Worshipping in Pyongyang

‘Do you believe in God?’ The minister asked. In fact, it was his first question, after the handshake.

‘Do you believe in God?’ He repeated. ‘In the DPRK you need to believe in God to worship in a church’.

I was a little taken aback, not so much because of such a question in the DPRK, but because this was the minister’s form of welcome. We had arrived only moments before, taken to the church for a worship service by our guides. Two women in traditional Korean dress smiled from the doorway, while the minister and an older man (who turned out to be his father), came down the stairs to welcome us before entering the church.

How did we end up in such a situation? This was my second visit to the DPRK (my partner’s first). We had opted for a tour with only the two of us. This would – we hoped – provide a more in-depth engagement on matters that interest us.

I had requested a visit to Chilgol Protestant Church, since I knew that when he was a child, Kim Il Sung used to attend the church with his parents. Originally a Presbyterian mission church from the nineteenth century, it had been destroyed during the Fatherland Liberation War, or Korean War (as with the rest of northern Korea and twenty percent of its population). As part of the reconstruction of the north, Kim Il Sung had suggested the church be rebuilt. Later, other churches were either rebuilt or built, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox. But it was to Chilgol church I wanted to go, as well as the memorial nearby to Kim Il Sung’s mother.

I expected perhaps a weekday visit, a brief tour and possibly a discussion with the minister and staff. But no, our guides arranged for us to attend a worship service on a Sunday morning. So it was that I stood there, at the foot of the stairs to the church’s front door, asked by the minister whether I believe in God. How did I respond?

‘That is a very direct question’, I said. ‘In Australia, we would rather say “do you go to church?” It means the same thing’.

The minister’s father smiled, understanding my point.

‘Yes, I do go to church’, I said, ‘in Australia and China’.

The father may have been satisfied, but the minister – a quiet man – was still not sure. Nonetheless, I was guided to a seat right at the front of the church. Behind me were three other visitors: my partner, who came in later after some hesitation; a younger man of Korean background; and an older Korean man who seemed to be from the south and took many pictures and videos.

Who was in the congregation? Mostly middle-aged worshippers, a mix of male and female, with some younger people. The choir of about 15 people sung powerfully and passionately, with a distinctly Korean style (so also the soloist). In all, there would have been 60-70 worshippers present. Were they all – as some have speculated without a shred of evidence – a ‘rent-a-crowd’ for the benefit of foreigners, with a sprinkling of government spies for good measure? I hesitate even raising this question, since it is simply ludicrous to suggest so.

The liturgy was clearly of the Reformed tradition, with which I am so familiar: prayers and hymns of approach, followed by confession of sins; Bible readings from the Old and New Testaments; a long sermon with careful interpretation of the text; a soloist after the sermon; prayers of supplication and collection (to which I contributed); final hymn and benediction. Although I cannot understand Korean, I could easily recognise the liturgy and its style. Indeed, the liturgy, the simple style of the church, a the reverence of the minister and the careful and calm approach to the sermon – all these reminded me of so many country churches in which my father had been minister and preached, coming as he did from the same Reformed tradition.

One moment will always remain with me, for the minister was at the beginning of the service not entirely sure of my motives for attending worship. As each hymn was announced, an attendant would make the sure the visitors had found the hymn in question (occasionally with an English version). We used the hymn book that had been published under the auspices of the Korean Christian Federation in 1983. The second hymn I recognised and sang lustily. As I did so, the minister looked over, realising I was quite familiar with this type of activity. He caught my eye and smiled ever so slightly. The recognition was clear. The announcements at the close of worship included a welcome for the visitors. It was said with genuine warmth.

After the benediction, the visitors were ushered out of the church. A handshake and farewell from the minister was followed by a number of other handshakes. The congregation remained in the church for further activities. Perhaps a Bible study, perhaps a parish meeting – I can only guess.

The question remains as to how all this is possible, especially in a country so systematically demonised. We must begin with the constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion and state support for church buildings and ministerial staff. Of course, one must obey the laws of the land, which include the forbidding of proselytising and any breach of sovereignty. Foreigners are free to worship, as are Koreans. This includes Christianity, as well as Buddhism and the uniquely Korean religion, Chondoism.

