Letter to the American Church – Chapter 16

Chapter 16

The Final Push

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” – Ronald Reagan

It was June 1987. President Ronald Reagan was visiting what was then West Berlin, and was to give a speech at the historic Brandenburg Gate adjacent to the infamous Berlin Wall. It was the most vivid and monstrous symbol of Communism in the world, separating East Berlin from West Berlin, and of course was erected to keep those in East Berlin from escaping to the free west. Imagine a society so inhuman that it must erect a literal wall to keep its people from escaping. Of course, this is what evil must always do. It must cancel voices that speak against it, and must kill those who stand against it, and must imprison those who might escape its reach.

Ronald Reagan was an exceedingly rare leader in that he was fierce and bold in speaking  out against the great evil of Communism, and genuinely wanted to bring it down, to bring freedom to its captives, if God might use him to do that. But what made Reagan even rarer as a leader was that he seemed to understand that the Soviet regime was weak. It had always pretended to be strong, and to be inevitable and permanent. And many world leaders-including many in America, from both parties-had seemed to believe this lie. But Reagan seemed to know that because the Soviet Union was built on a lie, it was unsustainable and could be brought down-if someone had the courage to stand and fight against it. Which brings us to the single and magnificently memorable line he delivered that day as he stood there, framed visually by the Brandenburg Gate. It came in the middle of the speech, as he courageously and unexpectedly addressed the ugly reality of the infamous wall so close to where he stood. It was the proverbial elephant in the world’s living room, and suddenly Reagan would dare to address it. It was an extraordinary moment.

Most American leaders had been diffident about confronting the Soviets head on in these things. During the Nixon administration, under the Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the idea of “detente,” which referred to the de-escalation of hostilities, had ruled the day. Kissinger also had often invoked the term “Relpolitik,” which was a fancy way of saying that one must accept things as they are and nto try too hard to change the status quo. Was this cynical, or was it cowardly? Or was it simply realistic?

In any event, in 1980-not long before Reagan was elected-the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, showing that perhaps “detente” was not so effective after all. The Soviets had shown themselves more than eager to take advantage of any opportunities that presented themselves to expand their empire. At that time Jimmy Carter was president, and the weakness he projected during his time in office made it difficult for the Soviets not to take advantage of the situation.

Indeed it was doubtless Carter’s failures that led to Reagan’s election, and so, from the beginning of Reagan’s presidency-as throughout his career-he would confront the evil of the Soviets and of Communism directly. But in 1987, in the weeks before his famous Brandenburg speech, when conferring with his advisers, Reagan had brought up his desire to say this famous line-“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”-and all of the establishment figures around him had expressed their serious disapproval.

Chief of Staff Howard Baker scowled that it would be “extreme” and “unpresidential,” and General Colin Powell-then Reagan’s deputy national security adviser-had soberly agreed. As far as they were concerned, such a direct and bold challenge to the head of the Soviet Union could only inflame the tensions between East and West.

It’s always challenging to argue with the worldly wisdom of such as Baker, Powell, and Kissinger. But truly great leaders know that sometimes doing the heroic and right thing is a lonely business, and that they will probably never get those around them to understand what they are doing. This is one of the hallmarks of true leadership. As we have said, Bonhoeffer felt quite alone in what he was doing, but he did it anyway, knowing that he had to be concerned only with the audience of One, who was God. And in 1987, Reagan knew that he could not do what the established “diplomatic” voices were demanding he do. Like Bonhoeffer, he knew that history would judge him and that God would judge him for what he did. And like Wilberforce, who thought of the Africans in slave ships, Reagan thought of those in the vast network of the Soviet gulag, many of whom had been cruelly persecuted for their Christian faith by the atheist Communist regime. Was there no one out there in the free world who really believed it was worth at least trying to deliver them from their suffering?

Of course, one cannot help but suspect that establishment figures like Baker and Powell-like so many Republicans today, and so many in the American Church today-were in fact comfortable with the status quo. Often in history, leaders think of something as a “necessary evil” that cannot be vanquished and are only too happy to stand aside and let it continue, as though trying to bring it down is naive and foolish. Most in Wilberforce’s day thought of the slave trade this way. To go against such things was to tilt at windmills. But Reagan-like so many great leaders-was willing to come across as wild and unpredictable in how he led, if that was necessary. He was certainly sickened by the fathomless evil of the Soviet Union and refused simply to see it as inevitable “status quo”. He clearly wanted to do anything he could to bring down what just four years earlier he had infamously called “the Evil Empire,” which was another example of what his critics saw as his impolitic approach.

