a summary of Christian anarchy

I posted this on an anarchist discussion group a short while ago, and thought it was worth sharing here.

I may be a bit of an oddball, because I actually came to my anarchist views through my religious studies.

I have written somewhat more about my views on my blog, https://propheticheretic.wordpress.com (though I’ve neglected it as of late – I need to do some writing), but here are some thoughts.

It is impossible to deny that the dominant function of religion in the history of human culture has been to maintain an oppressive status quo, whether that was through ancient Mesopotamian myths re-enacted in festivals that placed the king in the guise of the creator god, through the abuses of the Jewish Temples that led to the critiques of prophets like Amos and Isaiah and then later of Jesus, in the Roman imperial cult that solidified the Emperor’s status as god-king who maintained order through the use of his Legions, through Islamic conquests, through the conquests of people like Charlemagne, through the alliance of pope and kings in the Medieval period to entrench the feudal system, Luther and Calvin’s use of civic authority to crush their religious opponents, the Protestant work ethic in America that justified poverty as the fault of the poor, religion as criticized by Marx and many of the classical anarchists, and the Religious Right today.

But is this the necessary function of religion? While the common modern perception of Christianity is that it’s a “pie in the sky when you die” arrangement, that leaves this life to the oppressors and sterilizes resistance from the faithful ranks, this picture of Christianity is neither congruent with its origins in the context of the Roman empire nor with the practices of a number of people throughout history who have claimed Christian inspiration for their subversive practices – often meeting with wrath from the state and, as Christianity as a whole became more aligned with the powers, from within the ranks of the church.

While I could cite a number of radicals such as Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Oscar Romero, Dom Helder Camara, David Lipscomb, numerous Anabaptists, and others, instead perhaps it will be more illustrative to talk about the Bible itself, which if taken in context might be among the most politically subversive anthologies of literature ever collected.

Rene Girard argued that the Bible is unique in that, unlike the foundational texts from other ancient societies, the Biblical stories tend to tell the story from the position of those who are suffering and oppressed, rather than the oppressors and doers of violence (while the stories related to the conquest of Canaan provide prima facie difficulties for this reading, at most they seem to be exceptions, not the rule). God is a liberating figure who desires justice and requires the construction of a society much different than anything else that existed in the ancient near east, challenging the status quo more than upholding it. In particular throughout the Old Testament is a voice OT scholar Walter Brueggemann calls “the prophetic imagination” in a book of the same title.

The main point of the book is that the Biblical texts reflect the perspective of communities struggling from within the confines of an empire that sought to totalize the whole of life, to consume the reality of Israel (and later the church) within its dominant story of reality as it pertains to legitimating the power of the official kingly worldview. The texts reflect their efforts to capture among them a sense of a world fueled by an alternative imagination, that of Israel as the covenant people of God according to a worldview focused on the love and justice of that God embodied in their community practice. He also takes steps in some places to relate this analysis to our life today in Western society, discussing how the sense of this prophetic imagination can fuel our countercultural communal practice (which is, after all, what the church should be) in the face of this monolithic McWorld (Benjamin Barber’s term, not Brueggeman’s) empire of global technopolistic consumerist USAmerican culture.

Bruggemann states that the task of empire (what he terms the “royal consciousness”) is to eliminate a sense of past and future, encompassing all the reality that matters into an eternal now. No past is imaginable that did not contribute to the now, and no future can be envisioned that does not spring from it. The task of the prophetic community, then, is to present a radically different imagination, the imagination of God, rooted in symbols from the larger community’s past and animated by the hope of a future that is brought about not by the continuance of the oppressive machinations of the royal regime but rather by the decisive acts of God (such as the New Exodus themes found in Isaiah 40-66 where Isaiah uses Exodus imagery to describe the return from exile and coming of the Messiah) so that the people are freed from the imperial imagination into the vision of God – a vision of peace and justice based on liberation, not coercion (see also https://propheticheretic.wordpress.com/prophetic )

Jesus embodied a countercultural existence with pretty much his every act and word. This is getting kinda long, so I won’t go into great detail, but the early church clearly portrayed him as the antithesis of Caesar and as victorious over Caesar – not through violence, but by “making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). In fact, in the passage from which that statement is drawn, Paul makes a number of explicit parallels between Christ an Caesar’s propaganda, the purpose of which was to show that Caesar is at best a pretender to authority and that his violence has been defeated by the one over whom it appeared he had victory – Jesus the crucified one, executed as a rebel against the state. And just as Jesus is presented as the anticaesar, the church is in a very real way presented as the antirome. Instead of having relations based on exploitation and the collection of power through the heirarchy of society, the New Testament prescribes radical equality and sharing citing the words and deeds of Jesus as an example, and the Resurrection as proof that the way of peace ultimately defeats the violence of the authorities of the world.