Further, since the late 1970s, Christians, who had been worshipping informally but had developed a form of Christian socialism, began to worship openly again. Among Protestants, the Korean Christian Federation was reactivated (originally formed in 1948). Churches were rebuilt or built anew, a theological college opened, Bibles and hymn books were printed, and a religion department (within philosophy) was opened at Kim Il Sung University. Today, Protestants number over 12,000, with more than 30 ministers and 300 church officials. They been actively encouraged to worship openly, although some continue in informal house churches.

The Federation has been increasingly engaged internationally. A crucial period was during the ‘arduous march’ of the 1990s, when the Korean economy all but collapsed due to the end of support from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, along with devasting floods and hail storms. The Federation was instrumental, through the World Council of Churches, in securing significant food aid during the period. It became clear to the government and society at large that Christians in the north have the good of the country at heart.

All of this leads to the situation we have now, in which I and my partner were able to worship in Pyongyang in 2018. I hardly need to state the obvious: it was one of the most significant services I have ever attended.


Search for Meaning

‘Chinese people lack a sense of meaning’, he said. ‘They are lost, unsure of what counts, missing a core’.

Four of us sat around a small meal table, discussing the small, everyday things of life – such as life, death, politics and meaning.

‘But what about you?’ I asked. ‘Do you have a core set of beliefs by which you live your life?’

He nodded. ‘Yes, I do’.

‘And you?’ I said to woman next to him.

‘Yes, of course’, she said.

‘And you?’ Now to the woman next to me.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘But that’s exactly the problem. In a recent survey, about 70% said that China lacks a core set of beliefs by which to live. But when each person was asked whether she or he has such beliefs, 70% of them said yes, they do’.

This paradox set me searching. Three areas drew me in as I talked with people across China, one concerning the exchange of ideas, another the question of religion and meaning, and a third xiao, filial piety.

Exchanging Ideas: Between East and West

My first foray did not bode well for my search. I was talking with a woman after a lecture I had given for students and faculty at a major university in China. The topic was one on which I had spoken often – Marxism and religion.

‘I couldn’t understand what you were saying’, she said.

‘Was it my English?’ I said.

‘No, no’, she said. ‘We had the English text and a Chinese translation. I read through them both carefully. I could understand each sentence, but they didn’t seem to connect to make a main point’.

‘We’d call that missing the forest for the trees’, I said.

She laughed. ‘Exactly! That captures it’.

After this discussion I was a little alarmed. Had all those overflowing lecture halls, conference venues, small groups and intimate gatherings simply missed the point of what I had been saying until now? Was I that obtuse, unclear, muddled?

‘You know’, she said, ‘whenever a Chinese lecturer speaks, she or he goes straight to the main point, to the core issue. But when you, or any other outsider I have heard, speak, it seems like a mass of detail and I can’t find the main point’.

I had come across all manner of characterisations of Chinese or indeed Asian education. They are taught to listen and absorb the words of the master, it is said, never to think critically or question. On my first visit to China, I found that was absolute crap. Students fearlessly and vigorously challenge all and sundry on the big issues. Chinese academia is slowly catching up to other places, it is said, and it has a long way to go – quality control, intellectual depth, awareness of the richness of Western thought. They may occasionally stumble across the odd book from the West and become all excited about it, but they really don’t know what they are talking about. And on it goes – one chauvinistic piece of grandstanding after another.

But this conversation after my lecture set me thinking, inquiring, returning to ask more. For here lay a profound difference in intellectual life, a stumbling block for many a Chinese student heading overseas to pursue their studies elsewhere. Slowly what characterises a Western approach dawned on me – and the West really begins somewhere around Iran (ancient Persia) with a Near West and a Far West.

