Christianity in the Czech Republic
In this text, we try to explain the issues at the heart of the two dialogues: “I can’t play football on Sunday” and “Old mobiles are like bricks ”. Children from religious families often face complex situations at school and even amongst their friends which are similar to the situations faced by children who are stigmatised for any other reason. However, religion is often a taboo topic and it is difficult to get to the heart of the genuine motivations at play in the situations which the children encounter. Both dialogues attempt to verbalise topics which the children themselves frequently avoid, and which they would not normally explore in such explicit detail in their conversations.
Christianity: Along with Judaism and Islam, Christianity is one of the three monotheistic religions. Like Jews and Muslims, Christians believe in one God, creator of the universe and master of history, who controls historical events and the fates of individuals. At the same time this God wants people to know him, he offers them a personal relationship. There is no single opinion amongst Jews, Muslims and Christians regarding how and where people should know God and what is most important in his revelation. Christians took from the Jews, their older brethren, a belief in God’s special treatment of the chosen (Jewish) race, which was to be the model and exemplar for other races. As recounted in the Old Testament, God summoned his special representatives, prophets, who interpreted his will for others. Judaism sees the main task of prophets as to preach and encourage people to live in harmony with the Torah, i.e. with God’s will made manifest, which has the character of a set of rules for the organisation of human life. (Muslims regard the mission of prophets similarly to the Jews, with the difference that they believe that the succession of prophets culminated with the prophet Mohamed, whose message is encapsulated in the Koran, the holy book of Islam).
Christians understand the Old Testament differently, believing that the main task of the prophets was to prepare people for the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth, in whom his followers saw the promised king, saviour and liberator – the Messiah (i.e. the Christ). Jesus, a Jewish prophet and founder of Christianity, acquired many followers during his life, but found himself at odds with Jewish religious leaders and with the Roman authorities. He was arrested and executed as a rebel.
His disciples quickly began to proclaim that God had confirmed the words of Jesus by resurrecting him from the dead, and many gave witness that they had met the resurrected Christ in person. For Christians the death of Christ did not represent a setback or the failure of his mission. On the contrary Jesus died (according to God’s secret plan) in order to save us from our sins. For he was not merely a prophet, but the son of God incarnate, who became man in order to save people from their faults and sins. Thanks to his sacrifice God forgives people all their transgressions and offers them reconciliation and a new life, i.e. salvation, which means freedom and protection from all forms of evil, alienation and guilt, both in this life and beyond the gateway of death.
Jesus’ disciples (the first Christians) understood their mission to be to preach the tidings of God’s offer of salvation, forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ to all people without discrimination - not only to Jews, but to all other races. Thus began the history of the Christian church, which continues to this day.
There are three main strands of the Christian tradition in history:
1) Eastern orthodoxy (mainly in countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Greece, etc.), known for its emphasis on the liturgy and spirituality.
In the sixteenth century Western Christianity split into:
2) Protestantism (i.e. evangelical Christianity) with its characteristic emphasis on the Bible and salvation through faith (without the assistance of good deeds) on the basis of God’s (undeserved) mercy
3) Catholicism -the Roman Catholic church represents an uninterrupted continuity of two thousand years of the history of Christianity, at the head of which there is the Roman bishop, known as the Pope.
The origins of Christianity in our country are linked with the appearance of two missionaries from Southeast Europe, Cyril and Methodius (who were posted to the Greater Moravian Empire in AD 863). Christianity gradually found a home in the Czech lands, firstly because of the conversion of princely circles, and secondly by means of the strenuous work of missionaries, catechists and priests. Czech Christianity bloomed most under the government of Charles IV.
However, even by the end of the latter’s reign the Czech church had begun to take on the ideas of the Reform movement, which at that time had an influence on European Christianity. The rector of Charles University stood at the head of the reform preachers. After he was found guilty of heresy and burned in Kostnice (in 1415), his followers refused to accept the church verdict and withdrew their vow of obedience. After a series of unsuccessful religious crusades against the “Czech heretics” and the subsequent reconciliation, Czech society remained divided into the heretical (Hussite) majority and the Catholic minority. Later on, the Czech heretics, inspired by Martin Luther and John Calvin of the 16th century, joined the worldwide Reformation.
In the first half of the 17th century, there was a ferocious internecine war (lasting thirty years) between the Protestant and Catholic parts of Europe. The result was the majority non-Catholic nation fell under the government of the strongly Catholic Habsburgs within the framework of the peacetime redistribution of Europe. After the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), there began a period of strict re-Catholicisation, when the majority of Czechs either had to emigrate (this affected mainly the aristocrats) or change their religious affiliation. Understandably, this led to a considerable decline in religion. Later, during the period of the growing national consciousness of the Czechs, there was a conflict between religious and national identity. The emancipation of the country (at that time already re-Catholicised) from the Austrian, German-speaking authorities meant a weakening of the links to the Catholic faith associated with the governing Hapsburg family. The decisive symbols of the Czech national revival were for this reason naturally taken from the period prior to the Habsburg re-Catholicisation. After the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I (1918), there was strong anti-clerical feeling in Czech society. Indeed, the return to the Hussite inheritance typical of the First Republic related more to national emancipation than the Christian faith. The trauma of World War II and forty years of Communist “scientific atheism” also had a deleterious effect on the Czech church, and contributed to the Czech Republic being these days one of the most atheistic countries in Europe, and perhaps in the whole world.
