A Witness, Not a Testimony

The most fascinating autobiography of the 20th century was Whittaker Chambers’s Witness. I’ve re-read it numerous times, particularly in tandem with the course I teach on him and his writings.

Why did Chambers decide to call his book Witness? His testimony before HUAC was an accounting of what he knew about the underground—but that is all a testimony is. It tells what happened; it provides facts. Chambers saw what he was doing as something more, something deeper. A witness is someone who goes beyond simply providing testimony. He describes it in this way:

A witness, in the sense that I am using the word, is a man whose life and faith are so completely one that when the challenge comes to step out and testify for his faith, he does so, disregarding all risks, accepting all consequences.

With his mouth, a man testifies; with his life, he makes a witness.

The opening section of Witness was slightly unorthodox, but that kind of thing could be expected from Chambers. He chose to begin with his own foreword that he called “A Letter to My Children.” Family was the highest priority for him. That was why he bought Pipe Creek Farm. It was why he sought to shield his children from everything connected to his past for as long as possible. The Hiss Case changed that; now he wanted to leave them a personal witness as a prelude to the rest of the book.

His Time associate Craig Thompson had seen him the day after his first testimony before HUAC. ‘“Boy,’ I said, ‘you’ve sure dropped an A-bomb this time.’ For once he couldn’t even grin. ‘Yes,’ he said heavily, ‘And now I’m going home to see what my children think of me.’” His “Letter” was intended as a guidepost for them:

My children, as long as you live, the shadow of the Hiss Case will brush you. In every pair of eyes that rests on you, you will see pass, like a cloud passing behind a woods in winter, the memory of your father—dissembled in friendly eyes, lurking in unfriendly eyes.

Sometimes you will wonder which is harder to bear: friendly forgiveness or forthright hate. In time, therefore, when the sum of your experience of life gives you authority, you will ask yourselves the question: What was my father?

I will give you an answer: I was a witness.

The foreword is powerful as a concise essay on what to expect in the rest of the book: the two irreconcilable faiths; the commitment of the communists to their cause; the communist vision of man without God; the proper way to break with communism; the need for the West to renew its faith in God or be destroyed.

“There has never been a society or a nation without God,” Chambers instructed. “But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God and died.” The “Letter” ends with a highly personal passage:

My children, when you were little, we used sometimes to go for walks in our pine woods. In the open fields, you would run along by yourselves. But you used instinctively to give me your hands as we entered those woods, where it was darker, lonelier, and in the stillness our voices sounded loud and frightening.

In this book I am again giving you my hands. I am leading you, not through cool pine woods, but up and up a narrow defile between bare and steep rocks from which in shadow things uncoil and slither away. It will be dark. But, in the end, if I have led you aright, you will make out three crosses, from two of which hang thieves. I will have brought you to Golgotha—the place of skulls.

This is the meaning of the journey. Before you understand, I may not be there, my hands may have slipped from yours. It will not matter. For when you understand what you see, you will no longer be children. You will know that life is pain, that each of us hangs always upon the cross of himself. And when you know that this is true of every man, woman and child on earth, you will be wise.

I was deeply moved by the elegance of the writing the first time I read Witness. That emotional connection with the book has never left me. It’s why I want to introduce students to it. I want them to grasp—as a generation seemingly removed from the grip of the Cold War and the threat of communism—the eternal truths Chambers enunciates.

Just because the outward expression of the conflict, the Cold War, has ended, that doesn’t mean the conflict is over. It’s never over, precisely because the conflict is not simply between two political or economic systems; rather, it’s the age-old conflict of faith in God vs. faith in man. That one never ends.

I highly recommend reading Chambers’s Witness. You also can get a significant part of it in my book, The Witness and the President: Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and the Future of Freedom, from which this excerpt is taken.

Here’s What Concerns Me

It’s a very easy thing to loathe politics; it can be a very loathsome thing, exposing as it does the basest of human interactions: petty jealousies, outsized egos; personal insults; the precedence of expediency over principle.

I do understand why people want to avoid it.

