Whittaker Chambers, Witness, and Hope
Although the times can seem very dark, there is always hope. When Communism was threatening the entire globe, one hard-core Communist made the bold decision to renounce it, and embrace Christianity instead. I refer to the very important figure of last century, Whittaker Chambers (1901-1961).
Early on he had been a member of the American Communist Party, and he was a Soviet spy. But after seeing clearly the reality of Communism, and the wonder of Christianity, he had an amazing turnaround. His incredible story is recounted in his autobiographical masterpiece of 1952, Witness.
In it he discusses his work as a Communist from 1925 to 1938, and his defection from it. He also discusses things such as the infamous Alger Hiss case. The volume served as a powerful warning about the great struggle of the 20th century: faith and freedom versus atheism and communism.
It was a very important volume in the struggle for liberty and spirituality against bondage and materialism. It became a wakeup call for many leftists, including a middle-aged Ronald Reagan who left the Democratic Party for the Republicans as a result of reading it. Later he would posthumously award Chambers with the Presidential Medal of Freedom because of his contribution to “the century’s epic struggle between freedom and totalitarianism”.
The book of course speaks much about this titanic struggle. Ultimately it is a spiritual battle, a battle of faith versus tyranny. And his opening words as found in “Foreword in the Form of a Letter to My Children” contain so many great lines.
Speaking of the Hiss case, he writes: “At heart, the Great Case was this critical conflict of faiths; that is why it was a great case. On a scale personal enough to be felt by all, but big enough to be symbolic, the two irreconcilable faiths of our time – Communism and Freedom – came to grips in the persons of two conscious and resolute men.”
Of this great conflict Chambers says he is a witness: “A man is not primarily a witness against something. That is only incidental to the fact that he is a witness for something.” He makes clear here what he is a witness for, and what he is a witness against.
He is absolutely clear as to what he opposes: “I see in Communism the focus of the concentrated evil of our time.” He speaks of it as “man’s second oldest faith”:
Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: “Ye shall be as gods.” It is the great alternative faith of mankind. Like all great faiths, its force derives from a simple vision. Other ages have had great visions. They have always been different versions of the same vision: the vision of God and man’s relationship to God. The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God.
The crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God. It exists to the degree in which the Western world actually shares Communism’s materialist vision, it is so dazzled by the logic of the materialist interpretation of history, politics and economics, that it fails to grasp that, for it, the only possible answer to the Communist challenge: Faith in God or Faith in Man? is the challenge: Faith in God. Economics is not the central problem of this century. It is a relative problem which can be solved in relative ways. Faith is the central problem of this age.
The war on faith is our major problem: “The crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God.” And freedom without God, he writes, is an illusion:
Freedom is a need of the soul, and nothing else. It is in striving toward God that the soul strives continually after a condition of freedom. God alone is the inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom.
While the West can and must resist the tyranny of communism on all levels, such Godless forces can only be properly and fully resisted with religious weaponry:
Communism is the central experience of the first half of the 20th century, and may be its final experience – will be, unless the free world, in the agony of its struggle with Communism, overcomes its crisis by discovering, in suffering and pain, a power of faith which will provide man’s mind, at the same intensity, with the same two certainties: a reason to live and a reason to die.
When Chambers was asked how he broke with Communism he replied, “Slowly, reluctantly, in agony.” He felt at the time that he was choosing a losing option. As he famously stated before the House Un-American Activities Committee, on August 3, 1948: “I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side, but it is better to die on the losing side than to live under Communism.”
Or as he put it in Witness:
I wanted my wife to realize clearly one long-term penalty, for herself and for the children, of the step I was taking. I said: “You know, we are leaving the winning world for the losing world.” I meant that, in the revolutionary conflict of the 20th century, I knowingly chose the side of probable defeat. Almost nothing that I have observed, or that has happened to me since, has made me think that I was wrong about that forecast. But nothing has changed my determination to act as if I were wrong – if only because, in the last instance, men must act on what they believe right, not on what they believe probable.
Perhaps most intriguing is what really promoted this break. His account – really his conversion to Christianity account – is riveting and inspiring:
Yet my break began slowly before I heard those screams [of a soul in agony]. Perhaps it does for everyone. I do not know how far back it began. Avalanches gather force and crash, unheard, in men as in the mountain. But I date my break from a very casual happening. I was sitting in our apartment on St. Paul Street in Baltimore. . . . My daughter was in her high chair. I was watching her eat. She was the most miraculous thing that had ever happened in my life. I liked to watch her even when she smeared porridge on her face or dropped it meditatively on the floor. My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear – those intricate, perfect ears.
The thought passed through my mind: ‘No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature. They could have been created only by immense design.’ The thought was involuntary and unwanted. I crowded it out of my mind. But I never wholly forgot it or the occasion. I had to crowd it out of my mind. If I had completed it, I should have had to say: Design presupposes God. I did not then know that, at that moment, the finger of God was first laid upon my forehead.
Amazing stuff indeed. But let me close with one more quote from Chambers. The background story for this may be worth adding as well. A long-standing friend and colleague is just now visiting with us from overseas, someone who also has moved from atheistic leftism to Christianity and conservatism.
Since we have such similar backgrounds in this regard, we have long been on the same page, and both see the crisis of our age quite clearly and painfully. Just yesterday we were overlooking the ocean at a beach house, and we got on to a discussion of Chambers and Witness.
My friend Ed Sherman mentioned a vague quote he recalled by Chambers, or possibly by Bill Buckley on Chambers, about hiding patches of light for those to discover later on. This intrigued me, but it was vague enough that I had to spend over an hour when we got back home to dig it up.
I could not find it in my copy of Witness nor in my copy of his Odyssey of a Friend: Letters to William F. Buckley, 1954-1961. So I kept searching in my library and online, and finally managed to dig up the exact quote. It came about as follows: Buckley had started his magazine National Review in 1955.
When he met Chambers he urged him to become a senior editor, which he eventually did. Buckley wrote to Chambers asking him what he thought the magazine might accomplish. In the 1987 updated version of Odyssey of a Friend, this is the very first letter found therein, and in it he replies:
It is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of western civilization. It is already a wreck from within. That is why we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots, and bury it secretly in some flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of love and truth.
At one point Buckley shared these words with Ronald Reagan who said he treasured them as one of the great calls to freedom. It certainly is, and it encourages me, Ed and others to keep on keeping on. As long as God exists, there is hope, no matter how dark and degenerate the times we live in.
At best we can plant words of hope, truth and light which later generations might unearth and take heart from. So we keep on fighting. We keep on sharing truth. We keep our faith in God alive. That is often all we can do.
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