So Reagan was not about to let those around him dissuade him from saying what he clearly felt must be said in West Berlin that day. The world would be watching. And so that day, he said it, and with steel in his voice delivered the now famous line-“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

And when he said it, something happened. It was as though those words were mroe than words and carried tremendous spiritual power. Because when he spoke them, a crack began to appear in what so many had thought of as an adamantine edifice. It was as though with the single deft and well-aimed blow of those words, the world changed. People suffering in Soviet prisons would hear about it and would tap about it through the walls to each other. Someone out there, far away from them, knew about them and was fighting for them. Someone out there cared enough to boldly speak against the evil that imprisoned them and millions of other fellow sufferers. Someone out there believed in truth and freedom and was not afraid to fight for these ideals. We can hardly imagine how much hope that one line delivered to prisoners around the world.

Although Reagan hardly thought of it as such, what he said was a kind of prophetic declaration. Can we doubt that apparatchiks across the Soviet Union-not to mention demons-trembled when he delivered that line, when they realized that there was someone who had seen through their lies and who was on to them? What he said proclaimed liberty to the captives-literally and figuratively. It had tremendous power, as words sometimes can have. Reagan did what no one had done before, and in time the whole Berlin Wall-and then the so-called “Iron Curtain”-would come down. The vast seven-decades-old Soviet Empire would collapse, never to rise again. What he said paved the way for all that followed, and as we now know, in 1989, the Berlin Wall was toppled-and two years later the Soviet Union itself was dissolved. It is one of the greatest miracles in history, and what Reagan said that day was among the most important things that made it possible.

When we think of what he said that day, we might think of David going up against Goliath as hundreds of Israelite soldiers cowered. David knew that he couldn’t defeat the giant by himself, but he knew that God was with him. And as a result, we have been talking about what he did for three millennia. It is these people and these actions that change the world. All of the diplomatic niceties so strongly advised by the Bakers and the Powells of the world cannot understand it and cannot see that in the “safe” approach of their worldly wisdom, they are in fact aiding and abetting evil. It seems that they only want to keep it at bay indefinitely and never actually engage with it in open warfare, instead simply preferring to stay out of its way. But David and Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer and Reagan and others-who are outraged by the evil that they see-are willing to risk everything to engage it, and to fight with all their might and main, whatever the outcome. They know that unless they try to vanquish it, evil will win.

What does this mean to us today? Is there something that to many of us now seems invincible and immovable, as the Iron Curtain and the Soviet empire seemed invincible and immovable? As the slave trade and slavery once did? Is there something that frightens us enough that we believe it ought not to be directly countered, but that rather ought to be pacified so that we might coexist with it? And what is this thing, if it exists in our time? What do so many perhaps wish might go away but many fear never will, so that we must make peace with it? Is it the cultural Marxism that talks about systemic racism, or the transgender madness that says the Bible’s view of human beings and sexuality is completely false, and is actually harmful and must be destroyed?

We know the Soviet Union was the face of atheistic Communism, but what we face today is rather less simple to see. What we face is not a nation state that imprisons its citizens within its walls, but it forwards the ideology of atheist Marxism nonetheless and probably does so even more effectively. Many think it is a precursor of what has been described as the system of anti-Christ-and whether it is or is not, it certainly stands against Christ and what we read in the Bible.

But the only question we need ask is: What would God have us do? If He be for us, who can be against us? Is our faith that kind of faith? We cheer for David, but dare we go up against the Goliath of our time? Or would we rather shrink back into the ranks of the Israelite soldiers as everyone else? Of course David-albeit imperfect and quite human-was a type of Christ. And armed with real faith in the Lord of Hosts, he did what no one else could do, and slayed the giant who had cursed God’s people and God Himself.

