Time magazine called last May “the most momentous month” in the second half of the twentieth century.

That may be no overstatement. Consider these extraordinary scenes: thousands of students marching on China’s Tiananmen Square calling for democracy and freedom; Polish citizens streaming to the polls to defeat Communist-party officials (which has led to the appointment of a non-Communist prime minister); open elections in the USSR in which Andrei Sakharov, who spent six years in exile, was elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies.

In China, however, the fresh hopes of May had wilted by summer. The white statue toppled beneath mud-caked tank treads; we will never know how many students fell beneath the force of the “People’s” Army, nor how many citizens died, single bullet to the head, by the executioner’s revolver.

But the truth is, while China’s leaders may have cleared Tiananmen Square, they cannot clear the winds of democracy from Chinese air. These new winds sweeping the East may well signal the culmination of the great ideological struggle of the twentieth century.

Losing Luster

These past nine decades have been dominated by the confrontation between two competing political systems: the utopian vision of a workers’ state versus the liberal democratic tradition.

The communist movement began in 1904 when a Russian exile converted Karl Marx’s humanistic philosophy into a revolutionary scheme of totalitarian power. And by 1917, Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks swept to power, seizing the hearts and minds of Russia’s deprived peasants.

Communism also seized the hearts and minds of romantic idealists in the West. In 1919, after visiting the Soviet Union, journalist Lincoln Steffens summed up the trendy view: “I have seen the future and it works.”

Within a few decades, Stalin’s eradication of millions of his countrymen exposed communism’s moral vacuum; yet it still sustained momentum with subversive expansion in Asia, the overt annexation of Eastern Europe, and the embrace of Third World nations eager to throw off Western colonialism.

Surprisingly, it also continued to enjoy support on some Western campuses and churches. Some modern liberation theologians sounded no less effusive about Marxism than Hewlitt Johnson, the “Red Dean” of Canterbury, who in the 1930s described the Soviet Union as the “salvation of the world.”

But in just this decade, communism has begun to lose its luster. Third World guerrilla movements now oppose Marxist oppressors; Solidarity has both challenged and humbled the Communist government of Poland.

Meanwhile, economic resurgence in the U.S., Europe, and Japan has proved free-market capitalism superior in meeting human needs than the utopian rhetoric of communist bureaucracies. In desperation, the Soviet Union instituted glasnost and perestroika; China began massive economic reforms. But, as we saw in Tiananmen Square, those reforms spawned something more.

Many observers have interpreted these tumultuous developments in the communist world as being the result of economic unrest. But that, according to a long-time missionary to China, is to miss the point entirely. “The real forces here are more than economic. They are spiritual. These people who have been nonpersons for so long are finally saying, we want to be persons again even if it costs us our lives.” As a banner in Tiananmen Square put it, “We love our rice, but we love democracy more.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn foresaw this same point in 1976 when he wrote, “We are approaching a major turning point in world history” caused in part by the “process of spiritual liberation” in the Soviet Union and other communist countries. Solzhenitsyn believed that economic freedom would lead to demands for political freedom. Manifested in the refusal to bow to oppression any longer, this spiritual upheaval would rock the very foundations of the communist world.

Spiritual Exhaustion

There is an understandable temptation to conclude that this upheaval signals the demise of communism and victory for the West. But I believe such a judgment is overly optimistic.

For coupled with his vision of spiritual impetus in the East, Solzhenitsyn foresaw a concurrent spiritual emptiness in the West. In his controversial 1978 Harvard University commencement address, Solzhenitsyn decried the “spiritual exhaustion” and “decline in courage” of the West.

Among the many signs of Western decadence he cited was the loss of the resolve necessary to preserve our social contract: “To defend oneself one must be ready to die, but there is little such readiness in the society raised in the cult of material well-being.” A recent Rolling Stone poll of the baby-boom generation bears this out: Asked whether there was any cause for which they would be willing to fight to defend their country, 40 percent replied, none.

Here is the irony: At the very time the titanic economic and political battle of the twentieth century seems headed toward its grand dénouement, the forces that will shape that outcome are less economic and political than spiritual. The real issue will be whether the “spiritual liberation” beginning in the communist world will throw off the chains of oppression with a bang before “spiritual exhaustion” finishes the West with a whimper. What a tragedy if, at the very moment the oppressed masses of the East reach for the torch of democracy, the West disintegrates, morally unable to sustain the spirit by which democracy must be fueled.

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What message is there in this for Christians?

Christians are charged with bringing a Christian witness to bear on all of life. If our society is in spiritual decline, then the church has failed to make a Christian impact on our culture.

If we care about the survival of the West—and there are those of us who feel strongly that the liberal democratic tradition offers humanity’s best hope for human freedoms—then it is our task to inject spiritual vigor into a morally exhausted body politic.

That is no small task for an already enculturated church in America. It demands a level of courage and commitment no less than that demonstrated by the students of Tiananmen Square.

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