All along the political spectrum there are people who operate at the lowest level of morality and who seem to delight in tearing down those with whom they disagree. Some of those people do so purely for their own personal gain—it’s primarily just a selfish thing.

But there are others—true believers in a cause—who all too often get so wrapped up in their cause (and it can be a righteous cause) that they cast caution aside and act in ways that are actually detrimental to what they hope to achieve.

Frankly, I’m distressed over the turn politics has taken on the conservative side. Wait a minute, what about those liberals and their unsavory tactics? Are you ignoring them? Only someone who has never read this blog over the past nine years could think that. Yes, the liberal/progressive approach has almost always been loathsome.

What concerns me is that some conservatives now think they have to copy that loathsomeness in response. Whenever we do that, we lose—our principles, our character, and our long-term influence.

Need I say that it is also unchristian to act in that way?

I find history to be a guide. When the communist threat was very real back in the late 1940s, Whittaker Chambers sacrificed his great job, high salary, and reputation to expose what he knew from his time in the underground. He was actuated by the need to tell the truth, but he did so, as he noted, with pity and remorse. He didn’t hate anyone on the other side; he simply wanted to make sure the nation knew what was happening, so that the nation might respond appropriately and survive.

Then along came a man by the name of Joe McCarthy, a senator from Wisconsin. He jumped into this fight with communism, but not with the Chambers attitude. While Chambers certainly fought with all he had against the evil of communism, he did so with the goal of restoration. McCarthy merely wanted to bring down the other side (and burnish his image in the process, of course).

We have, in letters Chambers wrote to William F. Buckley, a commentary on McCarthy’s approach to the communist threat. He felt McCarthy would ultimately fail. Why? Here are some excerpts:

As the picture unfolds, the awful sense begins to invade you, like a wave of fatigue, that the Senator is a bore. . . .

[McCarthy’s approach] is repetitious and unartful, and, with time, the repeated dull thud of the low blow may prove to be the real factor in his undoing. . . . He lacks variety, and, in the end, simply puts the audience to sleep.

I used to listen to and watch a number of conservative programs because it was refreshing to hear someone who believed what I believe—fresh voices in a media dominated by liberalism. After a while, though, I saw what Chambers saw in McCarthy, which is a tendency toward laborious repetition that numbs the soul. I don’t pay much attention to those programs anymore.

Chambers continued,

He is at bottom a naive and simple-hearted man. . . . I said long since that the crucial question about Senator McCarthy was not whether his aims are ultimately good or bad, but whether his intelligence is equal to his energy.

There are many conservatives who are simple-hearted (that part is good) with admirable aims, but I also wonder if their intelligence is equal to the task.

Chambers’s analysis of McCarthy included this gem:

It is more and more my reluctant opinion that he is a tactician, rather than a strategist: that he continually, by reflex rather than calculation, sacrifices the long view for the short pull.

Certain tactics may get you a short-term win, but at what price? Does anyone see a current example of this?

Finally, there was this warning that Chambers sounded, a warning that became prophetic because it went just the way he warned:

All of us, to one degree or another, have slowly come to question his judgment and to fear acutely that his flair for the sensational, his inaccuracies and distortions, his tendency to sacrifice the greater objective for the momentary effect, will lead him and us into trouble.

In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that we live in terror that Senator McCarthy will one day make some irreparable blunder which will play directly into the hands of our common enemy and discredit the whole anti-Communist effort for a long while to come.

That’s exactly what happened, and the term “McCarthyism” has never left our political vocabulary; it’s always whipped out to taint conservatives whenever we try to point out the evil nature of socialism/communism or any other threat to the nation.

Why do I write this at this time in our history?

I have the same fear that Chambers expressed in those letters. I see conservatives (and Christian conservatives as well) throwing away principles and embracing expediency, going for the short-term gain while blinded to the long-term loss of using those tactics, and eventually discrediting all efforts to return the nation to its basic Biblical morality and constitutionally conservative concepts.

We are not to be like the other side. We are to be the calm, reasoned voices, calling people back to the only truths that will sustain a culture.

