Anarchy and Christianity

ellulThe French sociologist, theologian and (aren’t they all?) philosopher Jacques Ellul looks at a rather different political perspective for Christians: Anarchy and Christianity (from his book, Jesus and Marx, which attacks the concept of “Marxist Christianity”).

Ellul notes that anarchists have a fundamental hostility towards religion that goes far beyond that of Marxists: Marxist hostility to religion is, as it were, incidental to that system, whereas “anarchists make the destruction of religion a central element in their revolution”. As the anarchist writer Bakunin put it (reversing Voltaire’s phrase), “If God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him”.

And from the other side of the fence, anarchy is often equated with chaos; and “chaos can hardly suit Christians”, who can “hardly conceive of a society without a preestablished and rigorously maintained order”.

However, Ellul argues that in fact, contrary to the views of both anarchists and most Christians:

biblical thought leads straight to anarchism ‑ anarchism is the only “anti-political political position” in harmony with Christian thought.

And, indeed, the anarchists – who see only the negative aspects of Christian history, while “all reality of love, joy and liberation, also lived by Christianity in these periods, is gleefully omitted” – are mistaken in thinking that atheism is a necessary condition for anarchy. On the contrary:

[T]he presence of the God of Jesus Christ is the necessary condition for human liberation. Denial of this necessity has caused the failure of all the so‑called liberating revolutions …

Arriving at real freedom requires the relativization of all human pretensions and therefore of all human domination. This relativization takes place only if humanity recognizes an exterior limit that transcends it, and if the transcendent limit is liberating love (as in the Christian revelation).

Ellul goes on to look at the biblical support for anarchy, which will form the subject of my next post. However, just as a final thought for this post, we should not automatically assume that an “anarchist” position is necessarily going to mean a “left-wing” outlook. As Ellul points out:

In view of the fact that freedom remains the anarchists’ central imperative, they belong to the Right (since freedom has been the Right’s rallying cry since 1945).

And we’ll see that there are marked parallels between Ellul’s argument and those advanced by NT Wright (see previous posts: 1 | 2), so much so that I expect Wright must have read Ellul on this subject. But while for Ellul his conclusions lead him towards anarchy, Wright’s not-dissimilar conclusions lead him, ironically, to a defence of monarchy (see the final section of his essay, “God and Caesar” (PDF)).

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20 Responses to Anarchy and Christianity

  1. Lee says:

    Ellul’s short book “Anarchy and Christianity” is also worth a read. In fact, you can read it online here: http://jesusradicals.com/library/ellul/anarchy/anarchy.pdf
    I think Ellul’s anarchism has a lot to do with his total rejection of violence. Since the state is, in his view, little more than organized violence, Christians should reject it.
    I’m pretty sure I don’t think that’s right, but it’s a position worth grappling with.

  2. Lee says:

    Ellul’s short book “Anarchy and Christianity” is also worth a read. In fact, you can read it online here: http://jesusradicals.com/library/ellul/anarchy/anarchy.pdf
    I think Ellul’s anarchism has a lot to do with his total rejection of violence. Since the state is, in his view, little more than organized violence, Christians should reject it.
    I’m pretty sure I don’t think that’s right, but it’s a position worth grappling with.

  3. Lee says:

    Ellul’s short book “Anarchy and Christianity” is also worth a read. In fact, you can read it online here: http://jesusradicals.com/library/ellul/anarchy/anarchy.pdf
    I think Ellul’s anarchism has a lot to do with his total rejection of violence. Since the state is, in his view, little more than organized violence, Christians should reject it.
    I’m pretty sure I don’t think that’s right, but it’s a position worth grappling with.

  4. Lee says:

    Ellul’s short book “Anarchy and Christianity” is also worth a read. In fact, you can read it online here: http://jesusradicals.com/library/ellul/anarchy/anarchy.pdf
    I think Ellul’s anarchism has a lot to do with his total rejection of violence. Since the state is, in his view, little more than organized violence, Christians should reject it.
    I’m pretty sure I don’t think that’s right, but it’s a position worth grappling with.

  5. John H says:

    Lee – thanks. I came across the online text of A&C but then decided to order it from Amazon anyway. Am looking forward to reading it.

  6. John H says:

    Lee – thanks. I came across the online text of A&C but then decided to order it from Amazon anyway. Am looking forward to reading it.

  7. John H says:

    Lee – thanks. I came across the online text of A&C but then decided to order it from Amazon anyway. Am looking forward to reading it.

  8. John H says:

    Lee – thanks. I came across the online text of A&C but then decided to order it from Amazon anyway. Am looking forward to reading it.