An argument works through a mass of detail to a carefully qualified conclusion, the main point held off until the end in a curious form of delayed satisfaction. On the way there it must wade through a mass of detailed commentary, struggle through the thick undergrowth of references and footnotes, deal with objections (real or imagined), until the conclusion. Like a hunter pursuing a particularly evasive quarry, it finally emerges triumphant, the tattered and sorry-looking central point held aloft triumphantly. Never mind that the reader or audience has been snoring for some time now.

By contrast, a Chinese speaker sprints at breakneck speed to the central issue. He or she states it boldly, clearly, and then explores its implications. Now the details appear, the careful attention to a text or idea, the confrontation with objections. Yet all of this is constantly drawn back to the main point, elaborating and reiterating it.

For students brought up in either tradition, the generic expectations become quite distinct, the modes of thought and listening move differently. To a Western student, a Chinese lecture or paper seems blunt and unsophisticated, missing the nuance of an argument. To a Chinese student, a Western speaker simply trots out endless detail, massing together loosely related ideas. During the process, the conclusion is lost amidst the clutter, as though one had no real point to make at all, as though one were afraid of dealing with anything important.

Search for Religious Meaning

Wondering if I would ever find the answer, I found myself at Jining, the birthplace of Confucius no less, speaking with a beautiful woman, with fine features and a glorious smile. (Was my search fated to such encounters?)

‘What is your advice?’ She said bluntly. ‘What religion, if any, should I choose?’

She had approached me after listening to a discussion on Jesus and Confucius. We agreed to walk around the lake, through exquisite gardens along winding paths. She told me of her love of French (the language), of her three years in France, of her teaching, of her daughter and husband, of her study of accounting and her dislike of that subject, of desires to study further. I listened, asked questions, mistook what she sought … thinking it may be a conventional desire to study overseas.

But no, she was in a search for meaning. Difficult to express without sounding corny, but it was very much a personal search, a desire to locate some core that seemed to escape her. Here at last was someone who admitted that she lacked a core set of beliefs – rather than attributing it to others.

‘Chinese are very practical’, she said. ‘If one god will help us achieve something, we follow that god. If another provides a new possibility, we follow that one’.

She had been struck by my self-identification as a Christian communist and wished to know what that meant. After I had explained, we returned again to that question, ‘what should I choose’.

‘Of course, I can’t tell you that’, I said. ‘That is up to you’.

She felt that in the face of rapid changes, of a Chinese modernism, of the appropriation of some elements of capitalist economic relations – in the face of all this, the world she once knew had been turned upside down. Where to search? The West gave false hopes and facile propaganda. The deep return to the Chinese classics, Confucius included, signalled that search and many possible answers. It struck me that such a search is not a signal of crisis but of an extraordinarily creative period in modern Chinese history, one simply not possible in so many places in the world.

But then I asked about her parents. ‘They are communists’, she said.

‘What about you?’ I said.

‘I don’t know’.

‘Do you think it is worth re-examining that extraordinary heritage you have, of engaging in some really creative rethinking over it? After all, I envy you deeply since you actually have had a communist revolution’.

Parents, Children and Filial Piety (Xiao)

In the end, the answer to my exploration of this paradox of meaning may well be found at the mundane, everyday level of relations between parents and children. How do they really get on in China?

I was intrigued by this question, since so many elderly live with their offspring. The thought of my mother – no matter how much I love her – or indeed both our mothers living with us is enough to give me the most dreadful nightmares. So how do they manage in China?

To begin with, the Confucian virtue of ‘filial piety’ (xiao) plays a crucial role. This is the cultural assumption that children of whatever age will show respect and deference to their parents, indeed any elders. Even a brief visit to China will soon evince the great respect and admiration shown for the very old. Of course, people complain that it is breaking down (that kind of narrative is trotted out about every young generation), but it is really as strong as ever.

Intrigued about all of this, I asked a friend whose mother lives with her: ‘what is it like? Does your mother still tell you what to do, like mine?’

‘No, she doesn’t need to’, was the response.

‘What do you mean?’ I said.

‘I know what I should do’, she said.

‘So your mother doesn’t tell you what you are doing wrong, ask where you have been, tell you should be doing something else?’

‘No’, she said.

‘But do you do what you are supposed to do?’ I asked.