Will we fulfill that calling or succumb to the temptation of typical politics? Frankly, I don’t know the answer to that. All I can say is that I’m seriously disappointed in the trend I now see.

May God have mercy on us.

A Century of Totalitarianism & Terror

This year commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. I use the word “commemorate,” not “celebrate.” There is nothing to celebrate in the establishment of the first Marxist communist state; that state, and all the progeny to which it has given birth, embodied the greatest scourge of the 20th century—and its pernicious beliefs and system continue to plague us today.

Russia was ripe for revolution while enmeshed in WWI. I won’t go into all the historical background; suffice to say there were genuine grievances. Yet, all too often, the chosen solution for grievances can be just as bad, or worse, than the original grievance.

The Bolsheviks came to power in late 1917, led by Vladimir Lenin, a man with no pity for anyone, who judged all people by whether they agreed with him on every point, and who introduced the modern concept of genocide, as he evaluated people not by individual guilt or innocence, but by their association with whatever group he deemed unfit to live.

Lenin became the model for all 20th-century revolutionaries. He devoted himself to developing professional revolutionaries who believed in total revolution, without any compromise.

He exploited the people’s war weariness and promised peace and bread for everyone. He controlled the Russian parliament by armed threats and intimidation. The press became a tool of propaganda; no dissenting voices were allowed. And he set up a secret police to inspire terror to any who might try to object to his goals. The czarist secret police were babes in terrorism compared to Lenin’s.

His method for total control can be outlined in this way:

  • Destroy all opposition outside the Party
  • Place all power in Party hands
  • Destroy all opposition within the Party
  • Concentrate all power in the Party in himself and his handpicked subordinates

The irony is that Lenin finally was undone by his own decree that the Party would oversee the health of its leaders. When Lenin had a stroke, his eventual successor, Josef Stalin, pushed Lenin out of power and grabbed the reins himself.

What is there to say about Stalin that most don’t know now? While we choose to highlight the obvious horror of Adolf Hitler (and rightly so), Stalin was conducting his own holocaust within his nation. He starved 7 million Ukrainians in the winter of 1932-1933; he held fake trials of Party officials, always leading to their execution (an estimated one million from 1936-1938), and signed a pact with Hitler in 1939 that allowed the latter to begin that awful world war.

Once that war ended, Stalin then proceeded to take over as many Eastern European countries as he could, giving rise to the Cold War. His long reign of 30 years led to the state murder of approximately 30 million of his own citizens.

From this horrific beginning, the communist vision of coerced utopia gave rise to a bevy of totalitarian states operating from that vision: China, North Korea, Cuba, etc.

No, I don’t celebrate the centennial of communism. My task is to educate others on its nature, based as it is on the rejection of Christian faith and the exaltation of man in all his depravity.

I’m also called to point out that it has never worked as advertised in any place it has been tried. A book needs to be written that neatly summarizes that reality. Perhaps this would be a good title:

Despite the hard facts about this ideology, some still say it is a wonderful vision of what man can be if only it’s tried the right way. I beg to differ. This “wonderful vision” is a vision of man without God and is, as Whittaker Chambers so eloquently explained when he broke from communism and found Christian faith,

What I had been fell from me like dirty rags. The rags that fell from me were not only Communism. What fell was the whole web of the materialist modern mind—the luminous shroud which it has spun about the spirit of man, paralyzing in the name of rationalism the instinct of his soul for God.

Yet far too many never face up to the obvious: this is totalitarianism, plain and simple.

This false ideology, this attempt to make man into a god and annihilate genuine Christianity, doesn’t deserve a second chance.

Will We Learn From History?

As a historian, I have this faith that people might actually learn something from history. What a quaint notion.

The first requisite, of course, is that people know some history. Those kinds of people are becoming a rare commodity.

Please excuse the seeming air of resignation in this post. It’s just that some lessons from history are so easy to find that it boggles the mind that mankind continues to repeat all the old errors.

Take socialism/communism, for instance. It’s never worked anywhere, yet it continues to beguile and beckon with its siren song of equality, fairness, and brotherhood.

