Christianity, Social Revolutions, and the Way Forward
No type of revolution has had a greater history of violence and redemptive victory than the social revolution. Social revolutions, defined by the anarchist Alexander Berkman as “the reorganization of the industrial, economic life of the country, and consequently also of the entire structure of society,” have greatly impacted our world and molded it into the shape it is today.[i] In Western history, no other religion has had as unique a relationship with social revolutions as Christianity. At times, Christianity and social revolutions have been viciously opposed to each other. At other times, the two have worked in such close tandem as to be indistinguishable. Therefore, while Karl Marx argues that Christianity is impotent for social change and irrelevant to social revolution, Christianity actually promotes social revolution and gives it a powerful and tangible methodology for peaceful social change. In fact, Christianity supplies both a narrative and the moral conviction needed to motivate social change. Christianity has definitely failed to fight injustice in certain instances throughout history, but has also acted as a catalyst for social change for much of history. Society, by extension, attributes much of its progress to Christianity.
Marx, the German economist and philosopher and one of the fiercest critics of Christianity, attacked religion’s predictable maintenance of the status quo:
The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man… Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world… It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion… Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.[ii]
Marx identifies that religion is nothing more than a product of man, the state, and society. By implication, religion is nothing more than a tool used by the state to conserve the state of affairs. According to Marx, religion acts as the outlet through which people can express their sufferings. However, this means that religion can never enlighten people to recognize the real cause of their problems – in the case of Marx, the state’s continued abuse of the working class in favor of the bourgeoisie. Marx’s critique, one levied by others in history, opposes any suggestion that any religion, including Christianity, could logically work side by side with social revolution.
Marx’s denunciation of religion and its assurance of social stagnancy is appealing, but historically incorrect. On the contrary, throughout history, Christians, motivated by Christianity itself, have sought to cure social ills and even spark social revolutions to end some of history’s worst injustices. English Christians, such as William Wilberforce, Granville Sharp, and Thomas Clarkson, felt compelled by their Christian faith to end slavery and succeeded in abolishing the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1834.[iii]
Although Christianity in Europe had existed from the late 15th century all the way up until the mid-19th century alongside slavery, Christianity and slavery were not a peaceful pairing. In 1537, Pope Paul III forbade the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of America by any Catholic nations. Dominican friars and priests, in a meeting with the king of Spain, opposed the enslavement of indigenous peoples and the methods of colonialism the Spanish practiced.[iv] Bartolome de las Casas, a well-known Dominican friar, fought against slavery and the colonial abuses of the Spanish, and was accused of treason for his protests.[v] Therefore slavery, even in its earliest days in Europe, was greatly opposed by many Christians.
Christianity was also unique in facilitating the end of slavery. On a global scale, slavery as an institution was extremely common in most societies in the 19th century (though it differed from the chattel slavery seen in the New World). Most societies at that time benefited from the continued existence of slavery, and saw little reason to end it. According to sociologist Rodney Stark, no religion, philosophy, or ideology advocated for the abolition of slavery in the 18th century. He noted that,
“All known societies above the very primitive level have been slave societies—even many of the Northwest American Indian tribes had slaves long before Columbus’s voyage. Amid this universal slavery, only one civilization ever rejected human bondage: Christendom. And it did it twice!”[vi]
Christianity also motivated the English Christian abolitionists to bring slavery to an end, despite the cost. Slavery was one of the largest institutions that benefited the state and the slave trade profited many states greatly. Consequently, their efforts to put an end to the enslavement of innocent Africans ran into many difficulties; the culture at that time was comfortable with the continuance of chattel slavery, and it took twenty years of campaigning and protesting for the abolitionists just to end the slave trade. According to Marx, Christianity should have perpetuated slavery for its advantages to slave-owners and traders, rather than relentlessly pursuing the complete abolition of slavery. But the fact that religion was used in this context to overturn, rather than continue, the status quo casts doubt on Marx’s assertion that religion is merely the tool of the state and blinds people to the real cause of their problems.