  9. Rick Ritchie says:

    Hi John,
    Glad you found the Ellul. And when I read your earlier posts on Wright, I tended to suspect that he was drawing on Ellul as well.

  10. Rick Ritchie says:

    Hi John,
    Glad you found the Ellul. And when I read your earlier posts on Wright, I tended to suspect that he was drawing on Ellul as well.

  11. Rick Ritchie says:

    Hi John,
    Glad you found the Ellul. And when I read your earlier posts on Wright, I tended to suspect that he was drawing on Ellul as well.

  12. Rick Ritchie says:

    Hi John,
    Glad you found the Ellul. And when I read your earlier posts on Wright, I tended to suspect that he was drawing on Ellul as well.

  13. Tom R says:

    Actually, combining anarchism with monarchism is not so outlandish — espec for conservatives: see, eg, JRR Tolkien. A ruler who holds office by something as absurd as heredity and ancient custom will have less political power, and so less opportunity to re-make society. He or she will be obeyed if and because s/he does the necessary tasks of locking up burglars and repairing the roads, but can claim no mandate to ban fox-hunting or impose the metric system. The same tradition that gives the King power will also limit it to what is traditional and, so, low-key. To initiate any really far-reaching social reforms, you need to be able to speak for The People, in at least some symbolic sense (“the majority of the populace are proletarian, and our Party best represents their true interests, even if the Murdoch Press and the Orthodox Church have brainwashed them so they’re not very class-conscious just yet..”)

  14. Tom R says:

    Actually, combining anarchism with monarchism is not so outlandish — espec for conservatives: see, eg, JRR Tolkien. A ruler who holds office by something as absurd as heredity and ancient custom will have less political power, and so less opportunity to re-make society. He or she will be obeyed if and because s/he does the necessary tasks of locking up burglars and repairing the roads, but can claim no mandate to ban fox-hunting or impose the metric system. The same tradition that gives the King power will also limit it to what is traditional and, so, low-key. To initiate any really far-reaching social reforms, you need to be able to speak for The People, in at least some symbolic sense (“the majority of the populace are proletarian, and our Party best represents their true interests, even if the Murdoch Press and the Orthodox Church have brainwashed them so they’re not very class-conscious just yet..”)

  15. Tom R says:

    Actually, combining anarchism with monarchism is not so outlandish — espec for conservatives: see, eg, JRR Tolkien. A ruler who holds office by something as absurd as heredity and ancient custom will have less political power, and so less opportunity to re-make society. He or she will be obeyed if and because s/he does the necessary tasks of locking up burglars and repairing the roads, but can claim no mandate to ban fox-hunting or impose the metric system. The same tradition that gives the King power will also limit it to what is traditional and, so, low-key. To initiate any really far-reaching social reforms, you need to be able to speak for The People, in at least some symbolic sense (“the majority of the populace are proletarian, and our Party best represents their true interests, even if the Murdoch Press and the Orthodox Church have brainwashed them so they’re not very class-conscious just yet..”)

  16. Tom R says:

    Actually, combining anarchism with monarchism is not so outlandish — espec for conservatives: see, eg, JRR Tolkien. A ruler who holds office by something as absurd as heredity and ancient custom will have less political power, and so less opportunity to re-make society. He or she will be obeyed if and because s/he does the necessary tasks of locking up burglars and repairing the roads, but can claim no mandate to ban fox-hunting or impose the metric system. The same tradition that gives the King power will also limit it to what is traditional and, so, low-key. To initiate any really far-reaching social reforms, you need to be able to speak for The People, in at least some symbolic sense (“the majority of the populace are proletarian, and our Party best represents their true interests, even if the Murdoch Press and the Orthodox Church have brainwashed them so they’re not very class-conscious just yet..”)

  17. John H says:

    I agree – and that is basically NTW’s point: monarchy relativises all other political power, by making it clear that no political power can make absolute claims. At least, monarchy in its contemporary form, shorn of any claims to absolute power itself, can function that way.

  18. John H says:

    I agree – and that is basically NTW’s point: monarchy relativises all other political power, by making it clear that no political power can make absolute claims. At least, monarchy in its contemporary form, shorn of any claims to absolute power itself, can function that way.

  19. John H says:

    I agree – and that is basically NTW’s point: monarchy relativises all other political power, by making it clear that no political power can make absolute claims. At least, monarchy in its contemporary form, shorn of any claims to absolute power itself, can function that way.

  20. John H says:

    I agree – and that is basically NTW’s point: monarchy relativises all other political power, by making it clear that no political power can make absolute claims. At least, monarchy in its contemporary form, shorn of any claims to absolute power itself, can function that way.

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