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Reviving the Spiritual Revolution

May 29, 2024


The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth began a spiritual revolution that changed the world. After his Resurrection, his Spirit and the values of his kingdom were carried forward by his followers in a way that led to social change wherever Christians went. The subversive power of Christian faith reshaped societies, politics, and culture. So, what then of today? How can we revive this spiritual revolution in a way that leads to social change? Or to put it differently, how can we evangelize the culture in a way that changes it?

We begin with the Gospels and the distinction Jesus made between political power and the kingdom of God he came to inaugurate. Jesus’ exhortation to “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” clarifies that the new order he came to establish was very distinct from the political world of the Roman Empire or the new political order that many Jews hoped would replace it. In Jesus’ own words before Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Rather his kingdom prioritized righteousness with God, right worship, and a social order of peace.

Yet while the kingdom of God did not rival worldly power on its own terms, it did undermine oppressive and immoral systems in a way that would hasten their downfall. The faith contained a subversive power that led to the eventual implosion of structures and communities that were based on falsehoods, fear, violence, inequality, and scapegoating. The image Jesus used to describe this inevitable crumbling of false kingdoms was that of a house built on sand. For Christ, the first battlefront for everyone is within the soul where the Spirit moves us from alienation from God to communion with the divine life and the right order in one’s life that flows from living the Gospel. It is deep within the human soul that the daily choice is made to accept the Lordship of Christ and his kingdom as our highest good and reject other rival lordships that stake a claim on our lives.

Similarly, St. Paul exhorted the Christians at Ephesus to follow the example of the Master and avoid becoming a political movement. Rather, conversion takes place within oneself and the spiritual battle we experience: “For it is not against human enemies that we have to struggle, but against the principalities and the ruling forces who are masters of the darkness in this world, the spirits of evil in the heavens” (Eph. 6:11-12).

Become a revolutionary of holiness, love, truth, and the example that will save the world.

The irony was that although Christ urged his disciples away from being a rival political power to Rome, the imperial authorities recognized this new spiritual movement as a threat to their rule. What the Romans rightly perceived as a threat to their domination was the subversive Christian message Kyrios Christos, “Jesus is Lord” instead of Kaiser Kyrios, “Caesar is Lord.” At the heart of the issue then, as it is now, is the ultimate good around which people’s lives focus and worship. The response of the Romans was brutal in their attempts to suppress this new religion that dared to worship a God other than their own. Yet the persecution and deaths of the early Christians could not stop the inevitable. A revolution had begun that couldn’t be stopped. And although the martyrs were robbed of their lives in the persecutions that followed, they held onto their freedom in a way that undermined the power of the Roman Empire that would fall a few centuries later. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI: “The growth of freedom that humankind owes to the martyrs is infinitely greater than that which it could be given by revolutionaries” (Church, Ecumenism and Politics, 174).

Other examples of social change caused by Christianity include my home country of Ireland where the Faith was brought by people like St. Patrick. As it caught hold, it began to unite people into communities that broke down other hierarchies of control and power. Likewise was the case with the influence of the monasteries in mainland Europe after the Dark Ages when the civilization project was reborn. We think of Martin Luther King and his speeches that are steeped in biblical imagery and convey the dignity of every human being independent of their race or color. In twentieth-century Poland, Pope St. John Paul II’s words to his own people in Warsaw during his first visit in 1979 began a peaceful revolution that led to the fall of communism and the re-establishment of democracy. These are the speeches propelling the vision that history remembers because of their prophetic power and leading to social change.

In the light of these precedents from history, how then can we continue this spiritual revolution today in a way that changes our culture? Here I make four suggestions:

A Revolution of Holiness

Here is where it all starts: within me and you. We all experience a tension within us between good and evil that is a heritage of sin. As the Catechism states: “It is part of the daily experience of the spiritual battle” (CCC 2516). If I truly believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, then everything in my life must be conformed to him. In the measure that it is, I become an instrument of social unity and peace. In the words of Word on Fire’s Matthew Petrusek: “To be a Christian certainly means trusting in Christ’s ultimate and final victory, but we must do our part in the interim. If you believe Jesus is Lord, there is no sitting this one out. It’s a fight. And we’re all in it, all the time” (Evangelization and Ideology, 451).

A Revolution of Love  

“See those Christians how they love one another.” These words from the early Church writer Tertullian marvel at the newness of the Christian example that contrasted sharply to a culture of cruelty and survival of the fittest. Here is the “revolution of tenderness” and the culture of mercy for which Pope Francis never tires of advocating. He points to the radical love of Christ that was both personal and social, leading to inclusion, forgiveness, and the restoration of people’s dignity. This remains our mission today.

A Revolution of Truth 

Jordan Peterson in his book Twelve Rules for Life includes the chapter “Tell the Truth.” It is one of the most important rules of any life and any society. Any nation whose laws are not based on truth is destined to fall. Becoming a revolutionary of truth means bearing witness to the whole truth all of the time. The secular culture of our time protects itself against certain truths that will undermine it. Our vocation is to keep telling the truth no matter how unwelcome it is. The truth might suffer, but it will never die—and it always wins out in the end.

A Revolution of Example

Christians do not pick fights. We are not here to compete with anyone. Our focus is to live the Gospel on its own terms and to share the Good News. Our collective vocation is to offer the world a counter-cultural alternative: a set of values that are more humane, a better way of life, a joy sought by those who are unhappy, a sense of belonging and community to those who are lonely, the gift of healing to those who are wounded and broken. Here is the power of example where the Church models an alternative way of life that speaks to humanity’s deepest needs.

The spiritual revolution that began with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and was carried forward by his disciples changed the world forever. How can this revolution be revived? By drawing from the spiritual power unleashed at the first Easter. As previous generations of Christians did in their time, so we are called to active service today. It is a time to rise up and not be afraid. Become a revolutionary of holiness, love, truth, and the example that will save the world.