Changing Spiritual Care: A Bolshevik Approach?

This post will especially be of interest to those concerned with the field of chaplaincy (also called spiritual care or pastoral care) or those interested in historical analogies.

1960 CPA 2411.jpgChanging Spiritual Care:  A Bolshevik Model?

By Robert Tabak

The recent announcement by the HealthCare Chaplaincy Network that they are establishing a new spiritual care professional organization and training program was a bold move in the face of real challenges to our field.  So why this title (ending with a question mark) which might seem startling, hyperbolic, or even satirical? Why a comparison with the Russian revolution of 1917?

I should note that I come out of a democratic socialist perspective, and I also see some of the same problems in chaplaincy.  I have met people who had relatives, often the children or grandchildren of struggling immigrants, who had many decades ago joined American Communist movements. They joined out of idealism, to seek to advance a better and more just world.  As a democratic socialist, I would identify many of the same issues, but note the Communists’ major failures such as “democratic centralism” not actually being democratic and the Bolshevik imperative that vastly favored ends over means, with tragic results.

In addition to being a rabbi and chaplain, I am also an historian (American history) who was recently preparing for an adult education course I was teaching.  I was reading about Jews in the Soviet Union in the inter-war post revolutionary period.  This was a period that brought great hope as well as severe pressures to many in Russia.  This period also inspired leftist followers around the world.  So I don’t write as an expert on Russian history, but as one who wants to ask if there are not parallels:

  • A serious set of issues and crises
  • Seemingly ineffectual leadership in currently organized society
  • A core group of dedicated believers, “the vanguard” who know the way to the future and who want to make great changes quickly
  • A dramatic act to seize control, bypassing lengthy processes (elections or negotiations)
  • Effective publicity, including the choice of the name “Bolshevik” (“majority”) when the Communists were clearly not the majority

Of course I don’t attribute the hidden agendas of Lenin and his colleagues to HCCN, or imagine that they want to pave the path to the “better world” with secret police or gulags.   I don’t suggest they want a dictatorship.

In Russia, in the midst of World War I, there were two revolutions.  The first in February 1917, against the czarist regime, set up a new government with a democratic multi-party parliament headed by Kerensky that pursued moderate changes and struggled to establish a new model following autocracy.  In November 1917 (October on the Julian calendar) the Communists or Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin led a second revolution that established a one-party revolutionary government. A bloody civil war followed before the Communists won, and other parties were suppressed or absorbed by the victors.

But how did this movement draw in so many people?

The appeal of the Bolshevik movement in Russia, Europe, North America, and other areas was not primarily due to force of arms, but by appeal to idealism, and concern with real issues: economic inequality, poverty, discrimination, and at a later stage, opposition to fascism.

Our field faces real crises, long and short term, many of them identified in the speech by Eric Hall:  outdated models of education; a lack of shared terminology; inability to articulate outcome based reasons for spiritual/pastoral care.  That there is no official status for people with CPE training but short of certification is indeed a major failure for our field.

And the claim of ineffective leadership is a sharp and valid challenge.   The limited North American cooperation under the umbrella of the Spiritual Care Collaborative collapsed several years ago.  As far as I know, there is no follow-up being planned after the 2009 Orlando joint conference. The modest efforts at collaboration over the years have failed to include the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy, a significant pastoral care group that did not even rate mention in the list of organizations the Spiritual Care Association challenged.

On the practical level, we know that overworked solo chaplains and small departments have little time for research.  CPE educators and department heads are often struggling to plan the next unit or budget year.  Today’s storm demands our attention, and only think tanks or outside organizations have the time and perspective to consider climate change.  So, to borrow a famous question fromLenin (if not his answers), “What is to be done?”

HCCN is a group that has spent much time on research, grant raising, and education advancing our field. In New York, they are a major force in local chaplaincy.   Now they seem to be saying to an international audience that all existing organizations have failed and a complete new start is needed.  Are they saying that the new leaders will bypass us, the workers and peasants of pastoral care, as well as our ineffective and outdated organizations and models to lead us – or push us—into the new land.

A “vanguard party” for spiritual care?

Is this a self-designated vanguard party of spiritual care change that has seen the future? Is it up to others to join the revolution that they envision, or be pushed aside?  “A better world’s in birth… The earth shall rise on new foundations,” in the hopeful words of the Internationale, the hymn of the (quite different) socialist and communist movements.  The same person is already president and CEO of both the HCCN and the newly founded Spiritual Care Association.  To paraphrase Isaiah, “Out of New York shall go forth chaplaincy, and the word of spiritual care from Manhattan.”

There are many times when dedicated leaders take risks to make changes before followers are ready to take action.  Moses, with Aaron and Miriam, were preparing the Israelites to leave Egypt when many, probably most, were not ready to do so.  More recently, activists for civil rights, women’s rights, and in the LGBTQ community took public action at a time when many who would benefit were unwilling or unable to act.  But small dedicated leadership groups carry risks as well.  Agendas from the top down may be efficient, but who is empowered and disempowered? Who is accountable to whom?

