Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination 7

Written by Jason Barr : November 26, 2007

In the last post we looked at two major misconceptions about anarchism and anarchists. Now we will explore one of the most basic aspects of anarchism, the principle of shared and decentralized power and authority.

As I said before, anarchism is not the idea of politics without order, but rather the politics of a different order, meaning politics with decentralized authority, rather than a hierarchically-based authority. Anarchism has at its root the idea that centralized power structures should be criticized and even dismantled to allow for the development of more equitable and just structures where every voice is heard and those directly affected by decisions are the ones making them.

Most institutions are designed according to top-down models of authority – CEOs, presidents, legislative bodies, managers, school principals, and so on. Those on top make decisions that trickle down to the people on the bottom. But this is usually a one-way process. Although management sometimes responds to the desires of people on the bottom in an effort to pacify them, it rarely results in substantial changes.

As a result, the overwhelming majority of people, whether they are in a democracy or a dictatorship, don’t make decisions about what laws are made, what rules they have to follow or what policies they’ll put in place. A much smaller segment of the population retains the power to make these decisions and the rest of the people simply have to do it or face the consequences, even if they disagree or the rules don’t make sense (example of the latter: the US tax code). So although we can vote for the president and senators, you don’t vote on the kinds of policies you want them to implement. As such if you don’t like the job he or she does after they have gotten into office, you can’t really do anything about it until the term is over and you get to vote again - and even then you are forced to choose between the candidates the parties put before you, regardless of whether any of them represent what you think would be better or more just.

The hierarchical mode of organizing tends to produce a society that looks something like this:

The Bosses and the Bossed

And while the methods of control in a so-called democracy will differ somewhat from those of a dictatorship the net result is still the same - people are unable to have any substantial control over the decisions that affect them in their day-to-day lives.

Anarchists reject “pyramid” models of organizing society and its institutions in favor of modes that are decentralized, where people share power more equally, and where no one person or group of people should have the ability to gain too much power over another. Decisions that affect groups of people are made by consensus, by agreement, and not by “I said so, you do it”. The decision to change an aspect of society would begin with groups of people getting together to talk about whether a certain policy or course of action is a good idea. The impetus for the decision would come from the ground up, with those who are directly affected most involved in the decision-making process. The process might take longer as consensus-building tends to be a time-consuming activity, but everyone (regardless of class, sex, or other identifying factors) would have equal power in making the decision, and everyone’s rights and responsibilities as a member of the community would be respected. Anarchists believe that basing decisions on consensus, and not coercion, would result in a more just and orderly society than hierarchical models. This is true both of communitarian and syndicalist forms of anarchism (which tend to be more labor- or economically-based) as well as primitivist forms (which tend to be based more on a tribal understanding or even on hunter-gatherer ideas).

This is a very brief overview of the principle of decentralization and how it is different from hierarchical modes of society. Next time we will begin to look at some of the implications of this principle, beginning with the concept of direct action.

for further reading . . .

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6 Responses to “Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination 7”

  1. Truden on November 26th, 2007 9:33 am

    I don’t know what Christianity has to do with anarchism, but as long as anarchism is political idea it is not any different than any other political ideas.
    The masses can rule only if they gain control over the capital OR if the capital is destroyed.

  2. Jason Barr on November 26th, 2007 11:24 am

    I don’t know what Christianity has to do with anarchism

    I’m getting there, it was a 25 page paper. This is about page 11. ;-)
    I’m not sure there really is the overwhelming sameness to political ideas you propose. Do you mean to say that democratic theories are no different than theories related to constitutional monarchy? I mean, I’m sure there is some overlap due to the nature of the beast, in a sense, but that doesn’t mean there is categorically no difference.

  3. Sara Harding on November 26th, 2007 6:21 pm

    Hi Jason,
    These posts are really challenging. I am struggling a bit with some of the presuppositions that I’ve inherited in my upbringing, which I don’t just want to throw out for the sake of fitting the progressive mold, because I know some of them have merit. Currently, I do not see anarchy as a universal model for all social structures. I think there are valid authorities and invalid ones. The government is invalid because it usurps the role of Jesus as King and Protector. But I do not yet see how there cannot exist valid hierarchies under Messiah Jesus in families and churches. If fathers and mothers, bishops and elders, follow the Jesus model of Servant-King in their administrations, do they need dismantling? Can authority be valid and not authoritarian? Children and sheep need parents and pastors to guide them. The State, however, tries to put on both roles- parenting parents and shepherding shepherds. Do you think the difference needs to be emphasized?

  4. Jason Barr on November 26th, 2007 9:45 pm

    I would never want someone to throw out certain presuppositions simply because there’s a more “progressive” model out there. I would want to throw them out because they’re not faithful to the Gospel as it is expressed in the grand story of God’s creation, redemption, and the already-but-not-yet new creation.

