Revolutionary Witness: The Preacher
Transcription from the 1986 television airing
God created rich people first and then showed then the world they would own and when they came to a field with thousands of headless bodies with torsos and hands like iron, God told them the headless bodies were destined to be poor workers. The rich cried out, "But these heroes with their iron muscles will crush us." "Don't be frightened," answered God. "I shall place very small heads and brains on their bodies so until they develop them you've nothing to fear." Who are still the oppressors? The rich. Who are still the oppressed? The poor. Your slavery is their liberty. Your poverty is their prosperity. Priests say the poor must be content with their poverty and they'll find heaven hereafter. Idiots, cretinous rag-pickers! My dog Georges has more sense. Don't you know that whilst you're gazing up at heaven your pockets are being picked clean, your eyes are plucked out and you're robbed of your birthrights, blind to what is done to you? Christ's priests seized mankind in its cradle and broke the bad news saying, "You shapeless stench. You can never be anything but filth. Your only chance of winning a pardon for being so filthy is if you bow low in perfect humility in the face of all the afflictions, sorrows and injustices heaped upon you. You're poor and you stay poor. That is how it is meant to be. Life is a bitter ordeal. Don't speak out. Just try and save your worthless soul. You won't be able to but you'll give us less trouble by trying. And when the time comes for you to die croaking, the darkness will be as hard to bear as the daylight ever was." The Church knows its business. It offers fear and punishment, not happiness, certainly not liberty, only servitude forever and forever. Religion is a liar and a cheat, yet still you hunger for it. That's why you've sent for me, Jacques Roux, Mad Jacques, Red Roux, preacher of the poor, sower of sedition, subverter of all laws, a priest who saw the light of reason and now proclaims fellowship with all who live in dark dens and desolate places. Its fitting that I should preach perhaps my last sermon in a ruined church in the parish of St. Nicholas, summer's end. I go before the tribunal tomorrow, charged with revolutionary excess. Now I am, it seems, to revolutionary for the revolution. And so it begins. When power rested in one man, King Louis, all sorts complained of oppression, and the nobility, middle, and monied men called on the poor to help. Together we lopped off that top branch of tyranny but the tree still stands and spreads. New branches hide the sun of freedom from the poor, the revolutionary tribunal is one such. I don't recognize its authority to judge me. Only the poor of St. Nicholas can do that. I come here, to lay the rags and tatters of my life before my peers. Habits are hard to break citizens. I come to confess me. Hear my confession. Do not forgive me Father, for I have not sinned.
My own father had twelve children and as I was the cleverest he rid himself of my by sending me to school in the Angouleme Seminary. At fifteen I was ordained a priest when I knew even less about God than I know now. There was a priest on every dunghill, the scummier they were the more they sprouted. But I stayed on and became Professor of Philosophy teaching students to bear with fortitude the misfortunes of others. Like religion, philosophy solves the problems of the past and the future, never the present. In '79, the Angouleme students rioted over the agony they saw around them and killed the cook by accident. As a suspect teacher with ideas I was arrested and imprisoned, though I had nothing to do with the incident. A month or so later, I was released. No trial, no inquiry, authority had decreed it and I had no say in the matter whether I was to be free or in chains. This is how fires are kindled. Afterwards I spent four years in the Chair of Experimental Medicine at Angouleme. But medicine proved equally useless. Physicians know even less than philosophers and priests gangrened together. They lie, they all lie! Isn't that so Georges? You tell 'em, I've grown hoarse in the telling. In '89 I was given this poor parish of St. Nicholas and I was born into the real world of starvation and misery and I saw the horror and the hope too. For the Revolution burst over us, smashed the clamps that held us down, and swept us up, up with its transforming power. We opened the book we'd never read and on the first page was the word "liberty". Listen, listen, the Revolution was born in violence. Revolutions must be violent , it is the only way to end the greater violence that keeps the majority of mankind in servitude. Do you think that those with privileges would give them up without a fight because you have a charming smile and the best arguments? Adjuro! Adjuro! I renounced my alliance to Rome and gave it to France. I became a constitutional priest, put off the mitered robes of privilege and put on the white robes of liberty. I still practice as priest and physician when called on, but I have to earn an honest living as a pamphleteer and municipal official. I live with a good woman, Widow Petit, born Elizabeth Hubert, once laundress to the rich, now my helpmate, soul-mate, who sells my pamphlets two sous a copy. We adopted a son, Emile. A sweet sweet boy....No more of that. It's not for your ears or yours or yours. My only fear, citizens, is not death but a life without them. Georges knows. We love them don't we, Georges, eh?
