“Despite its superficial permissiveness, liberal democracy is degenerating into something resembling the totalitarianism over which it triumphed in the Cold War,” writes author Rod Dreher in Live Not by Lies, a 2020 work about what former Eastern European dissidents can teach us about resisting oppressive regimes. (xiv) Under this new totalitarianism, “Elites and elite institutions are abandoning old-fashioned liberalism based in defending the rights of the individual and replacing it with a progressive creed that regards justice in terms of groups. It encourages people to identify with groups—ethnic, sexual, and otherwise—and to think of good and evil as a matter of power dynamics among the groups. A utopian vision drives these progressives, one that compels them to rewrite history and reinvent language to reflect their ideals of social justice.” (xi)
Like under communism, the new totalitarianism taking hold in America and the West is aggressively trying to suppress Christianity and Christians. Why? Because Christianity defends the inherent dignity of the individual, who was created in the image and likeness of God. It demands a loyalty stronger than that given to any secular ideology, and dares to contradict the claims of one of the dominant drivers of the ruling ideology—the sexual revolution—regarding permissive sex, sexual orientation, sexual identity, and abortion.
In particular, the new totalitarianism, again like its communist predecessor, is fiercely attacking the traditional Christian family. As Mary Ebserstadt writes in her book How the West Really Lost God, the fates of the traditional family and Christianity are intertwined; weaken the family, and you weaken Christianity, as the family is the primary transmission belt of Christianity. Indeed, the decline of Christianity in the West over the past few centuries can be directly linked to the decline of the traditional family over that same period of time.
So what can East European dissidents teach us about creating strong families to oppose the new oppression? “There is a strong model of anti-totalitarian resistance based in the Christian family: the Benda clan of Prague,” writes Dreher. “The Bendas 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.” (129) In addition to his imprisonment, Benda was regularly harassed, put under surveillance, and interrogated by the secret police. Along with the better known dissident Vaclav Havel (who would later become president of post-communist Czechoslovakia), Benda was a top leader of the Czech dissident movement and one of the few believing Christians in a leadership role.
Benda was a strong supporter of the traditional Christian family as he “believed that the family is the bedrock of civilization, and must be nurtured and protected at all costs,” writes Dreher. (130) In his essay “The Family and the Totalitarian State” written in the winter of 1987-88, Benda wrote that “the family was always a thorn in the eye for Communist totalitarianism.” Indeed, along with the Church, “the family showed remarkable resistance with regard to totalitarianism” and remained “an unresolved problem for it today.” As a result, the communist state did all it could to weaken the traditional family. Two of the key ways it did this was by having liberal divorce and abortion laws; indeed, Eastern European countries under communism had (and some still have today) some of the highest divorce and abortion rates in the world.
However, Benda wrote that the traditional Christian family had to remain strong as it was “a visible embodiment of the three most fundamental gifts or dignities that a person could receive.” First, the family gives us the “fruitful fellowship of love, in which we are bound together with our neighbor without pardon by virtue simply of our closeness; not on the basis or merit, rights and entitlements….” Second, the family gives us the gift of true freedom, where “we are able to make permanent, eternal decisions; every marriage promise that is kept, every fidelity in defiance of adversity, is a radical defiance of our finitude, something that elevates us—and with us all created corporeally—higher than angels.” Third, the family supports “dignity and [the] unique role of the individual. In practically all other social roles, we are replaceable and can be relieved of them, whether rightly or wrongly. However, such a cold calculation of justice does not reign between husband and wife, between children and parents, but rather the law of love.” Because of these three benefits, “I consider marriage and family to be so essential that I am unwilling to accept the regular cliches about liberation from these obligations.” Indeed, marriage would mean nothing if it is “an experiment from which one can retreat during the first serious collision, if one is allowed to follow one’s own discretion in eradicating unborn children and rejecting children already born….”
Significantly, Benda states that the family cannot be strong unless Christ is at the center of it: “The family cannot survive if the head and center is one of its own members. The Christian statement is simple; it has to be Christ who is the true center and in His service the individual members of this community share in the work of their salvation. One hopes that the well-grounded family can exist even without this distinctively religious affiliation; however, the focus of service to something ‘beyond,’ whether we call it love, truth or something else, seems essential.”
So how did Benda and his wife Kamila create a strong family that served as a bulwark against communist totalitarianism? First of all, by taking marriage seriously and supporting a culture of life; the Benda marriage ended only upon Vaclav’s death in 1999 and their 6 kids showed their support for life. But what else did the Bendas do to create a strong family that was able to resist totalitarianism? After meeting with the Benda family in 2018, Dreher learned that Vaclav and Kamila did six key things. First, the Bendas modeled “moral courage.” “’Our parents were heroes for us,’ says Patrik. ‘My father was the sheriff from the High Noon movie.’” Another son Marek added: “’Watching High Noon really formed our way of fighting evil… Everyone is asking the sheriff to leave so the that the town will have no problems from the bad guys. But the sheriff comes back nevertheless, because his virtue and honor can’t allow him to leave. He is looking for assistance, but no one wants to do that. But his wife helps him in the end. In some way, this was our family’s story. This is what our father and mother did.’”
