Belshazzar’s Feast, 1635, Rembrandt, National Gallery, London
The final chapter of Francis Schaeffer’s seminal ‘How Should We Then Live?’ (1976) opens with these words:
“Overwhelming pressures are being brought to bear on people who have no absolutes…(and whose only values are) the impoverished values of personal peace and affluence. The pressures are progressively preparing modern people to accept a manipulative, authoritarian government. Unhappily, many of these pressures are upon us now.”
Whereupon he lists five ‘trigger points’ which in his view herald the demise of freedom within the democratic West. The first is ‘Economic Breakdown’. “At a certain point” he says, “economic disaster seems all too possible”. The others are “war and the threat of war, terrorism and the ‘chaos of violence’, famine and the scarcity of resources, the growing disparity between rich and poor throughout the world, and, of course, ecological disaster”. All this, note, from 1976!
It is an ominous catalogue certainly but hardly ‘weird’ or ‘far-fetched’ given what we’ve been through the last year or so. In fact it seems uncannily familiar. Some anticipated the financial ‘Crash’. The economic columnist Jeff Randall did, and I think he and they are entitled to say ‘I told you so’. But Schaeffer’s prediction came much earlier, nearly forty years in fact. And it was of a different order entirely. What he saw was that ‘the orgy of (economic) greed and irresponsibility’, as someone put it, goes deeper than mere concupiscence or financial stupidity. The very tap-root of western economic stability and success was cut when the culture turned from its Christian moorings. Convictions about Truth and absolute moral accountability were part of the social fabric that made political and economic freedom possible in the first place. Sever them and what’s left?
But Schaeffer doesn’t end there. He continues, “I cannot get out of my mind the uncomfortable parallel to the German’s loss of confidence in the Weimar Republic just before Hitler…History indicates that at a certain point of economic breakdown people cease being concerned with individual liberties and are ready to accept regimentation. The danger is even greater when (people’s) two main values are (only) personal peace and affluence”.
This in turn leads him to reflect on the events surrounding the 30th Sep 1938 and the Munich Pact. Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, emerged from his plane waving the ignominious document he had signed with Hitler. His now almost unbelievable words of self-deception were ‘Peace in our time’. Churchill’s response was simple and blunt: “The people should know”, he said, “that we have sustained a defeat without a war…they should know that we have passed an awful milestone in our history...and that the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies: ‘Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting”. They are of course the words that appeared on Belshazzar’s wall as he feasted with his thousand friends and concubines. They had defied the living God by sending for the gold and silver goblets brought from the Temple in Jerusalem. And as they drank they worshipped their pagan deities. Then God spoke - and the king’s life ended that very night!
And have we not recently passed an equally devastating milestone? Does anything encourage us to think that the nations which survived the furnace of global war between 1939 and 1945 have taken Churchill’s summons seriously? He called for ‘’a supreme recovery of moral health’. Did even he realise the degree to which western morality had declined into a type of fiction, a contradiction in terms, a relative morality?
Only then does Schaeffer conclude with the Ezekiel 33 passage about the ‘Watchman’ from which the words ‘how should we then live’ were taken for the title of the book and documentary series. And what do they signify? That we too have a watchman’s responsibility to warn those facing imminent danger. But are we sufficiently aware of the extent of the danger both physical and spiritual?
Warmest greetings as ever