifeless present." It transformed the church into the opposite of what Marx expected, not an opiate or a form of alienation but something "invested with real life" (69). The church alone "was by nature an autonomous area, governed by other criteria than force, and speaking an intimate and familial language, not the language of process" (91). At the margins, the church kept alive all that is human.

Marginalized culture cultivated forms of human life that were excluded from the center, and when the crisis hit, the margins took center stage: "In East Germany the Lutheran Church was the single most important conduit of change, alongside the theatre and music." In short, "the covert sign languages of music, theatre and faith carry the underground messages until they can surface" (80).

Christian signs took on political importance, as emblems that a different way of life was possible: "Signs denote presences and give notice of an autonomous citadel of the spirit. In Eastern Europe, signs created a bridge to the real presences of a remembered past and the ghostly presences of a possible future" (67). A "condense religious symbol" doesn't have to have verbal content or articulate a precise program; it's enough it if "serves to announce a presence and a desire for a new order." Religious symbols come to the fore, the liturgy "walked out into the open air," long enough to open "the concrete possibility of a new order." When questions about the precise re-distribution of power come into play, religious symbols revert again to the background "held in reserve" (14-15).

Even, or especially, where the church had compromised with the regime, "the 'signs' of Christianity could be used as part of a mass protest" (88). In Albania, it was an illegal baptism, which attracted a crowd of 4000, including Muslims, and was followed by a Eucharist (86).

In Romania, a quarter of a million people occupied Opera Square in Timisoara after the authorities had attempted to arrest Hungarian Reformed pastor Lazlo Tokes. When the tanks moved in, "many in the crowed knelt and said the Lord's Prayer," until the tanks turned around and left (87).

After 19 people were killed in Tiblisi, Georgia, including a girl who approached the soldiers holding flowers, the people filled the square with flowers, crosses, candles. Eventually, the Catholic Church held a Requiem Mass in the cathedral to honor the dead (89).

Protesters "were armed solely with signs, and sought to retrieve sacred space at the heart of their common experience" (91).

The signs were potent precisely because they had been marginalized or excluded for so long.

A marginalized church was supposed to wither away, lose hold over people, be rendered impotent. But the sheer continuation of the church at the cultural margins was a powerful statement about the limits of a regime's power. Marxism "turned mere survival into a triumph and mere symbolism into open rebellion." In short, "All the churches had to do in Eastern Europe was to continue to be" (67).

To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.