The Marxist historian Christopher Hill wrote a magnificent book about the 17th century English Civil War, which he entitled The World Turned Upside Down. In it he examined the radical ideas of the English revolutionaries. Those who are familiar with the King James English version of the Bible will know that he lifted the phrase from Acts 17:6.
In post-election Scotland, there has been what seems almost like a revolutionary change. The rise of the SNP and the almost Messianic hopes that have come with it have raised people’s hopes. The division between politics in Scotland and England is wider than ever before – so much so that there are those who think that the election marks the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom.
The need and desire for radical change is not new. “At present the democratic and social evils are forcing themselves on the people. The unequal division of property, and the dangers of poverty and envy arising therefrom, is the principal evil. Means must necessarily be found, not for diminishing riches (as the communists want) but to make facilities for the poor. But there’s the rub. I believe this question will first be solved here, in England.” (Prince Albert, 1849, cited in Victoria, A Life by AN Wilson). It could have been written for post-recession Europe today.
Around the same time, another couple of Germans in England were writing their solution to the problem that Prince Albert identified. Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848. While there are many things in that small book that many people could sympathise and agree with, one cannot but think of the devastation, havoc and loss of life that communist doctrine has caused. What was deemed to be liberal, progressive and the inevitable tide of history has turned out to be a major disappointment.
And yet within that book there is a hint of another way – a better way. Probably the most famous phrase in the Communist Manifesto is “from each according to his means to each according to his needs”. This was lifted from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Christianity offered – and offers – a more radical equality, as it deals not only with the material but also with the very essence and soul of humanity.
From the very beginning, real Christianity was revolutionary. Whether it was a Jewish teacher like Paul, a doctor like Luke, or fishermen like Peter and John, the early disciples turned the Graeco/Roman/Pagan world upside down. The early Church fathers, from Justin Martyr to Augustine, turned the Roman Empire upside down. The Celtic monks, early reformers like the Czech Jan Hus and Englishmen William Tyndale and John Wycliffe, turned early modern Europe upside down. The Reformation was a radical revolution: the proclamation and living out of the Gospel turned the church, economy, culture and society upside down. There is no doubt that modern Europe, especially the west, would not exist without the Reformed and Lutheran churches as their foundation.
But what about Scotland? This is a country whose foundations are Christian. There was a time when the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was seen as the nearest thing Scotland had to a parliament. As the Church of Scotland and the Free Church begin their assemblies this week, perhaps we need to reconsider the role of the Church in Scotland.
For those of us concerned about the future of the Church we need to ask if we merely want to maintain a dying Church, as the Gospel continues to produce wonderful fruit all over the world (there are probably more Christians now in China than in Europe)?
Do we want to spend our time remembering the Christendom of the past, and moaning about the secularism and spiritual confusion of the present? Or do we want to see Scotland return to its spiritual roots? Do we recognise that a renewed Scotland needs a renewed Church? If we do, then we need to be much more radical. The term comes from the Latin “radix” meaning “roots”. The Church needs to return to its biblical roots.
As she must seek to understand the times, so she must also proclaim the original word of God, and the real historical Jesus, to a Scotland which needs him as much now as it ever did. But it won’t be easy. If we proclaim Christ, through his Word, in the power of the Spirit, then there is no doubt that we too will be labelled “troublemakers” because we too will turn the world upside down.
John Knox famously said: “Give me Scotland or I die.” I wonder if the Church in Scotland has the same passion and commitment today?
• David Robertson is director at Solas Centre for Public Christianity www.solascpc.org