Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Totalitarianism-Proofing Your Family

The Benda clan of Prague show us how to be resilient as a family dedicated to God and to Truth in a dictatorship of lies

Hey, some of my latest Live Not By Lies interviews are here:

Here’s a link to me talking with Matt K. Lewis of the Daily Beast: audio here, and YouTube here.

Here’s a link to me talking with the ever-dapper Eric Metaxas.

Here’s a link to me talking to the Lutheran radio show Issues, Etc.

Here’s a link to me talking to Pastor Chris Alford of the Epiclesis podcast.

I’ll add more as I collect them. Tonight I’ll be on EWTN’s The World Over With Raymond Arroyo at 8 Eastern/7 Central — if you don’t watch on satellite or cable, you can watch over the internet here. 

There’s still time to sign up for a live webinar I will be doing on Friday with Freddy Gray of The Spectator. Here’s the link to register. He’s English, so I will be especially interested to hear the kinds of questions he asks based on what he sees in the advanced cancel culture of Woke Britannia.

For those who have purchased the book (or who are considering buying it to read in small groups at church or elsewhere), here is a free downloadable Study Guide I have prepared. It’s great for groups, but even if you’re just reading it by yourself, the questions will stimulate thought.

Here is a link to what is pretty much a Live Not By Lies FAQ. If you’re new to this blog, and are thinking about buying the book, that link will give a fuller account of its argument.

I’ve been talking on this site about certain aspects of soft totalitarianism for a long time, and sharing previews of the book with you readers. I’ve quoted particular parts often, because they are highly relevant to specific stories in the news. But there’s a lot in this book that does not have a tight news hook, but that is still important to the kinds of lives we dissident Christians are going to have to build.

For example, there’s a chapter on Family as a locus of forming dissenters. I profile the Benda family of Prague, who raised a large Catholic family and fought communism as part of the Charter 77 movement. Their patriarch, Vaclav (who died in 1999), spent four years jailed as a political prisoner. Excerpts from that chapter:

[Vaclav] Benda said that the family house must be a real home, “that is, a place which is livable and set apart, sheltered from the outer world; a place which is a starting-out point for adventures and experiences with the assurance of a safe return”—in other words, a haven in a heartless world. The loving, secure Christian home is a place that forms children who are capable of loving and serving others within the family, the church, the neighborhood, and indeed the nation. The family does not exist for itself alone, but first for God, and then for the sake of the broader community—a family of families.

When that nation and its people are held captive by a totalitarian order, then Christians and their families must push as hard against the totalitarian world as it pushes against them. That’s what the Benda patriarch taught, and that’s how he and his family lived.

More, on how parents model heroism:

“Our parents were heroes for us,” says Patrik [Benda]. “My father was the sheriff from the High Noon movie.”

Václav often taught his children how to read the world around them, and how to understand people and events in terms of right and wrong. He did not allow them to drift into ignorance or indifference. The battle into which all of them had been thrown by history was too important.

For example, Václav explained to his kids that there are some things more dangerous than the loss of political liberties.

“Our father told us that there is a difference between a dictatorship and totalitarianism,” says Marek [Benda]. “Dictatorship can make life hard for you, but they don’t want to devour your soul. Totalitarian regimes are seeking your souls. We have to know that so we can protect what is most important as Christians.”

Watching how his brothers behaved in their adolescent years revealed to Patrik how much moral authority his father had within the family. Rebellion against authority is normal for kids that age, but the children of dissidents didn’t have that luxury.

“All the arguments within the family had to be put aside so we could stand against the outside threat from communism,” Patrik says. “When my father told my brother Martin that he couldn’t drink alcohol publicly until he turned eighteen, he explained that this rule is a way of protecting the whole family against the regime. ‘You can’t do that,’ he said to Martin, ‘because it could endanger all of us.’”

Rather than regarding this as a heavy yoke, the Benda kids saw this as an opportunity to serve something greater than themselves.

“Watching High Noon really formed our way of fighting against evil,” Marek Benda says. “Everyone is asking the sheriff to leave so that the town will have no problems from the bad guys. But the sheriff comes back nevertheless, because his virtue and honor can’t allow him to leave. He is looking for assistance, but no one wants to do that. But his wife helps him in the end. In some way, this was our family’s story. This is what our father and mother did.”

You shouldn’t think that their father was a natural hero, cautions Martin Benda. One evening, when Kamila was late coming home, Václav kept a nervous vigil by the window, staring at the street below, afraid that his wife had been arrested by the secret police.

“That was the moment when I started to admire my father even more,” says Martin. “That’s when I saw that he was human. He was scared, but he did not want his fear to master him.”

Kamila said that it wasn’t enough to teach their children what evil was. They also had to fill their children’s moral imaginations with the Good, the True, and the Beautiful:

Screening High Noon and movies like it for their children wasn’t the only way Václav and Kamila Benda prepared them for Christian resistance. Despite the demands of her job teaching at the university, Kamila made time to read aloud to her children for two to three hours daily.

“Every day?” I ask, stunned.

“Every day,” she affirms.

She read them fairy tales, myths, adventure stories, and even some horror classics. More than any other novel, though, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was a cornerstone of her family’s collective imagination.

Why Tolkien? I ask.

“Because we knew Mordor was real. We felt that their story”—that of the hobbits and others resisting the evil Sauron—“was our story too. Tolkien’s dragons are more realistic than a lot of things we have in this world.”

“Mom read The Lord of the Rings to us maybe six times,” recalls Philip Benda. “It’s about the East versus the West. The elves on one side and the goblins on the other. And when you know the book, you see that you first need to fight the evil empire, but that’s not the end of the war. Afterward, you have to solve the problems at home, within the Shire.”

This is how Tolkien prepared the Benda children to resist communism, and also to resist the idea that the fall of communism was the end of their quest for the Good and the True. After communism’s collapse, they found ways to contribute to the moral reconstruction of their nation.

Patrik says the key is to expose children to stories that help them know the difference between truth and falsehood, and teach them how to discern this in real life.

“What my mom always encouraged in us and supported was our imagination, through the reading of books or playing with figures,” he says. “She also taught us that the imagination was something that was wholly ours, that could not be stolen from us. Which was also something that differentiated us from others.”

Buy the book, read it all. These good and faithful people hold wisdom that we in the West desperately need.

A couple of years ago I posted a blog entry called “The Quiet Heroism of Kamila Bendova” (in Slavic countries, wives take a feminine form of their husband’s name: Benda = Bendova). The patriarch was the one protesting on the streets, and suffering in prison, but the matriarch kept the family going, and strengthened them through that difficult trial. You cannot underestimate the value of the work done by women like her, behind the scenes.



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