Jan Hus: Christian History Interview — To Live in Truth

OFTEN OUR CLOSEST CONNECTION with history is a book or an archaeological dig, but in Jan Milic Lochman we found one of Jan Hus’s living heirs. Born in the Czech Republic to Protestant parents who named him after Hus’s reforming predecessor, Dr. Lochman has preached in Bethlehem Chapel and lectured at Charles University. He would even call himself a Hussite, except that the term fails to encompass the whole Czech reform tradition stretching before and after Hus.

Dr. Lochman, now professor emeritus of systematic theology at the University of Basel, Switzerland, not only connects with the distant past—he has witnessed his home country’s twentieth-century upheavals as well. Christian History asked him what Hus means today to the church and the people of the Czech Republic.

What aspects of today’s Czech society are in some way Hus’s legacy?

I could not speak of a strong, inspiring presence of the Hussite legacy in Czech society today. Certainly Hus enjoys a high status in Czech history, and a considerable majority of people consider him one of the most famous Czechs. That’s true. But this is very often a vague attitude. The specific Hussite legacy, Hus’s important contribution to Czech culture and spirituality, is less known.

However, even people who don’t know the content of Hus’s message appreciate his high authority as a witness to the dignity of human conscience, because he was one who refused to recant. And he remained faithful to what he preached under pressures and even unto death.

Did you ever experience that kind of pressure?

For the major part of history, Czech Protestants have been persecuted. But there was no persecution in my childhood—just a very deep sense of being a minority within the nation and within the world.

But then, of course, after 1948 Communists took the power. I was a young student in those days. I then became a pastor and began serving in a situation, I wouldn’t say of direct persecution, but rather of being under duress. But this was not tragic for a devoted Christian, because under that particular pressure you get the chance also to appropriate your faith in a more genuine way—under the cross, in the hope of resurrection. And this was my inspiration to study theology and to teach theology.

Living in the Communist society was difficult. At the same time it was spiritually challenging, and I am grateful for that challenge.

Has a Hussite church survived to the present?

There is a small church body in the Czech Republic that calls itself explicitly “Hussite,” as well as a Hussite theological faculty at Prague University. There is also a Czech Brethren Church, which came to the United States as the Moravian Church. Because of tragic developments in Czech church history, though, all Protestant churches there are small. Most Czechs are nominally Catholic or don’t belong to any church. But the Protestant churches have kept their traditions and their role within the society, and that is much more important than the numbers.

How has Hus’s motto, “Truth conquers,” been a rallying cry for Czechs, especially in the twentieth century?

Those words were a rallying cry for Thomás Masaryk, the founder of the first Czech Republic in 1918. He was very dedicated to the memory of Hus and decided that the Czech coat of arms should carry the words, “The truth conquers.” Masaryk knew that politics is not just a power game and that politicians have responsibility with respect to the truth, which for him was the Christian truth.

So at that point the slogan became really an inspiration to the nation. Even in the Communist day, the coat of arms always carried that inscription, “The truth conquers.” It was paradoxical, because the Communist system was a system of manipulated truth. Still, for everyone who saw that inscription, it was a challenge not to get discouraged by the oppressive system but to know that eventually the truth shall conquer.

I was very much involved in the movement of Prague Spring—the attempt in the sixties to democratize the Communist society. In that movement of Christians, former Communists, and writers, Hus suddenly became extremely important. I remember one major speech by a philosopher/writer who said, “As that Czech intellectual in the fifteenth century refused to let his conscience be dominated by the official demands, so even now we have to follow him. We must stop manipulating truth and to start to live in truth.”

Václav Havel also participated in the movement, and amazingly enough he, too, very much appreciates the legacy of Hus. Back in those days he described his political development as “an attempt to live in truth.” And that became a major program for him—he’s the same as a president as he used to be as a dissident. His political steps followed out of a spiritual conviction that human dignity means not just to live, but to live in truth.

Hus’s motto appeared again in 1989 as the major rallying cry in the streets of Prague. That anti-Communist movement, which began earlier but broke through in 1989, was not superficially political, but also a spiritual movement inspired by Czech history. Hus, of course, was very much part of it.

With the recent political and economic changes in the Czech Republic, how is Hus relevant today?

Communism, with its totalitarian structure, was a challenge to the Christian faith. Now capitalism, which nearly absolutizes the profit interest, has taken its place. The church gave a credible response to the Communist system, and now it must respond to a system that is also tempted by totalitarian tendencies. And Hus is once again important.

Hus insisted that no human institution—not even the institution of the church—is ultimate in its authority. One of his major statements on this subject was his so-called “appeal to Jesus Christ” at his trial. Against those who tried to convince him to shut up and give up, he always said, “Well, I take seriously the institution of the church, but it’s not the ultimate authority. The Lord of the church is the ultimate authority to whom I shall appeal.”

Czech Christians in the Communist days also appealed to Christ as the final authority and final point of orientation of human life, even when it cost them.

Now we live in a market economy, which is a rather sensible system in many respects. But if the liberating effect of the market is made a new idol, that means it has been absolutized—and there are people and political leaders who absolutize the market economy. Then you have again to appeal to Christ and to proclaim that humanity cannot be understood in purely economic terms. Humanity has to be seen also in those dimensions that are not bought or sold on the market but deal with personal identity and integrity.

We are not today in a position to say, “Well, it’s beautiful. The Communist domination is over and now we have the new earthly paradise.” There is no paradise under the domination of capitalist ideology.

Hus is helpful in this because there is a particular Christology with Hus: Jesus Christ is the Lord of the poor. Not of the poor only; he’s not sectarian. Everybody stands under the cross and the resurrection as the sign of hope. There is no discrimination, not even for those who are on the sunny side of society. But the basic trend of the gospel is the trend of solidarity with those who are on the shadowy side of society. And Hus helps us to ask always,What happens to them?

In Hus’s Bethlehem Chapel, one pair of images was particularly meaningful for the common people of Prague. There was the picture of the pope in all his glory, all his crowns and beautiful clothes, seen as the absolute authority on earth. On the other wall was the image of Jesus Christ entering Jerusalem on a little donkey—a symbol of a king, no doubt, but of a king whose solidarity belongs to those who are under the wheels of, for instance, economic and political development.

With his different emphases, Hus is relevant to both societies: the Communist and new one. This is why it’s important to study the work and the message of Jan Hus. It’s medieval in minor attitudes. But it’s definitely not obsolete in regard to ultimate questions of human orientation, conscience, and dignity under the final authority of Christ as the king of the poor. CH


By conversation with Jan Milic Lochman

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #68 in 2000]

Dr. Lochman is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the University of Basel, Switzerland.
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