Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination 13

Written by Jason Barr : December 19, 2007

Before I begin writing the next installment of the series, I would like to apologize for the lengthy interlude. I had intended to take a day or two off from writing to breathe and find my bearings. The last few weeks have been both exciting and stressful and before I realized it a couple of days turned into a couple of weeks. Over the past couple of weeks I have gotten engaged, been accepted to the MA (Philosophy) program at the Toronto Institute for Christian Studies, and been looking for a job. I apologize for my extended absence, and should be more regular with my writing until the series is finished.

If you’re new to Jesus Manifesto perhaps an introduction to the series would be helpful. To this point I have sketched a brief picture of the nature of empire as a force which seeks to constrain the dynamic nature of creation into a hegemonic framework that allows for oppression and exploitation. Then I drew an outline, based on Brueggemann, for a Prophetic Consciousness that undermines the imperial voice and presents the hope of God’s liberation, encouraging people to live according to the ways of God over and against the ways of empire. After that, I presented a very basic overview of anarchism as a political philosophy with the stated belief that the anarchists provide material that can inform the prophetic voice of the church. If you’re new to the site I wholeheartedly encourage you to go back and read the prior posts in the series so as to have a better sense of the background for what is to follow.

Now it is time to begin discussion the relationship between Christianity and anarchy. As I have written elsewhere,

Asking what anarchy and Christianity have in common is reminiscent of Tertullian’s famous question about Athens and Jerusalem as he rejected the pagan philosophy in which he had been trained.

While anarchy has been misconstrued in ways that cause Christians to mistakenly reject its potential contribution to the faith just as did Tertullian, I hope that in the previous posts I have dispelled a number of misconceptions about anarchism and anarchists. As I have alluded in previous posts, the church in Acts 2-4 really does bear a striking number of resemblances to an anarchistic society, particularly in the area of mutual aid. There are a number of other correlations between the Biblical church and even the Patristic church and anarchism, most notably the early decentralization of the church and the seriousness with which they took the notion of the church as a “kingdom of priests”. The early church also carried on the charismatic tradition of seeing leaders being chosen by the spirit in the people’s time of need, which was an important strand of thinking in ancient Judaism. These are topics that have been the subject of much discussion particularly in the aftermath of the Reformation, and perhaps we will find occasion here to discuss them in more depth at a later time, but for the purpose of this series I want to focus on the early church’s critique of the Roman power structures and its self-reflective status as an alternative body politic to the imperial structures of the world in which it came into being.

The processes by which the church became essentially aligned with the governing powers are historically complex, but a very brief overview will be useful for our purposes. The idea that the church should govern society is often called “Constantinian Christianity”, but the truth is that Constantine does not deserve all the blame and is more accurately seen as a summary or focal point. The process began at least as far back as the dispute over whether or not clergy who capitulated during persecution in the third century A.D. should be allowed to administer sacraments and if/how they could/should make penance for their infidelity. After the Decian persecution at the end of the third century Constantine shifted the official policy from hostility towards Christians to tolerance - even going so far as to use Christian symbols in his conquests, supporting the church and becoming a kind of de facto leader (though the verdict of history should rule his concerns were mostly pragmatic and political, not spiritual). Constantine never actually went through the catechumenate and was only baptized on his deathbed. He passed the Edict of Milan, which pronounced official toleration for Christianity, and presided over the Council of Nicaea. After Constantine the church gained more and more power in the Empire, until finally Theodosius pronounced Christianity the official religion of the Empire in A.D. 381. Earlier opposition to war, violence, and police was largely reversed within the church, and the church became a sort of chaplain to the Empire.

In later years, after Rome’s collapse, a number of events led to Charlemagne finally becoming possibly the first “Christian leader” with a theology of holy war, as he fought against the Muslim conquerors in Europe. Charlemagne’s practices formed the basis for the later Crusades, and it is probably during this era the church and governing powers became nearly synonymous. In the Reformation for the most part even the new churches were strongly related to the civil order in Calvin’s Geneva, Luther’s Germany and Henry VIII’s England. The Radical Reformation challenged this notion, but Anabaptists were heavily persecuted nearly everywhere they went. The marriage of church and state power was very nearly absolute in most of Europe, a far cry from the status of the early church as a persecuted minority that challenged the fundamental structures of Roman authority and society.

Next time I will begin exploring a relationship between anarchism and Christianity to see how anarchism can help us deconstruct the alignment of the church and the powers of state and capitalism within a framework focused on the kingdom of God.

for further reading . . .

  • None Found


One Response to “Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination 13”

  1. Jason Barr on December 18th, 2007 3:30 pm

    I should also add that my portrait of church history is very much focused on the Western church, that branch which developed into the present-day Roman Catholic Church and the churches that have branched out of the Protestant Reformation churches. There is also much fertile material that could add to this discussion in Eastern and other church traditions, but length considerations preclude me from discussing them - I think the Western history is probably more applicable to the majority of readers of this site, for whom this history is a direct part of our spiritual and political heritage.

Got something to say?