How Revolution Happens image

How Revolution Happens

Momentum and backlash. That’s the rhythm of every failed revolution in history.

There’s an incident, which creates a burst of anger, which gains momentum, which creates hope and a movement is formed. Buoyed by some early successes, the movement grows in confidence and overreaches itself, which provokes a backlash, as the vested interests of the status quo angrily reassert themselves. The silent majority begin to turn against the movement, at first quietly and then later very publicly. It is this resistance from the great group of undecideds that eventually spells disappointment and failure for the would-be revolution. Take a look at most of the failed mass movements in history and you will see this same script re-enacted. This is the script for how revolution fails.

But this blog is more positive. It’s about how revolution happens. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing and of a new awareness of white privilege in Western nations, I want to plead for us to learn the lessons of history so that the Black Lives Matter movement will not end in failure.

Movements lose their momentum when they build their foundations on sand, on the fickle ground of public opinion or of temporary outrage or of a sudden surge of emotion – things which build momentum quickly but which lack the strength to maintain momentum in the face of the many storms that lie between a movement and a revolution. When a movement is built on anger, it stalls when that anger subsides. When a movement is built on the outrage created by a news cycle, it is diluted and dispersed when a fresh news cycle turns people’s attention onto other important things.

I am desperate for the Black Lives Matter movement to achieve lasting change in our societies. I am excited when I read my Sky News feed talking about the American and British search to find “atonement” for its past and present “racist sins”. This is part of the revival I have been praying for. But because I want the movement to result in revolution, I feel I need to point out that its existing foundations cannot carry it that far. Appeals against ‘injustice’ and for ‘equality’ will always flounder in the face of vested interest unless we can learn the lessons of history and found our appeals for structural change on the far firmer ground that has turned momentum into revolution many times.

The English Revolution of 1642-49 failed because it was not based on an enduring insight of theology. After only eleven years as a republic, England restored the monarchy. King Charles II was invited back and within less than five years he was oppressing the people of England every bit as much as his beheaded father had before the English Civil War. It took another mass movement, in 1688, to produce a lasting revolution through the English Bill of Rights. This time around, instead of trying to build their revolution on the shifting sands of public outrage, the English built it on the solid rock of Genesis 1:27 and Job 31:15. They argued that England must be fundamentally changed because God had created every Englishman and woman in his own image.

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)

“Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?” (Job 31:15)

The American Revolution paid attention to its English lesson. The success of George Washington and of his Continental Army did not lie in the harnessing of outrage or of violence, but in the harnessing of ideas. The American Revolution was build on the solid rock of this this same principle from Genesis 1:27 and Job 31:15. It declared that independence from the motherland was necessary to prevent the defacing of the dignity of those who had been created in the image of God. The Declaration of Independence, signed on 4th July 1776, outlined rights to which every human is entitled under the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The French Revolution of 1789 was not a religious movement, but it learned from the English and the Americans. It was not the first attempt at revolution in France, but it was the first successful attempt, because it was built on this same biblical principle. We must not miss the way in which a riot by the poor people of Paris won the widespread support of the silent majority of Frenchmen by appealing beyond its own anger and outrage and emotion to a reassertion of the simple statement in the Christian Scriptures that we are all created in God’s image and that we therefore all deserve to be treated with the dignity that has been conferred on us by the Lord. In the Declaration of the Rights of Man, issued a month after the storming of the Bastille, “The National Assembly recognises and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man.” The French Revolution would have been another failed riot about bread had it not dug its momentum deep into this firm ground that converted the undecideds. It moved from momentum to revolution when its objectives became, not temporal, but the assertion of “an inviolable and sacred right.”

This is also how the slave trade was ended in the British Empire. Alongside the black protesters, whose forgotten role has very helpfully been reasserted by the Black History movement, were white protesters such as Josiah Wedgwood, whose famous badges drew on Genesis 1:27 and Job 31:15 to proclaim the fundamental question: “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” 

This is also how slavery was ended in America, when Abraham Lincoln and others drew on the fundamental theology of the Declaration of Independence to assert that every black American had as much been created in the image of God as any white American. It is also how the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s began to overturn America’s segregationist views. Don’t miss the echo of Genesis 1:27 and Job 31:15 in Dr Martin Luther King’s great call to revolution:

“All men have something within them that God injected … Every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God. And this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this as a nation: There are no gradations in the image of God. Every man, from a treble white to a bass black, is significant on God’s keyboard precisely because every man is made in the image of God. One day we will learn that. We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man. This is why we must fight segregation.”

That’s how revolution happens. It is why I am appealing to every supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement to build the foundation for its call to racial equality, not on the shifting sands of anger, or of public outrage, but on the solid rock of this tried-and-tested theology for revolution. Only this insight is strong enough to turn the silent majority into wholehearted supporters of change, instead of the defensive reactionaries whose alienation has so often proved fatal to enduring revolution.

This is also why I am calling on every Christian of influence to speak out the teaching of these Bible verses into their part of the battlefield. We are not merely called to add a Christian voice to the international choir that is currently calling for change. We are called to give the movement the only true foundation that can turn mere momentum into real revolution, and that will ensure that our societies are still labouring away at long-lasting change long after the initial fury has subsided.

Let’s build a firm foundation for this movement from Genesis 1:27 and Job 31:15.

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)

“Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?” (Job 31:15)


    Dr Martin Luther King spoke these words in a speech on 4th July 1965 at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

    To find out more about the influence that Job 31:15 had on Josiah Wedgwood, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and the other great opponents of systemic racism in the past, see Phil Moore’s new book “Straight to the Heart of Job - Why Does God Allow Suffering?”, which has just come out in bookstores.

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