‘Not always’, she said.

‘How does that work?’ I asked.

She went on to explain that even though she knows what she should do in respect to her mother, and even though her mother assumes that she is doing what she should do, she doesn’t always do it. Her mother never asks, and she never tells her mother, each one assuming that they are following the unwritten rules, while simultaneously knowing that they don’t.

Got it? It took me a while to figure out this deeper meaning of filial piety. But it makes sense, for in no other way would it be possible to live for years with one’s parents in the same place.

Is this perhaps the secret to the paradox with which I began? In this lived paradox of filial piety we might also find one answer to the paradox of the simultaneous absence and pervasive presence of meaning.

Snus, Satanism and the Veneer of the New: Norway and Its Contradictions

Norway defies expectations, as full of contradictions as it is of fjords and mountains: a European country that perpetually thinks of itself as on the periphery; a place where equality is regarded as the highest virtue and yet wealth is everywhere on display; an ancient society overlaid with a veneer of glittering modernity; a deeply conservative Christian place where Satanism is rife; an obsession with health and exercise with an incurable addiction to snus.

I had the chance to experience Norway, up close and personal, for more than three months while living in Oslo. During that time we immersed ourselves in the city, rode bicycles along the ragged, fjord-riddled coast, travelled by train over the ranges to Bergen and back. We lived there from late ‘summer’ to early winter. Why ‘summer’? In the same way that Australia really does not have winter, so also Norway does not have a decent summer – by which I mean 40 degree heatwaves, killer UV readings, beach swimming for nine months of the year. A tell-tale sign of the absence of a real summer is whether the people are heliotropic: do they unthinkingly move into a rare ray of sunlight? Do they dine al fresco when the sun looks like it just might peek out, even if they need winter furs and blankets to do so? Does everyone strip off and try to sunbake when the mercury gets above zero? If the answer is affirmative, you are in a place that has no summer. But the winters are stunning. The first snow-storm hit us in the early days of November – and that was late start to winter. No panic: snow-ploughs out, fingers itching to grab the cross-country skis, work forgotten at any excuse to get out and enjoy the crisp air.

Greenish-Yellow Blobs

Yet, as soon as I too set off to relish that winter air, I noticed two things: ice is slippery and strange yellowish blobs everywhere. As I stepped out of the door on the first icy morning, I almost went arse over tit. Looking up, I saw that people had automatically and unthinkingly adopted their winter shuffle: body held still, legs moving only below the knees, short steps. It was a skill I had learnt the hard way many years before through a series of Canadian winters. Eventually, bodily memory kicked in and I too was shuffling about like a local.

Once out on a Norwegian street, one cannot avoid locals engaged in some form of vigorous exercise. They may be pedalling bicycles furiously up one of the many hills, running deftly over the ice in slick winter gear, doing chin-ups while waiting for the traffic lights to change, beating a path through the forest on skis, calling to one another in that strange lilt with the falling inflexion. And out on the street, one cannot avoid the other side of that obsession with exercise: striding along, I soon found I had to step carefully, for the footpath was spattered with green-and-yellow gobs – and that was just the fresh ones. When I first encountered these deposits, I wondered: does everyone have sinus infections here? Is it the water? The climate? The brown cheese – myseost? No, I finally found out: it’s the snus. Not quite chewing tobacco, snus is a small satchel of finely cut tobacco that you stick in your mouth, preferably high up under your lip so that it sits snugly on your gum, and let the nicotine seep into your system that way. Much beloved in Sweden as well, it produces a nicotine-soaked population, receding gums, teeth problems, warnings from dentists, and big yellow-green balls of snot to spit out on the footpath. All that pure health, clean air and vigorous exercise cannot avoid this love affair with small doses of poison – or is it that such obvious vigour is impossible without snus?

