Church History, Features, Pastorate, Theology
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Notes from the Revolution

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around what is happening in our country. When I saw the video of George Floyd, with policeman Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck, I thought: “Unless I’m missing something, I can’t see how that could be justified.” Of course, I was not there, the video had been apparently edited, and I had at that time next to no information about either Floyd or Chauvin.

But then something odd happened. I begin receiving e-mails from this or that church, from this or that organization, all saying something like: “It is high time for our country to deal with racism, our national disgrace,” etc.; or, “We must all stand for racial justice, and do so now.”

Perhaps this is something that should not be asked, but my initial question was simple: How do we know the death of George Floyd was tied to race or racism? Perhaps it was, but perhaps it was not. Was Chauvin a racist man? It’s possible. Was this particular act motivated by racism? I have no idea. How would I know?

What I do know was that all four officers at the scene of Floyd’s death have been terminated. Chauvin has been arrested and charged with second-degree murder. Presumably, he will go to trial. It certainly seems likely that this is a case of police brutality and homicide. So what would justice require at this point? Well, it would seem to require pretty much exactly what has happened—at least as concerns Chauvin. He has been arrested and charged with a crime, and the case for police brutality and some form of homicide is very strong. I hope and pray he receives a fair trial, that truth wins out, and that justice is done.

But something else has happened, and that is what is motivating this article. Around our nation, we have witnessed rioting and looting, mass violence, the killing (unintentional and intentional) of dozens of persons of various races, the burning of police stations, and the destruction of millions of dollars of property. In short, we are watching a level of violent revolutionary behavior that I have not witnessed in my lifetime.

In light of such activity, it is frankly somewhat bizarre to receive e-mails from various persons and institutions primarily concerned to condemn racism, while often ignoring, underplaying, or giving a pass to the violent and criminal activity in recent weeks.

The attempt to soft-peddle the violence and revolutionary acts is odd, almost Orwellian. Former Defense Secretary General James Mattis cautions that “We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers.” But is that number really so small?

Another note I received essentially said, “We should be very concerned about racism and racial prejudice in the United States.” In the same note, this person went on to say, “Yes, there has been some violence, but this is surely due to frustration flowing from the racism in our country.” 

Why—when encountering one of the most significant displays of violence our country has seen within the last fifty years—are various leaders, journals, denominations, and other persons of influence simply (1) calling for an end to racism while (2) offering such facile and vacuous commentary on revolutionary violence and destruction? I am confused and saddened.

Christians have deep theological resources and wisdom from which to draw to speak to the various challenges of our day. When we see streets erupting in violence, a violence linked often to various radical political ideologies, what should Christians do or think?

It is understandable that certain conservative Christians might suggest that the Christian faith is really about saving souls, and that we should not worry too much about social upheaval and unrest, or even worry too much about questions concerning a just political order.

That is not what I am advocating here.

In fact, Christians should very much be interested in how we can live godly, ethical lives in the present, and how we can love our neighbor in all sorts of ways by…

  • …being kind and gracious to our neighbors;
  • …providing tangible service to our neighbors—especially during times of trial or difficulty;
  • …trying to ensure that our city, county, state, and nation have just laws that are being executed rightly, justly, and fairly.

There is a political or social dimension to Christianity which is simply inescapable. But, Christians should think through all things—including the nature of social or political realityin explicitly scriptural categories.

We should recall the antithesis found in Genesis 3:15 and following: There will be a fundamental animus between the things of God and the things of the evil one, and this animus will exist, and rear its head, until the end. Here the insight of John Calvin (1509-1564) and others is especially helpful and illuminating. Man is homo adorans—worshipping man. Man is, by nature, a worshipping creature, and will continue to be a worshipping creature for all time. When Bob Dylan said “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but your gonna have to serve somebody,” he was right. Hence, I believe it is necessary to view our current revolutionary moment as fundamentally and inescapably a matter of religious faith. In short: Current revolutionary activity is a manifestation of a kind of religious faith, even if this faith is—on Christian terms—ultimately a form of unbelief.

This brings to mind a book I cannot recommend highly enough: James H. Billington’s Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of Revolutionary Faith. Billington reflects on revolutions from the late 18th century to the (almost) present day, essentially beginning with the French Revolution. One of most intriguing insights in the book is that the French Revolution was driven by fundamentally religious impulses and desires. These religious desires were generally idolatrous and godless, but they were nonetheless religious. Thus, the revolutions of 1789 could use Christian imagery and symbolism (e.g., the Lord’s Supper and Baptism) while perpetuating acts of terror and sexual perversion. French revolutionary Count Mirabeau could say that his goal was not to “reform” the nation, but to regenerate it. For Mirabeau, the National Assembly of the French Revolution was “the inviolable priesthood of national policy.” 1James H. Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 20. Emphasis mine.

