Illustration by Krieg Barrie

God doesn't give up

Radicalism | Exodus 13: "When in time to come your son asks you, 'What does this mean?' you shall say to him, 'By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.'" Part five of a pilgrim's slow progress

Issue: "Playing with capitalism," May 23, 2009

Some come to Christ in a moment. With others, it takes longer. Even after God knocked me out of the Communist Party with an evening of epiphany on Nov. 1, 1973, I still for a time floated spiritually on a dead sea. But God in 1974 used unusual means-a New Testament in Russian, a book of Puritan sermons -to start breaking down my anti-Christian bias. And in 1975, even though the only decorations in my Ann Arbor apartment were a Hula Hoop and a glass tank with two gerbils, hope grabbed me.

I visited Boston in June 1975 and stayed in an apartment 12 miles west of the city. One afternoon I walked those miles to the spot in Boston that had given me feelings of contentment when growing up, Fenway Park, and sat in the bleachers for the game that evening between the Red Sox and the Yankees. Watching Luis Tiant pitch, his body twisting with every fastball and curve, I felt hopeful. Late at night I walked back, singing under the stars, and for some reason thinking about God.

The sticking point for me was not His existence but His sovereignty. Even though I was no longer a Marxist, the words of Marx still haunted me: "A being only considers himself independent when he stands on his own two feet, when he owes his existence to himself. A man who lives by the grace of another regards himself as a dependent being." I knew that God existed but my intellectual pride left me not wanting to admit dependence. Furthermore-sad but true-I wanted the intellectual and sexual promiscuity that modern university life serves up, and an allegiance to God would mean a turning away from all that.

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I first chose the easier way of changing politically and economically rather than theologically. In reaction against Marxism I read pro-capitalism books by Henry Hazlitt (Economics in One Lesson), Frederic Bastiat, Milton Friedman, and others: Free markets, yes! I started reading National Review: Political conservatism, yes! But the book making the largest impact on me was Witness, the autobiography of Whittaker Chambers, a Communist Party member in the 1920s and 1930s who had come to believe in God.

Chambers wrote, "A Communist breaks because he must choose at last between irreconcilable opposites-God or Man, Soul or Mind, Freedom or Communism." He emphasized that the battle was between faith in God and faith in Man, and not just between different economic or cultural systems: "The crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God." Would I be indifferent?

In relation to Christ, that was my plan. I had put my hands over my ears rather than listen to Christmas carols as a child, and I had listened intently as a Yale student when professors suggested that Christianity is a religion for stupid people. Not wanting to espouse what intellectual people identified as superstition, I tried to escape in a variety of ways. Baseball card games that I played frequently with a friend who was trying to forget about his girlfriend. Shooting hundreds of foul shots at the gym. Drinking cases of diet chocolate soda. Accumulating books. I would do everything except pray.

I tried to escape by watching old movies at the U. of Michigan campus film societies, flitting from one to another from among the five or so offered each evening. But the old movies that affected me the most were ones with Christian themes like It's a Wonderful Life, and even old Westerns where the main character had to cross over from evil to good. And beginning in August, 1975, a smart and comely Michigan senior accompanied me in my movie-going.

Her name: Susan. Her background: Politically and theologically liberal, having gone as a child to a very liberal United Methodist church (like Hillary Clinton's) and never truly heard the gospel. We started seeing each other every day, and I took it upon myself to educate her, quickly giving her a copy of Chambers' book Witness. After we had known each other for two weeks I proposed to her. Wanting her to be proud of me, I decided no longer to be indifferent to questions of right and wrong.

Oddly, the initial battles grew out of my attempts to escape battles. I had become treasurer of the Cinema Guild, one of the campus groups that showed movies every night, and while examining the books had learned that the officers traditionally lied about receipts and didn't remit the right amounts to the "capitalist film distributors." Having also stolen, I was no better than the other officers, but this time I persisted in my demands for honesty and got my way by threatening to expose the deceit.


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