January 15, 2015

Forgotten Freedoms

In the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Paris, France, it is worthwhile to pause and reflect on some of the early modern origins of freedom; when we forget these, the consequences are dire.

The early days of January 2015 have been disturbing ones for Western Europe and the ‘democratic’ world generally, as the streets of Paris have been visited with devastating violence and death manifesting the fruits of a totalitarian Islamic ideology growing again in influence and power. The Ottoman siege led by Sultan Mehmed II culminated in the fall of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire (a Christian empire which had lasted for over 1100 years) on May 29, 1453. Since then, questions over the nature of human liberty, freedom and government have been almost exhaustively explored by Western thinkers and fought over by armies at great cost. With the fall of this great centre of Christendom some scholars mark the end of the Middle Ages or Christian era and the beginnings of modernity. It is argued that several Greek and non-Greek intellectuals fled the city around the time of the siege, taking up residence in Italy. Some believe that these men helped fuel the Renaissance which eventually led to a movement in the church called the Reformation. For a season, the Reformation took hold in much of Europe, dramatically shaping institutions, liberties and freedoms in Western society, especially in what we used to call the Protestant world. The liberating effect of biblical faith, however, was followed by the so-called Enlightenment beginning in the seventeenth century, which wrote off the Christian era as ‘The Dark Ages’ and, jettisoning Scripture, sought to enthrone human reason in the place of the Triune God and his self-revelation in the Bible. The Enlightenment had asserted human autonomy (law of the self), but ironically, this did not lead to freedom but to political absolutism.

Recall another scene from Paris. In 1789 France began a bloody revolution, with pagan Freemasons leading the charge. With the rise of Robespierre and the Jacobin reign of terror, a dictatorship was imposed by a Committee of Public Safety (how thoughtful) and de-Christianization began in earnest with a new calendar! Around forty thousand civilians died in this quest for freedom as the streets of Paris ran with blood and over a thousand priests were massacred. After the execution of key revolutionary leaders in a countermovement, a corrupt executive council was established, only to collapse in a coup led by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799, and thus war was unleashed by the revolution on a global scale for decades by a new dictator. What followed was the rise of various forms of socialism, secularism and fascism in continental Europe with the development of the French Revolution’s new forms of ‘human rights’ declarations. Islam’s attack on Constantinople thus played a key role in the de-Christianization of Europe and the Islamist is today intent on finishing the job, something the majority of politicians fail to understand.

The revolutionary values of today’s statist Europe, with its enforced equality and anti-clericalism, have never been either the result, or productive of, freedom, but rather absolutism. By contrast, in the Anglosphere, 1688 saw the Glorious Revolution where, finishing what the Puritans began, Parliament exerted its will over the absolutist monarchy. The difference lay in the Protestant approach to the Bible, the rule of law, property rights and personal freedoms. As Daniel Hannan points out, “the post-Jacobin Continental strain of democracy elevated majority rule over individual liberty.”[1] De-Christianized Europe today is weak and exposed and the Islamists know it, because its view of freedom is defective and debilitating. Rousseau believed in the absolutist concept of the ‘general will’ of the people that is expressed by the state, in which rights are handed down by the government, in place of the private rights of the citizen in the common-law (read Christian law) tradition; where a free society can only exist when there is an aggregation of free individuals. Hannan correctly identifies the fatal flaw in the revolutionary model: “the contracting out of human rights to a charter, necessarily interpreted by some state-appointed tribunal, left the defense of freedom in a small number of hands…. In the Anglosphere, where the defense of freedom was everyone’s business, dictatorship and revolution were almost unknown.”[2] In short, in collectivist France and Europe, liberty was and remains something theoretical, but not actual, for the people. The defence of freedom is delegated to an elite group of utopian bureaucrats seeking to realize their equalitarian order that the blood-letting of the Revolution had failed to achieve.

