One of the most striking memories of my childhood is a small newsletter that carried the photograph of an emaciated elderly man. Beneath the photo was a story detailing this man’s arrest at the hands of the Soviet secret police for the crime of worshiping Christ together with other believers in an “underground” church. This man’s story was the first of many stories I read about in the newsletters my parents received several times per year during the final days of the Soviet Union. I learned of believers who were dragged from their homes, thrown in concentration camps, tortured, and killed because they worshiped in underground churches, and pledged allegiance to an Authority higher than the Soviet state.
Later, as a teenager, I discovered the writings of Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian pastor who dared to oppose Communism publicly and who refused to quit leadership of a large underground network of Christian pastors and churches. As a result, he was imprisoned for nearly fifteen years, including three years of solitary confinement. During his imprisonment, he was beaten, burned, carved with a knife, and otherwise tortured. After being ransomed and brought to the United States, he testified before the U.S. Senate’s Internal Security Subcommittee, taking his shirt off to show the scars from years of torture.
Decades later, as I am researching authoritarian and totalitarian temptations in free societies, I pulled out Wurmbrand’s Tortured for Christ to read it once again. Having recently written short articles interacting with thinkers—Hannah Arendt, Mircea Eliade, Raymond Aron, and Ryszard Legutko—who warn us about Marxism’s totalizing impulse, I thought it helpful to tell a little bit of Wurmbrand’s story and quote him at length. Doing so allows us to experience tangibly the terrors of Marxist ideology that are expressed abstractly by the authors above.
Having outlined his life briefly, we will now “hear” from Wurmbrand’s own voice. Consider these excerpts an “Open Letter from Richard Wurmbrand on Why the West Should Resist Marxism.”
Greater Love Hath No Man
Our first excerpt comes from, “Greater Love Hath No Man,” the second chapter of Tortured for Christ. In it, he gives the reader a glimpse of the brutal torture pastors and other Christians experienced at the hands of Soviet secret police and prison guards:
A pastor by the name of Florescu was tortured with red-hot iron pokers and knives. He was beaten very badly. Then starving rats were driven into his cell through a large pipe. He could not sleep because he had to defend himself all the time. If he rested a moment, the rats would attack him.
He was forced to stand for two weeks, day and night. The Communists wished to compel him to betray his brethren, but he resisted steadfastly. Eventually, they brought his fourteen-year-old son to the prison and began to whip the boy in front of his father, saying that they would continue to beat him until the pastor said what they wished him to say. The poor man was half mad. He bore it as long as he could, then he cried to his son, ‘Alexander, I must say what they want! I can’t bear your beating anymore!’ The son answered, ‘Father, don’t do me the injustice of having a traitor as a parent. Withstand! If they kill me, I will die with the words of Jesus [on my lips]….’ The Communists, enraged, fell upon the child and beat him to death, with blood spattered over the walls of the cell. He died praising God.
Handcuffs with sharp nails on the insides were placed on our wrists. If we were totally still, they didn’t cut us. But in the bitterly cold cells, when we shook with cold, our wrists would be torn by the nails.
Christians were hung upside-down on ropes and beaten so severely that their bodies swung back and forth under the blows. Christians were also placed in ice-box ‘refrigerator cells,’ which were so cold that frost and ice covered the inside. I was thrown into one while I had very little clothing on. Prison doctors would watch through an opening until they saw symptoms of freezing to death, then they would give a signal and guards would rush in to take us out and make us warm. When we were finally warmed, we would immediately be put back into the ice-box cells to freeze. Thawing out, then freezing to within minutes of death, then being thawed out—over and over again! Even today there are times when I can’t bear to open a refrigerator.
How to Resist Brainwashing
Christian dissidents were tortured for various reasons, including retribution, humiliation, and rehabilitation. Wurmbrand focuses on the latter, on the Soviet leaders’ attempts to rehabilitate the Christian martyrs by brainwashing them:
Westerners have probably heard about brainwashing in the Korean and Vietnan Wars. I have passed through brainwashing myself. It is the most horrible torture.