Interestingly, the British poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and others of his era were initially friendly to the French Revolution. But eventually Wordsworth cooled to the idea and became more “conservative.” One recent commentator has called Wordsworth’s change of mind an “apostasy”—i.e., a falling from the faith. 2Thomas Keymer, “After-Meditation,” London Review of Books, vol. 42, no. 12, June 18, 2020. https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n12/thomas-keymer/after-meditation. Once again, we are fundamentally worshipping creatures. We will serve the devil, or we will serve the Lord, and this service—which will be expressed in our understandings of social and political reality—will always be, all the way down, religious. 

There are plenty of resources to help us come to terms with our current movement. For example, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, in his Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man (originally published in 1938), argued that monarchy will eventually be corrupted by tyranny, which is followed by aristocracy, which is followed by oligarchy, which is followed by democracy, which is followed by mob-rule. This mob rule is then followed by either monarchy or tyranny. As I write this piece, a group in Seattle has seized control of a portion of the city and taken over the East Precinct police station.

What saddens me about so much of the commentary surrounding our current challenges is that it tends to miss the obvious. We are still reaping the consequences of certain key impulses and convictions of the Enlightenment. To wit, David Hume (1711-1776) could write that as a philosopher, his goal was virtually to start over in his philosophy, completely abandoning the past. Of course, René Descartes (1596-1650) preceding him, with his notion of methodological doubt, had said very much the same thing. And this is the point: Such philosophical convictions are inherently and inescapably revolutionary; they want to reject the past authority, tradition, and religion, and to recreate society from scratch.

This brings us the specter behind much of our current dilemma: Karl Marx (1818-1883). Marx had a certain philosophy (or theology) of history, wherein violent revolution leads to a kind of social utopia. In this view, violent revolution is simply a part of the process of achieving the end of history. Indeed, as Marx wrote: “revolutions are the locomotives of history.” As some communists reportedly quipped when questioned about the millions of deaths under Stalin’s purges, “If you want an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.” 

Rather than deny the importance of history, faithful Christian thought offers a truer philosophy/theology of history. God is ruling and orchestrating history, and building a kingdom. This kingdom grows throughout history and portends a future where the King returns to make all things right. The King is at work now, and the King’s Kingdom will one day be fully realized. On that Day full justice will be accomplished and executed.

But true justice—if one stops to think just a bit—entails, well, judgment. And romantic and high-octane calls for “justice” in this or that demonstration or protest today is probably not always very aware of exactly what they are calling for.

In a Marxist historical analysis, when trying to get at what is really driving this or that social change or movement, one is told: “follow the money.” There is some truth to the importance of this question, but a Christian analysis of this or that social phenomenon should ultimately be more penetrating. “Which god does this person serve? What does this person love”? In short, a truly Christian analysis of this or that social phenomenon is going to get at the heart of the issue: Who man is, how he is damaged by sin, what gods he may be serving, and how he can be transformed by the grace of the true God.

Christians should seek justice in our present situation, and speak to the various pressing issues of our day. Yet as we do so, we would be wise to heed Scripture and take our cues from thinkers other than Karl Marx. One such thinker is Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801-1876), author of a book entitled Unbelief and Revolution. For van Prinsterer, there were two paths one might follow in seeking a more just social order: Revolution, or Reformation. The Christian option remains the latter, while unbelief leads consistently to the former. We should long for justice, but turning a blind eye to violence is foolish and tragic.

Perhaps I am trying to do what Rosenstock-Huessy was trying to do in 1938 in his Out of Revolution: “I wish to pour the water of patience into the strong wine of revolutionary excitement, so that my contemporaries may not waste their time in feverish and fruitless efforts.” 3Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man (Providence, RI/Oxford, UK: Berg, 1969; originally published in 1938), 13.

[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared at Reformation21. Published here kind permission of the author.]

References   [ + ]

1. James H. Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 20. Emphasis mine.
2. Thomas Keymer, “After-Meditation,” London Review of Books, vol. 42, no. 12, June 18, 2020. https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n12/thomas-keymer/after-meditation.
3. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man (Providence, RI/Oxford, UK: Berg, 1969; originally published in 1938), 13.
Filed under: Church History, Features, Pastorate, Theology
Brad Green

Brad Green (PhD, Baylor University) is professor of Theological Studies at Union University. He is the author of several books including, The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life.

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