The Czech Republic is one of the most secular countries in the world. All of our neighbours have a much higher level of religiosity in general. This gives Czech Christianity a contingent character, and makes of its practitioners a basically more or less tolerated minority. Children from religious families do not usually manifest their religious affiliation. They often feel ashamed, or are glad that their friends do not laugh at them and “forgive” or “tolerate” the fact that they or their parents are religious.
However, frequently their peers do not completely forgive them. Religious belief is a favourite topic for derision and low humour. Children from religious families would rather make light of their faith than be vulnerable, and when it is finally found out, they hurry to assure their friends that they are not fanatics, that they know how to make fun of their faith, etc. Christianity is certainly not something about which children are proud, which they would volunteer to profess. It is more often a source of abashment and shame.
In the CR, some 30 percent of the population (i.e. around 3 million people) claim some kind of religious belief. Around 2.7 million Czechs claim allegiance with the Roman Catholic Church, over 100,000 to the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, almost 100,000 to the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, and the others to small, usually Protestant churches. Relations between individual Christian churches are at present very open and there is a lot of cooperation between them. Moravia is a lot more religious than Bohemia, and the countryside is more religious than towns, especially the larger cities.
The attitude of Czech society
Christians are perceived in different ways in Czech society. Many Christian intellectuals who were involved in the dissident opposition to communism (Charter 77, etc.) had and still enjoy great moral authority. Several well-known personalities in the spheres of culture, science or sport who are known to be religious enjoy a lot of media attention, favour and the interest of the general public.
The political party which professes its Christianity (KDU-ČSL) has significantly lower levels of credit. Czech society, which as a result of complex historical circumstances has undergone sporadic anti-clerical sentiment and mistrust of the church, is especially sensitive to certain delicate topics, e.g. the assets and finances of the church, the attitude of the church to sexuality (celibacy, contraception, homosexuality, etc.), or the financial and private affairs and scandals of representatives of the church.
Overall, Czech society welcomes and appreciates the involvement of the church in charity activities, social facilities, etc. Religious schools also have a good reputation, and many non-religious parents send their children to them (though there are perhaps only 100 of these establishments, from nurseries up through colleges, in the entire CR). The awareness of the Czech public regarding Christian traditions, dogma and sacred practice is for understandable reasons very limited.
A few words on the subject of the dialogue: “Old mobiles are like bricks ”
Tim tells Ali that his parents will not buy him a new mobile because the money could be spent on something more useful, charity for instance. Ali doesn’t understand. Children from religious families really do sometimes experience a trauma resulting from the fact that their families, if they are practicing Christians, sometimes do not want to squander money on expensive fripperies and do not want to encourage competitiveness in their children regarding expensive clothes and brand-name school and sports equipment. They often use their money to support religious, humanitarian and charitable causes, and they often have several children.
The value system of Christian families is manifest in the way they treat money. Children from such families are sometimes not completely at the top of the pecking order in the class, and find it very difficult to comprehend why. Yet Christian families are usually educated people with relatively good incomes, and so the social “slippage” of children from religious families is not marked. Nevertheless, explaining why they do not have deluxe skis or the latest mobile is obviously embarrassing for children from religious families, and they often get annoyed at their parents.
A few words on the subject of the dialogue: “I can’t play football on Sunday”
Tim explains with embarrassment that on Sunday morning he goes to church. Daniel can’t believe his ears: “You’re taking the mickey, aren’t you?” After this question, Tim very probably felt that mixture of discomfort, anger and embarrassment peculiar to similar conversations in which believers attempt to explain why they and their families act so strangely, and follow with dread whether their explanation will be accepted or whether they will become the object of ridicule and general mirth.
In one Prague congregation of the Evangelical Brethren, there was a public lecture on Christianity and its relationship to society. In the ensuing discussion, the speaker asked (rhetorically): “Is Christianity useless, untrue or boring?” The listeners laughed. One young person, who had been evidently bored the whole time, whispered to his neighbour, though underestimating how far his voice could be heard by everyone: “No, it’s embarrassing.” The whole room felt like laughing to break the tension.
At one public event organised by Christians in Prague, eloquently entitled “March for Jesus”, the gathered crowds of believers brought multicoloured flags and banners. On one banner, the words were written in large letters “Jesus is the answer!” The owner of the banner had a large sticker with the same phrase on his car, parked at a distance. When he returned to his car after the event had finished, after the words “Jesus is the answer!” someone had written in felt-tip pen: “But what is the question?”
At one junior school, an evangelical vicar asked the children who they thought Christ was. Most of the children knew that the expressions “Christ” or “Jesus and Mary” were used when something annoys or surprises us. Several of the children genuinely thought that Jesus was an extraterrestrial who visited Planet Earth some time ago. One girl thought that it was the make of a mobile telephone (she had heard the commercial saying “Go Jesus go”). One pupil in year one wrote on his questionnaire that Jesus is another name for a Christmas tree.
Jakub T. remembers how when studying at grammar school in the nineties, he was tested in biology (on a podium in front of the entire class). He had just begun to take a serious interest in Christianity and was preparing to be baptised. His teacher, an educated man who still teaches at the same school, was testing him on a topic which related to the prehistory of the universe and the origin of life. Because the teacher liked Jakub and was friends with his father (though knew nothing of Jakub’s spiritual quest), after Jakub had correctly answered all the questions regarding the origin of the universe and life, he said in a friendly and familiar way: “And just imagine, Jakub, that you can still find people who believe in a God that created the universe.” Jakub still remembers the discomfort and shame he felt when, at that time, along with the rest of the class, he submissively shook his head and chuckled over the foolishness and naivety of people who still believe in God.
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