This article was published in the GOSPEL MESSAGE, 1987, Nr. 4
Towering Alps, "Dirndls" and "Lederhosen" (traditional dresses and leather britches) flower covered balconies and immaculate gardens. That's Austria to many people. But behind the colorful facade there's another Austria.
The German word, "Menschenfurcht" has no adequate English counterpart. It means "fear of what others think of you." "Menschenfurcht" demands that one be out of bed by 6:00 a.m. and keep windows and yards spotlessly clean. It dictates the clothes one wears and the church to which one belongs.
"Menschenfurcht" is a merciless dictator. Many Austrians take their own lives rather than fall short of its demanding expectations. Children who fail to get the expected grades in school are high risk suicide candidates. The same is true of those who may lose their drivers license or face a financial setback. The loss of face among friends and neighbors is often more than they can bear.
This is probably why the carnival season is so popular in Austria. It's the only time of the year when "Menschenfurcht" is dethroned. At the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, the carnival season, Fasching, is ushered in with the crowning of the Carnival Prince and Princess. The season is filled with masquerade balls, partying, excessive drinking and sexual perversity. Taboos become socially acceptable during this season which lasts until Ash Wednesday. During the carnival season Austrians can take off their masks and be themselves for a change.
A case for sociologists?
Sociologists claim that Austrians suffer from the suppression of collective guilt feelings. This, they say, causes them to feel inferior and unite in defense when one of their prominent citizens or heroes is openly attacked. During the seventies, the Austrian ski ace, Karl Schranz, was ousted from the Winter Olympics because of commercial interests. When his plane landed in Vienna, a million Austrians turned out to give him a hero's (or martyr's) welcome.
More recently, Austrians rallied around their President, Ex General Secretary of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim. Waldheim was accused of having had knowledge of Nazi atrocities as an officer during World War II. Sociologists claim that the international attacks upon his person actually helped to get him elected.
Then there was the widely publicized wine scandal. When foreign newspapers first claimed that Austrian wines were being adulterated with an additive found in antifreeze, the initial reaction was flat denial. "Others are just jealous of our superior wines." After reports were verified, Austrians reasoned, "Everyone else does it too." It became a national scandal. The loss of prestige was such that the most stringent punishment was demanded for the culprits. Incidentally, confiscated wine was used last winter to melt ice on highways and airport runways!
A mission field? As a child with a vivid imagination, the slide presentations of visiting missionaries left me full of admiration for these courageous heroes of the faith who risked health and even life in order to preach the gospel to "savage natives" in distant parts of the world. The pictures of scantily dressed savages with painted faces, men with earrings, witch doctors and tribal dancing to the beat of jungle drums, left a strong impression upon my young mind.
What a stark contrast between their mission field and ours! This civilized, western European culture, with its modern, industrialized society and Mercedes Benz automobiles, is a far cry from those primitive scenes. Europeans don't run around naked -- at least not in winter! In summer, it's quite another matter. Topless bathing is allowed almost everywhere and nudist beaches are common. Along a 25 mile stretch of highway near us, there are seven legal houses of prostitution. In fact, there's one next door to the Austrian Bible Institute. Magazine stands are full of pornographic literature that would cause the toughest savage to blush. Instead of leper colonies, we have AIDS clinics.
Europeans don't chew coca leaves; they drink alcohol and use hypodermic needles. Transistors provide almost unlimited amplification of western "tribal" music. Jungle tom toms sound like baby rattles in comparison! One could go on and on, describing the differences between tribal warriors and motorcycle gangs, savages and punkers, polygamy and free sex, witchcraft and genes manipulation.
Europeans love American music, blue jeans and Coca Cola, but have low esteem for "American religion." Stories of wealthy American TV preachers with private jets and luxury cars were favorite newspaper topics long before the Jim Bakker scandal broke. Baptists, Methodists, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses are all lumped together in what is called "American Export Religion."
We are not missionaries in Austria because it's popular or because it's more of a mission field than America. We are here because God led us here and we are convinced that He still wants us to serve Him here. Jesus Christ died for man's sin. There is no reason why anyone must go through life with guilt feelings. When men begin to fear God, their fear of what others think, loses its despotic power. The cultured Austrian and the primitive tribesman both need Christ. Outside of Him, there's no abiding peace or sustaining joy, no salvation.
Austrians do respond
During over two decades of missionary work in Austria, we have experienced over and over, that the
"Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth." Austrians included. We've seen it work in the lives of children, youthful drug addicts and adults, including a 96 year old woman. It has changed the lives of doctors, businessmen, farmers, coal miners and students. Not only were their lives changed and freed from the bondage of sin and guilt, but many have lost their fear of man ("Menschenfurcht") and have become enthusiastic witnesses for Christ.
Not long ago, I presented a seminar for a church in Innsbruck where Peter Torskyj, who was in our youth group back in the seventies, is the pastor. The theme centered on the New Testament Church. Pastor Torskyj has an incredible ministry among students and intellectuals. Many are from prominent, influential families. Their conversions have not gone unnoticed.
The church rented a hotel up in the Alps for the seminar which was attended by over 50, about half of whom had doctoral degrees. Their eagerness to learn and love for the Word was refreshing. Can you see the potential among such Austrians many of whom will be holding prominent positions in communities where there is no gospel witness?
Ralph V. Harvey