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Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination 15

Written by Jason Barr : February 5, 2008

Hello again. I have to apologize yet again for the delay between the last installment and this one. Just after Christmas I accidentally spilled a glass of water on my laptop and was not able to get online regularly until I got it back. I got it back about 2 weeks ago, but then had so much of a backlog of things I had to take care of that it’s taken me until now to have time to sit and write another post in the series.

Last time I presented a very brief note about anarchism and its relation to Christianity as seen by Jacques Ellul, and I argued that there is continuity between the praxis of the early church in Acts and certain basic tenets of anarchism. Then I made a note of the need to maintain a bit of cognitive space between Christianity and anarchy. The idea I want to really push in this series is not that we should necessarily be anarchists, but that anarchistic philosophy and practice provides a positive example for the church in many ways for how we should witness in the face of the modern nation-state and related powerful entities such as corporations and other major cogs in the globalization machinery. There are many ways in which I see anarchists doing what I think the church should have been doing all along by providing an embodied prophetic critique of the world in which we live. This critique must both be conscious, a matter of reflective thinking and intellectual engagement with the world, and reflexive, a way of living rooted in the story of Jesus that comes to us as naturally as breathing.

To say this embodied critique must be conscious implies the need for a robust social theory; to say it must be rooted in the story of Jesus necessitates that we drink deeply from the scriptures and learn our lessons from the history of the church. I have already discussed briefly the historical development of the nation-state and the history of the church’s entanglement with the state. I believe an authentic encounter with the word of God gives us the primary tools we need to develop God-inspired ways of being, thinking, and doing, but I have some basic premises to cover before we dig in to the Biblical critique of ancient societies and discuss how it relates to anarchism.

1) The Bible is not a systematic theology textbook, nor is it necessarily consistent in all the ways modern rationalism demands of a text. A number of modern theologians and preachers have treated the Bible as if it was a logical treatise with premises, arguments, and conclusions that could be considered apart from historical and literary contexts in order to construct the one, true theology for all times and places. This is not to point at the Bible and say “Contradictions!”, but rather to point out that in the Bible there is a vast array of poetic and prosaic language employed in many diverse ways. Biblical writers used ancient generic conventions, rhetorical devices, symbolism, and other literary aspects that we must consider - and there are many cases in which the difference between the writers’ perspectives generates considerable tension that cannot necessarily be easily explained away in the manner of much modern apologetics.

2) A key word in the above premise is “ancient”. The Bible comes to us from a range of times and places, anywhere from 1900 to 3500 years ago, depending on how certain texts are dated, from people who lived in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, and the Graeco-Roman empires. There are innumerable and complicated differences between those cultures and our own. The first and perhaps most basic difference is language - John 1 does not really say “In the beginning was the word, and the word was God. It says,”en arch hn o logoV, kai o logoV hn proV ton qeon, kai qeoV hn o logoV” (if the font is working correctly). In basic terms, foundational social perceptions we label “honor/shame”, “limited good”, “patron-client”, “reciprocity”, and “communally-shaped personality”, as well as others, were every bit as familiar to them as “unlimited good” and “individual personality” are to us. To complicate the matter further, one cannot necessarily easily apply cultural conventions from AD 1st-century Asia Minor to 6th-century BC Babylon. In order to understand what the Bible is saying to us, we have to immerse ourselves as much as possible in the world that produced the text - maintaining an “I-Thou” relationship, with the text as another subject that speaks to us, rather than “I-It” with the text as an object that we analyze and appropriate for ourselves (see this article for further commentary on the matter).

3) Not only do we need to see the text within the context of its world, allowing it to speak to us from there, we also need to see it as the early church did - not as an end in itself but as a means to encountering the risen Christ. Scripture is worthless for us if it does not reveal God to us, if God does not speak to us through it. We must see the Bible through the lens of a commitment to following the Jesus it reveals to us.

4) Finally, though we are individuals, we need to realize that the Christian life was never intended to be lived alone. The basic unit of God’s kingdom on earth is not the individual believer, it is the church as the body of Christ. We do not interpret the scriptures as solitary individuals, but as members of the Christian community, the subversive people of God who proclaim that Christ is Lord and Caesar is not. Therefore, we must read the Bible not only as itself but also with the guidance of the history of its interpretation and embodiment within the church - both where the church has succeeded in living up to the example of Christ and where it has failed. We must love the church as it is Christ’s body and its parts are likewise a part of us, and we must urge and be urged by our sisters and brothers to prophetically embody the message of Jesus in the world.

Beginning in the next installment we will explore five texts to see how they prophetically critique the world in which they were written: Genesis 1:1-2:4; 1 Samuel 8:4-22; Luke 1:46-55; Mark 12:12-17; and Colossians 1:13-23.

for further reading . . .

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