    That being said, I think one of the worst things someone could do would be to apply “anarchism” as a universal truth or as you put it “model for all social structures”. If that were to be the case, how would it be any different from any other attempt at universal truth from the modern age - communism, capitalism, scientism, the search for a Grand Unifying Principle? It seems to me that anarchism by its nature subverts the idea of universals because in order to be viable it must, by the very definition of the principle of decentralization, be contextualized, become “incarnate” if you will in different social contexts shaped by different histories. I might be tempted to call it a “universality of contingency”, an idea that exists in that space between the principle and the particular - just as Christ mediates the place between the dynamic nature of contingency (he did, after all, become a very specific person in a very specific place at a particular time) and the universal (the God who was and is and is to come).

    I completely agree that there are valid authorities. Not all anarchists are completely anti-authority in any and all circumstance(s). Noam Chomsky puts it best, I think, when he says a large part of what is wrong with our world is that we tend to assume authority is legitimate, instead of challenging it to legitimate itself.

    Nevertheless, I think you confuse the concepts of hierarchy and structure. A hierarchy is a particular kind of structure, and I think the clear implication of the overarching “metanarrative” of scripture is that it is illegitimate for human beings to wield authority over others as if they were God’s own hand in a way that denigrates the image of God in the other people. I can’t say too much about that here or else I’ll preempt what comes next (which you’ve already read I think, or at least you’ve had the opportunity).

    In a comment a few posts back I replied to Jonas about the difference between structure and hierarchy. I’m not going to repeat what I said there, I believe it was about the 3rd or 4th installment of this series. It may be helpful for you.

    It is not necessarily the case, though, that bishops and priests and deacons (the traditional 3-fold order of ministry, which I think is highly valuable) is as a matter of absolute necessity hierarchical in an oppressive sense. If they follow the nature of Jesus as the servant, then it seems to me they will necessarily by the nature of Jesus’ action and who he was as a person and how that functions as our example (see Philippians 2:1-11) then that will deconstruct the nature of authority as it works in the world, as it is practiced. There would not BE a hierarchy in the technical sense for on my analysis hierarchy is not simply a collection of positions that correspond to some conceptual ladder but rather a real wielding of God-like authority by one person over another in a way as to constrain the vision of a person and her/his development into the vision of another.

    Regarding the role of parents, it’s a tricky question. On the one hand, parents have a responsibility to train their children in the ways of the Lord, and on the other they have a responsibility to act to them as the Lord did based on the Philippians 2:1-11 example. One thing I find fascinating is Paul’s exhortation to fathers to “not exasperate [their] children” in Colossians 3:21. The fascinating thing about it is that he talked to children first. So far as I’m aware he was the first philosopher in the ancient world to do so - he considered the moral agency of the child BEFORE that of the parent. In the Roman world it wasn’t even considered, because the entire society functioned on the basis of Caesar as the “father” of the “family” of the empire, a model that was reflected on down in the social structure down to the individual (extended) family where the father had the right to basically kill anyone in the household for offending his honor in any way (like being born as a deformed, female, or other undesirable form of child).

    We have to recover a sense of scripture as heard in the world to which it was written, instead of reading it through hundreds of years of its having been co-opted to support the status quo and the illegitimate authority that is wielded by power instead of by service.

    The State DOES try to put on both roles, and I do think the difference must be emphasized - but at the same time we must also relentlessly self-criticize the ways in which our conceptions of “authority”, shepherding, and parenthood are more shaped by the cultural assumptions we’ve imbibed rather than through a Biblical understanding.

  5. Sara Harding on November 27th, 2007 11:07 am

    That all makes sense. Thanks, Jason. I’d had a different definition in mind for the word, “hierarchy”, as a social structure which may or may not be oppressive, depending both on the validity of the authority in question and the virtue of the persons in those positions. The threefold model of church leadership, which you mentioned, I would have considered a valid “hierarchy”, but perhaps we do need to discard the term in that sense because of the associations with various institutions that force conformity at the expense of the individual’s freedom to follow his or her God-given vocations.
    I think one area where children are the most victimized by this hierarchical attitude is the traditional classroom model. My husband became acquainted with some of the works of John Holt, an advocate of “unschooling”. His previous assumptions in parenting and education were really challenged by what he read, he realized our children were born with unique gifts, and it is our job as parents (and educators) to help them along in finding and nurturing these gifts, rather than in forcing them to follow a preplanned path (someone else’s vision).

  6. Jason Barr on November 27th, 2007 12:06 pm

    I am a big fan of a number of aspects of the un/de-schooling movement, of free schools to a large extent, and other such ideas like “contextualized education for liberation” (the best way I could think of to sum up Paulo Freire’s ideas starting with Pedagogy of the Oppressed).

    I think you’re probably right about the language of hierarchy - after all it is true that the language we use shapes the world we see (how could it be otherwise?) and I don’t see how using language that intentionally elevates one person’s status above that of another is helpful.

    I’m still struggling with the relationship between the priesthood of all believers and the function of priests in the various denominations, an issue of no mean importance for me since I’ve been considering pursuing ordination in the Episcopalian church for a couple of months now.

    And holy cow, my comment above was long enough to be its own post!

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