Even disregarding contrary historical evidence, Marx’s beliefs about Christianity’s relationship to social change is contrary to what Christianity itself teaches about social change. St. Paul, in his letter to the church in Galatia, vehemently argued that Jesus’ sacrifice released Jews and non-Jews alike from the dominion of the Jewish law, precisely so that all humanity could thrive as equals in communion with him. St. Paul pushed back against the claims of some Jewish Christians that non-Jewish Christians had to follow the Mosaic Law, given to the Hebrews as they were entering Israel.[vii] Recognizing that the law would only create more division and separation in the Christian community, St. Paul radically proclaimed that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”[viii]
The philosopher Paul Copan noted how profoundly this statement affected the culture that Christianity developed:
Paul (and Peter) didn’t call for an uprising to overthrow slavery in Rome. They didn’t want the Christian faith to be perceived as opposed to social order and harmony…. On the other hand, the early Christians undermined slavery indirectly and certainly rejected many common Greco-Roman assumptions about it, such as Aristotle’s (slaves were inherently inferior to their masters, as were females to males). Just as Jesus bore unjust suffering for the redemption of others… so Christian slaves could bear hardship to show others—including their masters—the way of Christ and redemption through him, all while entrusting themselves to God. Thus, like yeast, such Christlike living could have a gradual leavening effect on society so that oppressive institutions like slavery could finally fall away. This is, in fact, what took place throughout Europe….[ix]
Christianity necessarily struggled against the predominant Greco-Roman thought and worked to oppose culture – not to reduce identities to nothingness, but to argue that there is always unity among all people, developing the foundation for later Christian denouncements of slavery.
Of course, Marx’s attacks on religion assume that social revolutions are inherently desirable. Yet for people who hesitate to immediately endorse social change, there is a concern that social revolutions themselves have a tendency to devolve into violence and dehumanization. The French and Russian revolutions are typical examples of this phenomenon. But even attempts at social change with peaceful intentions have often ended in violence, such as the Syrian Civil War.[x] When these social movements become violent, the purpose behind these movements can be lost on the potential sympathizers of a cause. Many social sciences see society itself as a function to reduce and control violence; thus when a social revolution, regardless of intent, creates violence, a great majority of the population tends to see it as only a disruption of the social order. [xi]
In the midst of this, Christianity emerges again as foundational in the pursuit of nonviolent protest. In fact, the pursuit of nonviolence can be seen as a core aspect of Christianity. Consider that the gospels, the records of Jesus’ life, can be seen as a story of a pacifist protest against individual and social evils, against terrible injustices that occurred all around the world in which Christ lived. Jesus preaches against the abuse of power committed by the powerful institutions of his day and argues that their adherence to man-made laws has blinded them to God’s truth.
In his greatest act of protest against injustice, Jesus offers up his own body to the violence of the two corrupt institutions he spoke out against: the Jewish priestly class and the Roman government. The condemnation of his messianic claims, a manifestation of priestly authority, and his death on a cross, a symbol of Roman authority, compose the scene of Jesus’ death as one final protest that flips the table on his enemies and exposes their corruption – that they could be so twisted as to murder an innocent, peaceful carpenter, simply for questioning the morality of their actions. In the final moments of his crucifixion, Jesus achieved the ultimate goal of any social revolution: the revelation of injustice, made clear to all by exposing the absurdity of the so-called “justice system.” St. Paul highlights this in his letter to the church in Colossae: “[Jesus] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”[xii] Jesus shines a light on the destruction of society caused by the “rulers and authorities” through his condemnation and crucifixion, which were their greatest tools in maintaining the social order. Ironically, Jesus shows that their attempts to maintain the social order actually degrade it. In this way, he gives a stark and powerful example of how a nonviolent social revolution can proceed and succeed.
