What are these features which mark a true revolutionary?…
Who is this man? He is a person who has a great deal of attracting power for those around him. Those who meet him are fascinated by him and want to know more about him. All he comes in contact with get the irresistible impression that he derives his strength from a hidden source which is strong and rich. An inner freedom flows out from him, giving him an independence which is neither haughty nor aloof, but which enables him to stand above immediate needs and most pressing necessities. He is moved by what happens around him, but he doesn’t let it oppress or shatter him. He listens attentively, speaks with a self-possessed authority, but doesn’t easily get rushed or excited. In everything he says and does, he seems to have a lively vision before him which those who hear him can intimate, but cannot see. This vision leads his life. He is obedient to it. Through it he knows how to distinguish between what is important and what is not. Many things which seem of gripping immediacy hardly stir him, and he attaches great importance to some things which others simply let pass.
He is not insensitive to what moves other me, but he gives their needs another meaning by holding them up against his own vision. He is happy and glad to have people listen to him, but he is not to form groups around himself, to build up an organization or to launch a movement. No cliques can grow up around him for he attaches himself exclusively to no one. What he says and does has a convincing ring and even a self-evident truth, but he forces his opinions on no one and is not annoyed when someone doesn’t adopt his opinion or doesn’t do as he wishes.
In everything, he seems to have a concrete and living goal in mind, the realization of which is vital importance. Yet he himself maintains a great inner freedom in the light of this goal. Often it seems as though he knows that he will never see a goal achieved, and that he only sees the shadow of it himself. But, throughout, he has an impressive freedom from the course of his own life. He is careful and cautious, and certainly not reckless, and yet it comes out at every turn that he counts his life as of secondary importance. He doesn’t live merely to hold out but to work out a new world, the outlines of which he sees and which make such a call to him that the barriers between his life and his death have become blurred.
But it also plain that a revolutionary man not only draws men to him, but repels them as well. The offense he provokes is just as great a reality as the attractiveness he displays. Precisely because he is so free from things which many men hold sacred, he is a threat to them. His manner of speaking and living constantly relativizes the values which many men have built their lives upon. They feel the penetrating depth of his message and see the consequences for themselves if they should grant that he is right. Again and again when he is among them, they know that the world he lives in is also the world they are longing for, but it demands too much of them to actually let them strive toward it. His criticism of their lives is so insistent and unmasking that the only way for them to escape it is to get rid of him. In order to uphold their tranquility of mind and to no longer be disturbed in their secure way of life, they find it necessary to silence the one who fights against their phony and artificial happiness.
A person, therefore, who would proclaim a new world and set the old world reeling becomes the occasion for a stifling aggression at the hands of those very ones who consider themselves the protectors of the order and the upholders of peace and calm. Above all, for those who provide the leadership in the present-day world, this man unmasks the illusion of the age is an intolerable agitator of restlessness. From their point of view they are right, for this visionary usually results in his excommunication with all the means the prevailing order has at its disposal. This can start with a denial of his message, expand to verbal attacks, and end with imprisonment and even execution. But if the revolutionary was credible and true, what is expected never happens. Not even his death disturbs his calling. Those who killed him will often discover to their surprise and horror that they have, in fact, only succeeded in awakening more and that the cry for a new world has grown still louder.
-Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands (1972)