It also poisons family relations.
When I was a kid in a small and poor eastern Hungarian village I was made to attend religion classes and perform the confirmation into the Catholic church with a bunch of other kids. This would not be remarkable if it weren’t for a few facts: 1) I was thoroughly uninterested in religion and found it spectacularly dumb and a waste of time. 2) So were my parents. 3) My family was Jewish.
When I first gave it some thought, many years later, I first thought it must have been an act of rebellion in a communist country where church attendance was frowned upon politically.
My family was, after all, thoroughly gutted by communism. Their ancestral wealth was confiscated a long time ago, and those who didn’t emigrate were kept in close check simply because someone who worked for the Party hated them.
Fortunes and misfortunes under oppression are not dictated by ideology. The words are just dust thrown into your eyes. It is always down to who likes who and who gets to wield state power to punish his enemies and benefit his own friends. And my family was always hated by someone who was in good standing with the communist party, the state party, and thus the owner of all power. They were not allowed to study what they wanted (or not allowed to study, period) and later they were not allowed to work in good jobs. My grandfather who was an aviation engineer by profession was made to work as night watchman at a driving school for most of his life and both my parents languished in a field they did not like an did not suit them – and lived in village they despised. And the village despised them back.
To compensate for it they tried to fit in as hard as they could. And that must be the real reason they forced me to perform religious nonsense, not that they were defiant anti-communists. Communism was officially over by that time, anyway.
But I was not allowed to know any of that. I heard no explanation as to why I was made to attend church classes and prepare to perform a catholic oath taking ceremony – on top of the christening they have already done to me when I was born. The whole thing was illogical and infuriating and the fact they never explained anything to me put a wedge (the first of many) between me and my parents.
The local priest was to be called Uncle Priest and Uncle Priest was an intolerant and angry man. Today I know that these men are tormented beyond belief. The church picks them out as kids and sends them away to school, sometimes as high as the Vatican. They learn multiple languages, make global friends, see the world – and then they are ordered to be stationed in a village that speaks no languages, knows nothing about the world, and where they have no chance to ever make any friends. Our village didn’t even have a library that would serve me, let alone a well-read priest. Isolation and alienation doesn’t even begin to explain their state of mind. Still, it should be no excuse for what they allow themselves.
Uncle Priest held the religion classes in my village school and I was forced to participate by my parents. And even though I disliked it and would have preferred to attend the alternative class in science, I was the eminent student who always read the assignments and always knew the answers. Even in religion class.
One day in the classroom the priest went on a strange rant about the “Jews”, a word which I have only read in the Bible. It was one of the tribes, apparently. That was the depth of my knowledge on the topic of the Jews as no one told us anything about the matter, in school or at home.
Yet the priest’s rage for “the Jews who killed Jesus” was getting stronger and stronger. After a few minutes of uninterrupted ranting he usually singled out a student to make his point, as was his habit. He attributed the student a line the student hadn’t said and proceeded to demolish the argument.
“X, for instance, is thinking that Jesus was also a Jew,” he said and went on to trash the imaginary comment that never happened, leaving the kid he singled out in shame for the things he did not say.
This time the singled-out student was me and the priest got so worked up by my non-existent comment about Jesus being a Jew that he ended up yelling at me for long, long minutes. Then shouted at me with red face to leave his classroom and never to return.
I was terrified and confused. As a straight-A student the shock of being expelled from a class was especially devastating. Not to mention that I didn’t even make the offending comment. I didn’t even know what it meant.
If you think that my parents took my side or even explained what had happened – you would be mistaken. Far from being rebellious, they were keen to fit in a society that hated them and they hated, and that meant sacrificing their child if they must. I would have been soothed if they only explained that Uncle Priest is wrong and let’s just go back and say I’m sorry. It would still be a spineless thing to do to your child, asking him to admit guilt and pretend to apologize just to keep the peace – but I didn’t even get that.
My parents, being submissive cowards that authoritarianism creates, did not take my side. They didn’t even tell me what the issue was with the Jews, they just told me to go back and apologize. Now I had to fight for the religious class I didn’t want to attend in the first place. And I was never told that I was not wrong. If anything, my parents felt ashamed for me. As they often would, even when I won contests and brought home the nth straight-A degree. They were bitched by society and they didn’t even have the spine to protect me from it.
I had go back and take even more public humiliation, and in the end I was forced to take the classes with Uncle Priest in private, lest I contaminate the rest of the children. (Luckily, I was not his type.) Months later I had to perform at the church ceremony where they dress children into bride and groom outfits and we had to open up widely for Uncle Priest to place bitter, wine-soaked bread into our mouth. The adults were deliriously proud to have their children open up for the priest. Whoever thought they would protest against their children being raped by priests? Just like my parents who didn’t want to risk being accepted in a society they hated – religious parents don’t want to risk approval to heaven they might not even believe in.
Yes, my family was originally Jewish, but I had no idea about that. Uncle Priest, on the other hand, took notice of those things and made sure to send a message to my parents through humiliating me. To this day my parents never discussed the family origins, never even mentioned it and when I tried to bring it up, they acted as if I flashed my genitals at the dinner table.
Internal family dynamics are destroyed by autocracies – in case you harbored illusions that you can retreat there and be happy and honest. Talking honestly in front of your children could cause damage in particular because they have no idea what not to talk about in school and in front of outsiders. Stasi storied from East Germany are full of people who got into trouble, jail or worse because their children gave something away.
When a regime uses people to report on each other that kills societal trust. When it can also happen within the family even overzealous regime-believers should see the evil of it. And the weaker social ties are, the weaker trust is within families and within society – the easier it is to control and rule them by an unscrupulous individual or group. There will be many who further that rule and happily grab onto the ideological tools and verbal attack weapons the system offers.
On the receiving end there will be the naïve ones, like my parents, who knew but also didn’t know that no amount of effort fitting in would ever earn them acceptance, nor respect. And denying themselves would not gain respect in any context – political or otherwise – only contempt.
Spinelessness created this way, by the illusion that it can help avoid social and political punishment, travels down generations and lingers long after the oppression ends. It is thus futile to expect a society to breath a sight of relief when oppression ends and get on with their freedoms immediately. These people still populate the country.
And it is the same whether the oppression is left or right, it is the same whatever dust they throw into your eyes, whatever the excuse others use to stomp on your life.