A likely and undeniably fair critique of the above may be that nonviolence sounds good in theory, but fails in practice. Perhaps such a successful nonviolent protest can be made by Jesus, but not by the rest of world. Nevertheless, nonviolence was successfully achieved, most clearly in Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights activism. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King logically and emotionally advocates for nonviolent protests, for breaking laws, for being beaten – all for the sake of removing the oppressive bonds of segregation. Civil rights activists took this strategy to heart and were hosed down, attacked by dogs, beaten with clubs and more, all to expose the horrid injustices of segregation. The movement won great victories, though at great physical, emotional, and mental costs.
Regardless, Martin Luther King Jr.’s emphasis on nonviolent protest did not detract from his heartfelt conviction that racial injustice in America needed to end. His activism is a quintessential example of social change grounded in Christian principles combined with a persistent desire for nonviolence. In the same letter, King explains how the “law of God” defines what is fundamentally just and unjust:
How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality…[xiii]
The root of King’s activism, therefore, came from his belief that there were divine laws that humans could not violate without then violating their own conscience.
It may be true that a Marxist view of social revolution entails a certain level of violence and dehumanization. But this does not mean that violence is the only means of achieving lasting social change. The “social revolution” achieved by Martin Luther King was lasting and nonviolent, but was guided by the belief that God’s laws supersede the laws of states and that the state is not the final determinant of what is and isn’t just. Therefore, Christianity provides both the grounds for social revolution and also the process by which it goes about. This process can be aptly described by the term “civil disobedience,” and combines both a devotion to moral justice and a humility that recognizes that the means do not justify the ends. Civil disobedience is by no means foreign to Christianity. King himself noted the countless examples of civil disobedience throughout Christian history:
Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.[xiv]
We can see from the examples of Jesus and the civil rights movement that Christianity provides the best way forward for social revolutions in the form of civil disobedience. It calls for its followers to be unafraid to fight against injustice and immorality, but to fight in a way that is peaceful and consequently even more subversive to corrupt forces.
Today’s political discourse is rife with contemporary protests against the racism inherent in the American justice system, against the destruction of our ecosystem by multinational corporations, and against the debt slavery that first world nations subject third world nations to. What this discourse requires is an underpinning logic and method of change that truly exposes the evil at hand without violating the humanity of others. As historical examples of the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, and the life of Jesus himself have shown, Christianity offers both the inspiration and a radical, nonviolent approach to social change. To silence Christianity on the subject of social revolutions would deprive the world of the voice it desperately needs to make real change happen.
i. Alexander Berkman, “Chapter 25: The Idea Is the Thing,”
in What Is Communist Anarchism?: Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism (New York: Dover Publications, 1972), 199.
ii. Karl Marx, “Introduction,” in Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’, trans. Joseph O’Malley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p.i.
iii. See Leo D’Anjou, Social Movements and Cultural Change: The First Abolition Campaign Revisited (Priscataway: Aldine Transaction, 1996). Also, see Eric Metaxas, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2007).
iv. Hugh Thomas, Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan (New York: Random House, 2003), 173-174.
v. Helen Rand Parish and Henry Raup Wagner, The Life and Writings of Bartolome De Las Casas (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1967), 211.
vi. Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 376.
vii. Timothy Keller, Galatians for You (Purcellville: Good Book Company, 2013), p.iii.
viii. Galatians 3:28 (ESV).
ix. Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 152-153.
x. “Syria: The Story of the Conflict,” BBC, 3 February 2016, <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26116868>.
xi. For more on this, see Douglass C. North and John Joseph Wallis, Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
xii. Colossians 2:15 (ESV).
xiii. Joy James, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in Imprisoned Intellectuals: America’s Political Prisoners Write on Life, Liberation, and Rebellion (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 37.
xiv. James, 38.
Josh Alexakos ’17 is from Hingham, Massachusetts. He is a Government major and an Economics minor.Tags: Alexander Berkman, Aquinas, economics, history, injustice, justice, logic, Martin Luther King Jr, Marxism, reason, Rodney Stark, slavery, violence