Religion, on the Dark Side

Dig a little deeper and the more of this enigmatic country rises slowly to the surface. On my walk on an early winter’s day, after dodging fair, fit and snus-gobbing locals, I find myself in a hillside graveyard full of granite stones silhouetted in snow. At the top of the hill I enter a church, a Norwegian Lutheran church where worship is under way. Well-maintained and a little over-staffed, the church still enjoys the benefits of state patronage; although in typical Norwegian fashion, so do all other religious and quasi-religious groups. Unlike Sweden, which has recently disestablished the church, and unlike Denmark, which maintains its state (Lutheran) church, Norway has both disestablished the church and yet not. Depending on their size, all religious groups may receive state support (even the humanists!), and yet the Lutheran Church remains the official church of the state.

Why? The largely secular population believes that the church is actually a beneficial feature of their society – but only if liberal bishops are appointed. But what does the church’s own membership think? In the church in which I worship, the grey-hair out the front is a smiling liberal, entertaining the well-dressed children and adults. He may be favoured by the secularists, but not the majority of nationwide church members, especially outside the major cities. Notoriously conservative, or rather, pietistic, the majority would prefer complete separation from the state – so that they may decide their own affairs, their own leaders, their own doctrinal directions.

At the same time, Satanism is rife. Satanism? On a train I see a couple with a child decked out in all the black and silver of Satanic heavy metal; in a conversation in the early hours, my friends tell me of church burnings, black masses and desecrated tomb-stones. Apparently, Norway is one of the few countries where some actually believe the occult posturing of heavy metal bands (and all their derivatives). My friends attribute it to the late modernisation of Norway, to the dominance of pietism (so that Satanism becomes a natural obverse), to the deep and long northern winters, to the veneer of modern and official secularism, to the persistence of ancient tribalism in the midst of a late modernisation …

Perhaps there is something in that last point: Jorunn keeps insisting that Norway passed from a pre-modern tribalism to a post-modern tribalism, without a long period where the private individual was worshipped. If so, it is a mixed blessing, for tribalism can be incredibly supportive and parochial, inclusive and narrow-minded, minding their own and rejecting outsiders.

Wealth versus Equality

It takes little time to stumble onto the next contradiction, as any visitor to Norway can soon attest. Try to buy a loaf of bread and you will have little change from ten dollars (60 kroner); buy a beer and you will soon see why people nurse one drink for a night; try to buy a train ticket and realise you need either to sell a vital organ first and take out a bank loan. In other words, bargains are not always obvious in Norway. The very same item – say, prawn-cheese (I kid you not) – that costs 50 kroner in ‘expensive’ Denmark, just across the water, costs 200 kroner in Norway. The reputation for being one of the most expensive countries in the world is fully justified. Why? Mistake? Taxes? Distance? None of the above, for money courses through the Norwegian economy from North Sea oil. It funds efforts to put Norway on the map, such as the Holberg and Nobel Prizes, the glitter of Oslo, obscenely expensive apartments on the foreshore, the ‘future fund’, set aside for a time when the oil runs out, and some very high wages.

Wealth separates, does it not, between the haves and the have-nots, the latter producing the wealth of the former? The desire for wealth makes one strive to crush your best friend in order to make a buck. Not so in Norway, or at least in the public opinion of Norwegians. In survey after survey, Norwegians will state their highest value is likestilling. Difficult to translate, it includes the senses of equality and justice. It hardly needs to be pointed out that equality and justice sit very awkwardly with a cashed-up Norway. How can you espouse equality when the money that is everywhere obvious relies upon and produces inequality? And it is not that everyone is wealthy, that poverty no longer exists in the country. Is it blindness to the reality of life, or is it the problem of the new (wealth) sitting uncomfortably on the old (collective values)?

Veneer of the New

The longer I stayed in Norway, the more I felt it was a case of the latter: the new really is a recent and hastily applied veneer over much older patterns of life. Four examples: one from the villages, another from Oslo itself, a third from bodies and their clothes, and a final one concerning peripheries.

Cycle around the coastal fjords, as I did, and you soon come across a fishing village with a few houses perched on the rocks. Small for heat retention, looking to the sea which until recently was the only mode of transport, wind-blown, often ice-bound, these houses look like they have grown out of the rocks. And yet, incongruously, in the harbour is a massive, new and gleaming oil ship – a tanker perhaps, or a service ship for the oil platforms with a helicopter perched on the bridge, a pipeline ship or a coastal patrol.