Or, as I’ve written elsewhere (https://propheticheretic.wordpress.com/anarchy ) perhaps one could frame the Resurrection in the light of God committing an act of civil disobedience: the governing powers said to Jesus, “Die!” but God said, “Live!” And the church exists to live out in this world the implications of that disobedience.

It is my belief that modern anarchist theories are potent ways to express a concern for radical equality and liberty that is congruent with the implications of the life of Jesus and the practices of the early church as recorded in the New Testament, congruous with the general trajectory of ideal social practice throughout the whole Bible. It seems to me that the violence of Rome, opposed by the early church, and the violence of today’s empire of global capitalism (and the relationship between nation-states and corporations) have much in common.

Now, the whole Bible is very complex and contains many diverse viewpoints expressed by various forms of narrative and poetry, so there is plenty of room for disagreement and discussion, but if the contrasting relationship between the peaceful Genesis creation story, which establishes humans as co-equals and as in relation with God and creation, and the violent Babylonian Enuma Elish, which legitimates the conquests of the king and the lowly status of peasants (and particularly women) within the Babylonian social order, sets the tone for the whole canon that follows then it seems that ideas of equality and justice are central to the overall Biblical story (for more on Genesis and Enuma Elish, as well as other thoughts on Genesis, equality, and anarchy, see https://propheticheretic.wordpress.com/tag/genesis/ ).


14 Responses

  1. This is a good little summary, thanks!

  2. About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

    Peace Be With You

  3. Hi Jason,

    THIS was my Bible reading this morning. Doesn’t it strike you as un-anarchic the way Jesus responded to Pilate ?


  4. Un-anarchic? Not in the slightest. Why do you say that?

  5. The response seems quite anarchic to me. Jesus is pretty much saying that Pilate has no power if it weren’t for God, ie, the Kingdoms of the world are accountable and answerable to the Divine whether they understand it or not.

  6. Jesus’s response not ‘anarchic’ based on what we normally understand by the term ‘anarchy’ which is a defiant denial of ANY authority as legitimate.

    That is absolutely not what Jesus was about here since even at the point of death Jesus acknowledges that Pilate posesses legitimate authority to put him to death. Is that not so ?

    Of course, Jesus’ position is not about authority without accountability but that is a far cry from calling him or his followers anarchists.

  7. I never called Jesus or his followers anarchists. That would be anachronistic.

    And who defines ‘anarchy’ as “a defiant denial of ANY authority as legitimate”? Certainly not me. Not Chomsky. Not any real theorist of whom I am aware, though there is certainly a kind of “pop” anarchist idea that presents anarchy as such.

    And I would dispute the idea that Jesus recognizes legitimate authority of Pilate at the point of his sentencing to death. Quite the contrary, really, Jesus seems to be telling Pilate he’s a puppet, of Caesar on one level and of God, ultimately. Such a move does not necessarily legitimate Pilate’s authority – rather, if Pilate was using his authority in a legitimate fashion I doubt he would have sentenced an innocent man to death. Jesus’ death stands as a testimony against the authority of the world, which has been usurped by people who are supposed to be “God’s servants to do [us] good”, but instead are despots. His resurrection is the vindication of his righteousness, his messiahship, and even his God-hood. It is the utter defeat of the illegitimate authority of Pilate, of Caesar, and of those like them.

  8. I never called Jesus or his followers anarchists. That would be anachronistic.

    Your words, emphasis mine : “It is my belief that modern anarchist theories are potent ways to express a concern for radical equality and liberty that is congruent with the implications of the life of Jesus…”

    You wrote : “And who defines ‘anarchy’ as “a defiant denial of ANY authority as legitimate”?

    Who defines it ? How abou the dictionary ? See HERE

  9. That is a far cry from calling Jesus and his followers anarchists.

    Example: it would be just as illegitimate to call the early church “communist” as it would be to call them anarchist – but that does not mean they did not embody social practices that in some way appear more communistic than capitalist. Anachronism means taking a modern category and applying it to a past situation, when the modern category wouldn’t have meant anything (or at least not the same thing). It’s much different to say they had practices that in some way are consistent or look similar to what would fit into a modern category. The key word to my statement is congruent. That is a term of similarity in this context, not of equality.

    And as for the dictionary, definition 1 is pretty much useless in terms of anarchy as a political theory. If Miriam-Webster seriously intends for “anarchy” as a political theory to mean what it says in definition 1 then I’d say their editors are pretty ignorant about the complexities, subtleties, and diversity of anarchist thought. Definition 2 is almost useful. Or would you argue that the dictionary definition exhausts the potential range of meaning for a word? If you answer in the affirmative, I implore you to spend some time with the dictionary and see just how much that would limit the usefulness of the English language.

