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Manifesto of the Real Revolution

 

Luke 1: 39-56

It’s easy to sympathize with revolutionary movements, since revolutions are spawned by shocking injustices and unendurable oppression. It’s easy to see a new day dawning in revolutionary movements, a new day for those who have endured the long night of exploitation and frustration.

Because it’s so easy to sympathize with revolutionary movements we are all the more jarred — if not left feeling hopeless — when at last we admit that the movement which promised human liberation has delivered no such thing. No one knew this better than Robespierre, an architect of the French Revolution with its threefold promise of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. Robespierre was executed at the hands of the social transmutation he had engineered. Little wonder he commented, minutes before his death, “Revolutions consume their daughters”.

As we watch Latin American countries lurch from fascism to communism, from the political far-right to the political far-left, we see it happening all over again. The African nations that threw off colonialism because it was cruel have installed a political monster whose human rights violations make colonialism appear almost benign. In pre-Revolutionary Russia Czarist rule was deemed insupportable; yet in the early period of Leninist rule the state executed one thousand people per month. A revolution that had promised to feed people still couldn’t supply each citizen with a loaf of bread 70 years later. Promising people freedom it demoralized them with a secret police; promising human fulfilment it couldn’t even grant mere recognition of human beings.

Revolutions founder over one thing: human nature. And in a fallen world, “human nature” means “human depravity”. The problem with revolutionary movements is this: they are incapable of being genuinely revolutionary! They merely “revolve”; that is, turn up, recycle, the same fallen human nature. Revolutionary movements cannot get to the heart of the matter simply because they are powerless to deal with the human heart. Political leaders may speak of a “New World Order”; Christians, however, know that the only new world order is the kingdom of God. “New” orders (so-called) are merely a case of deja vu. The only real revolution is the kingdom of God, fashioned and ruled by the king himself. It alone supplies the new heart, new mind, new spirit of which the prophets spoke, for which everyone longs, and which Jesus Christ alone bestows.

I: — According to Mary, mother of our Lord and spokesperson of his revolution, real revolution begins with the scattering of the proud in the imagination of their hearts. “Heart” is biblical shorthand for the innermost core of a person, the “nerve centre”, the “control panel”. “Heart” has to do with thinking, willing, feeling and discerning. In addition, “heart” means identity, who we really are underneath all cloaks, disguises and social conventions. The “imagination of our heart” is our fashioning a deity of our own making, a god after our own image and likeness, which deity we follow zealously. Through the prophet Isaiah God says, “I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations.” Isaiah knows that first we disdain the Holy One of Israel and his claim upon us; then we fabricate whatever deity will legitimate and satisfy our craving, whether we crave wealth or recognition or ascendancy or anything else.

While Mary is customarily depicted as demure and dainty, naive to the nth degree, the picture she paints of human nature is anything but naive: it is stark. She tells us of proud people who are victimized by the imagination of their heart — all of us; we are at this moment stumbling down paths “which are not good”, certainly not godly. All of us are like the fool of whom the psalmist speaks, the fool who “said in his heart, ‘There is no God'”. He’s a fool not because he doesn’t believe God exists; he’s a fool just because he believes God exists and yet maintains that there are no consequences to dismissing the Holy One of Israel while preferring and pursuing the imagination of the heart, no consequences to exchanging the deity we fancy for the God who claims our faithfulness. Blinded by and in love with the gods of our own making we are all alike fools whose folly is going to prove fatal.

Yet Mary remains spokesperson for a revolution which is to be announced as good news, the uniquely good news of Christmas: God has scattered the proud! Our first response to learning that God scatters us vigorously may not be that we have just heard good news! To be told that we have been scattered, at God’s hand, suggests that God has hammered us so hard as to fragment us, and then dismissively swept away the fragmented remains. To be sure, we have been judged; we have been found wanting. Yet this is not to say that God sweeps us away in his judgement. The Greek verb “to scatter” (DIASKORPIZO) also means “to winnow”. To winnow grain is to toss a shovelful so that the wind carries away chaff but leaves behind the kernel, prized and soon to be put to use. In other words, God scatters us, the proud, inasmuch as he longs to save us and intends to use us. In getting rid of chaff he lays bare that heart which he can then renew in accord with his nature and kingdom, and then use ever after.

“Scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts” is essential if a revolution is to be real and not merely a recycling of human depravity. Mary insists that in the invasion of his Son God has scattered us all and will continue to do so, yet not out of petulance or irritability or frustration or disgust. God scatters us — winnows us — inasmuch as he plans to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves and use us in ways we cannot anticipate.

II: — Mary maintains that God has done something more; God has “put down the mighty from their thrones”. But has he? Has God levelled those who strut? Has he crumbled those who tyrannize? In one sense it appears that God has done no such thing. Caesar Augustus was not deposed the day Jesus was born. No mighty ruler has been unseated just because the gospel was upheld. We need think only of Stalin’s cynical comment when told that the pope opposed Stalin’s mass murders. “The pope?”, snickered Stalin, “How many troops does the pope have?” Stalin strutted just because he knew that he, and no one else, ruled the former USSR.

And yet at a much deeper level the advent of Jesus Christ does mean that God has put down the mighty from their thrones. Herod wasn’t paranoid when he raged that the Bethlehem child was a threat to his throne. After all, in the coming of Jesus Christ into our midst the world’s only rightful ruler has appeared. Herod intuited correctly that the Christmas Gift would win to himself the loyalty of men and women who would never transfer that loyalty back to Herod. All political manipulators and ideologues and social engineers and “educational” programmers; in short, all who want to reshape society, even remake humankind, must know sooner or later that just because the world’s rightful ruler has appeared and is now enthroned their authority has been exposed as mere posturing and their promises as mere wind. Discerning Christians testify that those who think they can coerce or control have in fact been dethroned. They have been dethroned in that no ruler or tyrant can tell Christians who they are (Christ alone does this); no ruler or tyrant can make Christians who they are (Christ alone does this) — which is to say, no ruler or tyrant can ever make Christians what they don’t want to be. Corrie Ten Boom was as simple a Christian as one could find. (She was a fifty-year old unmarried daughter of a Dutch watchmaker who kept house for her father and sister). Yet Corrie Ten Boom defied Hitler by harbouring Jewish refugees in German-occupied Holland. She knew the terrible risk involved; she knew what the penalty would be. Whereupon she persisted all the more resolutely in her defiance. The moment she refused to admit any legitimacy to Hitler’s rule; the moment she refused to conform to it — in that moment Hitler was dethroned. Plainly the most coercive man in Europe was powerless in the face of a fifty-year old, unarmed woman. Yes, he could imprison her (and he did); but he could never tell her who she was; he could never make her who she was; and he could never make her what she didn’t want to be. Any Christian who refuses to conform anywhere to the blustering and bullying of “the mighty” just because that Christian acknowledges the rulership of Christ alone; any such Christian testifies that God continues to dethrone.

The revolution of which Mary speaks is unquestionably real. Still, the question can always be asked, “Real as it is, how far does it go? Whom does it finally affect?” It’s easy to say that it manifestly affects all the bullies we don’t like in any case and whom we are glad enough to see dethroned. But Mary’s revolution is unique, qualitatively different from all social dislodgings and historical upheavals, only if that innermost tyrant, that self-important egotist who manipulates me, is dethroned as well. I know how easy it is to look disdainfully at the person who is so obviously ruled by chemical substance or psychological habituation or shameless self-promotion when all the while I secretly scramble to hide the things that control me and brazenly try to excuse them when I can no longer hide them. I know how easy it is to speak of a new heart and mind when my reactions, in unguarded moments, suggest a heart still ruled by passions and instincts which serve my lingering sin, my self-indulgence, self-advantage, and self-promotion.

Then I can only cry out to God that I do want the revolution of which Mary speaks to reach me and revolutionize me. And so far from gloating over the fact that God has put down the swaggerers whom I am glad to see put down, I must plead with him to dethrone in me whatever has usurped the rule of Jesus Christ. For only then will the genuine “new world order” be under way.

III: — It is a singular mark of God’s kindness that the work of God’s left hand assists the work of his right; to say the same thing differently, a mark of God’s kindness that his right hand is stronger than his left, that mercy triumphs over judgement, that whatever wound he inflicts is only surgical repair for the sake of restoration to health. Having “put down”, God now “exalts”; he exalts “those of low degree”, the humble.