I was elected a member of the Commune and spoke for the poor. I told Robespierre, Saint-Just, Brissot and the rest that they could never be the Revolution, just men and not to be trusted with power. Anyone with authority becomes an oppressor, a parasitic coat of filth on the hide of the common people. Between those who command and those who obey there is only hate. Does it follow that I reject all authority? No, but I always keep my hat on in its presence. In the matter of bread I consult a baker, in the matter of boots, a boot-maker, a house, a builder, for special knowledge I apply a specialist. But I don't allow the baker, the boot-maker or builder to impose their authority over me. I listen to them with the respect they merit--if any--but I keep the right to judge, criticize, and censure. Why should we treat politicians of whatever stripe, royal or revolutionary, any different? I listened to Kind Louis, Mirabeau, La Fayette the same way I listened to the baker and the boot-maker. Don't be fooled by those who set themselves above you. Always look at the bill they are presenting--you have to pay it. And criticize me, too. People thought Citizen Marat and I were enemies because we were forever attacking each other. He called me an extremist, this from a man who declared three hundred thousand heads weren't enough. But we were never enemies, just revolutionaries, doing our duty. Neither of us were popular with the legislators, but it is not my purpose to be popular. I am here to sting! To stop me stinging, the Assembly hired me to write the report of the King's execution. We didn't do that well, but you'll not squeeze one tear from my eye over the fate of a royal fool and his followers who talked of honor and died without it. To the bone-yard with the whole crew! "The rich we'll gobble up, tra lee, tra la tra lie! With truffles in the rump and oysters on each eye." I love the harp. That's how men and women should die, to the sound of harps. They're so precious. King Louis died to the sound of drums. As the recording officer, I went with Citizen Santerre to the Temple Prison to escort the King to the place of execution. Santerre brought a carriage and a guard of honor for the occasion. We drove through streets lined with citizens. They had three executioners waiting, three! And eighteen drummers! What extravagances just to kill one man. The knife fell, Louis' head fell with it, the crowd shouted "Long live the Republic," and then I saw Citizen Santerre and the other revolutionary officials dipping their handkerchiefs in the King's blood! I wrote it all up in my report but I was the only one who seemed disgusted by the whole spectacle. Invading armies were about to overwhelm Paris, there was civil strife in the Vendee, rebellions in Lyon and Bordeaux, and good men and women were dying everywhere defending the revolution, even as the traitorous Louis was dying on the scaffold. But the good and the true had no carriages, no eighteen drummers and three executioners. A Prussian sword in the belly, and English bullet in the chest, and falling face down in the mud was their end. That's how ordinary people die, meanly, without harps or even drums to play them out. But Louis that useless toe-rag of a man goes in style, his anemic blood gathered up as something precious.
A month later, remember, I led the attack on the Paris food merchants. I'm proud of that attack, those in power condemned me for it so I know it must have been right. We ask only for food, a home, a little ease, no more crying in the streets, "Bread, bread for God's sake". We were at war and so we accepted such hardships if they were equally shared, but they weren't. We were dying because of filthy bourgeois graft and greed. The slimy rapacious money-mad exploiters were hoarding food to raise the price on the open market. Our legislators wrung their hands, threatened with a whisper, and did nothing. So we flat-bellies marched, smashed stalls, broke open shops and warehouses, and found the bread and meat and and other foodstuffs they'd hidden in abundance. They asked us why we did it. We told them because we needed it. Citizen Marat said we should kill every merchant in sight. We made do with a few score strung up in front of their own shops to encourage the others. And it did. The next morning, the food markets were filled again, with fruit and vegetables, bread and meat. Like Jesus, we had performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes. We must appropriate the land and money from the rich who have it in excess and give it to those who need it and live in want. The only way to defend and save the Revolution is by pushing it as far as it'll go and then further, and that's never far enough for me. Then Citizen Marat died, steel through the heart, painless, when he had such a painful life. I miss him. No one left to trust. That's why I agreed to become editor of his paper when his staffed asked me "to keep the bright flame burning". So when those impotent excremental conformists Robespierre and the Jacobin gang banned women from political power, we took up the cause. They wanted liberty for themselves alone. I wrote that those refugees from the leper house of reaction should be belled and booted headfirst to the nearest sewer. In return, they persuaded Marat's widow Catherine to denounce me to the revolutionary tribunal for besmirching her husband's memory. Poor sweet Catherine, grief takes many forms. She wanted to protect her husband's fame, she thought I was trying to take it from him in some way. I shun fame! It always costs to much!
Late last night, I went walking through the streets of Paris with Georges. Just the two of us, Georges padding beside me sniffing every post and doorway, and me smoking my pipe. There's nothing better. Making love, perhaps, or making a revolution, but with a revolution, you have to be right. It was a clear night, and empty streets, and as we passed St. Nicholas' Church, something strange happened. I was walking, but suddenly I couldn't hear my own footsteps, not one, silence. I was a dead man walking. No more of that.
Tomorrow before the tribunal of mumblers I shall make no attempt to defend myself. That doesn't mean to say I'll stay silent--never that. I'll do what I was born to do, attack. If the verdict of that bunch of rotting fish-heads goes against me, I die like friend Marat, through struck down by a better hand, my own!
It's been a rich confession after all friends, deserving of some penance--at least five Hail Mary's and twenty-six Amens. After all, I've preached revolution and sedition, slaughtered a King and others, lived in sin, and will probably end even deeper in it by killing myself. In the eyes of the Church it is a hundred percent record of failure. But on Judgment Day, I expect to stand before my God justified. I do not condemn myself and shall not be condemned. And so Amen. If it's to be the last Amen, I go gladly. My wife and son will weep, I know. Georges here will howl a little, won't you boy? My friends will pause, shake their heads, and move on. For they have the difficult part. Living well is so much harder than dying well. I have tried, to help create a people who are skeptical, rational, critical, not easily fooled or impressed, in a word, a free people, ungovernable. It's a dream, of course, but I've been lucky to have lived through times that made the dream seem possible, and just for a moment, we stopped being me and mine, you and yours, us and them, and saw ourselves instead as equals in our common humanity. We are of that generation that so transformed the world that future days and nights can never be the same. We poor clumsy men and women turned the world upside down, inside out, round and about.
One last word from my last sermon. The Revolution isn't complete, hardly begun. Defend it. Don't sit back, act! Without action, no life. Without live, no perfection. Without perfection, no eternal peace and freedom. For God is an active power and we do His work in fighting the great battles: light against darkness, love against selfishness, revolution against reaction, life against death. C'mon Georges, it's time for our walk.