Returning to the Bolshevik metaphor, on the world stage the most successful opposition to this movement in my view came not from reactionaries who longed to re-create an imagined past order, but from democratic socialists.  They understood the critiques of society and added their own, but also believed in a process that valued democracy over revolution, involving citizens and workers, to bring great changes in many countries of Europe and beyond.

The multidimensional SCA will offer many resources and advantages in the view of its founders, as well as a vision.  And once leadership is consolidated in the SCA perhaps the older “ineffectual” organizations will wither away, or be continued as toothless interest groups for people who enjoy meeting their old colleagues.   The new CPE education and certification model will compete with existing models (which surely deserve change and challenge).  Will the following stage be the claim that the new model is better, and hospitals and facilities should choose these newly trained chaplains over “those guys?”  Eventually, will current chaplains be offered opportunities to enter “re-education programs” and to exit pledging loyalty to their new leaders?   Of course, this being North America, an appearance of democracy will be maintained.  Of course, successful candidates will likely be believers in the new enterprise.

Passover or Bolshevism?

At the Passover seder meal, the text includes four children – one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to ask.  Their presence and questions – even that of the confrontational or challenging child – are all needed.  These texts can re-read, as in a feminist interpretation of the “evil” child in the Jewish Women’s Archive haggadah:   “The wicked daughter is the one who dares to challenge the simplistic answers she has been given. She is the one who asks too many questions. She is the one not content to remain in her prescribed place. She is the one who breaks the mold. She is the one who challenges the status quo.”  So both the current spiritual care situation and new proposals deserve questions.

One of the most daring aspects of the classic rabbis’ version of the Exodus from Egypt in the haggadah, the home booklet used for the Passover seder, is that the re-told Exodus essentially eliminates Moses from the Passover story. (In recent decades, some haggadahs have included passages about Moses as well as adding a Cup of Miriam.)  That tradition may have dropped Moses to emphasize God’s role, or to emphasize the individual’s connection to the Exodus experience.  But that classic text can also be read as displaying wariness about leaders, even great ones.  As the Fourth World Haggadah published by the World Union of Jewish Students around 1970 wrote at its conclusion, “We spoke of freedom and never mentioned Moses, because we do not look to leaders for our liberation…And doing so we have done what no one else could do for us.”

My Jewish-democratic socialist-pastoral sensitivities were most set off by the tone of certainty in this proposal.  We Jews are about to begin celebrating Passover, a holiday where questioning is enshrined in the ritual seder.  Where is the room for questions, for doubts, in the SCA proposal?  As Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote, “From the place where we are right/flowers will never grow/in the spring…”

There is an old joke, probably popularized by democratic socialists in the 1930s.  A communist street-corner orator is stirring up a crowd in a poor American neighborhood.  Describing the wonders of the post-revolutionary society, he proclaims future luxury to his impoverished audience. “Come the revolution, everyone will have strawberries and cream.”  From the back, a heckler yells, “But what if I don’t like strawberries and cream?”  Unfazed, the orator continues, “Come the revolution, you WILL like strawberries and cream.”

This new SCA proposal seems long on vision and short on process.  How does this group determine if real chaplains, educators, administrators, students, not to mention patients and their families, like strawberries and cream? Or if these foods are actually healthy, or sufficient for a balanced diet? Or do they have the ready answer – we WILL like strawberries and cream?

Of course, I could be wrong.  Perhaps my Bolshevik parallel is mistaken.  Perhaps great things will come from this initiative, in a democratic manner.

The American Yiddish newspaper the Forward was a socialist, anti-Communist, and Americanizing newspaper that once had the largest circulation of any non-English paper in the US. (Today it is a liberal website, the Jewish Daily Forward as well as a print newspaper in English and Yiddish).  Decades after most of its readers had moved from voting Socialist to voting Democratic, the Yiddish paper continued to post two sayings on its masthead.  The first, “Workers of all lands, unite” was a version of Marx and Engels’ famous declaration a century and a half ago.  Yes, let chaplains and others in the field unite — though unity need not mean one organization. The other saying, quoting Marx in 1879, was both aspirational and perhaps a warning: “The liberation of the working class is the task of the working class itself.”  I hear this declaration as a caution that the grassroots, the actual “workers” need a central role, not relying on outside experts and a “vanguard” to tell them what to do.  Michael Walzer, in his book Exodus and Revolution, wrote:  “We still believe, or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught, or what is has commonly been taken to teach, about the meaning and possibility of politics and about its proper form: —first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; —second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; —and third, that ‘the way to the land is through the wilderness.’ There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.”


Rabbi Robert Tabak, PhD, BCC, served over thirteen years as a staff chaplain at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.  He is a former vice president and secretary of Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains. He co-chaired a committee on ethics process for what later became the Spiritual Care Collaborative, writing common standards for six North American pastoral care and education groups. The views expressed are his own.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s