Anti-Ideology as Ideology

Written by Michael Cline : February 6, 2008

As the Free Jacques section of the Jesus Manifesto would point towards, the writings of Jacques Ellul have spawned Christian Anarchist sentiment all over the globe, as well as for many of the writers that regularly contribute to this website. Ellul is a captivating thinker who knows how to form sentences and ideas with an earnestness that crosses generational gaps and socioeconomic barriers. Give me five pages by the man and I will quickly copy and paste fifteen quotes to be thrown around in any and all contexts. That’s the beauty of his critiques—they don’t stay put in a particular area of ecclesiology or biblical studies—they spread their fierce paws and grab onto every area of our life. This could not be more true than in the case of his essay Jesus and Marx, where he lays out true Christianity versus what he terms “ideology” (represented most visibly by Marxism). But herein lies the problem: the drive-by quotes I was ferociously pulling out of his writing eluded my grasp for all intents and purposes. Rather than being sound bytes I could use against the Others (you know, those who still think we live in a Christian nation, those who actually think voting will change the world, those who see no immediate clashes between the Kingdom of God and civil life) the sound bytes were instead self indicting.

Christian Anarchism is just as near to becoming an ideology as anything else. In fact, the clamoring over the very identity of such a position is proof that we are but a few steps away from joining the ranks of other ideologies. Jacques Ellul reminds us of this when he writes, “Anything can be labeled an ideology, just as anything can become one: Nationalism, Socialism, Liberalism, Democracy, Marxism, Anti-Racism, Feminism, etc. Often an ideology springs up to parry an ideology-free practice. Male domination for example, has no explicitly formulated ideology; feminist ideology arises to oppose it. Capitalism is a practice with no explicitly formulated ideology; socialist ideology arises to oppose it” (p. 1). And so we must constantly critique our own theories, wipe our own lenses, and continually push against the necessity for forming an ideology around a particular thing, even if that thing is a simple as a prophetic impulse such as that found here at the Jesus Manifesto. When our prophetic impulse becomes another tool for forcing people to use our language (“you would be blind not to think America is an Empire”), in order to play our huddled game, we cease to perform a revelatory function based on who we believe God to be for today’s world. If there is any function that Christianity remains valuable for, it is to “discern the genuine issues of our time” as opposed to those who want to adapt the message to “fill the religious void every person has within himself” (p. 4). In the latter function, Christianity only performs as what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call the “God of the gaps.”

But in remaining prophetic, we cannot come to the point where Christianity becomes a competing ideology. This happens whenever Jesus Manifesto becomes a forum for “distinguishing those who are right from those who are wrong…a will to convert at any cost in order to swell the ranks of a given church, a system for organizing society, or a moralistic system (teaching that behavior is objectively good or bad, according to a clear and timeless definition of good and evil).” Jesus Manifesto can only be valuable as a guiding light to those who are discovering the truth of the Kingdom of God in a world off-center. We certainly cannot water down the message so that joining the ranks is the only “natural” thing to do (a critique Ellul launches on French Socialism), but we also can’t create country club mentality around anti-country club ideals. The openness for dialogue and the space created for revelation is where Jesus Manifesto truly shines. Outside of this freedom, we become just another competing “ism.” The goal is not to mold ourselves into a system of thought that has a complete explanation for every counterargument, but to be authentically Christian. “Once fascinated by terrorism, a person can no longer see any different reality, any other truth. He begins to use terrorist language and becomes a terrorist” (p. 25). May Christianity (and the Jesus Manifesto) not become the latest “terrorism.”

mike.jpgMichael Cline is a freelance pastor and and over-employed learner who currently attends Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. When not snuggling with his wife, he’s blogging here.

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8 Responses to “Anti-Ideology as Ideology”

  1. Nathan on February 6th, 2008 3:01 pm

    Well said.

    “The goal is not to mold ourselves into a system of thought that has a complete explanation for every counterargument, but to be authentically Christian.”

    Indeed some of Jesus’ most profound replies used no words, offering display of an alternate path rather than argument or debate. This is a point very well taken.

  2. non-metaphysical stephen on February 6th, 2008 10:08 pm

    > “Anything can be labeled an ideology, just as anything can become one: Nationalism, Socialism, Liberalism, Democracy, Marxism, Anti-Racism, Feminism, etc.”

    This quote reminds me of Ellul’s comment that every social movement is tempted to make Jesus in its own image, and then turn that image into an idol.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Jordan Peacock on February 6th, 2008 11:25 pm

    Thank you for writing this.

    Like the commonly quoted “it’s a relationship with Jesus” when you get inducted into a religious system, the now common “Jesus isn’t conservative or liberal” is in danger and actively becoming a shorthand for religious Democrats.

    Anything that avoids this is an aid, and the strongest medicine to help is dissent. If you disagree with the posts here, do so, please. Build the community with love, respect, and a hammering process of discussion and action.


  4. Michael Cline on February 7th, 2008 7:18 am

    Jordan, some of that is what I was hoping to pick up on, so I am glad you see it too. It’s one of the hardest lines to walk, to be both open to newcomers, and yet to not water down the message so all can join in without genuine conversion. Usually, in our zeal to convert, we allow the message to slide into a more comfortable zone, for instance into the “religious left” because it has more appeal. We will deny in day and night, but the truth remains. Thanks for your insights!

  5. Geoff Holsclaw on February 7th, 2008 7:44 am


    thank for the reminder. ideology is such a sticky issue. since the time ellul was writing, our society has made such an ironic turn that it is nearly impossible to distinguish ideology from its critique. As Žižek notes, the form of our culture always anticipates its own critique through an ironic distance (Politics is hopeless but we have to do something…or, Of course I know TV rots my brain but LOST explicates some important themes of our cutlure…). He says that the hermeneutics of suspicion, which initially functioned as an exterior and critique of current culture, circa 1920-1960, has been preemptively absorbed by our consumer society.

  6. Michael Cline on February 7th, 2008 8:51 am


    When you mention the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” is Zizek talking about the tradition from Nietzsche to Ricoeur? I haven’t read Zizek and feel like I’m swimming in water way over my head. There were times in reading Ellul that I said to myself “is Ellul not crafting his own ideology here?” But in my opinion, if Ellul’s thoughts (or anyone’s for that matter) becomes an ideology, it is not by his own fault, but by what the masses do with it. True or untrue?

  7. Renee on February 7th, 2008 7:44 pm

    Important to remember. It’s something we’re all susceptible to - judging the judgmental and in turn becoming their mirror image.

  8. Casey Ochs on February 7th, 2008 10:04 pm

    “For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” Pentecost changed everything and I think we ignore this fact at the risk of becoming irrelevant. Indeed, without Pentecost our theology becomes another idea-ology competing in the marketplace of opinions. The Church was birthed at Pentecost when people saw that the Kingdom of God was in fact among them. This reality revolutionized the early Church’s view of the world. If we eliminate the incarnational, or miraculous from our theology than we will become just another ism, co-opted by the very system we’re trying to prophetically proclaim the Gospel to. If we truly wish to drive the money changers out of the temple then we need true Pentecost now more than ever.

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