Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination 14

Written by Jason Barr : December 20, 2007

In the last installment of the series I drew a very brief outline of the historical process by which the church came to be allied with the state. As you’ve no doubt heard from other authors here, the convenient term to describe this alliance is Christendom. Christendom has been the overwhelming majority assumption of professed Christ-followers in the Western world. For example, in his seminal Christ and Culture H. Richard Niebuhr assumes the Christendom paradigm for each of his five typological classifications for the relationship between Christians and the culture. It could be said that the principal difference between present-day American Christian political factions such as the Christian Coalition and Sojourners is whether or not right- or left-wing ideas are a better fit with the teachings of Jesus and thus more appropriate for Christians to utilize in exercising influence over the American political system.

Against this “Constantinian” form of Christianity, Jacques Ellul argues that anarchism is the political position that is closest to Biblical thinking, saying that the Bible consistently criticizes concentrations of power that oppress people and presents the means for liberation in following God, who requires that we love justice just as he loves justice. In Anarchy and Christianity, he defines anarchy as a total rejection of violence. While he recognizes that anarchists have used violent means, he argues that the use of violence is essentially meeting the state on its own terms, and the state tends to be much more effective at the mobilization of violence than revolutionaries. Ellul rejects violence on two grounds. The first is tactical – the state tends to be much more effective in making use of violence than revolutionaries. Ellul says the authoritarian state has only violence as its recourse, and it certainly has powerful means to wreak havoc and destruction at its disposal. But the revolutionary Christian has a higher calling than tactical awareness – that of representing the love of God on earth. For Ellul Christianity entails a rejection of the world’s use of power and a struggle against it. Therefore the second reason for rejecting violence is that of fidelity to the call of Christ and the Christian’s status as a representative of the Prince of Peace and the ministry of reconciliation.

Ellul does not limit his criticism to what we USAmericans would tend to think of as an “authoritarian” state, but also describes so-called “anti-democratic” anarchism, an anarchist stance that rejects and opposes the pseudo-democracy of bourgeois states, such as the USA (which could perhaps legitimately be considered an authoritarian state transitioning towards totalitarianism).

While I accept the idea that anarchism is the political philosophy that has the most in common with Christianity, it is worth mentioning that Christianity and anarchy are not the same thing. This may seem self-evident, but it needs to be said. The ancient church has sometimes been called “anarchist”, but this is an anachronism – it takes a category that was developed later and applies it to the practice of the church. I think there is much about the early church that we can rightly call anarchistic, there is much continuity between the early church and anarchist ideals, but we must not forget that anarchism as a political philosophy has developed within the last 200 years largely as a response to the injustices of industrial society, modern political systems, and capitalism. So to say the ancient Christians were anarchists is not necessarily accurate – though we do have the example of the Acts church and mutual aid to consider. Bruce Wright, pastor of The Refuge in St. Petersburg, Florida, calls it “living anarchistically in community”.

The Jesus Radicals site says

“Anarchism is a rich and powerful critique of modern society that Christians have at our fingertips. 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.”

In the next installment I will begin exploring the Biblical critiques of power, starting with the Creation in Genesis 1.

for further reading . . .

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One Response to “Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination 14”

  1. jurisnaturalist on December 21st, 2007 6:42 am

    While Jesus calls for the rejection of the use of force, and thus appears anarchist, he does not abolish the law. A Minarchist solution, supporting courts which employ a common law process, such as existed in Israel during times they were not worshiping idols both before the kings, and after the exile, might be more appropriate.
    We must remember to make the distinction between law and government. It is the use of force that makes government dangerous, and a pagan institution, but the legal process of courts has always been an alternative to force. Instead of gunning one another down over disputes, we agree to take it to court to be heard by an impartial third party accountable to a set of precepts derived from the true nature of man in a scientific process. Perpetrators obviously have the greatest incentive to appeal to the court system over vigilante justice.,
    The genius of the pentateuch is that God wrote the law and then allowed for case law to discover its application in various situations. Pagan law is written by a concentrated interest and always serves that interest better than the majority and much better than the least of these - which common law does a good job of protecting.
    I had read Hauerwas , Yoder, and Bonhoeffer, but this was the first I had heard of Ellul, thank you.
    Have you looked into the Austrian Economists? There are many excellent arguments for why anarchism is most consistent with human nature in their writings.
    Finally, acceptance of the Christian ethic and anarchism involves a recognition of the responsibility Christians accept for the least of these. Pagans will continue to vote themselves bread and circuses, but Christians must be sure to meet the mandates of the gospel in social terms before any shift occurs in public opinion.

    Nathanael Snow

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