Or cycle through Oslo and you cannot not escape the sheer glitter of the city: the vast sheets of perspex and glass, shiny steel, glistening freeways and cranes dancing gracefully to their own rhythms. Oslo continues to transform itself into a ‘modern’ city, with high-rises, freeways, the constant process of destruction and recreation. Along the foreshores of the stunning fjord on which the city sits are ever more sparkling apartment buildings, built just yesterday. Yet all you need do is dig a little and the older stones and patterns of the city emerge: a worn street sign with Danish spelling, cracked bitumen under which an ancient paving stone lies, a gravestone that speaks of hardship and a short life, a rock on a chimney that speak of older building practices.

Yet perhaps the best way to put all this is in terms of bodies. As I travel, I love to observe the way people in different cultures carry their bodies. The almost imperceptible differences show up in a tilt of the head, a way of walking, the way one stands, lost in thought, the modes of inter-personal interaction. On the streets in Norway I was struck by a sense of discomfort. The expensive clothes were worn with little sense of how they should be worn; high heels looked not glamorous but awkward, lycra gear for every form of exercise simply looked ludicrous. Danes would scoff at uncultured Norwegian peasants and fisher-folk. I prefer to see it as a bodily manifestation of the contradictions I have traced: the new sits oddly on a collection of older customs, values and ways of living.


And one of the most persistent expressions of those older ways came as a complete surprise: the perpetually expressed sense that Norway is country on the periphery of the world. For someone coming from Australia I found this ridiculous: is not Norway in Europe? Does not the plane require a half-degree variation from Singapore to head to Oslo? Do not Norwegians travel, incessantly? Yes, yes and yes, but still the peripheral sense persists. It may be expressed by a wealthy middle-class professor who spends all his time abroad, from a close friend who was mortified at having to move back to Norway, from constant comments about Danish imperialism, or from the incurable habit of Norwegians to look southward. Admittedly, if the world is Europe, then Norway does seem a little peripheral; and if your imperial masters (the Danes and then Swedes) characterise you as marginal barbarians, then it probably sticks after a few centuries; and if the train to Oslo used to be a two-car affair that broke off from the main train at Göteborg, then you may feel shunted off to the side. But I read it in a different way: the contradiction of a place that feels peripheral and yet is not, in which the old and new sit together uncomfortably, unmediated and rubbing up against one another.

In Zinzendorf Territory: Deep in the Snow and Christian Communism of Herrnhut

Icy Arrival

‘We are certainly in the sticks’, she said, looking out the window of the rail motor taking us from Dresden to Löbau, deep in the southeast of Germany, close by the Czech and Polish borders. Through the darkness, through heavy snow swirling about in the strong wind, the rail motor seemed to be cutting its way through a blanket. Ahead, its headlight barely made out the way ahead; behind it, a cloud of snow billowed in its passing. Inside, a rotund man dug a piece of those omnipresent German sausages from the back of teeth, farted and burped and settled in for the ride. At Löbau, we were the only ones to disembark, slipping on the ice of a platform that showed little evidence of salt, gravel or snow shovel. From here it was to be the last bus of the night, so we waited at the bus stop with chattering teeth, hoping the driver had not decided to stay in his warm home, or that he had not slid off the road on an icy corner on his way to pick us up.

Arrive he finally did, albeit without a smile or a word of welcome. “Hernhut’, I said, clumping snow off my shoes, shaking out scarves and gloves and hats. We had the bus to ourselves, along with the surly driver who obviously wished he were warm at home, wondering why he had to do runs like this with barely a passenger on board, peering through windscreen wipers desperately trying to sluice away the snow that kept pelting the windscreen.

