From 1989 when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down to when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 to the end of the Cold War, the world saw totalitarianism rise and fall in all the Soviet bloc countries. Most of us believe totalitarianism is already in the dustbin of history. When, in the spring of 2015, journalist Rod Dreher received an unexpected call from a stranger whose 90-year old mother had witnessed the coming of Communism in Czechoslovakia. The caller was a naturalized American and a prominent physician. The caller told Dreher that his mother had told him that the United States of today reminded her of when communism first came to Czechoslovakia. Dreyer’s initial reaction was to laugh it off but many men and women from the former Soviet bloc countries later told Dreyer that the situation in America today resembles the situation in their countries of birth when communism first came there. In Live Not by Lies, Rod Dreher draws parallels between today’s America and ex-Soviet bloc countries.
The Brenda family is a strong model of anti-totalitarian resistance based in Prague. Dreher says that the Brendas are a large Catholic family who suffered greatly in 1979 when the Czechoslovak state sentenced their patriarch Vaclav to four years in prison for his activities fighting for human rights. Vaclav and his wife Kamila both were academics and were among the only believing Christians working at the topmost level of the Czech dissident movement. It was not easy living as Christians in Prague at that time. Dreyer says that Slovaks are an intensely Catholic and independent nation today in European countries. In Slovakia, the underground Catholic church was the main source of resistance there. Dreyer quotes Kamila who says that obeying Christ’s command to love one’s neighbor means never failing to stand up for every persecuted person, not just churchgoer. She brought up the people who would come by their apartment on their way to interrogation. Kamila was a den-mother figure who would share with them strategies for enduring police questioning, which could be quite harsh, without surrendering information. During resistance days before the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, up to twenty people would show up every day at the Brenda flat, seeking advice, comfort and community. And after police released the suspects, they would often return to the Brenda home. Kamila offered them a cup of tea and a glass of wine and encouragement.
Dreher says that memory, historical and otherwise, is a weapon of cultural self-defense. History is not just what is written in textbooks. History is in the stories we tell ourselves about who we were and who we are. History is embedded in the language we use, the things we make and the rituals we observe. History is culture — and so is Christianity. To be indifferent or even hostile to tradition is to surrender to those in power who want to legitimate a new social and political order. To perceive the critical importance of memory and the role culture plays in preserving and transmitting it is critically important for Christianity’s survival. Family is where we first learn to love others. If we are lucky, it is also where we first learn how to live in truth. Dreher argues that the loosening of family ties and of traditional commitments to marriage has left Americans without the kind of refuge in the home that anti-Communist dissidents had. US Christians are not especially different from unbelievers. That is where the problem lies, according to Dreher.
Live Not by Lies is a very timely and much-needed addition to the growing literature on the current American politics. Dreher finds many similarities between mid-twentieth century Soviet bloc countries and todays America. He shows how America is slowly drifting towards totalitarianism. Live Not by Lies is meticulously researched and beautifully written book everybody should read. It is packed with the knowledge of a reporter and a scholar’s perspectives. If you are interested in current American politics, Live Not by Lies will give you new perspectives. Rod Dreher is a perceptive political writer.