The disturbing reality in the midst of the heinous Islamic terror in Paris is to note that, like the birth of Islam, the radical tradition of the French Revolution was based in violence and absolutism. Its cruel repression of Christian order was known as ‘the Terror,’ a term used with delight by the revolutionaries themselves. On September 5, 1792, they announced their policy in the following manner: “It is time that equality bore its scythe above all heads. It is time to horrify all the conspirators. So, legislators, place Terror on the order of the day! The blade of the law should hover over all the guilty.”[3] This twin elevation of the ‘general will’ (embodied in an elite few) over the rule of Christian law, and the state-sanctioned rights of a collective or group over the individual inherited rights of the free (as seen in the revolutionary collectivism of much Western politics today), can lead only to the steady disappearance of freedom.

As we have watched political marches and demonstrations in France and Germany these past days and heard our politicians and celebrities speak of freedom, joining the marches through the streets, we have largely missed the tragic irony of our situation. We assert our freedom in the face of Islamic terror and absolutism, yet we have jettisoned in Europe and increasingly in the U.K, USA and Canada, the ground of our freedom. I was in London, England, speaking at an event for a civil liberties organisation in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. It was at this conference that I met and heard from many Christians in England being dragged through the courts and facing fines, jail time, being struck from professional associations or facing unemployment, just for speaking of Christ in the streets, offering to pray for a colleague at work, refusing to work on the Sabbath, or helping homosexuals who had come to them with unwanted same-sex attraction – and many other issues of freedom of speech and conscience. Right here in Toronto, a man has recently been sentenced to jail for a year for speaking openly against Islam.[4]

These realities are not new. Several years ago Swedish pastor Ake Green was sentenced to 30 days in jail for engaging in hate speech because he preached a sermon in his church on a Sunday morning regarding the biblical view of immoral sexual behavior. It took two years and a trip to the Supreme Court to get his conviction overturned. Thus while our politicians talk about freedom, increasingly, Christians are being denied freedom of speech, conscience and thought, because the freedom the modern West has in view is the revolutionary freedom of the ‘general will’ incarnate in the elite, not true liberty. George Orwell once summarized the issue powerfully: “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Many Muslims living in Europe and North America (not to mention throughout the Islamic world) do not want to hear Islam criticized and are increasingly willing to deny liberties to, or even kill, those that dare to question Islam. Yet the Western world has abandoned the armor that guards against such absolutism, so that, in the name of ‘the people,’ we do not want to hear the gospel or the law of God and are ready to put Christians in prison who violate the standards of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance. Paul Coleman, a specialist in international litigation, has shown how the contemporary proliferation of vaguely worded ‘hate speech’ laws in Europe, are tools of oppression, punishing as crimes so-called insults. These punitive codes are arbitrarily enforced to silence speech the state doesn’t like. He proves from the historical sources of the drafting process that led to the post WWII Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that the definitive origin of these laws was the communist ideology of the former Soviet Union[5] – which in turn owes an intellectual debt to Rousseau and the French Revolution.

Both Islam’s vision of a totalitarian caliphate and the revolutionary ‘human rights’ of Europe’s political elite are forms of absolutism and the European political class remain committed to them despite the growing voices of dissent amongst the people in light of jihadist violence. The Emperor Constantine XI was unsuccessful in repelling an Islamic siege of Christendom and Constantinople fell. Will we be any more successful in our time? Only if we return to Christian truth and the rule of law entailing the God-given liberty of free individuals, families and churches. Moreover the church must be committed to the evangelization of our Muslim neighbors and to the sovereignty of the Triune God. Without this, one form of terror will simply follow another. Only if the Son sets us free can we be free indeed.




[1] Daniel Hannan, Inventing Freedom, How The English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World (New York: Harper Collins, 2013), 331.

[2] ibid, 332.

[3] ibid, 332.                                                                                                                                                                      

[4] “Oh, Canada! Christian man sentenced to one year in jail for speaking out against Islam,” Bare Naked Islam, last modified January 14, 2015, http://www.barenakedislam.com/2015/01/09/oh-canada-christian-man-sentenced-to-one-year-in-jail-for-speaking-out-against-islam/.


[5] Paul. B. Coleman, Censored: How European ‘Hate Speech’ Laws Are Threatening Freedom of Speech (Austria: Kairos Publications, 2012)

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