As the snowstorm thickened, I imagined Herrnhut as a collection of a few houses and a church, with but one stop in the middle of the night and a single light showing us the place in which we were to stay. So at the first hint of settlement – the closed-down Herrnhut Bahnhoff – we clambered off the bus, full of anticipation … Not a welcoming light in sight, not a clump of houses or a church to be seen. All that greeted us was an icy road winding its way into the gloom and a faint light or two in the distance. Anticipating few opportunities to find food out here, we had stocked up for the week, with the result that I had two large, heavy bags along with my backpack. At least I had two, for that way I felt balanced, with both arms stretching out, threatening to become dislocated at the shoulders with every slipping step on the ice.

Eventually the village emerged, but not a soul was to be seen who might help us with directions. At last a light, a person in the window absorbed in a task. So we knocked, asked directions in broken German and were told to walk further. Meanwhile the slope changed from downhill to uphill, so now one threatened to slip backwards rather than forwards.

‘That’s it’, she said. I breathed a sigh of relief only to find that it was merely a sign to our lodging, through Zinzendorfer Platz and by the curious church, down a narrow road festooned with strange Christmas stars shining in the night. I was later to learn that these multi-pointed stars, of all sizes, lit from within, were an invention and product of the Brüdergemeinde, the Moravian Brethren, whose spiritual home was here, in this small village of Herrnhut. Now the stars are sold throughout the world, but to see them decking out the whole street was strongly welcoming after our trek, an invitation to an inn, dry and warm inside. I just hoped that inn wasn’t full.

Thankfully, it wasn’t, but it took the man on duty an eternity to appear after we knocked. Middle-aged, peaceful, moustached, he said he had been waiting for us at the main bus stop in the middle of the village, just opposite the church. When we didn’t step off the bus, he had said to himself, ‘it will be a long night’. Apparently, we had mistakenly disembarked too early in our eagerness to find our lodgings. Perhaps it was the trudge through a cold and snowy night, laden with food and packs that made the spacious room seem all the more luxurious. But it was the cheapest and best accommodation we had found anywhere in Europe – a blessing of the remainders of the communist east, perhaps, along with its location in small village. Even then, we later found out that it was actually the most expensive around …

Zinzendorf, Herrnhutters and Christian Communism

The next five days, during which the snow continued to pile higher and higher, before I had to leave again for Amsterdam, were among the most peaceful and restoring days I have experienced in a long time. Far from the madding crowd, in a village of stone houses dating back to the early eighteenth century, it was where the Moravian Brethren had come in dribs and drabs from persecution under the Habsburgs in Moravia and Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic). One element of the Radical Reformation that was so strong in that part of the world, they had been invited by Ludwig, Count of Zinzendorf, to find refuge on his estate. A man of extraordinary energy and significant political influence, with a vivid imagination and deeply spiritual, if not charismatic tendencies, Zinzendorf sought, among others, a spiritual renewal in the Lutheran Church.

He had been influenced by his mother’s pietism, but he was also taken with the image of Christian communism found in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament:

And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need (Acts 2:44-5).

Now the company of all those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need (Acts 4:32-5).

But it was to be a while before these ideals were reformulated for the renewed movement of the Moravian Brethren. The dribs and drabs that fled to Zinzendorf’s estate at Berthelsdorf, whom he encouraged to build the community of Herrnhut on a corner of his estate, were a cantankerous, argumentative lot, given to apocalyptic fervour and expectation. So bad did the dissension and struggles become that some, among them the Moravian leader, Christian David, saw in Zinzendorf the anti-Christ. Sensing the urgent need to deal with the crisis, Zinzendorf gave up his imperial post in Dresden and returned hastily to his estate. He threw himself into the fray, visited all and sundry, exercised his considerable influence and cajoled, threatened and persuaded the people that strife was not the proper mode of Christian living, but that peaceful, communal cooperation was what the New Testament suggested as the ideal for Christian communities.

