Over the next few weeks a couple of anniversaries of significant historical events will occur. October will mark 100 years since the Russian Revolution occurred. It was a seismic political occurrence which propelled the world into a new era ending in the Cold War. The first atheist state was created with the promise of the creation of a ‘new man’. Very quickly the dream descended into the violence of civil war which was later followed by the Stalinist purges. Rather than bringing liberation the Russian Revolution brought violence, death and oppression. It ended in the Soviet Union characterised by the loss of liberty, suppression of political dissent and persecution of religious groups. The October Revolution of 1917 did not bring about the creation of a ‘new man’ and an end to social and economic injustice. Rather the new elite of the Soviet Communist Party proved to be far more oppressive than their Tsarist predecessors with millions of victims either killed and/or sent to the Gulag during the succeeding decades. Although many suffered, the main targets of Soviet Union’s suppression of religion were the evangelical churches.
In October this year, another anniversary will be celebrated. It will mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther attached his ‘95 Thesis’ to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church. In so doing, he started a religious and political revolution the effects of which were to shape European history for centuries to come and arguably laid the foundation for the development of modern liberal democracy. Despite the wars of religion of the 16th and 17th Centuries, the overriding legacy of the Reformation was a renewed understanding of the Christian Gospel.
At the heart of this Gospel is the command to love God and love our neighbour. Motivated by this love, Christians engage in our communities and transform society. Many examples of such initiatives exist in modern Scotland. The love of neighbour as ourselves is engraved on the facade of John Knox House in the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. This was the underpinning motivation of the Scottish Reformation. The Reformation was not perfect in all its outworking and politics played a very significant role in its establishment. However, its over-riding legacy was one of significant transformation to Scottish society, not least through the creation of a school every parish. This love of neighbour remains the motivation for Christian engagement with society today.
Given the huge problems facing society today, it could be asked: does Scotland need a new Reformation in the 21st Century? Many Scots have a deep sense of purposelessness as materialism has failed to satisfy our deepest spiritual needs. Governments struggle to address endemic social problems including, among other things, alcohol and drug addiction, poverty, homelessness, teenage pregnancies, high rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), gambling, gang culture and family breakdown.
Recognition of the contribution of churches in tackling some of these social problems has been acknowledged in a motion that was debated in the Scottish Parliament. The motion recognises the positive work done by church-based community groups in the provision of services such as foodbanks, debt advice, night shelters for homeless people and in refugee support work. It states that such community work is a mark of a healthy civil society which is to be welcomed in a modern, plural Scotland.
In an increasingly secular Scotland it is important that the opportunity for churches and church-based groups to provide such services is not curtailed. From the valuable work of NHS, school and prison chaplains to the myriad of faith-based social action projects, the continuing role of Christianity in the public life of our nation is something to be cherished. There are strident voices which wish to push Christianity out of the public life of our nation. If they are successful in achieving their aim, it will be a detriment to our society, with those who are disadvantaged and vulnerable suffering the most. In order to preserve such faith-based initiatives it is imperative to recognise that it is their faith ethos which makes them successful. Politicians should ensure that the law does not unreasonably impinge upon that ethos and be bold enough to reject the demands coming from the sides which call for this.
Dr Gordon Macdonald is parliamentary officer of CARE for Scotland