    I encourage you to read some works that discuss the relationship of Jesus and his early followers to the Roman empire – Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat’s Colossians Remixed, and Richard Horsley’s Jesus and Empire are generally good, and then NT Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God is a more in-depth, fairly comprehensive treatment of the subject. Read John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. Look at the relationship between the forms of governance counseled in the Old Testament versus the norm in Ancient Near Eastern society, the relationship between Genesis 1 and Babylonian society (J. Richard Middleton’s The Liberating Image is particularly good), and especially about 1 Samuel 8 and the prophetic critiques of the royal establishments of Samaria and Jerusalem. Then check out some real anarchist writings, not pithy dictionary definition that fails to do justice to the historical meaning of the word AS A REALM OF POLITICAL THEORY and tell me there isn’t common ground.

  10. Jason,

    Definition 2 which you liked better goes like this : “one who uses violent means to overthrow the established order”. Sorry if i still don’t see how Jesus or the early church are in any way ‘congruent’ with any of this.

    I am familiar with some of the literature to which you refer but don’t have the time or the inclination to go read any of it at this time.

    Nevertheless, a discussion doesn’t have to go on like the 100 years war to be meaningful. I stand by everything i said and i find nothing in your response to correct or change any of it.

    Yes dictionaries are not perfect etc but if words are to have any meaning then this concept of “Christian anarchy” can immediately be seen to be as meaningless and as foreign to the letter or sprit of Christ, Christianity and the Bible as it could be.

    It’s a line of thought that is a dead end leading nowhere in terms of our understand of the world or what the Christian pilgrimage in the world is or should be.

    I think i’m pretty much done discussion this but you are welcome to have the last word.

    Thanks for giving me the space to comment. ….Celal

  11. Well, Jesus of course rejected violent means, but the dictionary definition is inadequate. Now, if you had used the 1910 Encyclopedia Brittanica’s article on the subject, it might have been a little more useful (the article was actually written by Peter Kropotkin).

    Perhaps this bit from the Jesus Radicals site would be helpful as well: “We do not wish to confuse Christianity with anarchism but we do believe that when Christianity is lived rightly it looks a lot like anarchism. The two are not the same thing but that does not mean they are mutually exclusive.”

    Since you’ve said you’re pretty much done with the discussion I’m not going to sit here and make a lengthy refutation for the sake of showing off to any other would-be readers, but I will close by saying it doesn’t look to me like you’ve even bothered to engage any of the points in my original post that contradict your statement that “Christian anarchy” is meaningless and foreign to the letter or spirit of Christ, Christianity, and the Bible. You started the discussion with a quote from scripture not related to any of the discussion of my post, and when I explained how the quote could fit within the framework I propose you didn’t engage my explanation. I have no reason to believe you’ve taken anything I have said seriously or have done anything other than repeat your prior-held beliefs without submitting them to critical analysis or even to an understanding of the Bible within its historical settings. As such I see no reason to continue the conversation even if you return to reply, unless you actually engage the substance of my posting.

  12. Hi Jason,
    For starters, I really enjoy reading your blog and the millions of links you got here.

    I have a question rather than a comment:
    I recently discovered Jacques Ellul and was amazed, relieved and yes, over-joyed to find some form of vindication for my “anarchistic” inclinations. It has helped me strengthen many intuitions and opinions I already harbored. These came from my often apathetic or ambivalent relationship with “the Church”. Something always felt wrong, whether it was Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, all stripes of Evangelical/Pentecostal, and even Greek Orthodox! I know, I’ve been around like Gomer 😉
    My strongest reactions came in highly institutionalized and hierarchical churches, i.e. Roman Catholic. I was just wondering how to you live/experience your faith within the confines of the RCC? How do you live Christ’s liberating Gospel and live with Roman hierarchy. I’ve been reading Lumen Gentium, Dei Verbum and a few other conciliar texts to better understand RCC doctrine, and quite honestly, I’d fall on my sword before submitting to what I understand in those texts! In XP.

  13. Well, I’m not Roman Catholic, so I’m not sure I’m the person to ask about that. Michael at the Catholic Anarchy blog would probably be a better source on that question – he generally has good stuff.

    I come from a more free church tradition, but actually was just confirmed yesterday in the Episcopal Church. TEC has a hierarchy of its own to be sure, but it’s considerably looser and less-centralized than the RCC. I lean towards Anglo-Catholic in theology, which is to say I have a fairly high view of the Eucharist and ecclesiology, so I might be able to venture a guess from that perspective if you’d be interested in hearing it – so feel free to get back to me and let me know.

  14. Great blog — I found this post tonight after a lengthy conversation with a friend who is very political and very Christian. My friend is frustrated by general disregard of both Presidential candidates. I was digging around online to figure out how to articulate what I was thinking and this post really helped in my “clarification of thought.” I’m looking forward to really digging around in here to see what you’ve got goin on.

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