|Why “Reflections on the Revolution”?
It’s a direct reference to Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke’s prescient 1790 critique of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment that informed it. Burke foresaw the mob rule that culminated in Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. He warned that if the democratic principle were allowed to run without check or limit, the French would lose freedom and the democratic majority would become a tyrant. It did. Radical democratic rule saw thousands of the French go under the guillotine. Sometimes people were arrested when denounced by a disgruntled neighbour and executed by a majority voice vote.
While highly critical of the French Revolution, Burke defended the American Revolution. Burke supported the American revolutionaries who sought to recover freedom and to restore English institutional checks and balances that guaranteed liberty – things taken away by the British Crown and colonial governors.
The title also refers to the socialist revolutions of the 20th century. Marxists pursued revolution to achieve radical economic equality. Marxists in a hurry – omelette socialists – broke eggs to impose Marxist regimes by force around the world. The Black Book of Communism (1997) features Stephane Courtois’s mea culpa claiming Marxist totalitarian regimes were directly responsible for the deaths of 100 million people in the 20th century.
Go-slow Marxists – champagne socialists – used democratic processes to achieve economic levelling, squelching job and wealth creation. By the 1970s, marginal income tax rates exceeded 90 per cent. As inflation, interest rates and unemployment figures strayed into double-digit percentages, free market capitalism was pronounced dead. Marriage and family, education and the church were attacked or put under stress by public policy, popular culture and – astoundingly – by church leaders. Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously observed in his 1978 Harvard commencement address that the West had lost its nerve and the will to live.
Then came the revolutions of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Before the decade was up, Marxist communism around the world had fallen or was well on the way and the West enjoyed unprecedented growth.
Even as world communism and democratic socialism wound down and free market capitalism surged, other developments were underway. At least as important as the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions, John Paul II led the Roman Catholic church to recover its nerve after the confusion and disarray of the 1960s and 1970s. Against the hedonism and nihilism of the 1970s and 1980s, John Paul called for a culture of life.
Evangelicalism re-entered the public square and culture after a generation’s absence, residing in an evangelical ghetto at the margins of society. Evangelical influence re-emerged to be felt globally, leading people to belief in God, to a recovery of healthy family life and to the courage to resist political and social injustice in central Europe, in Africa and in Asia. Evangelical influence increasingly set much of the agenda of American public and foreign policy.
Thirdly, radical Islam came into its own, directly ruling or influencing the rulers of Iran, the Arab kingdoms and dictatorships, Pakistan and the central Asian republics and the authoritarian regimes of Indonesia and Malaysia. This revolution began in 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini’s plane touched down in Tehran and Soviet tanks crossed into Afghanistan.
I want to reflect on how these revolutions speak to the 21st century. But there’s another revolution I want to draw on. It began its life, utterly powerless, at the margins, underground. Yet for its first 300 years, it transformed the empire in which it lived. Its influence reformed the same legal code that declared it an “illegal religion,” leading to stricter legal protections for slaves, women and children. The movement’s adherents roamed city streets at night, searching for infants left out to die of exposure, for orphans with no family to turn to and for widows who resorted to prostitution for food and shelter – caring for them as for their own families. Illegal, yes. But for good works, known far and wide. By the time Constantine declared it legal and made it the Roman Empire’s official religion, Christian faith had already overwhelmed and transformed its oppressors.
Recently, I spoke to a Canadian lawyer who had returned from a humanitarian visit to a central Asian republic governed by an officially Muslim regime. The regime has made Christianity illegal – practice or conversion is punishable by imprisonment or, even, death. Yet Christians continue to meet underground and live the faith. They are known as the people who search for abandoned infants, for orphans and for prostitutes and take them in.
Why “Reflections”? The revolution continues.