A real revolution!

By СССР – http://pravo.levonevsky.org/

This week marks the centenary of the communist revolution in Russia, a process that was supposed to bring liberation to millions of oppressed workers but also brought terror and oppression to millions of innocent bystanders, not only in Russia but across the globe as the Soviets exported their revolution to eastern Europe, southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.  While intelligentsia, bourgeoisie, merchants and managers all suffered purges, Christians have often been specifically targeted by communist regimes.  Possibly up to 20 million Christians died at the hands of the Soviet Union, and many millions more under other communist regimes.  Communist governments to this day continue to oppress Christians, particularly in North Korea.

Ever since Karl Marx commented in 1843 that “Religion… is the opium of the people”, communism has singled out Christianity for being an oppressor itself and keeping the working classes firmly entrenched at the bottom of the social ladder, and there may well be some truth in this.  For example, the whimsical hymn “All things bright and beautiful”, published in the revolutionary year of 1848 by Mrs C F Alexander, contains the lines:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Hardly encouraging the proletariat to become upwardly mobile!  Founder of the Chinese Republic Sun Yat-Sen, himself a Christian, allegedly observed that the gospel contains enough dynamite to blow up all the existing social structures in Europe.  Yet somehow the Establishment of the church allied the gospel to the elites in society, when the initial first century believers were mainly slaves or the urban poor.  So over the centuries, Christianity switched sides, although there were many notable exceptions, particularly amongst the monastics (think St Francis of Assisi) and the non-conformists (Elizabeth Fry, Dr Barnardo, George Müller).

Yet until very recently, when elements in the church have attempted to embrace the restructuring of society so that the poor and marginalised begin to become empowered, they are usually lambasted as communists, like the liberation theologians of Latin America.  Hélder Pessoa Câmara, a Roman Catholic Archbishop in Brazil during the military governments of the 1960s-80s pointed out:

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

It seems that for centuries, Christians have valued order, stability and power, and assuaged their consciences by donating to the poor.  A truly radical church would possibly make communism redundant: abolishing slavery, establishing economic equality and becoming a protector and advocate for the vulnerable and marginalised.

Today many thousands of mission workers throughout the world are trying to do just that – working as agricultural advisers, advocates for social justice, campaigning against homelessness, modern slavery and people trafficking, working in prisons and refugee camps.  They need more people to join them, to fund them and pray for them.  There is a huge need across the world which the church should be meeting.  Can you put your career on hold for a few years to go and help?  Or cancel your next holiday so you can donate some real money?  Give up an hour of television a week to pray for world mission?

In a sobering passage in Matthew 25, Jesus said to his followers:  “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”  Today, where do we have the opportunity to serve Jesus in one of his most ‘distressing disguises’?[1]

[1] Mother Theresa of Calcutta in Where There is Love, There is God

A tribute to nonconformism

John Wesley

Recently I came across a memorial to John Wesley which is situated near to the site in London where his heart was ‘strangely warmed’ as he gave his life to Jesus.  From there I went to visit the chapel where he once ministered, which is not too far away on City Road.  Then I discovered an old nonconformist cemetery just over the road.  Looking round, I realised how many influential people are buried there, and it set me thinking about how influential nonconformism has been on making the UK what it is today, and how nonconformists have taken the gospel to the world.

Nonconformist is a generic name given to protestants who are members of a church other than the Anglican churches, or in previous centuries it could also be used of evangelical members of the Church of England.  Historically, these churches have included Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Puritans, Quakers, Salvationists, Unitarians, and a number of other independent or free churches.  Taken en bloc they currently have more members than the Roman Catholic church and nearly as many as the combined Anglican churches of the UK (source: Operation World, 2005) yet they are often thought of as an insignificant minority because they represent so many different, and frequently small, streams.

Spiritually, most of these groups arose out of huge revival movements of the 17th – 20th centuries and many had a massive social impact on their communities.  Many of them campaigned for the abolition of slavery, improvement of housing and working conditions for poor people and the provision of relief for the destitute.  Their impact has been so great as to lead some secular historians to suggest that it was nonconformism that saved Britain from undergoing revolutions like those experienced on the continent in the 18th and 19th centuries, though of course that was not what motivated the likes of Elizabeth Fry or William Booth.  If the Anglican church is ‘the Tory party on its knees’, Labour owes more to Methodism than it does to Marxism, and it can be no coincidence that the Liberal Democrats are strong in parts of the country where nonconformism has been the most influential.  The desire to make the world a better place is strong in nonconformism and historically it has not been afraid to be politically involved.

Banned by law from investing in property during the 18th century, many nonconformists went into trade and finance, and many well-known companies owe their origin to them, including Barclays, Cadburys, GKN, Lloyds TSB, Rowntrees and Wedgwood.  Pioneers of steam power Thomas Newcomen and James Watt were both nonconformists.  Others, finding their way into education barred by the entry requirement of being an Anglican, went on to found their own educational establishments.  Some expressed their views through their writing, most notably John Bunyan and the poet/artist William Blake.  Joseph Priestly, a nonconformist minister, was also an influential scientist.  Many others were notable scientists, theologians politicians and rights activists.

One reason for nonconformism being so popular in the UK is that its egalitarian philosophy and lack of ecclesiastical hierarchy had a great appeal among the English working class and struck a chord with the fundamentally democratic  spirit of the Anglo-Saxons.  Paradoxically, it attracted popular support in the celtic areas of the UK for precisely the same reason: it was not associated with the English establishment.  This egalitarianism expressed itself in congregational or presbyterian forms of government rather than Episcopalian, and gave rise to a sense of solidarity with the poor, leading to social action, and with the lost, leading to mission both at home and abroad.  Famous nonconformist missionaries include John Birch, Amy Carmichael, William Carey, David Livingstone, Mary Slessor, C T Studd, and Hudson Taylor, and many modern mission societies have their roots in nonconformism.

Today, the number of closed or near-empty nonconformist places of worship across the country are a testimony to the great revivals of the past, as nearly every village had its 18th century chapel building as well as its church.  Many of those believing communities are now too small to maintain their rural buildings, and often congregate in the large town centre churches, which in turn are planting out small churches into homes and community centres throughout the country.  21st century nonconformism may look different in many ways but the spirit is still the same.  The heritage of nonconformism is one we would do well to live up to, in expressing our compassion for the poor, or concern for the lost, and our desire to make the world a better place for all.