French Revolution Redux

by Mike Halpin —

The common causes of freedom and justice have a way of bringing people together. The American war of Independence united colonists of almost all stripes in mutual opposition to King George’s tyrannical rule. The diverse groups throughout the thirteen colonies rallied together to oppose their common enemy, win their independence, and put off their differences for another day.

The French Revolution that followed shortly after bore little resemblance to the united front of the American colonists. The French not only revolted, but they revolted against their neighbors, and they revolted again and again. First, they revolted against the aristocracy, the Church, and the wealthiest among them. But internal uprisings are funny things, and it wasn’t long before the initial revolutionaries were themselves found to be inadequate in their revolutionary pedigree, philosophies, and beliefs. Like the revolution’s earlier targets, they found themselves on the chopping block, literally. In contrast to the American revolution, resembling an immune system attacking a foreign body, this revolution resembled a cancer, consuming itself from within.  

During the Reign of Terror in 1793–94, approximately 300,000 people were arrested, 17,000 were executed, and 10,000 died in prison without trial. Maximilien Robespierre, key leader of the Terror, was himself beheaded.

When the chopping block became the means of social justice, everyone lost their heads. In that bloody revolution, incited and moved forward by mobs, accusation became fact and assertion became certitude. People’s lives were ended with no process other than unsubstantiated charges. Now as then, mob justice is no justice at all.

Is mob justice really the kind of social justice/revolution we want here and now? That appears an apt description of the one that’s currently in process. Getting justice right is, and always has been, difficult; it’s not an overnight, snap-to-judgment process that provides real justice. There are voices of calm and reason available, but they get little airing from major media and news outlets. Unqualified and incendiary rhetoric has always had an edge over reasoned and reasonable dialog.

A building burns during riots in Minneapolis on May 29, 2020 (photo by Hungryogrephotos; used under Creative Commons)

The modern beneficiaries of the American revolution are now facing our own French-styled revolution, and you have to wonder, who will prove pure enough to survive this onslaught? How much destruction will occur to civil society, the rule of law, and the culture broadly before a new calm is reached? How narrow will the new “normal” be? Whose world views, opinions and ideas will be allowed in the new public square? The French revolution left France essentially void of religion; will religion be allowed in a post-revolution America? What other notions and who else’s beliefs will be determined outside the pale?

The longing for justice in America, or any place, is a commendable and wholly desirable, if it’s truly justice that’s sought. Ultimately, the longing for justice in our world is an echo of the fact that we’re made in God’s image—God who is inherently just and can do no injustice. God spoke through the prophet Micah to reiterate his own call for a just society.

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, ESV)

In the kind of irony that only God can orchestrate, it was a mob that condemned Jesus Christ as unworthy of life, condemning him to the cruelest of injustices in his death on a Roman cross. But, gloriously, against all injustice and in ways only God could bring about, that mob violence, that twisted injustice became the means by which God justifies sinners like his Son’s accusers, and you and me.

May God restrain the onslaught of any French-style revolution. And may those who claim Christ’s name be paradigms of justice, mercy, and humility.

†Photo by Kevin Morris on Unsplash

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