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The infamous emergency ordinance that would have decriminalised official misconduct and effectively undercut the rule of law in Romania has been rescinded. The protests have paid off. Protesters, however, have kept on… protesting. ‘You don’t catch a thief in the act and then let him run your home’, was the general sentiment voiced. ‘Repeal, then resign’, the crowds urged the government in Romania’s main squares.
The impressive energy discharged during the biggest protests Romania has ever seen – yes, they were bigger than the ones which toppled Ceausescu in 1989 – is now steadily dissipating. After a record–breaking 600.000 people filled Victoria Square in the centre of Bucharest and other prominent town squares around the country last Sunday, a sense of weariness has now understandably set in. People still take to the streets, but numbers are falling. A strange but strong sense of hope nevertheless pervades.
The facts of the story have been widely reported across mainstream media. For a good summary, you may want to read this and this. There is room, however, for attempts at understanding what may lie beneath the headlines and the bare facts.
For a start, the protests are prompting a reassessment of Romania’s collective spirit – if we may call it that. The country is known for its fatalistic sense of resignation and acquiescence, epitomized in the Romanian folk story ‘Miorita’, but the recent protests have shown that beneath the veneer of cynicism and habituated tolerance of corruption – arguably Romania’s biggest problem – pulsates a civic vitality, hope and righteous indignation at gross injustice and falsehood, which many thought had long died off.
In the middle of a cold winter, Romania’s newly found spirit is in full spring. And no one saw this coming. The creativity and civility displayed during the protests – through witty placards and the cleaning of streets after protest nights – have been met by Romanians with a sense of surprised self–satisfaction. ‘There is hope for Romania’s future’, however the protest story pans out politically; ‘Romania will never be the same again’, read the headlines.
Notwithstanding the absence (or delay?) of a triumphal dénouement, many see the current protest movement as the culmination of a mission that started 27 years ago when a Reformed Hungarian pastor in Timisoara sparked the Revolution in 1989. The battle against injustice and tyranny was not won, however, in the early days of 1990, even if an important victory was then secured. There is, sadly, ample evidence to show that the fight has been dragging on through the seemingly never–ending ‘period of transition’ to authentic freedom and a robust democracy. The recent protest movement, however, may signal the (beginning of the) end of this ‘transition period’ and the start of a new chapter in Romania’s democratic history.
Despite a less than immaculate record of ‘dealings’ with the Communist state, the Christian community was heavily involved in the 1989 Revolution. Just as it was then, today the basic morality of the cause that animates hundreds of thousands of Romanians is clear and fundamentally coherent with the Christian message: freedom and justice are better than tyranny and abuse.
Christians across the denominational spectrum have taken to the streets in the recent protests, bringing their faith to bear on a vexing and long–standing public issue – endemic corruption. Their involvement has largely been grass–roots, spontaneous, driven from the margins rather than from the centre of Christian leadership. Prayer for the country has been married to practical action. Pictures going around show people kneeling to pray the Lord’s prayer, and signs with relevant Bible verses and messages have added a spiritual depth to the protests.
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs in Romania and Ambassador to the Vatican, theologian Theodor Baconschi recently told me that “the absence (or delay) of public statements from the churches in previous periods of social unrest (like the recent crisis provoked by the fire at a nightclub in Bucharest which killed 64 people) exposed their leadership to strong criticism, fuelling the rise of anti–clericalism among the new, urban, educated generation”. The story, however, looks to be different now.
The Orthodox and Catholic Church in Romania have both issued official statements. The leadership of the churches that make up the protestant branch of the Romanian Christian community has so far refrained from taking an official stance. Nevertheless, they are demonstrating support for the anti–corruption cause through informal statements on social media and, in some cases, by joining the street protests. These are all significant developments.
Taking a longer view, however, the Romanian Christian community’s public engagement, as a whole, remains somewhat underdeveloped and erratic. Often disengaged and socially passive, yet problematically vigorous around hot–button issues, the Christian community’s interest in public affairs and concern for the common good have not been among its strengths. The recent protests, however, may have created the opportunity for the Christian community in Romania to begin a new chapter.
The protests are geared towards the fundamentals of a common life: justice, accountability, integrity. These are, self–evidently, not partisan interests, but basic ‘common goods’ of a functional society. It is only right that the Christian community is involved, vigorously and creatively at that. This cannot be, however, an erratic spike in public engagement, to be followed by yet another prolonged episode of passivity and pious self–isolation.
As the country continues to edge toward increased secularization and alignment with a Western liberal agenda, there is a pressing need for the Romanian Christian community to develop a mature, theologically serious, and well–tempered form of public engagement, fuelled by neighbourly love and genuine concern for the ‘common good’. One thing seems clear in light of the recent (and ongoing) protests: the time is ripe; the time is now.
Natan Mladin is a Researcher at Theos | @nathanmladin
Image by Radu Benjamin, used with permission.