You know, like in the Soviet Union where, under Stalin, everyone was so friendly.

It was such a wonderful success that they continued to promote those Five-Year Plans for 70 years. Don’t ask if they ever worked. Well, you could ask all those nations that adopted socialist economies; I’m sure they have a story to tell. Come along with me to one such country.

Britain went all agog for socialism after WWII. Rationing continued for years after the war, ensuring “equality.” Here’s how Winston Churchill described what he witnessed:

Yet the current generation is being wooed once again by this false philosophy. Take Bernie Sanders and his minions, openly advocating the policy. In fact, most Democrats are on this bandwagon; they just are more discreet by not calling it what it is. They couch it in the language of “caring.” And voters lap it up because they are rather ignorant:

Someone needs to write this book:

But would anyone read it who actually needs to read it?

G. K. Chesterton nailed it:

Forgive my cynicism today. If not for my steadfast faith that this world ultimately is not my home, cynicism would prevail. However, I can see past the blindness; I know where Truth resides. I want to live in that Truth today and continue to do what God has called me to do. I will be faithful and leave results up to Him.

Making Our Witness: The Chambers Model

What startled many readers of Whittaker Chambers’s Witness when it first was published in 1952 (and became a bestseller) was its deeply spiritual tone, its message of returning to faith in God, not only for the sake of individual salvation but also for the hope of salvaging Western civilization.

Chambers had been a avowed atheist, an ideological stance influenced by his dysfunctional family upbringing, the nihilism communicated to him by his university education, and his commitment to changing the world through communism.

One of his most famous lines about religious belief prior to his conversion shows not only his attitude but his ability to convey that attitude in memorable phrases:

I associated God with ill-ventilated vestries and ill-ventilated minds.

That attitude crumbled when he finally faced the truth of the Christian faith. There is one passage in Witness that best describes what happened to him when the Spirit of God touched his life, and that passage is even more memorable than the one noted above:

What I had been fell from me like dirty rags. The rags that fell from me were not only Communism. What fell was the whole web of the materialist modern mind—the luminous shroud which it has spun about the spirit of man, paralyzing in the name of rationalism the instinct of his soul for God, denying in the name of knowledge the reality of the soul and its birthright in that mystery on which mere knowledge falters and shatters at every step.

It was that touch from the hand of God that led Chambers to his decision to make his witness before the world—not just a testimony about what he knew of the workings of the communist underground and its designs to overthrow the American government—but a witness to the grace of God in men’s lives.

Yet it was that very witness that most intellectuals rejected. They didn’t understand how Chambers could embrace the “old” faith that so many of them now despised. This is why Chambers, near the end of Witness, wrote this:

To those for whom the intellect alone has force, such a witness has little or no force. It bewilders and exasperates them. It challenges them to suppose that there is something greater about man than his ability to add and subtract. It submits that that something is the soul.

What’s interesting is that Chambers saw a clear demarcation between those intellectuals and the majority of the population:

Plain men understood the witness easily. It speaks directly to their condition. For it is peculiarly the Christian witness. They still hear it, whenever it truly reaches their ears, the ring of those glad tidings that once stirred mankind with an immense hope.

For it frees them from the trap of irreversible Fate at the point at which it whispers to them that each soul is individually responsible to God, that it has only to assert that responsibility, and out of man’s weakness will come strength, out of his corruption incorruption, out of his evil good, and out of what is false invulnerable truth.

Why did Chambers believe that weakness could become strength, that corruption could be transformed into incorruption, that good could be squeezed out of evil, and that falsehoods could nevertheless lead men to see the truth?

He could believe all of that because it happened in his life. He responded to the Christian message, he acknowledged that he was individually responsible to God, and he took the necessary steps to assert that responsibility by proclaiming the witness God had given him through his own personal experience.

The message hasn’t changed. God hasn’t changed. All of us need to respond as Chambers did. We need to make our individual witnesses to the world. We are all individually responsible to God and need to take whatever steps are necessary to make our witness.