Reagan knew that the Soviet Union presented itself-as all bullies and monsters and devils do-as something more powerful than it was. He knew that what its leaders desperately feared was that someone like himself would call their bluff. And he knew that most of the people around him had been perfectly content not to call that bluff, but to be bluffed. He-along with Margaret Thatcher in England and Pope John Paul II-knew that if they three fought hard, and pushed with everything they had, they could forever vanquish the “Evil Empire” that was the Soviet Union. And now we know that they did just that.

But before it happened, they were denounced as unrealistic and as anti-Communist “extremists”. Nearly everyone but the three of them behaved as though the Soviet Union really were like an impenetrable and permanent wall that must be accepted and never be touched. But these three had the idea that it was a false wall. And that if they all with a concerted effort gave it a good shove, it would reveal itself to be a sham-a weak and tottering facade whose main posts were rotten. It would go down. Which was why those in power in the Soviet Union-who really knew it to be weak and on the brink of collapse-had to do everything they could to pretend it was immovable and permanent. But those with eyes to see knew this was a lie and knew this was a lie and knew that they must do what all the worldly wisdom said never to do. By the grace of God, they did it. And the wall came a tumbling down.

So the question comes to us. Will we all together now push that false barrier that stands so tall and so long that we cannot see over it and cannot see the end of it? Will we trust God who tells us that victory will be given into our hands and that we must fight with all we have? Or will we, like the twelve thousand pastors in Germany, hang back and see which way the wind is blowing, and in our inaction guarantee that evil prevails? Will we let the three thousand do all the work, watch them fail, and rejoice that we weren’t foolish enough to join them in their foolhardy crusade?

God is clearly calling us not to do that, not to repeat the unspeakably grievous errors of the Christians of that time. But He cannot and will not force us to do what is right. He only warns us and gives us the chilling example of what happened the last time, and through Bonhoeffer and others exhorts us to do what is right. Will we? Will you?

Heaven looks to you and to me to do the right thing. What part of the tottering wall has God called you to push? Are you to run for office? To homeschool your children? To give millions to some vital cause for freedom and truth and justice? Are you to speak out in a situation where others are being silent? Are you to vote-and even advocate-for a candidate some are denouncing as “un-Christian”, but whom you nonetheless know to be a champion of God’s purposes? Are you to risk your job-or your congregation, or something else? God is looking to see whether you trust Him with it, whatever it is. He is waiting for you to show Him that you know that whatever you have is His gift to you, and that you can trust Him with it.

As we have said to do what God asks always takes a certain amount of wildness. We remember that God is good, but His goodness is not safe and it is not tame. God is not the religious God of the Pharisees. He does not call us to be tame or safe or religious. It’s safer to bury the talent, but God condemns us when we behave in that way. It’s safer to hang back and see which way the wind blows-but God condemns us for hanging back when He has called us to the battle.

Bonhoeffer once told a student that every sermon should have a “shot of heresy” in it. Of course, this didn’t mean that Bonhoeffer was advocating actual heresy, but he was calling attention to something that we see in the life of Jesus, who over and over shows us the unpredictability and wildness in the goodness of God, which challenges our safe religious pieties. When we follow Him in this way, we are certain to be misunderstood by those who cling to their safe pieties and “worldly wisdom.” When they see the kind of behavior that Jesus exhibited-and that David and Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce and Reagan and so many others have exhibited-they will clutch their pearls and lift their skirts and express their horror at it. They have always done this. The Pharisees did it when Jesus said most of what He said. The twelve thousand pastors did it when Bonhoeffer went out on a limb in following God where no one else was willing to follow. And the establishment has done it in American politics and in American churches, and has blanched when someone shows real leadership and a real willingness to fight against evil. We cannot help but assume they have no idea of what Jesus was saying in the Parable of the Talents and are convinced that the wisest path really was to bury the talent and simply to keep one’s head down and stay out of trouble.

But again, the question comes not to them, but to you. Will you be the leader that God has called you to be in this way? Will you follow Him wherever He goes, and be a true disciple by looking to Him alone in what you say and do? If a holy remnant will now do that-and exhort others to join them-we will see such things in Heaven and Earth as were never dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio. We will see God’s hand move in our time, for His purposes. We will see God’s will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. Amen.

Well, that’s it. I hope that you have learned something valuable from this book and that it has encouraged you to answer what it is that God is calling you to do!


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