Vaclav Benda was a Czech Roman Catholic activist and intellectual. He wrote a number of essays during the time of communist rule of his homeland and after the establishment of a free Czech state. While a young man and university student, he refused to join the communist party, and this led him to counter-cultural involvement, among them the signing and advocacy of Charter 77 which was published January 1, 1977 in Prague. He was imprisoned as a dissident between 1979 and 1983 by the totalitarian communist regime. In this posting I quote from the text of Charter 77 and list Benda’s call to action in his essay The Parallel Polis.
Allow for a brief background to the writing and publishing Charter 77. Oddly, the motivation of Charter 77 came about after the arrest of a rock band called Plastic People of the Universe. Their performance was considered subversive and caused a disturbance of the peace. The band members were imprisoned for durations lasting up to 18 months for some of them. Opposition to their imprisonment arose from the communist government’s violation of human rights outlined by the Helsinki Accord which it signed prior to the arrest of the band. Though written in December of 1976, its grievances are strikingly relevant to the situations throughout the western world in 2021 as brought about by western governments’ institution of restrictions of freedoms as reactions to the Covid 19 pandemic (it is now endemic as is influenza).
The right to freedom of expression, for example, guaranteed by Article 19 of the first-mentioned covenant, is in our case purely illusory. Tens of thousands of our citizens are prevented from working in their own fields for the sole reason that they hold views differing from official ones, and are discriminated against and harassed in all kinds of ways by the authorities and public organizations. Deprived as they are of any means to defend themselves, they become victims of a virtual apartheid.
Hundreds of thousands of other citizens are denied that “freedom from fear” mentioned in the preamble to the first covenant, being condemned to the constant risk of unemployment or other penalties if they voice their own opinions.
In violation of Article 13 of the second-mentioned covenant, guaranteeing everyone the right to education, countless young people are prevented from studying because of their own views or even their parents’. Innumerable citizens live in fear of their own or their children’s right to education being withdrawn if they should ever speak up in accordance with their convictions…
…Freedom of public expression is inhibited by the centralized control of all the communication media and of publishing and cultural institutions. No philosophical, political or scientific view or artistic activity that departs ever so slightly from the narrow bounds of official ideology or aesthetics is allowed to be published; no open criticism can be made of abnormal social phenomena; no public defense is possible against false and insulting charges made in official propaganda.
Charter 77 continues,
Freedom of religious confession, emphatically guaranteed by Article 18 of the first covenant, is continually curtailed by arbitrary official action; by interference with the activity of churchmen, who are constantly threatened by the refusal of the state to permit them the exercise of their functions, or by the withdrawal of such permission; by financial or other transactions against those who express their religious faith in word or action; by constraints on religious training and so forth.
One instrument for the curtailment or in many cases complete elimination of many civic rights is the system by which all national institutions and organizations are in effect subject to political directives from the machinery of the ruling party and to decisions made by powerful individuals. The constitution of the republic, its laws and legal norms do not regulate the form or content, the issuing or application of such decisions; they are often only given out verbally, unknown to the public at large and beyond its powers to check; their originators are responsible to no one but themselves and their own hierarchy…
I remind you the words were written in response to the oppression encountered in communist Czechoslovakia of the mid-1970s. If one cannot see the frightening correspondence to current events in, e.g., the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Austria, Australia and New Zealand, one’s head is well buried in the proverbial sand.
Although the composition of Charter 77 was of importance, it did not yield sustained action. Benda writes in comment to the lack of action,
The moral attitude was postulated abstractly, without raising any concrete issues or aims. An abstract moral stance, however, is merely a gesture; it may be terribly effective at the time, but it cannot be sustained for more than a few weeks or months (from The Parallel Polis).
In response to the failure to bring continued action, Benda wrote his essay The Parallel Polis. In it he moves his readers from any hope of change brought about by protest to actions of creating parallel societal structures to create a free people living in these alternatives to the communist totalitarian realities. We have his words,
I suggest that we join forces in creating, slowly but surely, parallel structures that are capable, to a limited degree at least, of supplementing the generally beneficial and necessary functions that are missing in the existing structures, and where possible, to use those existing structures, to humanize them…
Even if such structures were only partially successful, they would bring pressure to bear on the official structures, which would either collapse…or regenerate themselves in a useful way.
In The Parallel Polis Benda then lays out specific parallel structures to be created by the Czechoslovaks:
1) Parallel structure of education, scientific, and scholarly life. I consider the organization of a parallel education system to be of utmost importance.
For contemporary Christians home schooling has existed for decades and, hopefully, will continue, especially in these days where, for example in Washington State, primary school students — children — are sexually “educated” to freely express and explore their sexuality as children. In any other decade prior to this day such “education” would be called what is really is — grooming. For the intact family home schooling or attendance of a private Christian school is a real possibility, but for the struggling family, the single parent family, churches and other independent institutions should open up such possibilities for those students who would otherwise be “thrown to the wolves” in these perverse public school districts.
2) A parallel information network. It is even more urgent for these groups to establish mutual connections and create autonomous information networks of their own…[Benda encouraged them to seek]…other means of reproduction besides the typewriter.
In our day alternative media platforms are being pursued and by now even created.But perhaps we should seek to rediscover non-digital/electronic forms of communication to secure our words from government / media censorship.
3) A Parallel Economy. At the moment, the tasks facing us in the parallel economy are unimaginable, but though our opportunities are limited, the need to exploit them is urgent.The regime treats the economy as a key means of arbitrarily manipulating citizens and, at the same time, it regulates it as strictly as possible…Our community ought to be based on a system of mutual guarantees that are both moral and material.
Today, parishes, friends, and neighbors can mutually band together cooperatively to set up for informal gardening, child care, lending practices, etc., that are “off the grid” if they are not already functioning.If we who refuse to submit to the “tyranny of the jab,” vaccine passports, and other totalitarian threats are forced to retreat from most traditional engagements in commerce must find ways to support basic sustenance.
4) Parallel Political Structures. This would include a wide range of activities, from raising people’s awareness of their civic responsibilities, to creating the proper conditions for political discussion and the formulations of theoretical points of view.It would also include support for concrete currents and groupings.
Sometimes quite seriously, and sometimes in jest, I would declare my political identity to be somewhere between a “pro-life Democrat and a green Republican.”The time for such sentiment is over.We have been betrayed by both parties in the past, and now because of the adverse influences of current political extremes, no moderation is possible, and any true populism and its promise of a new way has been smeared by the media which is entrenched in the power structures which have led to our present condition. In these times true freedom loving liberals and conservatives must see beyond the boundaries and definitions of the past and ignore and dismiss the shrill voices of extremists who only wish to destroy and not create.
The Parallel Polis or Society — it does not need to be invented or created de novo. It exists in the Church and has always existed and embodied by her since the day of Pentecost (please read my earlier posting, The Parallel Society) The Parallel Society has to be local. The Parallel Society will not reform Washington D.C., London, Dublin, Ottawa, Canberra, or Vienna. They are corrupted and cancerous. It needs to be local and intimate. This orientation will lead to strong parishes / congregations where mutual support is solid and we of faith can embody St. Paul’s words,
Do nothing from selfishness and conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but to the interests of others (Phil 2: 3 – 4).
In and by the Triune God and through his Parallel Society, the Church, let our light — the light of Christ — shine forth and welcome in all who seek this Community; by any and all adversity encountered grow more completely in the image of God.