Chambers, McCarthy, & the Real Thing

Whittaker Chambers brought credibility to the concerns Americans had after WWII that communism in general, and the Soviet Union in particular, were infiltrating American society. Chambers, as many regular readers of this blog know, had worked as a communist in the underground in the 1930s. He had labored to help the USSR place people in positions of authority in the American government, and he had served as a liaison with the USSR, sending US government secrets to that nation.

So when Chambers came forth with his witness to what he knew, he was believed ultimately, and Alger Hiss, one of the highest-placed communist agents in the government, went to prison for perjury.

Then along came Sen. Joe McCarthy with his anti-communist crusade. McCarthy had no inside knowledge. My own research into his activities has convinced me he hardly knew what he was doing, and he probably was more interested in personal political advancement than anything else.

As McCarthy rose in prominence, Chambers’s support of his career was sporadic and cautious, perhaps welcoming at first, since he was enlisted on the same side, but as time wore on, Chambers disassociated himself from what McCarthy became.

In early 1954, in a letter to his friend Ralph de Toledano, Chambers summarized McCarthy’s approach in this way: “Senator McCarthy’s notion of tactics is to break the rules, saturate the enemy with poison gas, and then charge through the contaminated area, shouting Comanche war cries.”

In letters to William F. Buckley, founder of National Review and the leader of the modern conservative movement, Chambers shared even more of his concerns. He thought McCarthy could easily become a national bore:

With time, the repeated dull thud of the low blow may prove to be the real factor in his undoing. Not necessarily because the blow is low, or because he lacks heart and purpose, but because he lacks variety, and, in the end, simply puts the audience to sleep. …

… I said long since that the crucial question about Senator McCarthy was not whether his aims are ultimately good or bad, but whether his intelligence is equal to his energy.

“One way whereby I can most easily help Communism is to associate myself publicly with Senator McCarthy,” he wrote to Buckley. It would lead to a confusion with the Hiss Case and roll it all “into a snarl with which to baffle, bedevil and divide opinion.” He had told McCarthy that even though they “were fighting in the same war,” they were engaged “in wholly different battles” and that they “should not wage war together.”

Chambers concluded, “I do not think that the Senator really grasps this necessity. For it is more and more my reluctant opinion that he is a tactician, rather than a strategist; that he continually, by reflex rather than calculation, sacrifices the long view for the short pull.”

McCarthy was a potential problem for the anticommunist movement, Chambers believed. Everyone was trying hard to overlook his errors and give the benefit of the doubt, but his judgment was increasingly suspect, and his tendency to go for the sensational over the substantive might lead them all into trouble.

“In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that we live in terror that Senator McCarthy will one day make some irreparable blunder which will play directly into the hands of our common enemy and discredit the whole anti-Communist effort for a long while to come.”

Consider those final words. Even when someone is on the same side, whether we are talking about the Christian faith or conservative politics, there is the danger of undermining the whole effort due to foolishness, lack of genuineness, or a combination of the two.

Great truths and great causes need spokespeople who are committed to those truths and causes and who know how to communicate them to others. Whenever we follow a false teacher (in the faith) or a false politician who is primarily out for himself and doesn’t really believe what he says, we may see everything we stand for being diminished through their falseness.

Always hold out for the real thing—the people of solid character who can be trusted and who believe in their cause with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Willful Ignorance: Never a Safe Space

Nice to know that neither Obama nor Biden will make an appearance at Castro’s memorial. I don’t think that’s because they wouldn’t like to do so, but the backlash just might be greater than they wish to handle.

Most people, outside of the press, aren’t exactly in mourning that the dictator is dead. Some have very good reasons not to feel particularly sad about it.

in-mourning

The Castro legacy is not hard to discover:

castro-skulls

As I said in a previous post, I don’t believe Castro went to meet His maker. Rather, he went to meet his lifelong mentor:

hell-o

Meanwhile, on American university campuses throughout the nation, ignorance about communist atrocities in history continues apace:

taking-a-selfie

We’ve allowed those hallowed halls of higher education to become state nurseries:

bubble-u

Willful ignorance is never a safe space.