From then on, Zinzendorf became spiritual leader (eventually a bishop in the Lutheran Church), preacher, theologian, hymn writer, financier, organiser and missionary director. Eventually, all the hard work killed him by the age of 60. By then, however, the small Moravian community had been organised on the terms of the old Unitas Fratrem (a document of which Zinzendorf had happened upon in his reading), into ‘bands’ or ‘choirs’ of men and women, living in communal houses for single men and women, married couples and children. In the process, his vivid imagination developed a discourse concerning the human body and sex that came well before its supposed appearance in nineteenth century Europe. Through guidelines for the ‘choirs’ of young men and women concerning their bodily changes at puberty, matter-of-fact ways of dealing with discharges, a valuing of sex as the symbol of the union of the believer with Christ, Zinzendorf and the Moravians sought to remove the shame and stigma associated with sexual bodies. Of course, it did produce a new form of policing sex and bodies, a way of making them public knowledge and unabashed topics of open conversation.

And Zinzendorf was fascinated by blood, especially the blood of Jesus that poured from the hole cut in his side on the cross. There, he felt, was the moment of salvation, when one nestled in that hole and was washed clean by the blood that flowed freely for our sins. Later Moravian leaders felt called upon, in all due modesty and with a concern that it might appear a little wacky, to tone down the explicitness of this imagery in the theology, instructions and hymns, but not before it influenced the likes of John and Charles Wesley and their fledgling Methodist movement in England.

Within two decades of the renewal and charismatic awakening – at a moment in 1727, or so the story goes, during worship in the Bertheldorf church, the ‘spirit’ was felt to move powerfully among the congregation – the community had sent out missionaries, well before the massive Protestant push of the nineteenth century, to what were literally, from a European perspective, the ends of the earth: Africa, Central America (the Moskito Coast), the Caribbean, Australia, Siberia, Greenland, Labrador, the far East. As a proper noble, Zinzendorf first asked permission from the European colonial headquarters, where there was one, using family and political connections with the royalty of Europe to do so. But he also faced much criticism that he was sending men and women to their deaths. So Zinzendorf set out himself to show that it could be done, spending time in the Caribbean and North America (albeit not Greenland, Labrador, Africa or Australia).

As a result, the movement had an impact way beyond its size, with the deep piety coursing its way through the Lutheran churches, the hymns taken up into many a hymn-book, the missions producing a worldwide movement which today has 700,000 members, even though only 30,000 may be found in Europe.

Village Life

What does all this mean for village life today in the deep east of Germany, the spiritual home of the world-wide Moravians? Despite the Roman Catholic Church in town, it does mean that many in the village are part of the Moravian church, as well as those in surrounding towns and villages. We were there just before Christmas, so the Moravians would come for the almost daily Advent services, prayer meetings and concerts in the extraordinary church building. That building is vaulted, if starkly white and cleared, in good Reformation fashion, of any ornamentation and distraction from one’s focus on God and the spiritual life (we attended one such service to see what it was like). With their continued, although modified, patterns of communal living and deep spiritual introspection, it seems to give the village a greater sense of quiet than you would otherwise find. Walking around town, immersing myself in Moravian history, trekking over to Zinzendorf’s home in Berthelsdorf, peering towards the Hungarian, Czech and Polish borders barely a few kilometres away, I encountered stares rather than glances at the newcomer or visitor, the open perusal and assessment of a new face in town, the small concerns of everyday life that loomed large, and not a little parochialism.

The Moravian Brethren also made a small difference on the depth of the economic recession that afflicted Europe at the time (Christmas 2010, more than two years after the spectacular global economic crisis of 2008). In Herrnhut, unemployment was at about 10 percent; around about it was a staggering 25 percent. Deep in old communist territory, it was one of those regions that had still not achieved the GDP of 1989, before the Berlin Wall came down. The former Eastern Bloc was still at the rough end of a capitalist makeover that had not dealt kindly with those countries in more than two decades. One could still see factories and plants that had been peremptorily closed, depriving people of employment that had in many cases not returned, apart from farm work.

But the Moravians had been through worse before, for Zinzendorf himself was not the best financial manager. Sole financier of the early community, he soon enough found himself raising loans, teetering on bankruptcy, until the Brethren met and decided that they needed to take this matter at least out of the count’s busy hands. From the middle of the eighteenth century, they established firmer economic foundations for the community, based on a simple life, pooled resources, self-sufficiency and careful attention to what would work.

It seems to have worked – not a bad legacy of Christian communism.