Second, the Bendas filled their children’s “moral imagination with the good.” Every day for several hours, Kamila would read to her children books that built up their moral muscles. Dreher writes: “Patrik [a son] says the key is to expose children to stories that help them know the difference between truth and falsehood, and teach them how to discern this in real life.” (138) One of the children’s favorite books was J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. “’Mom read The Lord of the Rings to us maybe six times,’ recalls Philip [a son]. ‘It’s about the East versus the West. The elves on one side and the goblins on the other. And when you know the book, you see that you first need to fight the evil empire…’”
Third, the Bendas were “not afraid to be weird in society’s eyes.” Dreher writes: “They brought them up to understand that they, as Christians, were not to go along to get along in their totalitarian society. Vaclav and Kamila knew that if they did not strongly impart that sense of difference to their children, they risked losing them to propaganda and to widespread conformity to the totalitarian system.” (139)
Fourth, Vaclav and Kamila were prepared “to make great sacrifices for the greater good.” While Vaclav was in prison for his dissident activities, the authorities offered to release him if he and his family would emigrate to the West. Upon learning of the offer in a letter from Vaclav, Kamila was adamant that they reject the it. “’I wrote back to tell him no, that he would be better off staying in prison to fight for what we believe is true,’ she tells me.’” (140) Dreher states: “Think of it: This woman was raising six children alone, in a communist totalitarian state. But she affirmed by her own willingness to sacrifice—and to sacrifice a materially more comfortable and politically free life for her children—for the greater good.” (140) And the Benda children understood this lesson. “’Dad believed that even though things were bad, and he was suffering, and that he didn’t see positive consequences from his actions, that there is a good God who will eventually win the battle,’ adds Marketa, one of the Benda daughters. ‘God will eventually win, even though I may not see it in my life. So my suffering is not meaningless, because I am part of a greater battle that will be victorious in the end. That is what our father showed us by his life.’” (141) Daughter Marketa added her father’s faith gave him the courage to make the sacrifices he did: ‘”He believed that he was accountable before God, not before people. It didn’t matter to him when other people didn’t understand why he did the things he did. He acted in the sight of God. As you know, the Bible gave him strength, because it is full of stories of the prophets and others going beyond the border of what was comprehensible or understandable to people, for the sake of obeying the Lord.’” (141)
Fifth, the Bendas taught their children that “they are part of a wider movement.” Dreher writes: “Though Vaclav and Kamila held their Catholic beliefs uncompromisingly within the family, they showed their children by example the importance of working with good and decent people outside the moral and theological community of the church.” (142) As son Patrik says: “’In Charter 77 [Czech dissident organization], you had people of totally different worldviews and ideas joined together… You had, for example, democratic socialists on the one side and fervent Catholics on the other side. It was totally normal for me that as a small child, I was being raised in a community of people with very different opinions. So it shattered the bubble around me.’”
Finally, the Bendas would “practice hospitality and serve others.” The Bendas sponsored underground seminars in their home to keep alive Czech culture and would support people on their way to be interrogated by the police. (The Benda apartment was near the headquarters of the secret police.) “Up to twenty people would show up every day at the Benda flat, seeking advice, comfort, and community. And after police released the suspects, they would return to the Benda home. Whether or not they had come through without breaking, or had given up information under duress, Kamila offered them a cup of tea and a glass of wine and encouragement,” Dreher relates. (143-44) The Bendas did this as a way to combat the atomization of society that the totalitarian state was trying to create in order to make people more dependent on the state rather than each other. Dreher writes: “[I]t was important for ordinary people to come together and to be reminded or one another’s existence. In a time when people have forgotten how to be neighbors, simply sharing a meal or a movie together is a political act. This, I say, is a way to fight back against the loneliness and isolation that allows the totalitarian state to rule.” (145)
In his book Live Not by Lies, author Rod Dreher shows us how Czech dissidents Vaclav and Kamila Benda are a model of how the traditional family, and the Christian faith underlying it, can be strongholds against the onslaught of a totalitarian state committed to destroying them. In addition to remaining true to one’s marriage vows and supporting a culture of life, if today’s families in America and the West can 1) model courage; 2) fill the moral imagination of children with the good; 3) not be afraid to be weird in society’s eyes; 4) make sacrifices for the greater good; 5) teach children that they are part of a wider movement; and 6) practice hospitality and serving others, they can serve as resistance cells against the totalitarian forces of political correctness, identity politics, and the sexual revolution. As Dreher writes: “For the Benda family of Prague, their purpose is first to serve God and then to serve others. They did it under communism and they are doing it under post-Christian liberalism. It’s a family tradition.” (145)
Let’s hope we can do the same.