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THE RISE AND FALL OF EMPIRES

I was recently recommended a novel by Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March. Roth was a Jew born in 1894 in what is now Western Ukraine, but was then on the Eastern border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The novel was written in 1932 and is about the disintegration and fall of the Hapsburg Empire. That Empire had ruled over most of Eastern Europe and the Balkans for several hundred years, but finally came to an end in the First World War.

The novel vividly describes the moral decay of that Empire: the tiredness and apathy that set into the old régime in the face of new ideologies, nationalism, trades unionism, and communism; but also the moral decay in individual lives that had once been governed by a strict social code. The main character is a young man, the grandson of a renowned war hero who had been rewarded with a title of nobility. But the grandson falls into a life of sexual immorality, gambling, drunkenness and debt.

I can’t help recognising so much of this story of decline and depravity in the state of our own nation today. After the Second World War I sense that the country was exhausted, certainly financially and economically exhausted, but physically and morally exhausted as well. In response to nationalist movements in the colonies we let go of our own Empire, but not having applied ourselves to properly preparing these countries for their independence. In the sixties social morality collapsed at home, through the influence of pop music, changes in fashion, and the breaking down of the moral barriers that had rightly stood for ages. In place of these things, we took to importing labour – the Windrush generation was the beginning – and to looking to the Welfare State to meet all our personal needs. All this has continued in the same direction for the last 60 years. White British now seems to mean work-shy and nannied: people with very little ambition or resolution to go anywhere except on foreign holidays. Am I being too hard on us?

Is there any remedy for all this decline and dissolution? Yes, there is. We have been here before. Our country was in many ways in similar trouble in the early 18th century. Then, in 1739, John Wesley set out on his horse to re-evanglise the nation. A hundred years later this was a different country, hard-working, confident, forward-looking, and above all devout. God turned this nation round, and he can do so again. He may have already started. The spiritual renewal of the church in this land began in the 1960s with the first stirrings of the Charismatic Movement. It has been going on in waves ever since, and, please God, will continue to do so. But it does not happen without the commitment of us Christians to obey God’s calling and go out to preach the Gospel to a fallen and suffering world. Let’s do it!

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