The humble, it must be noted, are not those who belittle themselves miserably and otherwise display abysmally weak self-image. (Crippling self-image isn’t humility; it’s illness.) Neither is “humility”, so-called, a religious technique whereby we can get ourselves “exalted”. And of course humility could never be the end-result of struggling to make ourselves humble, since the effort of making ourselves humble merely reinforces pride. Humility is self-forgetfulness, the self-forgetfulness that steals over us when we lose ourselves in something or someone who is bigger, richer, deeper.

In the revolution of which Mary speaks it is these humble people, self-forgetful people, whom God exalts. To be exalted, ultimately, is to be lifted up a child of God. When John speaks of the incarnation, its purpose and its result, he writes, “To all who received him [Jesus Christ], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” In other words, to “forget” ourselves into Christ is to become sons and daughters of God. To the believers in Thessalonica Paul writes, “You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We don’t belong to the night or to the darkness.” What it is to be exalted — lifted up, held up — as a child of God who no longer belongs to the night or to the darkness Paul makes clear in his letter to the congregation in Philippi; those people are “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life.”

There is nothing more revolutionary than the person who shines in the midst of a perverse world. No one, believer or unbeliever, has ever doubted that the world can repopulate itself (that is, no one has ever doubted that a crooked and perverse generation can produce crooked and perverse offspring). Humanists insist that the world doesn’t have to repopulate itself (that is, left to itself the world can produce better and better citizens — this belief is clung to even though the wars of last century alone have slew one hundred million.) Christians, however, know that the world has to repopulate itself, can do nothing except repopulate itself, for the only person who is profoundly different, before God, is the person whom God’s grace has rendered self-forgetful and then rendered God’s own child. This person shines like a Westinghouse light bulb in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. This person is a beacon of hope, because this person is living testimony that at God’s hand there is something genuinely different.

IV: — Mary gathers up everything about her revolutionary manifesto in her pithy summation: “God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”

Who are the rich whom God has sent away empty? Bashing the rich is fashionable nowadays. And of course those who like to bash the rich are quick to tell us who the rich are. The rich are those who have fifty dollars more than the bashers have; the rich are those who have a slightly better pension or a slightly larger home than the bashers have. Such an attitude bespeaks only envy and resentment. The truth is, those whose “riches” are a spiritual threat aren’t those who have money but rather those who are preoccupied with money — whether they have it or not.

The mediaeval Christians who spoke of the “Seven Deadly Sins” were correct in naming gluttony one of them. They were also correct in insisting that gluttony is not a matter of eating too much; gluttony is being preoccupied with food, even if one’s preoccupation with food is a preoccupation with avoiding food! (In other words the person obsessed with slenderness is as much food-preoccupied — and therefore gluttonous — as the person who can think only of what he is going to eat next.) It is no different with respect to money. Those who don’t have it can be as absorbed by it as those who are awash in it.

In those revolutions which remain forever ineffective those who have money disdain and dismiss those who lack it, while those who lack it hate and envy those who have it. While appearing to be poles apart, those who have it and those who lack it in fact are identical, since both alike are engrossed with it. Only the real revolution gets us beyond this, for only the real revolution makes our preoccupations shrivel as the holy God looms before us in his awesome, all-consuming immensity. As this One looms before us the chaff we have been gorging is simply forgotten, and we become aware of a hunger we never knew.

Our Lord Jesus has promised that all who hunger for God and his righteousness are going to be filled. All who crave the ultimate satisfaction of a relationship with God which can’t be snatched away by a paperback putdown or evaporated by the fires of harassment; all who finally hunger for this as they hunger for nothing else will be given that bread of life which profoundly satisfies yet never satiates. For this bread leaves us seeking none other yet always seeking more of him who is himself way and truth and life.

The rich who are sent empty away; they need not remain away. For as soon as they recognize their preoccupations as unworthy of someone who is created to be a child of God they too will hunger, will look to him who alone satisfies, and will be yet another fulfilment of Mary’s Christmas cry.

Victor Shepherd
December 2001