A Famous Revolutionary’s Surprising Past

Written by Rusty Wright

Quiz: What famous revolutionary, born in May, wrote the following words? (The answer may surprise you.)

“Says Christ… ‘I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing….’ Our heart, our reason, history itself, and the word of Christ, all call to us loudly and decisively that a union with Him is an absolute necessity, that… only He can save us.”

Was it Pope John Paul II? Martin Luther? Billy Graham? Mother Teresa?

A seventeen-year-old German student wrote this as part of a school essay. Descended from a long line of rabbis, his father had become a nominal Christian for social and economic reasons. The lad went off to study at the University of Berlin where he became enamored of the writings of the recently deceased dialectical philosopher Hegel as well as of other law and philosophy professors.

Soon he became disenchanted with Christianity, viewing it as a means of oppression and social control. His doctoral dissertation expressed his disdain with religion. A few years later he affirmed that “man makes religion, religion does not make man” and saw religion as “the opium of the people.” He felt “the social principles of Christianity are hypocritical.”

Thirteen years after his touching essay on union with Christ, Karl Marx wrote (with Frederick Engels), “A specter is haunting Europe–the specter of Communism. . . . The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite!”

Now, over 150 years after The Communist Manifesto was first published, we might say, “A specter is haunting Europe–the specter of democracy” (albeit with a few bumps). During the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow demonstrators held up a banner reading “Workers of the World, We Apologize.”

Ironically, much of the democratic fervor that swept former Communist states during the last decade was fueled by religious commitment. Influence by the Catholic Church in Poland and the Protestant church in East Germany and Romania were but a few examples. Prayer meetings led to demonstrations that eventually brought down despots. A “revolution by candlelight”, some have called it.

The hunger for spiritual fulfillment is a deep human longing. The dedication that filling a spiritual void can bring has sparked social reforms too numerous to detail. Eighteenth century British parliamentarian William Wilberforce spent decades opposing the slave trade. He endured ridicule and ill health as he took on the moneyed establishment on an issue that affected their pocketbook but apparently not their conscience. Wilberforce’s Christian conviction drove and sustained him to a successful end.

One of Wilberforce’s chief encouragers was John Newton, a pastor and former slave trader who found faith during a storm at sea. He is perhaps best known for writing the ever-popular song, “Amazing Grace.”

Another supporter was John Wesley, founder of Methodism. The last letter Wesley ever wrote was to Wilberforce encouraging him to continue his uphill fight: “O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”

Karl Marx learned to hate Christianity. How might history have differed had the young Marx met intelligent but sensitive believers who could have explained the faith’s intellectual roots while demonstrating Jesus’ concern for the poor and suffering? Could knowing Wilberforce or Newton or Wesley have made a difference?

What about today’s socially concerned? As they watch spiritual leaders, will they see the compassion and passionate dedication to justice and truth that past heroes of the faith displayed? Or will they see moral compromise and indifference? Might a future Karl Marx be watching?

©2000 Rusty Wright. Used by permission. All rights reserved.