We had to sit for seventeen hours a day—for weeks, months, and years—hearing:
Communism is good! Communism is good! Communism is good! Christianity is stupid! Christianity is stupid! Christianity is stupid! Give up! Give up! Give up!
Several Christians asked me how we could resist brainwashing. There is only one method of resistance to brainwashing: it is ‘heart washing.’ If the heart is cleansed by the love of Jesus Christ, and if the heart loves him, one can resist all tortures….
The tortures and brutality continued without interruption. When I lost consciousness or became too dazed to give the torturers any further hopes of confession, I would be returned to my cell. There I would lie, untended and half dead, to regain a little strength so they could work on me again. Many died at this stage, but somehow my strength always managed to return. In the ensuing years, in several different prisons, they broke four vertebrae in my back, and many other bones. They carved me in a dozen places. They burned and cut eighteen holes in my body.
When my family and I were ransomed out of Romania and brought to Norway, doctors in Oslo, seeing all this and the scars in my lungs from tuberculosis, declared that my being alive today is a miracle…. I should have been dead for years….
I believe God is performing this wonder so that you [citizens of Western nations] could hear my voice crying out on behalf of the Underground Church in persecuted countries. He allowed one to come out alive and cry aloud the message of your suffering, faithful brethren.
“We Made a Deal”
In a section entitled, “We Made a Deal,” Wurmbrand talks about the ironic joy Christian prisoners experienced when they decided that the beatings were a price they were willing to pay:
It was strictly forbidden to preach to other prisoners, as it is in captive nations today. It was understood that whoever was caught doing this received a severe beating. A number of us decided to pay the price for the privilege of preaching, so we accepted their terms. It was a deal: we preached and they beat us. We were happy preaching; they were happy beating us—so everyone was happy.
The following scene happened more times than I can remember. A brother was preaching to the other prisoners when the guards suddenly burst in, surprising him halfway through a phrase. They hauled him down the corridor to their ‘beating room.’ After what seemed an endless beating, they brought him back and threw him—bloody and bruised—on the prison floor. Slowly, he picked up his battered body, painfully straightened his clothing and said, ‘Now, brethren, where did I leave off when I was interrupted?’ He continued his gospel message.
The Underground Church
Our last excerpt comes from “The Invincible, Widespread Underground Church,” the fifth chapter of Tortured for Christ. Wurmbrand describes the beauty of a church whose allegiance to Christ cannot be broken by Marxist brainwashing or gulag torture chambers:
We of the Underground Church have no cathedrals. But is any cathedral more beautiful than the sky of heaven to which we looked when we gathered secretly in forests? The chirping of birds took the place of an organ. The fragrance of flowers was our incense. And the shabby suit of a martyr recently freed from prison was much more impressive than priestly robes. We had the moon and stars as candles….
I can never describe the beauty of this Church! Often, after a secret service, Christians were caught and sent to prison. There, Christians wear chains with the gladness with which a bride wears a precious jewel received from her beloved…. I have found truly joyful Christians only in the Bible, in the Underground Church, and in prison.
Jesus is Lord and the Politburo is Not.
The cold and calculated regularity with which Christians were tortured and murdered under Marxist regimes, such as the USSR, should serve as a warning to us. Citizens who accept component parts of the Marxist program will most likely eventually accept the entire ideology. As Raymond Aron, Mircea Eliade, and others have argued, Marxism functions as a pseudo-religion that subverts Christianity and promises salvation through social action. As pseudo-religion premised upon the overthrow of existing structures, Marxism has a totalizing impulse that suppresses individual liberties, encourages violence, degrades humanity. Ironically, it also suffocates a nation’s economy, thereby suppressing its working class while at the same time liberating party leaders live in opulence.
For these reasons, Christians in America need to find ways of persuading our fellow citizens that Jesus saves but Marx does not.
[For further resources about Richard Wurmbrand and about the global persecution of Christians, see Voice of the Martyrs website, founded by Wurmbrand.]